Monday, December 19, 2011

Choosing My Backpack... and a Change of Plans

Edit: Read this post to learn about the backpack I ultimately chose for my RTW trip!

Over the past several days, I've realized part of why I've had trouble making big decisions about my round-the-world trip: I've been thinking more about what I "should" do rather than what I really want to do.

Don't get me wrong — there's no one sitting here telling me what to do. The "shoulds" are all in my head:

  • I should start out in Southeast Asia because it's inexpensive and everyone I've talked to loves it.
  • I should go straight to Chiang Mai because I know people who live there and that will help me adjust to being away from home.
  • I should see which backpacks most travel bloggers use and find one that's similar.

There's nothing wrong with any of those ideas... except for the fact that I realized I actually want to do things a bit differently. So I've come up with a new itinerary — one that I'm really, really excited about — and I will not be going to Thailand (or even Southeast Asia) first. I'll write more about my revised plans later this week.

My travel experiences so far have been limited to short vacations that included full suitcases, hotel rooms and all the comforts I'd enjoy at home. I'd be lost without all the advice I've gleaned from many wonderful travel bloggers about how to live out of a backpack for months at a time.

And when it came to choosing the backpack itself, I studied the features of various bloggers' packs and kept them in mind. Then I decided it was OK to choose something a little different.

But let's start at the beginning of my backpack search, shall we?

My mom's boyfriend, Don, recently sold a bunch of his climbing and camping gear to Second Ascent, a new-and-used outdoor retailer in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. Guess who ended up with $250 worth of store credit at her disposal? Merry Christmas to me!

Thank you, Don and Mom, for that ridiculously generous and helpful gift.

I headed to Second Ascent last week to begin perusing backpacks, and quickly found myself stumped in front of a wall filled with options.

Hmm. Yes. Well.

An employee named Lucky noticed my helplessness and swooped in to assist. I first told him what I was generally looking for in a pack:

  • Size: 55L or smaller so I won't overpack and then die from the weight and bulk.
  • Durability: Must be able to withstand a year of being carried, dragged, shoved and flung across the world.
  • Comfort: Must feel like a tender embrace from an old friend. Or something like that.

Lucky jumped into action, grabbing packs that were designed specifically for women and adjusting them for me to try on. I tried on a few duds that were instantly uncomfortable with nothing but paper stuffed in them, so I knew they'd only be worse when filled with, oh, my entire life.

Then I tried on the Gregory Jade 50 and was pleasantly surprised by its comfort level.

Lucky played photographer as well. What a patient man.

Lucky loaded this 50L bag with more than 20 lbs. of weight and I trekked around the store to find that it was still very comfortable. With all the straps adjusted, it fit my body like a glove. The waist belt had two large zippered pockets, which I loved, and the main pack featured top and side access. The material seemed a bit light to me in terms of durability, but Lucky assured me it was one of Second Ascent's most popular packs.

I was pretty sure this was my winner.

Then Lucky busted out the Deuter ACT Lite 45+10 SL.

Also comfortable. Also green.

Wow — this one was even more comfortable than the Jade 50 with the same amount of weight!

The waist belt only had one zippered pocket, as you can see above, but it was quite large and easily fit my new Canon S95 camera. The main pack was accessible by the top (drawstring) and bottom (zipper), and the bottom portion featured an internal zipper to separate it from the rest of the pack — good for storing dirty laundry, shoes and God knows what else. The material seemed more durable to me than the Jade 50, but I'm no expert there. And the collar at the top of the pack can expand up to 10 liters, providing 55L of storage overall.

I tried on a few more packs that didn't hold a candle to either the Jade 50 or the ACT Lite 45+10 SL, and then put both on hold so I could do some online research at home.

I went back and forth between the two for days. Both packs earned rave reviews from multiple online sources, so I figured the decision was down to my personal preference. Each pack had pros and cons:

Gregory Jade 50
  • Had a side-access zipper that the other pack didn't have — many travel bloggers I follow prefer side-zip/full-zip packs over top-access packs.
  • Could hold 50L without having to use an expandable portion — I started worrying that anything smaller than 50L would be too small.
  • Looked a little prettier — I wouldn't choose either of these green packs based on color alone, but this color was the more attractive of the two.

Deuter ACT Lite 45+10 SL
  • Felt more comfortable and compact than the Jade 50.
  • Could expand up to 55L if necessary, and I really wanted to pack light anyway and be able to take the pack on planes as a carry-on as often as possible.
  • Seemed more durable, and many online reviewers specifically raved about the quality of Deuter packs.
  • Did not have a side-access zip, but that would be one fewer access point for me to worry about in terms of unwanted visitors.

In the end, I went with my gut.

I bought the Deuter ACT Lite 45+10 SL. I know I won't regret going with the more comfortable pack, and I don't think I'll regret going with the smaller pack. The last thing I want is to go on this great adventure and then feel dragged down by stuff. I knew that if I got a larger pack, I'd be tempted to fill it to capacity.

One of the things that held me back from choosing this pack immediately was the lack of side access. It seemed to be a big deal to other travel bloggers when they chose their packs, so wouldn't I want that, too? Ah, well. The bottom of this pack has quite a large opening in addition to the top opening, so I hope I'll be able to access most everything in it with no problem. Other factors, like comfort, size and durability, were just more important to me.

So that was my complete backpack-buying adventure. I'm so glad I had the Second Ascent store credit not only because it paid for the pack with some money left over, but because I might have driven myself nuts looking at packs from a multitude of online and brick-and-mortar outdoor retailers. I'm satisfied once I find one or two things that meet my criteria — it freaks me out to have too many options.

What will I do with the leftover store credit, you ask?

Well, I'll be needing a daypack...


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  1. Hey Devon! SE Asia was amazing - definitely a spectacular place filled with a beautiful photo around every corner.

    In regards to your packpack, my suggestion is a back pack that opens out (not from the top - as it'll drive you crazy taking everything out if you need something at the bottom).

    Here's my post on my packing list and back pack, which was awesome, and I loved!!

  2. I came upon this blog from your tumblr account and I absolutely love it! You're going to be doing my dream - traveling the world. This is such an exciting time for you and I'm excited to see all iof your adventures!

  3. Believe me, you won't regret buying a Deuter, they are awesome! I bought one (AirContact Pro Sl 55L) back in May when I started my trip and I love it!

  4. I think it's a great move to start from a clean-slate and plan each step of your trip on your own terms.

    With so many great examples out there, it's easy to feel like you should just recreate what they're doing, forgetting that making it yours is the fun part.

    Also, as a passionate fan of the color green, I approve your choice in pack!

  5. Looks like a great backpack and comfort really is the most important thing when you'll be lugging it around for a year.

    I wouldn't worry about the lack of a side-opening system as I rambled around the world with a similar design of pack and you'll be amazed at just how quickly you'll be able to squish everything in there after a few days.

    The trick is to discover how to play Tetris in your bag with all your bits and pieces!

  6. Thank you so much for writing such a great story! Hope to see you again soon :)
    - The Second Ascent Crew


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