Travel daypacks can be your saviours if you need to carry reading material - not just your guidebook but something to while away the time in a cafe, a book perhaps, or newspapers from home.
You might have a bit of electronic equipment, a mini-laptop or an iPad in search of a WIFI connection to call home. Spare shoes or sandals. Medicine and creams. Tampons. Hairbrush. Sunscreen. You get the picture.
In any case you'll have to carry something - because you're not going to lug your backpack or suitcase around, and carrying a handbag or purse just isn't safe.
They're essential if you plan to do a lot of walking. Not even the lightest and best women's backpack will cut it if you have to lug one around all day. Your back will hurt, and you'll constantly be aware of the elephant you seem to be carrying.
Traveling means needing free hands: to look at maps and guidebooks, to munch on square pizza slices in Florence or a baguette in Lyon, to jot down notes in your journal or to take a few photographs.
You also want your things to be safe and unfortunately in many places theft is rampant. Don't think that holding your handbag tightly or wearing something across your chest will keep it safe: a motorcycle drive-by can hurt you badly and a thief with a knife can easily cut through your purse strap. Getting something off your back (or your front, if you prefer to carry it there) will be much harder.
What features should good travel daypacks have? Plenty! The ideal daypack should be...
Carry around a 'sacrificial purse' (hand over or throw down, and run!) with a small amount of money and out of date bank cards in case you're forced into an unpleasant situation.
Steer clear of the fashionable one-strap bags: if the strap breaks you have NO straps left, and these bags don't spread the weight evenly across your back.
There are some alternatives to travel daypacks, such as small backpacks, or a combination hip bag with a photographer's vest, or a fanny pack (fine if you're slim but if you're a little more 'comfortable' in circumference as I am this is not how you want to carry your stuff!)
One of my favorites is a large backpack with a daypack attached. I used a Gregory front-loading backpack (it's so old I can't even find the model!) with a detachable daypack, which was a godsend: extra packing space during travel, and just unzip to use it as a daypack.
I shudder at the number of travel daypacks I have sitting on my shelves. Some I've loved, some less so, some I haven't even tried. I've also asked friends as they travel so what follows are a mixture of their recommendations, my own thoughts, and a bit of research to make sure I give you the proper specs (I've also included Amazon links in case you want to buy any of these or read what reviewers have to say). Just remember, everything will be a compromise between security, comfort, style, size and weight.
First is the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Daypack known for being incredibly light (3.2oz/90g), small and waterproof. It doesn't have any frills or padding but if it's weight you're worried about, this is it. A small-sized option (1.8lb/815g) is the tough but tiny Maxpedition Rollypoly Backpack which folds into a little pack you can fit into a large pocket but expands into something large enough for most day uses.
If security is your main concern some of the Pacsafe daypacks are worth a look (I've just ordered one based on strong personal recommendations so we'll see). Go have a look at the Venture Safe 20L and the Daysafe 100, both of which are tough with plenty of security features and useful pockets. If you must have a hip bag, Pacsafe's Stashsafe 200 or the smaller Venturesafe 100 have similar features.
And finally, for those professional photographers out there who need everything at your fingertips, here's the queen of bags (I have one of these so it's a personal opinion): the Think Tank Photo Street Walker Hard Drive. It's not the lightest thing but if you're lugging around your SSLR, a laptop, lenses and a tripod, its a godsend (and you can also get a Digital Holster that attaches to your belt, with a bottom expandable pocket to keep your camera and zoom lens handy.)
And don't forget to use a measuring tape so you can actually picture the size - a photograph can be deceiving.
North Americans often carry their daypacks on their chest, while most Europeans do not. This is really a personal matter. Wearing one on the chest might deter thieves - I once had a passport stolen out of a daypack I wore on my back (I know, I know - but that's how you learn). But unless you're very flat-chested, it's quite uncomfortable. I would rather keep it on my back but choose a daypack that fits snugly, with small straps in the front to keep in in place, and that's hard to cut.
And please, please don't put it on the back of your chair when you're sitting somewhere public! Wrap the straps around your chair leg or your own leg. What a waste of all those efforts to get the right pack only to have it snatched while you're sipping an espresso...
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