25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 14

Walking and Backpacks

It is a great art to saunter. The swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts, of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. Henry David Thoreau, USA

Walking  Backpacks  Types  Rucksacks...Duffels  Suitcases  Cost  Preflight  Glossary  Comparisons  Quotations

MY FAVORITE MODE of travel isn't by train, bus, or hang glider, but by placing one foot in front of the other in an easy manner. With comfortable shoes, a light pack, and an interesting environment, this is matchless pleasure. My eyes have the time to focus on anything or anyone, my ears to discern the many sounds, and my nose to smell what's cooking.

Walking takes you where the people are. Shopkeepers behind counters. Children playing games or watching slyly. Weddings being wed. Happy people. Sad people. Brow-raising outbursts of emotion. Walking is travel on the human scale.

When you take your time people notice and respond--sometimes with a nod, sometimes with a "How do you do," "Nice weather," or a Life's Story. Walking through remote villages it's not unusual for a dozen children to parade around, laughing, pointing, exclaiming, perhaps one or two braving a few words of English.

A fine mood and no worries in New Zealand Photo: In this 3500 cubic inch (60 liter) pack I have a tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, clothing, a day's food, a quart or two of water, and other necessities. Even though vehicles were only passing a few times per hour, my mood was utterly delicious.

When your pack is light and efficient you feel happy and free. If on your way to a hostel or a train station you spy a pleasant café you would like to enjoy for awhile--you can. Or perhaps you would venture into a shop, watch old men play chess in a park, take a scenic route. Whatever you want to do, you can do. That's good traveling.

When your pack is heavy and cumbersome you are never a happy traveler. All-consumed with the singular demand of transporting your burden to its destination, you will mostly see and experience the ground in front of you.

Indeed as sweat pours over your brow and as your shoulders ache from the cutting weight you will more resemble a godforsaken soul in a chain gang than a happy-go-lucky traveler.

But even that isn't the worst scenario. Many travelers pack and accumulate so much their range is limited to a hundred yards--and this only with bursts of superhuman effort. They wait for time to pass and help to arrive.

Perhaps someday as you skip through a faraway train station you'll come across one of these forlorn and weary travelers, and hear his or her version of the Heavy Packer's Refrain, which goes something like this: "I've got so much junk I'm always sitting around guarding it while everyone else is off having fun!"


For most budget travelers a backpack is the ultimate tool for carrying gear. Well packed and lightly loaded, it allows the traveler to traverse the world with hands free and head high. Women especially benefit since much of the load is efficiently transferred away from the upper body to stronger hips.

Conversely, suitcases transfer 100% of the load to the upper body, which is tiring for everyone. Travelers who forego a backpack for a suitcase will forfeit time and pleasure and expend scarce resources on expensive taxis.

What Size Pack

The most useful concept this chapter can communicate is that you don't need a big, bulky backpack, because you probably don't need a lot of clothing or gear. Experienced travelers not only get by with less, they travel better and more comfortably with less. A light and efficient pack is freedom and flexibility for the traveler.

Although most travelers are aware of the "travel light" philosophy before they leave, few practice it.

It's difficult for the inexperienced to understand how little you need when traveling, and how important a light pack is. Most believe the things used in ordinary life are necessities. After eight tours the barest minimum of gear is not only what I want, but what I must have. Except for a few emergency items, I can't be burdened for months with anything that isn't useful almost every day. If a special need arises I can always use lightweight money or duct tape to address the problem.

My advice for most non-camping travel backpackers is to use a large daypack, rucksack, or small internal frame pack of 1800 to 3500 cubic inches (30 to 60 liters), which can easily contain two changes of clothes, a rainjacket, a pair of sandals, a few toiletries, camera and film, a few other items, and even a down sleeping bag, if desired. This is especially true for travelers who plan to always stay in hotels or hostels, who don't need gear associated with "roughing it," and who are going to be on the move a lot.

Of course if you expect to remain in one place for several weeks or longer a larger pack can be profitable.

One Last Italic Try

Do not make the mistake of bringing too much and then vowing when you return never to over pack again. Indeed many budget travelers will be carrying a pack further than they have ever even walked before. Moreover, to a greater or lesser extent, the size, weight, and efficiency of your pack will determine how you travel, where you travel, and who you meet.

Types of Backpacks

The three broad categories of backpacks are external-frame, internal-frame, and frameless. Internal-frame packs described here include travel packs and top-loaders. Frameless packs are comprised of rucksacks and daypacks. While duffel bags are technically not backpacks, they are often flung over the shoulder and used by many backpackers with great success.

External-Frame Backpacks

The advantage of externals is they transfer nearly all of the load to the hip belt. Most externals also have an aluminum extender bar which allows a great deal of load--typically sleeping bag, tent, and/or pad--to be lashed above the pack, which in normal walking mode brings it almost directly over your center of gravity. This is the lightest place to carry a load--note the many peoples who balance vessels on their heads.

These are outstanding features for hiking on trails, across deserts, or on any relatively good path. However, for going over, under, around or through obstacles--such as embarking a crowded bus or train, battling lines at American Express, or anything in the urban jungle--an external is not the ideal load-carrying machine.

A large externally-framed pack with ominous metal construction strikes fear into pedestrians and shopkeepers. People instinctively dislike this hard and dangerous careening thing. They will pull their children closer, shake their heads, and whisper as you go by.

Of course if an external is what you have this doesn't mean you can't take it traveling--I did on my first backpacking tour and got along fine. It is simply further from ideal than other choices.

Photo: My first $2 external frame pack with $10 NATO-issue sleeping bag tied below. A $2 Backpack

Internal-Frame Backpacks

The internal frame pack was born about thirty years ago when some enterprising soul fastened two aluminum stays inside a rucksack,  transferring load away from the shoulders and onto the hips. Today, as one examines the walls of a good outdoor shop, the internal frame industry is testament to free enterprise--dozens of pack makers compete for market with value, technology, fashion, and hype.

Most travel backpackers use internals due to their streamlined profile and absence of a frightening metal frame which might knock out some innocent's teeth. Internals are blessedly easier to maneuver onto buses and trains, and in the everyday urban environment. Walk into a china shop with an external and you'll feel like an 800-pound gorilla--with an internal you're merely the hunchback of Notre Dame.

Travel Packs

Travel packs are built specifically for travel. They are made of heavy duty nylon, have a zip-open main body for easy access, and have several external pockets for frequently used items. Most have a "hideaway" suspension, where the hip belt and shoulder straps can be tucked away behind a nylon panel. They also have a handle and/or shoulder strap for carrying as a suitcase.

Since these packs have less sophisticated suspension systems they don't carry a load as well as their internal cousins. Because they open via a zip-open panel they must be larger than a regular top-loading internal to contain the same amount of gear.

Some travel packs have a zip-off daypack which attaches to the front of the main pack. While these are popular, I prefer a simple, lightweight daypack which I keep inside my main pack. Zip-off day packs make the main pack too bulky and heavy since they place load at the maximum possible distance from my center of gravity.

Travel packs are very popular with American backpackers due to their suitcase-like convenience, and because they are usually less expensive than a same-size top-loader. Many American backpackers say they really like their travel packs, and the good ones seem to work well.

Top-Loading Packs

Top-loading, internal-frame packs are most efficient at packing gear into the smallest possible space, as you can stuff and stuff a top-loader, then stuff it more. Also, since they distribute load to the hip belt better than travel packs, they weigh less heavily on the shoulders. In short, these packs deliver the maximum in walking freedom, and are thus used by many European backpackers.

Top-loading packs have a hood with a pocket or two which clamps over the top of the pack. Here is where you place often-used items such as toilet bag, camera, map, guidebook, etc. Some also have a bottom sleeping bag compartment with zippered access. In addition to your sleeping bag, there is also room for items you might want in a hurry, such as a rainjacket, sandals, etc.

Rucksacks and Daypacks

Rucksacks (which are similar to internal frame packs but don't have an internal frame) and daypacks (student book packs) are also great for traveling if you can go ultralight. With these packs all load falls on the shoulders, but this isn't a problem if you keep it to twelve pounds (5.5 kgs) or less. Everyone will say how smart you are for traveling so lightly.

I carry a very light (seven ounce, 200 gram) nylon daypack from a discount store in my regular backpack. For day-tripping it holds a jacket, camera, food, etc., a convenient and common practice. Do not begin your travels, however, with your backpack and daypack full of gear. It's much better to have both hands free.

Duffel Bags

The only time I used a duffel instead of a backpack was on a hitchhiking tour from Anchorage to Seattle. It was inexpensive, made of nylon, and had five zippered compartments. While light and convenient, I was fortunate the hitching was excellent. (In Toke, Alaska I suffered not at all a four-hour wait--the average for that junction is two days.)

Walking long distances with a duffel slung over my shoulder caused minor neckbone problems and seriously handicapped grizzly-detection to one side. Nevertheless, it was much easier to sling around than a suitcase.

If a duffel is all you can afford, it will work fine. In fact, small duffels are the bag of choice for many British hitchhikers inside their own country, as they connote a certain professionalism to motorists. I would not hesitate to travel one second if a duffel was all I had. I would, however, be doubly certain my load was as light as possible.

You can get nylon duffel bags with several zippered compartments from discount stores for about $25. These are much lighter and more efficient than Army-style heavy duty canvas duffels, which will drive you crazy with inconvenience and huge size.


I'm sorry to say you're not really travel backpacking if you use a suitcase, but you still may purchase up to one dozen (12) copies of this book as gifts, with my compliments.

How Much to Spend

Which is better for travel: A pack that presents itself as not too fancy and probably filled with t-shirts and panties? Or one that screams I'VE GOT $800 NIKONS INSIDE!

I see many backpacks under $140 that would be excellent for the twelve to thirty pound (five to fourteen kilogram) loads of smart-packing travel backpackers. Many (but not all, of course) are intelligently designed, light in weight, well-enough made, and better overall than the inexpensive pack I've used on my last few tours, but will probably continue using because it functions reasonably, and looks poor.

Proper Preflight Pack Preparation

Every backpack salesperson hears complaints about packs being torn or broken during airline transport. Usually this is less the fault of the airlines and more the fault of Improper Preflight Pack Preparation.

Backpacks have numerous dangling appendages, such as shoulder straps and hip belts, which have propensity to be chewed to bits by machinery. External frame packs are vulnerable to their frames becoming overstressed by baggage handler-throwers. A few simple precautions will reduce your chance of arriving in London or Bangkok with half a hip belt, or less one shoulder strap.

1. Preferred method is to have your pack small enough to carry on. Airlines generally allow one carry-on article with total dimensions (height + length + width) of 45 inches (115 centimeters). A 3000 cubic inch (50 liter) pack will just meet these requirements. You may be able to get by with a little more.

Pack ready to fly.2. If your pack is too large to carry on remove, tuck away, or tie-up all straps, belts, and appendages. Do not leave anything dangling which might catch in mechanisms. I place a raincover over the back of the pack (covering shoulder straps and hip belt) and then tightly wrap the pack with twenty feet (six meters) of cord. I've never had a problem in a dozen flights.

3. Lock, tie-up, or conceal all zippers on your pack, so prying hands can't make a quick snatch.

4. The cargo area may be less pressurized and very cold. Cheap shampoo and other bottles may explode and cause a mess. Segregate them in plastic bags.

5. Stove fuel such as white gas, kerosene, and butane canisters are not permitted on any airliner.

Backpack Glossary

A medium-weight nylon traditionally used on main body and low abrasion areas of packs. Very strong and light, but not as abrasion resistant as Cordura. My packcloth backpacks, however, have held up well.
Cordura 1000 and Anso-Tex
Very heavy duty nylon used on packs. Very abrasion resistant.
Usually thin aluminum bars fitted to the backside of an internal pack which transfer weight to the hip belt. Aluminum stays can be bent to fit the contour of your back, which may make a dramatic difference in comfort. While wearing the pack have a detail-oriented, non-inebriated friend mark where the stays should be bent. Then remove and bend them slightly over the edge of a table. Repeat as necessary. Several small bends are better than one big screw-up. Someone at the outdoor shop where you bought the pack should know how to fit stays. Many stays are pre-bent and may already fit well.
Plastic frame sheet
Supplements or replaces aluminum stays. Improves load transfer to the hip belt, and prevents sharp objects from poking you in the back.
Foam back panel
Supplements aluminum stays by preventing sharp objects from poking you in the back. A recommended feature, but not absolutely necessary with careful packing.
Pokes in the back
To be avoided.
Hip belt
Wraps around hips and takes most of the pack load. Better ones are constructed of several layers of foam for padding and strength. Web hip belts found on some rucksacks and daypacks only hold the pack close to the back.
Lumbar pad
Portion of the hip belt which fits into the small of the back, taking significant load. Most travel packs don't have this worthwhile feature.
Delta straps
Attach from either side of the hip belt to the lower, sleeping bag area of pack. When cinched they pull load into the small of the back and hip belt--otherwise the load inefficiently "hangs."
Shoulder straps
Adjusting the straps lower on the pack increases pack stability and load on the shoulders. A higher adjustment takes weight off the shoulders and reduces pack stability. Salespeople will probably adjust for maximum pack stability, which is necessary for mountain climbing and skiing, but not so important for travel. I always adjust mine high so there is little or no weight on my shoulders.
Load lifters
Straps running from shoulder straps to top of pack. When cinched they take weight off the top of the shoulders and transfer it to the upper chest and upper back.
Compression straps
Wrap around the sides of the pack. When cinched they compress and pull the load onto the internal frame--otherwise the load inefficiently "hangs."
Sternum strap
Connects the two shoulder straps across the chest. Increases stability of the pack, and may slightly improve load transfer. I rarely used mine, so I sold it to a Mayan shopkeeper for one quetzal (about twenty cents).
Sleeping bag compartment
Bottom, zippered portion of some packs, for stowing a sleeping bag and other light but bulky items such as a rainjacket. See Chapter 20 Organization and Packing for more on packing.
Top-loading packs often have extra gear capacity by "raising the hood," which makes the pack taller.
Packcover (raincover)
5 oz. (140 g.), $20. Essential piece of nylon to cover the backpack in rain. Otherwise in a long downpour the pack will leak through seams and zippers. Also useful for wrapping a pack before checking it on an airplane. While a plastic garbage bag substitutes for many, my packcover has proved a worthwhile investment.
For extended rain or brief underwater travel, lining the inside of the pack with a garbage or heavy plastic bag is advisable.

Backpacks Compared

The following are more or less suitable for travel. Similar or better packs will be available from your outdoor or travel retailer. Decide on method of travel and what you are taking before selecting a pack. Some retailers allow you to take a pack home to see how your stuff fits. Otherwise gather representative gear in the store, or bring yours in.

Kelty Redwing backpackKelty Red Wing
2.6 lbs. (1.2 kgs.), $90. Two sizes, 2400 and 2900 cu. in. (40 and 48 liters), panel loading. Twin aluminum stays with foam sheet. Two side pockets and two front pockets. Beefy main zip. Best-selling Kelty pack. Simple, convenient design is good for ultralight, non-camping hostel-hoppers, although I might lop off the side pockets to improve aerodynamics (and because I like doing stuff like that.) Click image for opposite view, 21k.
Jansport West Indies
3.5 lbs. (1.6 kgs.), $90. 3577 cu. in. (60 liters), panel loading. Twin aluminum stays with padded back. Two side pockets and two front pockets. Made of heavy duty Cordura nylon. Has a handle for carrying as luggage, and a hide-away suspension panel. This is a reasonable, mid-sized travel pack similar to those used by many American backpackers.
REI EveningStar
4.5 lbs. (2 kgs.), $150. 3400 cu. in. (57 liters), two panel-loading compartments. Twin aluminum stays. Good for travelers with lots of gear, such as a tent, sleeping bag, stove, juggling pins, etc. I used this pack for a few months in Central America, but sometimes it had to go on top of the bus, where it was looted once. I don't recommend attaching an add-on pocket as it will flop around and considerably increase bulk.
Vaude Rock-Tiger
2.2 lbs. (1 kg.), $125. 2400 cu. in. (40 liters). No aluminum stays or framesheet. A top loader with one top hood pocket. No sleeping bag compartment. This is a typical pack for many European ultralight backpackers. Despite its small size you can stuff a surprising amount into it. I recommend this type of small, light, simple, sturdy, and inexpensive backpack for hostel-hopping and other ultralight, non-camping travel. Your retailer should have a similar pack.
Lowe Sirocco
5.5 lbs. (2.5 kgs.), $225. 3700 + up to 600 extended cu. in. (62 + 10 liters). Twin aluminum stays. A standard top loader with a top hood pocket and a bottom sleeping bag compartment. Shoulder straps and hip belt are sized for women. About the right size for fair-weather, camping travelers.
Lowe Sundancer
5 lbs. (2.3 kgs.), $220. 2800 + up to 900 extended cu. in. (47 + 15 liters). Twin aluminum stays. A standard top loader with a top hood pocket and a bottom sleeping bag compartment. Sized to fit people 5'4" inches (1.63 meters) and shorter.
Jansport World Tour
5.5 lbs. (2.5 kgs.), $140. 6575 cu. in. (110 liters). Twin aluminum stays with padded back. Has two panel-opening compartments, two side pockets, and a zip-off day pack. It's huge. This pack is for helicoptering into the Congo to set up base camp, or for Schwarzenegger-types who want to show off.
1 to 2 lbs. (454 to 908 g.), $25 to $50. 1800 to 2600 cu. in. (30 to 43 liters). Panel or top-loading. One or two back pockets. Has shoulder straps only. If you pack carefully enough, this is a cheap, convenient, low-profile, and recommended way to travel.

Literary Quotations

He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. Henry David Thoreau, USA


In the afternoon, from the summit of a commanding ridge, I obtained a magnificent view of blue, softly curved mountain scenery. John Muir, USA and Scotland, from A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, 1867


On a long journey even a straw weighs heavy. Spanish proverb

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