The Things We've Carried, or Why We Thank Our Backpacks
Recent generations have more and more on their shoulders—literally. If you were in school anytime during or after the eighties, you know how close you’ve been to your backpack. As we grew up, our backpacks grew up with us, from colorful Lion King and Transformer models to North Face Whatsits to the laptop-friendly versions later on. They followed us to colleges and to the cities, and even when we find ourselves carrying way less than we did as students, we often still default to a backpack for its pedestrian appearance and ease of use.
At Code&Quill, we're not just interested in the what and how, but the why. In the same manner that there’s an idea, value, or philosophy behind fountain pens or grayscale colors, there's some unique baggage that our backpacks carry for us.
When you think about it, backpacks are unsung heroes. They’re a good example of the lighthouse effect: that sometimes the things most helpful to us are the ones that prevent problems, but therefore have no way of showing us what they prevented. Imagine you’re traveling, walking through Manhattan with thirty pounds of stuff on your back, when the bottom of your backpack gives out and the contents spill out onto the crowded sidewalk. That would be a nightmare—collecting everything back, seeing what’s broken, getting out of everyone’s way, and worst of all, trying to figure out how to carry everything around without a functioning backpack. If your backpack hasn’t done that, it has done its job—but we don’t often think to notice that.
To take another page from George Carlin’s book (NSFW), he once joked that houses are just “places to keep your stuff,” and that therefore, whenever you took a trip, your suitcase was acting as a smaller version of your house. The same is true for backpacks; especially when you live on the move or find yourself far away from home, what’s on your back is all you have. In a pedestrian sense, you are an engine with legs and arms for pistons, back and shoulders for chassis, and a driver up top—but the trunk is separate, and you’ve got options to choose from.
We will tell you which options we’ve chosen and why, but as always, this isn’t about particular products. It’s about choosing the right thing, for the right reasons, for yourself. Nor is it about the what and how of backpacks, about travel tips or “backpack hacks”—instead, it’s our ode to one of the most important unsung tools we have, to the places they’ve been with us, and to the reasons that we trust them more than we give them credit for.
What We’ve Chosen
For full disclosure, North Face backpacks have been good to us in the past, but the North Face products we've had seemed more appropriate for students. Since we have a rounder set of needs now, including international travel, we branched out and opened the floor to all makes. Our search criteria were roughly as follows: (A) $100 or less, (B) the right amount of space, and (C) ease of use/functional features.
Two of our favorite buys were the Kelty Redwing 32 and Herschel Supply’s Little America. To give you a quick rundown on each:
The Kelty Redwing 32 is one of the smaller siblings in a family of backpacks. The larger packs are the serious backpacks, the ones that make you feel like an astronaut carrying a space colony’s supplies on your back. The Redwing 32 is their average-sized counterpart, but it retains some of the design advantages of the bigger bags, such as the spacious main compartment which zippers open fully—a welcome change from the tight sandwich-like space that students’ backpacks tend to have.
Two pairs of symmetrical side pockets, a second front pocket, and a small pouch atop the bag round out the compartments. The bag is built with a lightweight frame so it always sits flat against your back, and it has two sets of front straps for lumbar support. One surprisingly useful feature is the heavy-duty set of loops and handle on the front—great for grabbing the bag quickly, securing any additional items, and even adding a little bit of color and personalization (choose a bandanna and loop it through).
The Herschel Supply Little America is a simpler choice, and different stylistically. If you check out Herschel's website, you can see it comes in a huge variety of finishes, and all of them have their flair (such as this black bag's peppermint-candy stripes on the inside lining). Unless otherwise specified, the body is the same type of durable synthetic you'd expect in a backpack, but the different lining material and the leather on the straps are excellent touches.
Functionally, the bag has only two sections: the broad main compartment and a medium-sized pocket at the front. They've dispensed with zippers for the main compartment, replacing them with a cinch string at the top (like a laundry bag) and then the buckling flap over top. The bag's design sounds brutally simple, and it is—but it's also extremely sensible, and it places fewer constraints on its users. It uses all of its space on the two pockets it knows you want, then trusts you to figure it out. It's always comfortable and it's got tons of space.
There and Back Again
As an extended example for how much use (and how many different uses) they can serve for us, let's take our backpacks around the world—to China and back.
To even leave the country, we had to meet in D.C. to fly out of Dulles. For some of us, that meant a two-day road trip, and so the backpacks started the journey as front-seat bags, holding everything for the next night's stay: clothes, toiletries, chargers, a water bottle, and some extra snack food.
Once at Dulles, the backpacks were in travel mode: no liquids of any kind, everything secured for the plane. The street clothes were swapped for a single extra T-shirt and sweatpants, plus extra entertainment and the work we intended to finish. Dulles to Beijing is a 16-hour flight—an entire waking day—and you spend that entire day with only what you can reach from that bag at your feet.
The moment we arrived in Beijing, the backpacks started becoming stuff sacks. Papers for Immigration? Stuff it. Extra layers because it's now too hot? Stuff it. Trinket you just bought? Stuff it. The fact that both bags have spacious compartments and wide top openings made this easier to manage.
The trip was part business and part pleasure, so on some days the backpacks were loaded with laptops and papers and notebooks and folders for our daily excursions. On the days for sightseeing, the bags were packed with camera and clothes and travel info, with room left over for the occasional knick-knack (like a knockoff Polo sweater or a small pewter dragon). Often, during daily excursions, it wasn't necessary for each person to have a backpack, so everyone's stuff would fit into one bag and we'd take turns carrying it. The traveling entourage had members with more than a foot's height difference, yet no one had any difficulty carrying the packs.
Most days were light; some were heavier. One day we went to climb the Great Wall. Except that we didn’t want to settle for the restored tourist version with stairs and ziplines, so we hired a driver for the day (literally just an off-duty cab driver and his cab) and started an ascent to the unrestored Great Wall from a village adjacent, about an hour outside of Beijing. It was a cold, clear day, so we packed the Kelty full with extra layers, water, packaged food, and personal effects—though, tellingly, no mountaineering equipment of any kind.
Once we arrived at the village, our cab driver decided that, instead of sitting and waiting in his cab, he’d be our guide up this mountain to the Wall, even though he admitted he’d never climbed it. We probably should have heeded the warning of the "landslides might happen" signs, but we’re the adventuring sort—and anywhere in the world, you can’t help but trust the navigational instincts of a big-city cab driver.
Then he led us the whole way up this slope, even insisting in Mandarin (when we out-of-shape Americans got winded halfway up the hike) that he take the backpack and carry it for us. So he strapped the Kelty to his own back, adjusting it slightly, and pranced ahead seemingly unburdened.
At a certain point the hike became a climb, and the problem with climbing ambitiously towards a once-in-a-lifetime destination like the “real” Great Wall is that, with all of your looking up, you don’t look down as frequently as a self-preserving animal should. At a certain point, when you do look down and realize how steep and long the fall would be, you start to be very thankful that your straps are adjusted and your shoelaces tied tightly.
We came within fifty feet of the Wall and hit a vertical face we couldn’t scale, so we had no choice but to descend—and as though he didn’t notice it there, the driver carried the Kelty all the way back down the mountain. (Even with a full backpack he had footwork you wouldn’t believe; the dude was a literal fairy.)
We did settle for the stairs-and-ziplines version afterwards—because we were halfway around the world and we weren’t going to skip it out of pride. This time, the driver waited with his car.
And yes, it was still totally worth it.
In exchange for the solitary and authentic experience of rediscovering something ancient—reaching the Wall by climbing the same hill its builders did—we had the modern experience of it. This isn’t always a bad thing; in fact, it offers a compromise unique to our time in history. Yes, we bought tickets; yes, the tourist section of the Wall was rebuilt in the eighties and yes, the second climb was easier because there were stairs. But walk far enough along the Wall’s slopes and you can still reach unrestored sections, where the only thing separating you from the eerie silence of crumbling history is a small wooden sign. The ticket represents commercialization, sure, but it also represents access to that. You could say the same about the stairs.
Then, along our walk atop the Wall to an unrestored section, we find an artifact which can only be newer:
Travelers from all around the world had stopped at this outpost's wall to write where they were from. It's a perfect analog for social media, however crude its form: people coming together in a common place to share something, to put their own small meaning among others. This spot was thousands of feet above the park's entrance; anyone reaching it was tired and, for the scenery, feeling smaller by the moment. To have something like this before you, and the winding length of the Great Wall tracing the mountains behind you, would be enough to humble anyone.
At this moment, we were simply thankful to be there together, and best of all, we didn't need anything more than what we had with us. On days like that, when our freedom and our good company were everything we wanted, possessions like our backpacks deserve a second look because they make experiences like that day possible. Without saying a word, our packs had our backs—they never slipped, they never strained, and most importantly, they made it easy for us to keep close what little we needed in the world.
By trip's end, every suitcase, backpack, and pocket was a chaotic mess—but by then it didn't matter. All it had to do was hold it together until we got home. We had a lot to write down once we got back—and you can guess exactly what we wrote it in.
Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we’ll have a seasonal retrospective on American penmanship and the Thanksgiving tradition. (Last week, we gave our aesthetic case for grayscale colors, so take a look here if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page.