A Walk Down Backpack Memory Lane

5 min read

Christine hiking the Superstitions
Photography by Blisters & Bliss

My mom, fine purveyor of keen parental humor, once teased that when I became a Famous Outdoor Writer (a designation I’m still waiting for, by the way), I needed to remember that it was she who bought my first backpack.

She did, of course – not that I remember it all that well. I’m sure, however, that it was a standard-issue mid-‘80s model, probably comprised of at least two primary colors, and almost definitely completely flammable. I sported a rainbow of the same throughout elementary, middle, and high school, then in college graduated to a more mature hunter green color with a chic beige suede bottom – the sartorial symbol of a very serious learner, obviously. I still have this pack today for some strange reason, and its threadbare remains live deep within the recesses of my closet only to be resurrected when I need maximum packing options come moving time.

Schoolyard nostalgia aside, I spent many years lugging some variety of crappy canvas packs along on day hikes in at least three states. These always did the trick, even if my shoulders hunched with pain at the end of every excursion. It was a ridiculously long while until I considered the merits of switching from a garden variety Jansport to something a bit more technical. That pivotal moment came right about the time I moved to California and realized that there were mountains and deserts and other amazing places to explore, and that my ratty Chuck Taylors and cheap totes were not going to survive the rough granite and grabby cacti I encountered in this new and magical land.

My pack sprouted pit stains and sap spots, splotches of history etched across its surprisingly durable surface.

My first real, live day hiking backpack was a small, grayish Camelbak-brand bag. It came with a hydration reservoir (another wide-eyed discovery – Wait, I can transport water directly to my mouth from a pouch hovering gently against my back?!) and the promise of adventure. I learned about the Ten Essentials and shoved them all inside, then topped it off with mounds of trail mix and cartons of Swedish Fish, happily slurping away on teleported agua as I explored the Santa Monica Mountains, the Angeles National Forest, and more far-flung locales like Yosemite and Death Valley National Parks.

I was drunk with delight at this new addition to my life. My pack sprouted pit stains and sap spots, splotches of history etched across its surprisingly durable surface. We only parted ways when I decided to upgrade (I’m so sorry, my dear Camelbak) to a fancier Osprey version with an integrated rain cover and a more substantial interior. I doubled the size of both my water reservoir and my Swedish Fish stash, and carted my bright green buddy all the way to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, where I never once used the integrated rain cover, even though I was told that I would probably drown while standing up if my pack didn’t sport one.

My day hiking collection has grown exponentially over the past few years, a sure sign that I’ve descended into full-blown gear nerdery. The grubby Camelbak was donated to a friend who’s since inscribed her own layers of dirt and memory, and the Osprey has been all but abandoned for a sleek baby blue Gregory that doesn’t make me look quite so much like an upright turtle. I also have not one, but two “summit packs,” those lightweight, underconstructed (and kind of overpriced) varieties that claw into your shoulders and hold nothing more than some water, a medium-sized bag of Swedish Fish (how rude!), and perhaps some emergency supplies, as long as your emergency is of the extremely low-key variety.

Sure, it smells a bit like a 24 Hour Fitness locker room and the entire bottom has been gnawed away over the years only to be covered with a tapestry of scavenged materials, duct tape, and dental floss, but I can’t bear to part with this icon of my mountainous coming-of-age.

Newly armed with this knowledge, it will probably not surprise you that I currently own four overnight packs. An embarrassment of riches, for sure, but I totally, definitely, absolutely need all of them. There’s my old school REI Co-Op Flash 65, the pack that traveled with me up Mt. Whitney and along nearly 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Sure, it smells a bit like a 24 Hour Fitness locker room and the entire bottom has been gnawed away over the years only to be covered with a tapestry of scavenged materials, duct tape, and dental floss, but I can’t bear to part with this icon of my mountainous coming-of-age. As I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s quite difficult to use a backpack that doesn’t really have a solid bottom panel, so I procured a more recent model REI Co-Op Flash 52 to continue the legacy.

But wait – that’s only two packs…what about the other half of my hoistable horde? Well, there’s a bright purple Thule pack that is meant for backpacking, but is actually only used for climbing trips. It doesn’t matter that my climbing gear really doesn’t fit inside in any sort of logical or meaningful fashion – it only matters that this pack has not felt the rigors of the trail and more importantly, does not smell of B.O. like a certain pair of grey packs I know and have excessively loved.

And the fourth? Well, I was recently given a brand new Granite Gear Crown2 to cart along the Colorado Trail as I participate in the brand’s new Grounds Keepers program, hauling out whatever trash I find (please let it be very small, not gross, and exceedingly lightweight) in a bid to inspire stewardship within my fellow trail users. We’re still in the early stages of this relationship as we work through a variety of quirks in preparation for traveling together along approximately 485 miles in the Rocky Mountains, but so far, so good.

And with that, my backpack quiver grows by one more, a testament to my love of the outdoors, my desire for adventure, and the irrefutable fact that if one piece of gear is good, nine pieces of gear are much, much better.


Do you have a backpack that you just can’t part with it? Let us know in the comments below!

Shawnté Salabert is a curiosity seeker with a taste for wild spaces. Her work has appeared in Backpacker, Outside Online, Adventure Journal, Modern Hiker, REI Co-op Journal, Land+People, Verticulture, and other fine outlets. Her book Hiking The Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California will be released via Mountaineers Books in Fall 2017.

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