I wasn’t always a backpacking traveler. Being from a tiny affluent country in Europe, it’s pretty normal to go on holidays abroad (privilege!) and I personally don’t know any of my fellow same-passport holders who haven’t been abroad. Travel has been a part of my life since birth. Normally, we’d travel by car, giving us plenty of room to bring Stuff™ and sometimes we’d go by airplane. Only for the latter, we’d have to really think about what to pack as there are limits to how much Stuff you can bring.
0. The Carry-A-Corpse Suitcase
Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, July 2011. I’m flying to Argentina for five weeks to learn Spanish. My premature birthday present: a huge, lime-green suitcase for checked-in luggage. The weight limit is 23kg and that’s what I’ve loaded into it. Dresses, shoes – yes, even make-up – goes in there. I have to sit on it to close it. I drag the dead weight on the scales for luggage drop-off. Weighing the suitcase at the airport brings the total weight a little under the maximum. Success! Or not…
Five weeks later, I’ve used maybe 60% of the Stuff I put into that huge, lime-green suitcase. I arrived back at the airport of Buenos Aires with five pairs of shoes on top of the ones I’d already brought, among other Things™ that I counted as Souvenirs™. I can’t lift the monster of a suitcase by myself. Panicking about the weight, I drag it onto the scales and see the number climb to 30kg. I look the check-in lady in the eye with trepidation. As I was the first person to check in for this flight and she could probably smell my consumerist regrets, she calmed me down and let me take the 7kg extra without charge. I fly home.
The only borderline-genius Object I bought in Argentina was my first backpack for a meager €18 for some trip with my new friends. Only once more would I use that huge, lime-green suitcase, but now it’s collecting dust in the attic of my grandmother’s house. By now, I’ve evolved into a Backpacker™.
1. The Very First Backpack (without Hip Belt, no Frame)
That Argentinian backpack joined me on my first solo-backpacking trips in Scandinavia when I was still flying. Most of the time, I was able to pack it under the weight limit for hand luggage and I enjoyed the freedom this brought me: no more waiting for Stuff after landing, no paradox of choice for what to wear and manageable weight I could load on my back from the ground with ease.
I still bought Stuff though, but slowly I started to kick out the excesses and impediments. No more impractical shoes and clothes, no make-up (the world doesn’t care), a near 100% use of the contents. Alas, this cheap backpack didn’t last too long, in Greece, 2013, I found a new backpack for €22 to retire the one from Argentina.
2. The Patchy One (with Hip Belt, no Frame)
That Greek backpack traveled even further with me and withstood more challenges. As I discovered couchsurfing, the need for a sleeping bag became apparent and the size and weight of the backpack went up again. When I wanted to go freecamping, I realized I needed to bring a tent, too. Then I found out that hitchhiking is a really efficient mode of traveling and there’s no weight limit. Finally, I bought a guitar and now I was back at carrying a lot more again, but it is worth the weight for me. Now I didn’t use airplanes with their weight limits anymore except for emergencies, but the struggle to pack my backpack as light and efficient as possible remained a struggle.
I decorated this one with backpack flags – an expensive and definitely pretentious hobby. As the backpack traveled with me right after dropping out of university, it became more and more a work of art. I had many flags from various parts of the UK, then added them from all the countries in Central America I hitched through.
Back in Europe in summer 2014, this backpack came with me to the Caucasus countries. Unfortunately, it was stolen from a locked car while I was out partying. I lost nearly all my Stuff including that beautiful backpack. The guy whose car it was stolen from gave me a small pink and flowery schoolbag to hold the few things I had left after that incident. It was a sturdy one, but always a temporary replacement. A few weeks later in Tbilisi, I bought a new backpack that was the polar opposite in gendering colors and patterns: green camouflage print. Made me look tough.
3. The Cheap Backpack (with Hip Belt, no Frame)
Armenia, August 2014. I’m hitchhiking together with possibly the most annoying “I’m such a better traveler than you”-guy™ in the world, but there’s one thing I envy: his packing skills or lack thereof. He has a backpack the size of a normal day bag, with an insulation mat hanging on the outside. It weighs 5 kilograms and I’m in awe.
By now, I’m at my third backpack, the shitty €17 camouflage one I bought in Georgia. Once fully packed to my satisfaction, I put it on my back. Even before I lifted it off the table, a whole strap ripped off in one big “Fuck You”. We’d only just met, but this camouflage backpack was more drama than he let on.
Excluding my tiny guitar, this was about 10kg and I was impressed with myself until I met this 5-kilo guy. By now I’ve met many of these guys – somehow, they’re almost always guys – and I’ve come to realize that they have to give up a lot of things to travel as light as they do; things they usually don’t bring are a tent, sleeping bag and mattress for camping, and for clothing only one pair of pants, two or three undies and socks, two t-shirts and a blouse. Not even a jacket or sweater for the cold.
I’m incapable of traveling that light. Oftentimes, my feeling of disgrace for not packing as smartly as they do is canceled out by their immense stupidity of putting their passports in their bags (Never-Do-This™).
4. The Vintage Backpack with Parallel Frame
Spain, summer of 2015. I’m at my fourth backpack, an inheritance piece from a family member and it’s a good one. The twelve kilos I carry consist of my house (tent, sleeping bag, mattress), my four-season wardrobe, my kitchen (2,5L water, food box plus stove and pan), my guitar and my other Things like a book, playing cards and other optional Stuff that do bring joy to traveling.
I took it with to the Balkan peninsula, boat-hitchhiking to Malta, and around southern Europe, as I visited the 2015 Hitchgathering. I continued in southern Europe towards Spain and Gibraltar and eventually Portugal. The light blue backpack stood up by itself, which you can only know is a true blessing of a backpack once you had both types: the ones that fall over like a drunk toddler, and the ones that stand like a proud penguin. This is probably due to the beautiful parallel frame that’s inside the backpack.
This backpack is fully equipped to be traveling year-round in pretty much any climate – and that’s exactly what I need, having gone hitchhiking since the end of 2013. These Objects actually bring me more freedom to do what I want while traveling than if I’d leave them out. I know this is not a static state and will evolve again, but I do hope I’m never going back to being that little girl that carried 80% of her body weight in Stuff she didn’t use in Argentina.
Moral of the story: cheap backpacks die young, go and find out your own balance of too much Stuff versus too little Stuff and evolve your packing skills where necessary. Less Stuff makes happy, people.
2019 Edits: turns out my evolution of packing never stops, much like evolution in nature. Even when I was very happy back in 2015 with that gorgeous blue backpack, my packing needs kept changing. I edited this post to add:
5. The Greatest Gift
Germany, end of 2015. I receive a really great Deuter backpack as a gift from a guy named Jonas. The guy’s own packing needs had changed, so he had this red, 65+10 Liter, X-framed beauty lying about. A quality product. He’d used it happily for a long trip with the Transsiberian Railway to Russia, Mongolia, and China for his semester abroad. I used this backpack for over two years for hitchhiking in South America and then a little in Europe.
It fit everything my heart desired and didn’t break my back. It didn’t need superglue to be stronger. The Deuter was strong all by herself. She stood on the ground. She could be used as a seat for long waits while hitchhiking a desolate road in Patagonia. That backpack and I were in a relationship. But airlines didn’t like her, so I had to pay extra to check her in to travel back with me to Europe.
2018, Europe: I’m in a relationship with that guy who gave me that backpack. We’re traveling together more often than apart. Him carrying a small but heavy backpack that can be hand luggage on a plane, me carrying that majestic beast of a Deuter. His backpack makes him look like a turtle. My backpack makes me look like a garden gnome. Together we form a bar chart. And that’s OK.
In 2018 I also went back to university to finish my studies. This meant I had week-long holidays for short trips and a place I rented that kept my stuff. This is what normal-people travel looks like. On some of those trips that year, I left the beautiful Deuter at home in favor of a tiny backpack to bow down to RyanAir’s strict luggage rules. Even with hand luggage-only, these trips were the most expensive ones ever. That’s because you’re both paying rent for your home at home and your home away from home.
We planned a trip to Cabo Verde, for which we assumed we’d need to fly a lot. Having to check in my luggage and waste time at the baggage carousels was something we both dreaded. As a last-minute decision, I ordered a Cabin-MAX backpack to replace my Deuter.
6.1 The Cabin-Pushing-It (Lousy Hip Belt, no Frame)
December 2018. The first thing that went sideways with the Cabin-MAX was the color. I ordered grey with orange details but received black with grey details. No biggie… the color doesn’t really matter in the end. The straps looked a little weak, so I superglued all the weight-carrying seams on the whole backpack before I loaded it up. It has 45 Liters of space, which is significantly less from the Deuter. I left all my camping gear like my stove, sleeping bag, tent, and mattress behind in the Netherlands. The cuboid shape was exactly the length, width, and height of carry-on luggage with most airlines. We’d be saving a lot of time and money by not having to check this one in.
A very promising purchase indeed.
We flew to Lisbon from Cologne airport in Germany. My partner helped me squeeze the backpack into the luggage compartment. Good thing the plane was nearly empty because the backpack could only go in sideways on the relatively small TAP airplane. I quasi-asked Jonas “Is this a Cabin-MAX, or a Cabin-Pushing-It?”
We’ve referred to that backpack as a Cabin-Pushing-It ever since.
In Lisbon, we watched two episodes of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. While we could barely stand the people Marie Kondo was helping, we did take some things from it. I now realized that there are not only objects that bring freedom, but also objects that “spark joy”. If you made a Venn-diagram of “Stuff that brings freedom” and “Stuff that sparks joy”, the place where they overlap is the sweet spot to aim for.
But aiming for that spot is hard and any item can be argued for. A jar of peanut butter definitely sparks joy for those who don’t have a nut allergy, but does it bring freedom? Only if you eat it and eventually finish it. The trip to Cabo Verde made me face my worst packing fears regarding exactly this issue; so many items in this backpack that were functional and freedom providing, but very few sparked joy like a tent does. It also significantly altered the freedom of accommodation to pick from, as (free)camping was simply not an option.
This backpack made me miserable in more ways than just its underwhelming capacity; no frame meant that it was floppy as heck once it wasn’t full-full. It also had trouble standing upright when not filled up to the brim. And the hip belt wouldn’t stay tightened, which rendered it essentially useless. And the black color made it look like there was some valuable shit in that backpack, and not just random crap and a jar of peanut butter.
The Cabin-MAX truly was the fuckboy of backpacks.
6.2 The Cabin-MAX, Revisited (same Backpack, different Purpose)
But there’s a plot twist: the Cabin-MAX sort of holds the inflatable kayak me and Jonas bought in April 2019. And by ‘sort of’ I do mean that we’re pushing the limits of this backpack.
The inflatable Sevylor kayak came in its own ‘backpack’, which was more like a low-quality duffle bag for chopped-up corpse transportation. While it’s possible to wear that on your shoulders and back, it will also be the end of your shoulders and back. Literally anything with adjustable straps would be better than this shit sack. So, surprise surprise, the Cabin-MAX re-entered the stage.
After deflating the entire kayak, we folded it and squeezed it into the Cabin-MAX. All the inner and outer straps managed to wrap around our precious item, but the zippers won’t close. No problem. We add more fastening straps to the outside et voilà, it holds. We can even add more weight to it by sticking the paddles into the side pockets. We’re fucking proud of this folding and packing achievement. All of a sudden, everything seemed possible. Successful packing is one hell of a drug!
We’ll have to see how long the Cabin-MAX holds up, but we managed to take one car, four trains, and one bus with this setting without damaging the vehicles, the kayak plus paddles, or ourselves. Traveling with a kayak is the new frontier of my evolution of packing. I’m excited and terrified at the same time.
Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for the next developments in Living from a Backpack: Packing & Carrying Stuff.