Which backpack should you choose? The best backpack is the one you already have.
Look under the stairs first. Then try packing it with your pilgrim kit, and walking around to get the feel of it. But if dad’s old trusty simply hurts, it’s time to find a replacement.
Small is Beautiful
Rather than aiming for a big bag to fit everything in, take a small bag for exactly the opposite reason – to force yourself to take less! For pilgrimages of only a few days, or hours, you only need a small pack. Really. Don’t get over-excited. Less is more, but ultimately, less is less.
For a long time in modern Britain, it has been nigh impossible to acquire a good canvas backpack. Almost all modern packs are nylon – plastic – which is essentially manufactured from deep earth oil, not grown from a crop. You don’t get ethically sourced organic crude oil. It is all pumped out in the same unfortunate way, and that’s slightly awkward for pilgrimage, which (among other things) aims to make a better connection with the land you travel on. And there’s contradiction in doing this while sporting on your shoulders a carbon nightmare of a backpack.
The Americans offer some pretty great (natural and renewable) canvas backpacks. Duluth Packs and Frost River Packs are two classic US brands, which are both fantastically beautiful, with hobbit-like wilderness capacity. But importing them to the UK is fiendishly expensive, on top of already premium pricing (and it’s Brexitly gotten worse). Moreover, they are vastly heavy backpacks, which may feel wholesome and hearty, but they look better than they feel.
“Just because the burden’s empty, that don’t make it light” – Leonard Cohen
But something that truly looks the part is no vain trifle – it can be surprisingly encouraging on a wet winter’s afternoon to be stopped and complimented by an ancient withered veteran with a pipe and moustache from far beyond November, who professes his entire approval of your backpack. Though your shoulders might moan, your soul shall gently rejoice.
Another American classic we have NEVER tried – but would really like to – is the Rivendell Mountain Works ‘Jensen’ backpack. It seems like a typically audacious American experiment – making the pack from two vertical tubes which your spine nestles between – but may possibly be the best backpack design no-one yet knows about.
Overall – ethically, sensibly and economically – the best backpack is the one you already have available. Borrow one otherwise. But if you cannot find or borrow a backpack, and you have to buy one, aim for something made of the right materials – from recycled plastic or canvas.
Our top recommendation for ethical, high-quality, affordable and beautiful British pilgrimage backpacks are Millican – who make awesome bags from canvas and recycled polyester. These bags are waterproof and simple – but not too simple. They don’t discard good design for heritage discomfort. They are basic, but also work – really well. They’re our new favourite pilgrim backpack maker.
The one pictured here was a free gift we got for speaking at the DO Lectures recently, and it has shaken us free from our lingering big pack tendencies and challenged us to compress our pilgrimage kit-needs even smaller. Which is great. Thanks Millican. Looking through their website, we really like the one they call Fraser the Maverick 32L.
At 32 litres, this pack is ample for a pilgrimage of a few days. For longer journeys, where you are going further afield and relying on living off-grid more keenly, with the potential for continuous outdoor sleeping, especially in winter, you may want a bigger backpack.
Options for bigger in recycled polyester we cannot find. But in the conventional format, one of the best UK made options is the Special Forces favourite – the Karrimor Sabre 45 (with 2 x 15 L optional side-pockets, not pictured below). It’s incredibly solid, not too heavy, ultra-comfy, and can carry everything you need and all the rest too. But that is it’s main problem – the challenge with a bag like this is to limit yourself from filling it up, just because you can.
There are also ultralight backpacks, frame-less sacks made from ultra high-tech nylon called Dyneema, which is allegedly weight-for-weight stronger than steel. But these are simply less comfy. Although it is reassuring to feel that your empty backpack weighs almost nothing, the extra weight of a pack with a little more supportive structure translates into an experience that is not so harsh when you put things in it. Also – ultralight backpacks are often ultra-ugly, like futuristic Tesco bags. Not sure why, or if this even matters. But there it is. And they are also doing nothing good whatsoever for environmental issues. Which is rubbish.
The ultimate goal of British pilgrimage (in terms of packing) is to leave home and walk toward a holy/wholesome place with nothing but the clothes on your back, the trust in your heart and the song on your lips. But this is beyond most pilgrims (inc. us). So for everyone else, having a comfy way to carry your spare pants, your external battery pack, your waterproof jacket and your sleeping bag in the smallest possible well-made way, is a crucial step to getting out on the pilgrim path.
Backpacks to Possibly Buy (if you cannot beg, borrow or steal one)
The Eco One You Could Take to a Fashion Show (this may not be true)
Millican Maverick Fraser 32 – £125
Our verdict: British, recycled, funky, non-military, challengingly small, made of ‘bionic’ canvas and a really good green. Ace.
The Hardcore One They Take to War With (bang!)
Karrimor Sabre 45 (with optional external side pockets) – £85 (+£31 for side pockets)
Our verdict: Solid, heavy-ish, nylon, well-designed, comfortable and green.
The Heritage One You Could Give to Your Grandchildren (if they’re hefty)
Frost River Isle Royale Bushcraft Pack – $360 (+customs import fees!)
Our verdict: American, uber-solid, true heritage, harshly heavy and devastatingly expensive, but still somehow lovely.
The Ultralight One That Looks Ugly But is Unbelievably Strong (insert joke)
Nigor Zero-G – £170
Our verdict: Very strangely named, ugly as a tesco bag, but ultralight and probably great.