We’ll call this Part 1 or The Question Version
Given the fact that I don’t have any hiking news to share I figured instead I could share my latest attack on the outdoor equipment learning curve. For the past year I have saturated myself with backpacking information in the hope of learning enough to feel competent to make decisions in advance of our 2013 thru-hike. At this point I feel like I know enough to differentiate among some of the cottage manufactured products and kind-of-sort-of predict if something will work for us. Not master, not expert, but maybe a late blue-early purple bet/Hogwarts 3rd year/padawan.
Well this was all fine and good until a different task fell at my feet– buy luggage for our 2 weeks honeymoon to Germany and Italy. I immediately went to my old resources– use an internet search to look for repeated products and then use Amazon and REI reviews to learn more about the products. Doing it this way I feel fairly confident that I will eventually come across the best item for our need. I find Amazon reviews are reliable only in establishing a trend. If 5 or 10 people all say the same thing it helps. If one dude is pissed because it broke when he was trying to haul dirt in his back yard, I’m not as concerned. You can also pretty easily identify the fanatics from the skilled users on Amazon.
This is my hesitation with forums and message boards. It can be so hard to understand who to believe because people tend to have an agenda in forums. One guy may loathe a product entirely based on its weight and not give time to objectively consider its function otherwise. Others may be naive but able to write well so you might listen to their insistence that its okay to carry a 50lb pack on the AT. For some reason I feel there is less of that on Amazon reviews because people seem less intent on impressing you with their review. However if I’m really looking for a good review I’m going to the pro’s- Brian’s Backpacking Blog, Phillip Werner’s Section Hiker, Chad’ Stick’s Blog. YouTube is also proving invaluable in this regard. While a lot of people may not do the greatest review (“they got this thing here, not sure what that’s for but its pretty cool; this thing here is cool; I like this”) I can actually see it in real time which helps.
So I went about these means to get started with choosing our travel luggage. I should break here to explain what we need (so you can help me make a decision, remember this is the question version).
We will be traveling through Germany and Italy by train for 11 days. This may involve overnight trains, it will likely involve hostels, it will involve lots of walking. No camping however, zero chance. I would also like everything to be carry-on friendly. There is an outside chance we could jump a flight on one of those 10-euro-each-way trips within Europe. Great fare but they get you on baggage check, charging for restrooms, food, and probably eventually oxygen. Point is you want carry-on if possible. We were lucky enough to get a great set of Samsonite luggage at Liz’s bridal shower so the plan at this point is to use a carry-on roller and a duffel for our clothes and such. THAT SAID, I would be open to substituting that for the perfect larger piece for international travel.
Of note: I find duffel bags to be a travel liability in foreign countries- poor ability to walk without hitting against people and poor center of gravity impairment making theft more easy (yes there are people that look for off-axis travelers and use the weight of their bag to continue that momentum to the ground while they take your other item). I also find straight rolling bags impractical because inevitably there will be a train you need to jump off at the last minute because you didn’t realize this was your stop or there will be stairs you have to navigate quickly. Duffel bags need to roll and go on your back, rolling bags need to be picked up easily. At least that’s my opinion for international travel.
I learned this the hard way in Paris just outside the Waterloo station I needed to get to my Eurostar train to London. I was on my way to England for my study abroad in Wolverhampton so I had 6 months worth of clothes with me in addition to my stuff from the past 5 weeks of travel around Europe. Of course getting to Waterloo required I climb a staircase across the street to get up to street level. At this point I am wearing my convertible rolling bag as a backpack, have my daypack on my front, and then a large duffel with probably 35-40lbs of clothes and such. I made it about three steps up before I conceded defeat. I thought my best option was to drop off my backpacks at the top an then bring up the duffel. But oops, this is Paris, my chance of theft was high.
My grandparents had a lot of jewelry stolen a while pack in Paris by some guys running some kind of Ocean’s Eleven game on them. While going up an escalator at Charles De the guy in front of them “lost his balance” getting of at the top and caused a bottleneck. At that very moment a guy from behind grabbed my grandmothers jewelry case, jumped over the scrum and made off without my 7th-decade, Americans-in-France, grandparents able to do anything but watch. My grandfather would tell that story any time the entire nation of France became a topic of conversation. He’s a full-on German immigrant so it would probably be like asking me to tell stories about New Jersey or Tucson. Point being, this was my first time in Paris as an adult so the second I set foot on the ground I was on high alert. I was not leaving my stuff unattended.
Instead I did the best I could– walked up a set of probably 30-40 stairs one at a time, very slowly. If the duffel had wheels I could have tried dragging it up the stairs, but alas I tried without wheels and it was much worse. It was painful and almost made me late for my train. I have to assume there were more than a few Frenchies wearing berets and eating baguettes watching this spectacle and laughing (“le haha”). Here was some American with bleached tips hair and a ton of luggage struggling to get up their stairs. Luckily Eurostar uses a baggage check system or I would have had to haul that 35lb bag onto the train, knocking over every other passenger as I tried to maneuver it into the carriage. No friends, this was my proving ground– no duffels, no strict rolling bags if possible.
To review- we are looking for luggage for an 11 day trip in Europe. The other part to consider is our preferences for daypacks. To me a daypack for travel is worlds different than for hiking. Where in hiking I need low weight and high capacity, in travel I need security and ease of access. While hiking I may take my pack off 5-10 times in a day, while traveling it would be closer to 50-75. I’m not every going to secure items to the outside. If I were fishing for pickpockets such would be a great lure but that’s about all. So compression straps and such aren’t necessary. I adamantly insist on good external water bottle holders though. That was one constant from my 2001 trip– purchase of water EVERYWHERE. This also means it needs to be able to accommodate various size bottles as I prefer 1 liter bottles but also throw in a Gatorade if possible. The final wrinkle is that I like to have an easily accessible compartment for my SLR camera.
The preferred method is to use either the large compartment or the medium one. I fill the bottom half with stuff I want to be extra safe or am unlikely to need fast or – sunblock, chargers, sandals, books, etc. Then I make a soft layer on top of that stuff using my rain jacket, fleece, sweatshirt, towel, etc. Finally I lay the camera on top of that. This way when worn on my front, my pack allows the camera to be easily accessible for quick shots. If that bad boy is on my back I am soooo much more unlikely to take it off to get a shot.
So that’s where we stand. I have done the research and having tried out a number of packs at REI and Hudson Trail Outfitters I am still at a loss. No answer. Have a daypack you love? Any old reliables that have seen you through your best and worst days of exploring the world? I’d love to hear them because right now I am striking out!