The empty bladder: why hydration packs make great travel companions

I’ve never been into purses. Even at home, I find them loathsomely girly, and they completely jack up my bad back. When I began zipping all over the globe as a food and travel writer, a day pack was the only thing that made sense for my carry-on/on-the-road essentials (my clothes and other gear go in my beloved Dana Designs Bomb Pack).

While I travel pretty light, there are things I require be within close proximity to my body: passport, copies of passport and medical insurance, emergency contact info., cash, credit and ATM cards (always carry a back-up for when, say, the machine in Portugal decides to eat yours), camera, flash drive, water bottle, water purification tablets or filtration system (I’ve finally learned my lesson on why these are non-negotiable), pocketknife (don’t forget to check it before you fly), notepad, hand sanitizer, tampons (Ladies, do not trust foreign countries to have ’em), Kleenex-aka-TP, Imodium and ibuprofen, sunblock, sunglasses, snacks, language guide, reading material, itinerary, sarong for freezing bus and plane rides. These are the items I am utterly screwed without; should everything else get stolen, life will suck, but I’ll be fine.

Due to my somewhat misanthropic tendencies, I choose never to rely upon the hotel safe or front desk for stowage of my valuables.That, my friends, is why I consider my daypack to be an extension of my body when I travel. I remove it to shower, and to sleep (I’ve also kept it hooked upon my arm while sleeping, when I end up in some shit-hole with a malfunctioning door lock). My day pack goes out drinking with me; it goes dancing, fords rivers, rides horses, and climbs mountains.

It’s a bit of a pain (literally and figuratively) at times, but at least I know I’m in charge of my travel essentials. And yes, I look like a total dork, trudging from destination to destination with my big pack on my back, and my daypack worn across my chest, marsupial-style. But it’s convenient, and it doesn’t throw me off-balance the way a messenger bag or purse would.

I don’t do money belts or fanny packs. I find them too small to be of use, inconvenient, and uncomfortable in hot weather. They scream “tourist.” You’re not fooling those gypsy kids in the piazza — they know you’re packing under your Ex Officio shirt. If I’m in a sketchy area or crowded place like a market, I’ll wear my daypack across my chest, because it’s less likely to be vandalized or cut off my body. Sometimes, I’ll also use travel locks on the zippers (which is why having double zips on your pack’s stowage compartments is key). You’re probably thinking, “Paranoid, much?” but put it this way: I’ve never had a theft, and I’d much rather look lame than spend a few days stranded somewhere, waiting for the Embassy to process my new passport.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a wide variety of brands and sizes, and I’ve learned that hydration packs, like those made by Camelbak, Burton, DaKine, and Osprey’s new Hydraulics line (coming to a store near you this week), make great travel companions. I always remove the bladder, and leave it at home. The zippered bladder compartment makes the ultimate passport/plane ticket/itinerary holder. It’s flush against your back, so it’s theft-proof while you’re wearing it. Documents are also more likely to stay dry in this padded compartment, when you’re inevitably caught in a downpour or if fording that river doesn’t go as planned.

Everyone has different needs, and I’m not loyal to any particular brand because by the time one of my packs bites the dust, there’s something better on the market (don’t forget to check the company’s warranty policy before you purchase). Because I’m petite- 5’2″, and 100 lbs., I’ve come to rely upon women’s lines to give me the right fit. It really does make a difference, and your body will thank you. I could wear a kid’s pack, but they just don’t offer the tech-details and bells and whistles of adult versions. They also tend to be made in obnoxious colors. Come to think of it, it would be nice if all those great-fitting women’s packs weren’t always pastel or adorned with foofy graphics.

I also require elasticized side pockets, a hip belt and sternum strap for serious day-treks, deep stowage pockets with zips, an interior key chain for keeping hotel keys handy, and a reinforced bottom layer that can withstand dragging, maximum weight load, and pointy objects. Top-loading packs, and designs with zips that splay the pack in two are just begging to be pick-pocketed. Also, if your zipper breaks, you’re SOL. I’ll say it again: Look for multi-zip compartments that don’t go all the way down on either side.

Purchase a couple of mid-weight carabiners to clip onto your pack’s front loop (make sure it has one, or the equivalent). They’re invaluable for toting items like travel mugs, wet bathing suits, a pair of shoes (knot the laces together), or small grocery sacks.

Now, go forth and travel. Hold your bladder until you get home.

Before you go, be sure to check out Gadling’s Travel Talk TV! This week, the guys are in VEGAS!