Via Francigena

The choice and preparation of the backpack

What to bring in your backpack? This is a problem that we face every time we prepare an excursion, but in the case of a long journey on foot it assumes a fundamental importance, and can make the difference between a wonderful experience and hell.

Those who face a long walking trip for the first time tend to put too much weight on their shoulders, without realizing that a heavy backpack greatly increases fatigue, and especially the stress on the back, joints and feet. Usually he realizes the problem after a few days of walking, sometimes when it’s too late to avoid the typical problems of excessive weight: back pain, inflammation of the joints, blisters on the feet.
A classic scene that we witness in the first stages of the Way of St. James is the shipment home of unnecessary items, or donation to other pilgrims who may need them. For this purpose, in each hostel there is a special space where pilgrims leave their shoes, sticks, sweaters, books and other heavy objects.
It is therefore necessary to devote maniacal care to the containment of the weight of the backpack, with the aim of staying well under 10 kg. The ideal solution is that the backpack does not exceed 10% of the pilgrim’s body weight, it seems incredible, but it is technically possible.

Reducing weight to a minimum
The goal can be achieved if:

  • you choose a backpack of excellent quality, lightweight, with a volume of 35-45 liters;
  • you avoid the use of cotton and natural fibers, and use technical synthetic clothing (even at low prices now you can find very light garments);
  • you choose a very light and compact sleeping bag;
  • you use a microfiber trekking towel;
  • carry only what is strictly necessary.

Moreover, it is necessary to keep in mind that along the Via Francigena one encounters inhabited centers at every stage, and therefore it is easy to shop during the trip.
It is necessary to evaluate the lightest solution for every single object that you want to bring with you, from the toothbrush to the guide on the route; for this purpose it is good to weigh every single object with a small digital kitchen scale, for example to compare two pairs of pants and choose the lightest one, or two underwear shirts, keeping in mind that the sum of small differences will make a big difference.
A lot of attention should be paid to accessories such as cameras or cell phones, which require chargers. Many cell phones allow you to take good photos so you should consider carrying only one multifunctional item. There are also super light chargers for cell phones on the market that can save you a lot of weight.
Shampoo, shower gel, detergents and cosmetics should be kept to a minimum: a small piece of Marseille soap can be used to wash yourself and your clothes, and the shampoo should be poured into a small container. What is left over will be used by pilgrims who arrive after us.
All this may seem like a sacrifice, but one of the most interesting aspects of the journey is the awareness of being able to live and travel with the few things you carry on your shoulders. A feeling of freedom without equal in the era of unbridled consumerism.

Wearing the backpack
Once you have lightened your backpack, you need to wear it correctly.
A backpack should not put too much weight on the shoulders, but especially on the pelvis. For this reason the “belt” should be as tight as possible, just above the hips. The shoulder straps should serve mainly to keep the backpack attached to the back and prevent it from moving: any unnecessary movement of the backpack consumes energy, and should therefore be avoided. For this purpose it is important to connect the two shoulder straps with the front elastic webbing.
The most sophisticated backpacks are equipped with adjustments to adapt to the height of the person, and to bring the upper part of the bag closer to the back, both very useful.
It is also important to fill the backpack correctly, in order to lower the center of gravity as much as possible: the heaviest objects must therefore be lower.
The backpack must be perfectly symmetrical: the shoulder straps must be adjusted in the same way, and above all it is necessary to avoid the typical mistake of loading a water bottle in one of the side pockets. The writer tried this on his last trip to Santiago, with the result of dislocating a shoulder blade during the first leg, and suffering severe pain the rest of the way.
The best solution for water is the use of a bag with a straw to insert inside the backpack, in a special pocket. The bag with a straw allows you to drink easily even while walking, improving hydration and decreasing the risk of tendonitis and heat stroke.
It is necessary to avoid hanging external loads that move, such as plastic bags, flasks, etc., again to avoid dissipating energy unnecessarily.

Be prepared for the possibility of encountering bad weather along the way, so protect your backpack with the appropriate waterproof cover and put all the contents in plastic bags, in case the rains are intense and continuous.
In addition to the upper opening, an opening in the middle of the backpack is very useful, allowing the division of the bag into two compartments.

The choice of the backpack is very important for the success of a walking trip. It is therefore good to devote time and attention, and an adequate budget. Today the market offers excellent t-shirts, pants or fleece at great prices, while a good backpack is usually quite expensive (usually around 100 Euro), but believe me: it’s money well spent!

Picture of Alberto Conte
Alberto Conte
Alberto Conte si occupa da più di 20 anni della divulgazione del viaggio lento, a piedi e in bicicletta, collaborando con alcuni tra i principali enti di promozione turistica italiani nella progettazione di itinerari e nella promozione dei territori. È presidente dell’Associazione Movimento Lento, e fondatore e direttore della società ItinerAria.