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Should You Use Travel Daypacks?
Small backpacks (usually) leave your hands free and discourage thieves

Travel daypacks can be your saviors 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.

I'm of two minds about them.

On the one hand, I like having my hands free to take pictures, look for my money, nibble on a croissant.

On the other, I've broken my own cardinal rule and carried valuables in my daypack - and paid the price (more on this below).

But they are definitely useful. Think 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 has its own drawbacks.

I occasionally use a daypack, especially if I'm hiking or have bulky items or jackets and the like to stash during the day. Otherwise I use a large-ish handbag with great security features - I've fallen in love with my Pacsafe Citysafe 200 Gii (so much so that I recently ordered a second one, for work rather than travel). But back to daypacks.

Benefits of using a travel daypack

A daypack is 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 a heavy one around all day. Your back will hurt, and you'll constantly be aware of the elephant you seem to be carrying.

So a daypack it is.

Not only does it leave your hands free, but it keeps your stuff relatively safe from theft. Thieves will find it harder to get that daypack off your back (or your front, if you prefer to carry it there) than to grab your handbag (unless you wear it with the strap across your chest).

So here are the features you'd find in an ideal daypack...

  • light as a feather
  • big enough to carry everything you need with a bit spare but small enough to fit in your luggage as you travel
  • secure from theft
  • quick-dry
  • color safe, with no cheap dyes
  • waterproof and dustproof is nice to have, especially if you're carrying anything electronic and don't want your stuff to be ruined by a tropical shower or dust or sandstorm (otherwise you'll need a poncho or cover for your daypack)
  • attractive, and depending on your taste, stylish, pretty, fashionable, technical, tactical - but not too expensive looking so you become a target in the street (and you can always stick a patch over the designer label)
  • appropriate: subdued rather than garish, and in a color that stays clean - black gets dusty, light colors can get dirty so stick to colors like khaki or dark beiges
  • comfortable to wear especially in hot climates
  • visible at night, with reflective stripes - you can always sew some on yourself 
  • padded inside if you're carrying anything delicate
  • well made to stand up to a tough life because you'll use it every day - check the zippers and how the straps are attached to the pack because this is where things often fall apart
  • easy to access and easy to organize, with pockets everywhere you need them
  • practical with extra external straps for spare sandals, a wet towel or a big souvenir (or at least have a place to hang a carabiner)
  • large enough to carry a water bottle

A few tips about travel daypacks

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.

You should NOT be carrying important papers or credit cards in a day pack (they should be stashed safely in your travel money belt or leg or neck wallet).

I was walking in Beijing when I was passed by a group of young Russian-speaking men. Didn't give it a second thought until I got to the pastry shop and tried to pull out some money from my pack: it sat open, still on my back, with no money, no passport, no anything. I'm not sure what I was thinking when carrying valuables in my daypack - I never do that, and I never will do that again. I never felt a thing!

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 favorite travel accessories is a large travel backpack with a daypack attached. For years 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.

Need some recommendations for travel daypacks?

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.

The new nylon Outlander Daypack is light and small and you can fold it right into a compact little pouch. Great to carry your water, books, maps, sweater or scarf... I think this is the one for me!

If security is your main concern the Pacsafe Metrosafe 350 Gii is a good bet, as are all Pacsafe products (I've been a longtime fan of the entire range). A little larger than I'd like for the day, but once you put it on you can forget about it because no one will be able to sneak in. 

If you must have a hip bag, Pacsafe's Venturesafe 100 is a good choice, especially when it comes to safety.

And finally, for those professional photographers out there who need everything at your fingertips, here's the queen of bags (our photographer, Anne Sterck has one of these so it's her 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, you'll need some hefty help.

And don't forget to use a measuring tape so you can actually picture the size - a photograph can be deceiving.

One last question: back or front?

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 probably would have noticed that gang in Beijing - but unless you're very flat-chested, it's quite uncomfortable.

It's also a sign that you have something of value.

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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