Photo: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

One Traveler's Quest for the Ultimate Backpack

by Jacob Bielanski Jan 15, 2008

Illustration by Jacob Bielanski

The single greatest piece of advice I heard prior to my first vagabonding excursion was to pack my bag, then remove half the stuff and leave it behind.

As with all good advice, I only admired the lesson after I had failed to heed it. Lugging a heavy pack through border crossings and train stations, only then did I ask myself two questions:

How do you pack for a trip that has no fixed itinerary? How do you hit the perfect combination of lightweight, versatile and practical?

In 2005 I began an undertaking to find the ultimate bag. I required the bag to replace four lacking alternatives:

  • A laptop attaché for a 19″ wide screen Dell Inspirion 1900
  • A giant, backpacker’s rucksack
  • A stylish-yet-rugged messenger bag
  • A Camelbak

I had carried each of these packs in previous years, with varying degrees of success.

The giant backpack held a lot, but was unwieldy when retrieving specific items. The messenger bag made me look like less of a dork and gave me rapid access to all its contents, but its single strap made it uncomfortable and it couldn’t carry an over-sized laptop-besides, my friends felt that “messenger bag” was just a fancy way to say “man-purse”.

Then there was the laptop case, which was downright worthless, lacking pockets that could fit anything useful, including my laptop.

In Search Of Perfection

I wanted to simplify my lifestyle by traveling with one perfect rucksack, so I put forth some simple requirements for my dream pack:

  • It should not be a ridiculous color or bear any logos that make it a target
  • It needs to be modular–when a pouch isn’t needed, I want to be able to remove it in order to lighten my load
  • It must be small enough to carry on airplanes
  • It needs wide, comfortable straps at both sternum and waist
  • It must be able to accommodate a hydration bladder
  • It should be rugged
  • It needs to have a frame of some kind, preferably a removable one
  • It should be cheap

I didn’t think I was asking for too much; a cheap, tough bag that could take me from the client downtown to the mountaintop in a single weekend. My wife thought I was high–who the hell brings a CamelBak to a business meeting? Or a laptop to the back trail?

Ignoring such pessimists, I set out to learn something about the perfect pack.

Cheap, Tough, Practical

Color alone excluded most “civilian” backpacks. There seems to be some unwritten rule that says bright colors are cheap. None of the brand names seemed to carry a “black” bag and, if they did, it was their “mountain trekker elite IV”, which retails for only $572; straps sold separately.

My search began to focus on the “government” market.

The kinds of business meetings and hikes that I need my pack for have different goals than those of, say, a U.S. Army Ranger on patrol in Afghanistan.

While it’s great to think that I can easily accommodate a SINCGARS radio, a cell phone pocket would do just fine. Jump riggings would sooner choke me than enable my safe, airborne assault on corporate America. Despite those extraneous features, however, I found the liberal use of 1050 denier “ballistic” nylon, quiet chain zippers, and subdued (when not militant) colors to be consistent and practical. It seemed I was on the right track.

After an exhaustive search (mostly at the expense of my employer), I was down to two bags. With little else to guide me, I turned to an age-old tool: the spreadsheet. I analyzed cubic space against price and came to a definitive conclusion.

Perfection Found?

The Blackhawk Three-Day Assault Pack is the perfect backpack (unfortunately, neither myself nor BNT is getting ad revenue for this…shucks). The Assault Pack is cheap, tough, and can fit in carry-on. With a cinch sack, accessory packs, hydration bladders and internal frame, I can adapt it to any use. Best of all, it is a single, simple shade of flat black.

That’s the end of it. You’re welcome. Go out, buy your assault pack–or similar–and be done with this question in your vagabonding life.

If you want further proof that soft corners, kidney and sternum straps, durable fabrics and wide shoulder strap are the tops, I recommend doing you own research on a plethora of sites, such as

Wait! There’s More!

That’s not really the end of it, is it?

In light of this search, and the euphoric, bag-toting years that have followed, I’ve begun to stare at other peoples’ bags. The laptop cases with wheels going to conventions, faux “Alice packs”-purchased from Old Navy–climbing mountains, frayed messenger bags on the way to the library, and even saddle bags on an aging motorcycle. All these rucksacks tell me a story. I wonder if the people who own them obsessed the way I did.

All these rucksacks tell me a story. I wonder if the people who own them obsessed the way I did.

Was the pack a gift? Have they had it long? Is it comfortable? What’s in it and why does it go there?

I begin to find that people’s bags–and the way they carry them-are like a signature, a unique thumb print of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and how we plan on getting there. I wondered if anyone noticed my bag and wondered the same.

Fellow Seekers, Deeper Questions

I found that I was not the only one obsessed with the perfect pack. Another gentleman, more traveled than myself, has begun to work with a Filipino bag maker to concoct the ultimate backpack.

His name is “Andy” of Perhaps he can put the formula to work and give us the perfect backpack.

Then there are the other, countless questions that arose during my quest. Can a backpack make us move faster, love travel more, and even help us remember not to leave our contact lens case on the hostel sink?

Is it possible to make Kevlar fabrics and solar panels “fashionable”? Do we decide what to put into the bag or does the bag demand to be filled?

My bag recently took me up the Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala. What was expected to be a light jaunt through a National Park, turned out to be a grueling hike through a jagged, unprotected landscape.

Our guide moved at a calf-taxing pace with little effort. As the day wore on, I found myself ill prepared for the terrain and ensuing precipitation. Feigning toughness, I acted as if I just loved the rain.

Our guide danced across volcanic rock and up steep slopes with the deftness of a mountain goat and finally came to rest at my side. I couldn’t understand his Spanish, but understood his message–here, moron, take this rain jacket.

As he turned I saw the bag from which this gift had come-a small, vinyl, Winnie the Pooh backpack. I was using my bag to carry cheese sandwiches and photography equipment.

One Life, One Love, One Bag

A gentleman by the name of Doug Dyment has been running an ad-free page called (previously “The Compleat Carry-on Traveler”) for years.

His simple and effective compendium of bag-carrying knowledge corresponded to the qualities of the bag I had purchased. His recommendations for soft corners, subdued appearance and a list of other tips could’ve been plucked straight from my own skull.

It seems the perfect bag truly is a well-balanced formula. In spite of all this knowledge, I found the most wisdom in a line under the heading Choosing a Bag:

“Traveling light is not about figuring out how big a bag you can take, or even what kind of bag provides the most storage; rather it’s about determining the minimum amount of stuff you truly need to cart around with you, and finding the smallest bag that will comfortably hold it.”

Jacob Bielanski is a Technical College dropout from the boonies who drinks too much. His one-eyed cat “Spudnick”, travel-sized dog “Norm” and sexy photographer wife do most of the work. You can find his ramblings on his blog and his “real” writing at any place that ponies up the dough.

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