Homer's Travels: Camino 2013 Gear Lessons Learned: Backpack

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Camino 2013 Gear Lessons Learned: Backpack

When walking the Camino and hiking in the back country you will need a place for your stuff.  That place is a backpack for most people (on the Camino I have witnessed pilgrim suitcases).

Statue of pilgrim with suitcase in Astorga, Spain.
On my Caminos I used two different packs made by GoLite.  The first was a Litespeed.  It is no longer sold by GoLite as far as I can tell.  It was a 35+ liter pack and served me very well on my first Camino.  The only failure was the belt buckle.  Over time one of the two prongs warped enough that it would not engage properly.  The pack was about the right size for a Camino and lightweight.  It was fairly waterproof which was a plus - while in the rain, both with and without a pack cover, the inside of the bag stayed nice and dry.  The zipper opening at the top was large giving you good access to everything in the bag.  There was a small top pocket (the brain or lid of the pack) for small items you need to access often.  A deep pocket on the back of the pack was convenient for food and stuffing clothes into as you heated up and started to shed layers.

On my second Camino I switched to a GoLite Jam 35L.  It was slightly smaller than my Litespeed and quite a bit lighter.  Despite the smaller size I easily got all my gear in the bag. The reduced weight was achieved by replacing the zipper closure of the litespeed with a cinched/roll top bag.   The cinch closure did away with the pocket in the top.  They also replaced the large open pocket on the back with a smaller zippered pocket.

Both packs had side pockets for water bottles and small items.  The Jam had slightly deeper side pockets.  Both packs had a hydration bladder sleeve inside the main bag.

At first I was happy with the smaller, lighter pack.  I'd read a lot of reviews that were generally positive.  There had been one negative one that I chose to ignore since it was all by itself.  The reviewer said that when the pack was full, it did not ride well.  This was the review I should have listened to.  When I packed all my gear in the Jam it was full.  The gear weight, 17-18 lbs (7.7 - 8.2 kgs) was well below the maximum recommended carry weight of 30 lbs (14 kg).  Several times during my Camino I had to stop and repack my Jam moving things around since the pack was not riding correctly.  I never had to repack my Litespeed.  This was made worse with the single adjustment on the arm straps vs the two adjustment points on the Litespeed.  (Note: If you have a pack that doesn't feel quite right, go to your local outfitter and ask them to help you adjust your backpack.  I didn't do that and it might have helped if I did.)

The roll top opening of the Jam also made it hard to get into.  The Litespeed's big opening made it easy.  To be fair, though, many packs use the same cinched/roll top opening.  The zippered opening of the Litespeed is not as common.

The final downside I encountered was the water resistance of the Jam or, more correctly, the lack of water resistance.  I walked with my Litespeed in the rain and ended those wet days with a dry interior.  Even with a pack rain cover on, the Jam often was damp inside.  Fortunately, I was prepared for the eventuality.

Both Caminos I used a 35 liter dry sack (also known as a dry bag) inside of my packs.  Things I wanted to be kept dry such as clothes and electronics were kept in the dry sack.  Less water sensitive stuff could be kept outside.  Some items were also put in Ziplock baggies for triple protection.  This saved me on my second Camino by keeping my clothes dry even when the Jam failed the water resistance test.

One thing to consider with a dry sack.  They keep the water out but they also keep the water in.  There were a few times I think I put some slightly damp clothes in the dry sack.  The result was condensation settling in the bottom of the dry sack.  I had to empty my dry sack and turn it inside out to dry it out at least once near the end of my second Camino.  Next time I will be sure everything I put in the dry sack is thoroughly dry.

I took a single dry sack.  Another option is to carry several smaller dry sacks.  This allows you to sort your clothes into separate bags making it easier to find what you're looking for.  I have to admit there were times it took me a while to search through my 35 l bag looking for that one sock or whatever.  Having separate bags would have worked better.  The only downside would be some additional weight.  My one bag weighed 69 g (2.4 oz).  With, say, four or five smaller bags that would probably double at least.  It doesn't sound like much but ... you have to remember that you'll be carrying it hundreds of miles.

One other option is a pack liner which is similar to having a large dry sack like I carried.  Some people use large plastic bags or trash compactor bags as pack liners.  This would definitely be cheaper.

My next pack, the one I'll need for the Appalachian Trail, will be a bit larger and will have to be well thought out.  When you pack your backpack, heavier things should be placed on your upper back and as close to your back as possible.  This is why the heaviest thing you will probably carry, water, is often carried in an hydration bladder stored in a sleave that runs along the back of the pack between your shoulder blades.  Lighter items like clothes and sleeping bag would be packed in the bottom of the pack and around the heavier items.  Some packs are more versatile in that you can access the stuff in the bottom of the pack from a lower opening so, for example, you can remove your sleeping bag without pulling out everything in your pack.  There are lots of options to consider.

There is one rule that I've heard several times and I heard again last week at a Backpack Organization 101 workshop held at my local Backwoods store: The backpack should be your last purchase.  What gear you are carrying and the amount of gear determines the size of pack you will need so the pack should be purchased once you've bought all your other gear.  For this reason I haven't picked out my next pack and I probably won't buy it for a while.  I am leaning away from GoLite.  There are other manufacturers like Gossamer Gear, Granite Gear, and Osprey that I will have to explore over the next year or two.


  1. A Backpack that needs to be fiddled when you're trying to move forward is an annoyance! I really like this review!

    1. Autumn: Thanks! I agree, I have trouble fiddling and walking at the same time.