Two weeks ago I started researching backpacks that would be good for walking the Camino. I was going to wait until the end of the year to buy a backpack, or put one on my Christmas wish list, for I have been a very good girl this year. However, now that I have a date set for my first Camino in May 2016, I am anxious to do practice hikes to test the gear that I’ll take.
I love a good deal, so I checked out the REI Outlet website first and ordered four backpacks to be delivered to the Berkeley store. I figured I can try these packs out on-site and also get measured and fitted by the expert staff. The day I went to REI for pickup was also the day they had their members only used gear sale outside in the parking lot. What perfect timing! When I arrived around 8:40 am, there was already a long line, so I waited half-an-hour with other deal seekers.
REI Berkeley Used Gear Sale on August 8, 2015
When it was finally my turn to enter the sale, I was hoping that one of those pricey Osprey or Gregory brand backpacks I’ve been curious about would magically appear in the piles of backpacks I rummaged through. While I did see a few of these brands along with many more types of backpacks, I didn’t have a clue what size I really needed. I asked an REI attendant about sizes and he did a quick measurement from my hip to my shoulder. He said my torso was 15″ so that would be between an Extra Small or Small in women’s backpacks sizes. What?!? I was stunned. I am 5’5″ and XS has never been on a label in my wardrobe! He said when it comes to backpacks, it’s not about height, it’s about the length of the torso. He too was surprised when he learned that he should use a men’s Medium size backpack even though he is 6’3″. I thanked him and started my search for a S or XS backback on the tables. Slightly dismayed, and tired of looking through the piles, I moved inside the store, empty handed. At least I had a good caffeine buzz, thanks to Allegro Coffee Roasters and Whole Foods for their tent with free coffee and pastry for the early risers at the garage sale.
I picked up my order of backpacks at REI Customer Service, and headed over to the camping department. I found a guy nicknamed “Zoo” who took a more accurate measurement with a nifty Osprey tool. He noted that my torso is actually 16.5″ which is still considered XS or S. Zoo helped me try out these four backpacks I ordered from the outlet:
To mimic a fully loaded backpack, Zoo showed me how to stuff the packs with a pillow on the bottom and ten and five pound beanbag weights at the top. I stuffed and tried all four outlet packs, but the only pack that was small enough to fit my frame was the REI Stoke. I wasn’t crazy about the lack of shoulder strap padding, or the boring grey color. Luckily there was a great variety of backpacks in the Women’s 1-3 Day hike aisle.
Zoo went on a much deserved break and a young woman named Hunter came to show me other packs she thought I’d like. I was feeling grateful to have Zoo and Hunter (so Berkeley!) answer my questions and show me how to adjust everything. Although they hadn’t walked the Camino, they both were familiar with the trek and have helped fit many peregrinos for their backpacks.
Hunter recommended I try these backpacks:
- Osprey Kyte 46 Pack
- Osprey Sirrus 24 Pack
- Gregory J38 Pack
- Deuter ACT Trail 28 SL Pack
Unfortunately the Osprey Tempest 20 wasn’t available in the XS/S size. Out of the four I tried, the most comfortable was the Deuter. I remember seeing this brand on the many Germans traveling in Sicily when I was there in May with my husband. I wasn’t swayed by the cute yellow flower adorning the Deuter, and Hunter was a little concerned about the shoulder straps rubbing my arms as I walked. I continued my search until something caught my eye at the end of the aisle.
She’s a real beauty in Tahoe blue and even comes with a rain cover, which I’m sure will come in handy in Galicia. Hunter wasn’t familiar with this model as it is new (there aren’t even reviews yet on REI.com), but I checked it out and really liked everything about it. Most of the backpacks I tried had a top drawstring opening for the main compartment. The REI Traverse has a zipper that allows it to be opened up from the side and top, allowing for a big wide opening. I think this will be easier for me to see inside instead of digging down into a pack from the top and having to take things out to get to stuff at the bottom. I found the Small size, stuffed it with a pillow and 15 pounds and tried it on. After I made all the adjustments that Hunter showed me, this backpack fit me the best of all. I felt like Goldilocks finding the perfect chair! I walked around the store with the pack fully loaded to get a feel for it.
Hunter remind me about the REI return policy and said that I have up to a year to try equipment out and they’ll take it back and offer a full refund if I’m not satisfied. After seeing the items in the garage sale, some gently worn, and some with stains and holes, I felt confident that I have nothing to lose with buying a backpack from REI. I returned the four outlet backpacks in exchange for the REI Traverse and came out ahead with a credit.
Thanks to Zoo and Hunter at REI Berkeley, for guiding me on my quest for a Camino backpack. I look forward to testing it on the trails.
UPDATE: See Gear Reviews for a follow up of these and other Camino backpacks.