Inside My Backpack: The Backpack!

So far I have given you a little glimpse into what I carry with me around the world inside my backpack. But as some have pointed out, I have not mentioned which backpack I actually carry all these goodies in! Fair point my friends, fair point.

The truth is that I have not been traveling with the backpack. I have travelled with three different ones! Each has had its pluses in minuses and in this post I will briefly touch on them to [hopefully] give you some things to think about when it comes time for you to pick yours.

After all, if you aren't itching to get one and go travel yourself, I have failed with my blog!

Backpack Showdown

I got my first backpack - Osprey Atmos 50 - for a trip to Europe back in 2009. I borrowed my sister's Kelty Illusion 3500 for the round-the-world trip. Last fall, I switched to Kelty Redwing 50:

Osprey Atmos 50, Kelty Illusion 3500 and Kelty Redwing 50

All three are good packs and have certainly served their purpose. I was in a hurry when I got the Atmos and pretty clueless at what I wanted. After using it, I did not like how much space it took so my sister offered me her Illusion for the round-the-world trip. It worked out fine for that purpose, but she wanted it back :) So last fall I got myself the Redwing for a reason that may surprise you.

But let's look at them one at the time.

Note: I will not write comprehensive reviews for these. It will take a while and really is not the point here. Instead, I wanted to bring up a few things about each pack to give you some food for thought. Campmor, Sierra Trading Post and Amazon have plenty of reviews for any backpack when you are ready to get your own.

Osprey Atmos 50 Backpack

Atmos 50 at the Eiffel Tower

As I was gearing up for my first trip - 10 days in Europe - my sister took me to a local outdoors store to help me select a backpack. She has done quite a bit of camping and I had not a clue about that stuff so it was good to have her there.

I remember I was a bit shocked by the prices - decent packs were all above $150. It makes sense now - but I just did not expect it then.

Being as tall as I am and wanting an internal frame backpack, we could not find anything that would fit me well until we spotted the Osprey Atmos 50. It was also on sale!

Its most distinguishing feature was a significant curve in the back that allowed for quite a bit of open space between my back and the pack. In theory, it helps with ventilation and prevents your back from sweating while carrying the backpack for a long time. I disproved that theory in Paris, where I ran around the city all day with the pack on my shoulders and it did not seem to make any difference - the back of my shirt was still drenched in sweat.

However, what I found to be the most inconvenient is the curvature inside the pack that this frame created. Stuffing things into it wasn't that simple as I had to make sure that everything sits neatly around the curve to maximize the space. Later, pulling things out meant that I really had to unload everything to get to the bottom of it. The pack does come with two zippers on the side to partially compensate for that, but if you keep all your clothes in a big plastic bag loaded from the top, side access does not help you.

On the positive side, I really really liked the large zipped mesh pockets on the waist belt - I could easily stick my camera, phone, wallet and passport in there. Being in front of me and zipped up, those things were both more secure and more accessible when I needed them.

Kelty Illusion 3500 Backpack

Michael Anthony photoshoot with Kelty Illusion 3500 pack

The difficulty I had packing the Atmos made me think twice when it came time to decide what pack to take with me for my months-long trip around the world. The curvature of the frame also made it larger by total volume when compared to other similar 50 liter packs, meaning I had a hard time fitting it into the overhead bins and other smaller spaces.

So my sister graciously offered me her own Kelty Illusion 3500 backpack (no links as it has been discontinued). While having higher capacity than Atmos 50 (approximately 57 liters), it wasn't curved so it didn't stick out as much.

Without the curved back, it was also much easier to load and even dig down to pull things out from the bottom of the bag. It also has a zipper that goes along the front so I used that to access things I had stuffed all the way at the bottom - flip flops, Tevas, little souvenirs, etc.

As far as packing goes, the shoes were always at the bottom, followed by a trash bag full of clothes, and then a large zip lock with all the little things and gadgets I carried with me. I used the the "hood" at the top to carry medicine and toiletries bags. Side mesh pockets were not very big so I usually just carried a rain cover in one and my seat cushion in the other to have them easily accessible.

Really, my only gripe with this pack is the completely useless outside pocket that could not really hold anything in it.

Kelty Redwing 50 Backpack

Kelty Redwing backpack (Amazon customer image)

Once I got back from the round-the-world trip, I had to return the Illusion pack to my sister. So, when it was time to hit the road again last fall, I surveyed some of my friends to see which packs they were using. Many have recommended various Gregory backpacks and I even got one at a local outdoors store. It was similar to the Illusion but there was one thing that I was apprehensive about.

I fly a lot when I travel. I also try to bring my pack with me as a carry on whenever I can. Not only it does not get lost this way, it also saves me heaps of time when I do not need to check it in and then later wait around for it show up on the carousel. I have also found out that airlines outside the US are much more strict when it comes to sizes and weight of the carry on.

The traditional backpacks such as Atmos and Illusion are narrow and tall to help redistribute the weight better. That, as well as the gadzillion of straps everywhere, makes them look "big" so I pretty much had to check them in whenever I was not traveling in Business class. This is where Kelty Redwing backpack series comes in.

Rather than being a top-loading pack with a "hood", the Redwing series is designed as a more traditional backpack. It is wider and shorter and has a removable waist strap. While it still has plenty of compression straps, they don't seem to jump out as with the other packs. So, all in all, with waist strap removed, this pack looks more like a computer/book bag than a traveler's pack, as you can see from the Amazon customer image here (I realized I do not have any pictures with this pack yet).

Combined with my height, it really looks like a small pack rather than a backpack and I was able to sneak it in with me on flights in many cases without even taking it off my back during the check in because it looks like a carry-on, smaller than it actually is.

A large front pocket has many compartments that I found very useful to stick various items into. A small, padded pouch was just the perfect size for my external harddrive. The keychain clip was useful to attach my flashlight (so I always knew where it was) as well as my money belt (extra security since nobody could just pull it out). The zip pocket was useful to temporary carry my passport and other paperwork for quick access at the airport:

Lots of compartments in the front pocket of Redwing series

I was even able to fit my 11" MacBook Air in BE.EZ sleeve in the back pocket of the front compartment - perfect!

Couple other random thoughts:

  • the zippered side pockets are perfect for separating toiletries from medicine bag (now, if I could only remember which one has which)
  • not being the top-loading backpack, sometimes I found it to be inconvenient to load, but very easy to pull out whatever I needed
  • removable waist strap is awesome when I have to take it off around a lot of people (public transit) - I can take it out and not have it spread all over the floor
  • it is less comfortable than traditional hiking backpacks, but I realized that I really don't carry it on my back all that much, so it is not a big issue for me
  • it fits perfectly into overhead bins on 737s, A320s and larger aircraft; even sideways on ERJ 145 as long as you don't stuff it too much!

The Redwing 50 comes in two versions - the large one for up to 21" torso length and small one for up to 17.5". Both have 50 liter capacity. There is also a special version for women - Redwing 40. My local Bass Pro Shop/Outdoor World store carried both versions, so you may be able to check them out before ordering (they are cheaper on Amazon).

After having these three backpacks, I am pretty happy with the Redwing 50 and don't plan on looking for another soon.

Tips & Tricksdimagear, imb