The microwave beeped and the comforting bitter smell of tea wafted from the kitchen. I was sitting at the kitchen table holding a checklist that had “Pre-O Packing Check List” written in bold comic sans printing across the top. The page was still damp and flimsy from the printer, and the check mark boxes running down the margin of the page were empty.
On the warm tiled floor there were two plastic boxes, a Coleman two burner stove, four sleeping pads, two dented cook sets, and three sleeping bags. The boxes were big enough that they blocked the back door completely, and my dog was sitting outside watching me through the glass as I rummaged through musty gear. I grabbed a couple bandanas, my boots, my multi tool, and the other essentials and the check marks multiplied on my page as the plastic boxes emptied. The paper that had been pressed flush against the front of the box by all the items inside fell flat on the bottom and it read “Willa’s Camping Gear” in my mom’s neat almost-got-an-art-degree handwriting.
The pile I’d made in front of me was of the gear that had lived with me through thunderstorms on islands, hail in august, waist-deep mud, and early morning tea that steamed like the lake in the rising sun. The soles of my boots had begun peeling off two summers before and my ankle bones had made indents in the sides like punched-out ice skates. My favorite trail shirt never realized that it had gotten washed, and the ball cap I’d received as a gift from a family friend was browner than it was white. I loved that gear, and of course it came with me on my pre-orientation backpacking trip, but I didn’t have everything that I’d need.
When you think of backpacking, the one most obvious piece of gear is a backpack. I’d never taken one on a canoe trip before, so I didn’t have one of my own and I wasn’t sure how to go about getting one. I had been packing up equipment with my mom when she looked around and asked if I wanted to take one of ours. I hadn’t even realized we owned backpacks, let alone 70 liter packs. She went down to our basement, and behind the old firewood and the bins of random art supplies like her tiling tools, she pulled out two packs. One was a forest green, and the other was a royal blue one. The packs were made from a durable nylon material, and obviously well before I was born. The straps were made of some heavy foam covered in the same nylon fabric, and sewn together so that they could last through anything. There were no fancy hip pockets, or light weight frame material. There was no breathable mesh backing like you can find on many packs now, and the zippers were at least a half inch wide. My mom had used the pack when she went backpacking and white water kayaking and canoe tripping in her free time. It was older than I was, made to last through hell and beyond, and it was royal. The plain dark blue pack had lived through so many adventures that I had never heard about, and it held so many stories that I’d never even thought to ask my mom if she’d been on. It was a relic from a part of her life that my sister and I had never been a part of.
I’ve read more than a few articles about the best pack for extended trips, and how important it is to find the pack that works for you but I don’t think that’s true. Of course when it comes to gear you should find something that fits appropriately, but no matter what pack you get it’s going to hurt. Especially for backpacking–you’ll have bruises on your collar bones and your hips will chafe. Having a nice mesh webbing on your shoulders may feel good for the first couple of days, but you’ll end up in the same boat as every other backpacker by the end. Since the bells and whistles will wear out and break off, why not go simple to start? My mom’s pack is simple, durable, and rich with history. I would take that over any other option any day because I can add something tangible to it. The history of the royal blue pack keeps growing, and I hope it grows long after I stop going to the trails.