A n00b’s Guide to Breaking in a New Pack

47 days to go!

I came home this weekend to pick up my backpack, which amidst some confusion had been delivered (safely) to my parent’s place. Upon arriving home, I all but teleported upstairs, ripped open the giant Eastern Mountain Sports box, and immediately put on my grey Gregory Deva. Finally, something travel-related that I could tangibly hold! However much I love fantasizing about my travel and planning ideal-condition itineraries, nothing beats the thrill of actually buying an international plane ticket or figuring out exactly how much stuff a 68L pack can fit on a 100 lb woman.

Tip #1: Improperly packing a bag can be a pain in the neck (/ass/back).

Of course, it’s not as easy as throwing a few things into a bag and seeing what fits. For one, the empty pack doesn’t accurately indicate how weight should be optimally distributed. According to the REI saleswoman, the heaviest items should be closest to the back, evenly centered such that they’re not too low nor too high. I’m undecided whether I’m going to be carrying my laptop and camera in my pack or in a separate purse – I still don’t know which laptop I’ll even bring – but it’s important to keep in mind such that valuable electronics aren’t crushed when laying a pack down horizontally. Light things – like jeans and sweaters – can go in the bottom compartment, while evenly weighted items of limited value – like underwear, toiletries, and toilet paper – go in the unsecured side pockets.

She advised I not use the water bottle pockets on the sides; since water is likely to be one of the heaviest items in my bag, it would be wiser to get a bladder to be secured inside the bag itself. Considering my frugality, though, this might be a dismissed concern.

Tip #2: Whether you buy your pack in-store or online, go to REI and get it fitted.

I have so much love for REI – in what feels like half a million trips, I’ve only had the nicest of interactions and the friendliest of help. The last time I visited, the salesman reminded me to come back after I received my pack so that they could fit it for me. Considering my utter confusion as to how to prevent being repeatedly prodded in the back of the head by the overextended spine support, I definitely needed the advice. The salesgirl readjusted the back straps so that the hip belt moved down onto my iliad crest (the protruding bones on the hips), and then taught me how to safely tighten up all of the appropriate straps (hint: don’t pull away from you; only pull in the direction of the secured straps). She also locked up and loosened all of the compression snaps, so I don’t have to unsnap them and get all of the cords mixed up.

Basically, REI is the novice backpackers’ heaven.

Tip #3: Burn the extra material on the hip belt.

My backpack is so strappy, it looks like a mutant canvas octopus. Though buying a rain cover/ check-in cover/ duffel bag would alleviate the concern of the unwieldy straps getting caught in a baggage carousel, there is an easy solution to take care of at least one of the unnecessarily strappy straps: slash-and-burn. The waist-belt, once fitted, is unlikely to be tightened or loosened more than.. let’s say, eight inches. The extra material (at least on my pack, with my waist) is more than a foot in length. By cutting this material, lighting the ends of the frayed cord (to prevent further fraying), then resewing the tip, you save yourself the annoyance of the straps slapping against your legs all day. Make sure to give yourself enough slack though – too little, and you’ll find it difficult to snap shut that time you’re wearing a big snow jacket or when you’ve literally eaten everything in a restaurant (something I anticipate in several of my destinations).

Tip #4: Learn about all of your pockets, compartments, and detachable do-dads.

Much to my (pleasant) surprise, the lid of the Gregory Deva detaches to become either a large fanny pack or a pretty slick shoulder sling bag! There are pockets both on the outside and the in, giving convenient separation in what otherwise might have been a pocket-less mess. Of course, this isn’t super convenient for anti-theft scenarios, since a thief just has to pop open the snap and run away with your bag… but that’s why this is more ideal for hikes and airport check-ins. I also found out that there exists a convenient horizontal water-bottle holder, designed for those of us who refuse to buy a bladder (a bag of water that you secure in your pack, not an organ for holding urine). Over time, I’ll know how best to open and access everything quickly! Can’t wait!

Tip #5: Even backpacks need to be broken in.

Despite how silly it looks to be carrying a mountaineering backpack in an urban environment, I’m going to be carrying this backpack everywhere I can. Luckily, I’ll be leaving tomorrow for a four-day trip to Yosemite, so I’ll have an estimate of how much space such an adventure might require. I’m obviously not carrying it up Half Dome – if I can do Half Dome with solely my legs, I’ll consider it an accomplishment.

Carrying the backpack around all the time offers three immediate benefits:

  1. You know how much space you need for different journey lengths.
  2. You mold the shoulder straps and back to your particular shape.
  3. You learn how to quickly put on and take off the pack, and unzip and zip all of the compartments.

Bottom line: I can’t wait to start using this pack every day and all the time!

I’ve already begun researching sample packing lists for different regions, so the next 47 days will be filled packing, then unpacking, the pack such that I can find the optimal mix of practical, but not spartan, things to bring. A month and a half and no plane tickets in sight – things are about to get really exciting. 🙂