You're off to New Zealand, or the Ardennes Mountains, or to see the Wizard and you're going to be gone for a while. Should you travel with a travel pack or hoist a backpack on your back? That question is as old as, well, it’s probably only a decade or so old because that's when travel packs were invented. But if you're reading this and you're ten, it's an age-old question. Before you can answer what to carry, consider where you are going and how you'll be traveling.
Let's pretend you're at that moment in life when college just ended, your job starts in two months, you saved every penny from steaming double capp half decaf light foam mochas and your parents just bought you a roundtrip ticket to Europe and a six week Eurail pass for graduation. We call this the Lucky Bastard period.
During this Lucky Bastard period (which, incidentally, is also called a "sabbatical" when you're older even though behind your back everyone will be referring to you and to it as "Lucky Bastard"), you'll most likely be hopping from plane to train to bus to hostels and to B&Bs. You'll walk through train stations and over dirt roads, across beaches and up hundreds of stairs. You'll stow your pack overhead, check it through, toss it in a pick-up and use it for a pillow. If you're lucky, you'll do all these things. And if you're really lucky, you'll have a bag that adjusts to the situations as easily as you do. And that bag would be a travel pack.
Travel packs are one part suitcase, one part backpack, and one part filing cabinet. In a travel pack, the suspension straps zip into a fully enclosed compartment so you can check the bag in at the airport without fear of the straps becoming entangled in the jaws of the conveyor belt and shredding like a block of Muenster cheese. When you need to lug it over a cobblestone road, unzip and toss it on your back.
During any LB trip, you're also constantly buying trinkets, handmade leather belts and t-shirts from the Interlaken Hostel, so you’ll need the extra room of a main compartment and the pockets to keep your stuff organized. A good travel pack has a place for everything, especially hidden places for all-important documents, passports and the last of your money that's quickly running out.
Now let's imagine a different trip. After years of threatening, you finally decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. Just you, your husband, and 48 pounds of clothes, gear, and the essentials to keep you alive. And maybe a book or two. And a radio. And your favorite titanium coffee mug.
For this trip, you're less likely to need a super versatile pack than one that's built for hiking. You need something that can easily and simply hold your "essentials" and is rugged enough to stand up to the elements. What you need is a travel backpack. Backpacks really only need to be unpacked at the end of the day at camp, so organization is less critical than if you're rifling through your travel pack looking for your insurance policy on a night train bound for the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.
Each pack has its advantages. Travel packs are extremely versatile, easy to organize all your travel essentials, built with tougher fabrics and zip or stow away suspensions to stand up to the occasional evil baggage handler. Backpacks are designed with the backcountry in mind. Lighter-weight fabrics, uber-technical suspensions, and hefty price tags all describe modern travel backpacks.
So before you purchase a pack, decide first how you're going to travel. Then that age-old question won't seem like such a mystery after all.