Backpacks and the Co-op: Choosing a Pack for the First Time

Am I appropriately intimidated? Has my life even started yet? What’s hidden in that hipster’s beard?


These were the questions on the tip of my tongue the first time I walked into Mountain Equipment Co-op on the corner of the always-bustling King and Spadina intersection to purchase my first backpack. My first real backpack, that is, discounting all those knapsacks I rarely hauled around during my school years. The excitement of new endeavors is, at least partially, to do with all of the funky new toys, tools, and lexicons you’re now able to collect and employ. You’ve elected to join a new club and establishing yourself and your confidence of self within that club is one of those evolutionary, revolutionary transitions in life that we don’t take enough advantage of. That is when we learn, when we grow, and when we progress toward satisfaction in living – and that’s really what this whole thing is all about. So it was that I stepped into MEC and took yet another step forward.

It’s a little hard not to be intimidated when you step into the cavernous outlet for outdoor gear and outside living, one of the premier special-interest brands in Canada. Kayaks, bicycles, skis, doo-dads, and everything you know you don’t need but maybe you just have to have it. Just in case, right? And then there’s that enormous staircase leading to even more who-knows-what on a second floor and though it’s all so organized and sectioned appropriately, you already feel a little lost and decide you’ll just have to look through it all.

MEC Interior


Make no mistake, I did just that, but I headed for the backpack section first because I mean business. My first thoughts about entering the aisles seemingly upon aisles of backpacks? And I thought the store proper was intimidating…

Hi, I’m looking for a backpack. “Great, what kind of backpack are you looking for?” My silence prodded the next questions about what I plan to do with said backpack, where I plan to take it, and whether or not I would ever climb into a canoe. Well, it’s not on the radar but should the occasion arise… There was clearly a lot more to this backpack thing than I previously considered, and I thought I’d done a good job on my research. Between day packs, travel packs, expedition packs, multi-days, overnights, and alpines, it’s a little difficult to know where to start so we ambled toward the obvious: travel packs. Most of these have a clam shell style which allows for ease of packing and a cover that conceals straps and essentially brings the pack into suitcase-mode for transport. They had a few models, none that peaked my interest, and my expert-on-hand immediately directed me over to where the majority of backpacks hung – “…but if you decide to take that canoe trip, one of these would be a better bet.” Versatility is the name of the game.

Through my research I’d tentatively committed to a 40L size. Maybe a 45L because what if I don’t have enough space, but I think a 50L is too big for my hobbitty frame to carry, and I hear you pack for the room you have so could I get away with an ultra-light 35L – no way, that’s not enough room, etc, etc, for eternity. My MEC team member grabbed a bag off the wall and told me it was a very popular pack that has served many people well, including a close friend of hers who had recently backpacked her way through Australia – exactly the thing I am endeavoring to do! As she weighted the bag to its near-maximum capacity for me to try on, she gave me tips from her own experiences abroad and all of that intimidation and uncertainty melted away. I’m part of the club now, or so it seemed on Saturday morning.


The pack she grabbed was the MEC Aria 40, a day pack (who needs 40L for a day pack?) built specifically to fit a woman. It is, in short, everything I thought I wanted in a pack. The size fits my stature, I can carry it onto a plane, the construct feels sturdy, and it has the right amount of pockets. More importantly than all of that, and most importantly of all, it felt right. She showed me how to adjust all the straps to a perfect fit (don’t forget the shoulders!) so that 100% of the weight is held on the hips and I took it for a stroll. It felt good. I liked it. I felt sold.

But I’ve never slung a long-term travel pack across my shoulders, and I’m smarter than the average bear, so I elected to try on a few more for a frame of reference. To be honest, I was concerned about the $99 price tag that sat next to bags costing three times that much. I’m a thrifty person but I’m not cheap, so I wanted to know what those bigger ticket bags felt like. I also tried on the Gregory Sage 45 and the Deuter Guide 40+, both pushing $200 pricetags, but the Deuter felt like it swayed on my back and the Gregory just didn’t charm me despite the fact that my expert said that few other packs in the store were so beloved by the staff. I hummed and hawed and mused that I still liked the Aria, and was told in no uncertain terms that I was making a good decision.

Why do I agree? Because I don’t know what the hell a backpack is. I don’t know what I want nor what I need. If the material is good and if the support is sufficient. I don’t know how much space is enough or how many pockets are necessary. I don’t know if this pack will suit my travel style because I don’t have a travel style. Not yet, anyway. When I do realize all of these things in time, fingers crossed that the pack I chose is the perfect one. But on the chance that it isn’t, I can upgrade with the peace of mind knowing that I only dropped a hundred bucks.

Onward and upward. Here we go, carrying on. One step at a time, right?


4 responses to “Backpacks and the Co-op: Choosing a Pack for the First Time

  1. Thats the MEC in Calgary! Ha. Cool. I live in the Bow Valley. Thats where I bought my backpack just before taking off last year. Heres some tips I give on searching for a bag.


    • Great tips, thanks for the link! I’ve yet to put mine into practice, but I’m confident that my choice was a good one.

      Can’t go wrong with MEC, that’s for sure. The one here in Toronto is amazing so I’m glad to hear the Calgary one is so great too.


  2. That shop looks immense!! We have nothing like that at all in the UK. Not on that scale at least! It is a hard choice choosing your first major pack though. There are all the practical considerations to think about, size? Weight? Does it fit? What’s that pocket for? But for me the one overiding factor is does it feel right, is this MY pack? “There are many like it, but this one is MINE!”

    Fantastic post, really enjoyed reading it. 🙂


  3. You definitely hit the nail on the head – there’s a lot of questions to be asked, but the number one is all about feeling right. I was really impressed with how MEC stressed that point when I was shopping. Their values, and their commitment to the planet, is awesome like that. And you’re right – it’s immense! You’ll have to swing by when you’re in Toronto (or Calgary!).

    Thanks for stopping by. 🙂


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