Review: From Heaven to Hell

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, February 1998

Review: From Heaven to Hell
Whether swamping through the jungle or easing into St. Moritz, here's the only baggage you need

By Robert Earle Howells


Back when I was attending travel-writing school — that is, wandering Europe with a train pass and precious little money — my only luggage was an external-frame backpack. Though it handily portaged my belongings, it didn't always represent me well. Standing in the rain one November night in industrial Torino, for example, I politely requested a room and was buzzed in. But when the pensione's matron sized me up, saddled with my campfire-singed pack and all its lashed-on clutter, the vacancy suddenly evaporated.

These days I pay closer attention to the image I project, but I still stand by the superiority of a bag that can be carried on the back. That's the beauty of the convertible travel pack, which is what I use now. For periods of transit you can ferry it with the efficiency of a backpack. Then, for propriety's sake, you can zip away the harness and proceed in suitcase mode, gripping it by handle or shoulder strap for a clean, welcome-at-the-Ritz look.

While a crude precursor of this style existed during my vagabond days, modern versions are of much higher quality. The new bags share the same basic format, but they vary in organizational features and in their ability to comfortably support a load. If you expect to use your duffel pack on a trek like the Annapurna Circuit, look for dense foam shoulder straps and a stalwart hipbelt that won't go mushy under weight. For suitcase carrying, the stiffer the handle the better. As for capacity, 5,000 cubic inches or so will manage technical or bulky gear, but I've traveled for weeks with just 4,000. I tested each of the following nine bags with an identical, 30-pound payload. Though they range from semiurbane to highly outdoorsy, I'd show up at a four-star joint with any of them — and, I'm quite certain, be welcomed in.

Eagle Creek Endless Journey LC

The Endless Journey LC ($285) will see your detachable daypack and raise it a lumbar pack. And beyond these two peripherals, it also has a flat front pocket, a bottom compartment with a zip-away divider shelf, and compression straps in the spacious main sack to keep your ruck from shifting. If you utilize all that capacity — 6,100 cubic inches total — the pack becomes pretty rotund and tends to pitch to stern, so be wary of any photo-ops at the lip of the Grand Canyon. Still, the aluminum stays and plastic-reinforced hipbelt certainly support the weight, and you can always balance the load by clipping the daypack to the shoulder straps over your chest — though it's inadvisable to affect this para-trooper look if you're trying to flag down a stranger to ask directions.

JanSport Fiji

The Fiji ($180) is the Lincoln Navigator of this bunch. Its amenities include side pockets, one interior mesh pouch, a two-tier bottom compartment (to separate your sleeping bag from a mucky pair of boots), a huge zip-off daypack (1,500 cubic inches), and monstrous total capacity (8,800 cubic inches). Unlike the Lincoln, however, if you load the Fiji to the brim with anything other than laundry, you're in for a less-than-comfortable ride. The suspension does deserve credit for its torso-length adjustability, but the straps and hipbelt are a bit too pillowy, and the thin back padding doesn't prevent poorly packed items from jabbing you. Still, if you keep your load under 25 pounds and your walks relatively short, the Fiji will keep you smartly organized.

Lowe Alpine Voyageur 55+10

The Voyageur (3,300 cubic inches, plus a 600-cubic-inch daypack; $199) doesn't even attempt grand style in its carry mode: When not a backpack, it's a simple duffel, albeit an ingenious one. A V-shaped front flap unzips to provide easy access to the interior and then buckles down to compress and stabilize the load. While the nylon-and-foam haul handle is flimsy, the padded shoulder strap is anatomically curved and plenty sturdy. The backpack harness is only slightly less substantial than those on Lowe's full-blown packs, and though it doesn't adjust for torso length, it does come in a women's size. A welcome bonus is an extra zipper that allows top-loading access to the backpack.

Madden Mountaineering Yankee Clipper

Superb construction aside, a few subtle design features distinguish the Yankee Clipper (5,500 cubic inches, plus an 800-cubic-inch daypack; $290). Its exterior compression straps run around the buckle-off daypack to keep it from jiggling, and because the whole thing is a smidgen taller and not quite as fat as the others tested here, it won't barrel you backward. Also, the suspension system uses thin but dense foam that in combination with two aluminum stays and a plastic framesheet carries a 30-pound load comfortably yet tucks away with little bulk. The harness isn't adjustable for torso length, but it does come in three sizes. The bag itself has a zip-away shelf that divides the main chamber, and though it doesn't have inside pockets, you can easily lash items to the external daisy chains.

Osprey Hejira

A marvel of clean design, the Hejira (3,400 cubic inches, plus an 800-cubic-inch daypack; $269) incorporates essential travel-pack features without the sometimes-busy look. Instead of an array of compression straps and buckles, the pack has foam-stiffened side panels that envelop the main compartment like a giant tortilla wrapping around its bulging contents. They batten down your load and prevent the sides from caving in while you're packing. They even snuggle around the daypack, preventing it from wobbling. In suitcase mode the suspension stashes behind a conventional nylon flap and the Hejira carries with one of two sturdy rubber grips.

Pangaëa Expatriate

The Expatriate ($199) lives up to its name, showing wisdom befitting a veteran traveler. It's logically configured, and the roomy, panel-loading main compartment is well appointed with interior compression straps and mesh panels. A front organizer pocket has five cubbyholes, and instead of a daypack — with the compromises inherent therein — the Expat has a lumbar pack that doubles as a shoulder bag. In all, the capacity comes to 6,200 cubic inches. The backpack straps and hipbelt are thoughtfully molded, aluminum stays and a framesheet provide support, and the harness adjusts to any torso length. Transform it into a suitcase and its sturdy rubber handle makes for a perfect grip.

Patagonia Porter

The Porter (4,000 cubic inches; $219) won't wow you with features, but it'll probably serve you the rest of your life. It's a simple, one-compartment bag with no detachable daypack, and it's made of 1,050-denier ballistic nylon — the stuff you'd want for toting your anvil collection. A horseshoe zipper peels back for unencumbered access to the main compartment. The lid incorporates two inner pockets, an interior compression panel also serves as a zippered pouch, and there's a top pocket that's just the right size for a toiletry kit. For short carries, the Porter's curved shoulder strap is the best I've ever used: Three segments of firm foam conform perfectly to the shoulder, and it's coated with a nonslip material.

The North Face Lhasa

There's no question about the backpacking pedigree of the Lhasa (3,200 cubic inches, plus a 1,200-cubic-inch daypack; $235). The suspension includes two aluminum stays and an adjustable shoulder yoke that'll hug most any torso. The sleeping-bag compartment disappears if you'd rather have a single large chamber, and the Lhasa has compression straps to secure the load. A zip-off daypack has a handy buckle-down external pocket, but it could use a sternum strap to prevent swaying. And while you can't quite conceal the Lhasa's backpack visage, considering how well it carries, you'll probably prefer to keep it on your shoulders anyway.

And to Fill All Those Pockets ...
If you have some extra room in your pack, here are a few travel items well worth their weight. Eagle Creek's Pack-It System is the Type A trick for keeping your hauler from resembling a laundry hamper: Stow T-shirts in the see-through Cordura-and-mesh Cube (14 by 10 by 3 inches; $12; 800-874-9925); socks and undertrou in the Half-Cube (10 by 7 by 3 inches; $10); and dressier shirts and chinos in the stiff Pack-It Folder (18 by 12 inches; $25), which delivers clothes as neat as the corner dry cleaner. Another organizational wonder is High Sierra's Master Bath Hanging Toiletry Kit. Plenty big for full-size cosmetics, it hangs from a secure buckled strap rather than the usual teetering hook, lessening the chance that it — and your toothbrush — will end up on the bathroom floor ($30; 800-323-9590). When you have to find that WC in the dark, try the Victorinox Traveler's Kit ($80; 800-442-2706). A pinkie-size flashlight rides shotgun to a knife with the usual Swiss Army utilities — blades, openers, scissors, screwdrivers, tweezers, etc. — in a leather case. If you're traveling with a partner, a truly nifty gizmo is Motorola's TalkAbout SLK ($170 apiece; 800-353-2729), the new downsized version of the company's renowned two-way radio. Each measures just 3.5 inches tall and weighs 4.5 ounces, including the rechargeable batteries. The TalkAbout uses 14 frequencies set aside by the FCC for civilians; it has an unobstructed range of up to two miles, and the signal can even transmit through buildings if the units are closer together. It's great for staying in touch at opposite ends of a sprawling bazaar, and its usefulness on the trail is obvious: "Hey, Bob, I'm at the fork. Which @#&!ing way did you go?"
Where To Find It
Eagle Creek, 800-874-9925; JanSport, 800-552-6776; Lowe Alpine, 303-465-0522; Madden Mountaineering, 303-442-5828; Osprey, 970-882-2221; Pangaëa, 800-423-4703; Patagonia, 800-638-6464; The North Face, 800-447-2333

Robert Earle Howells wrote "A Few Things Trick from the Bag of St. Nick" in the December issue.

Photographs by Rob Howard and Clay Ellis

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