One issue I have been stuck on for years is whether or not to wear a backpack when traveling. I almost loathe them and worry that they make me look like a tourist, but dang if they aren’t practical, especially with children. Are there any countries where this is OK? And if not, is there another solution? — Brittany, Red Lodge, Mont.
Recently, another reader wrote to ask whether sneakers were tourist giveaways, the way baseball caps once were. This is clearly a sensitive topic, and it has me thinking about why we are so nervous about being identified as a “tourist” in the first place.
There’s an insecurity about the term that has to do with the old stereotype of the “ugly American,” a phrase coined in 1958 by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick in a novel about United States policy in Southeast Asia. Over the years the term has come to stand for the idea of Americans as loud, pushy and culturally insensitive. Even beyond that cliché, I think the anxiety about being exposed as a tourist has to do with a more general fear of not belonging that is rooted in … well, middle school.
Some neuroses we never outgrow; we just learn how to manage them. One of the ways we manage this is by trying to look as if we fit in, no matter that in this case, there’s nothing wrong with being a visitor.
Indeed, it’s a good thing to appreciate another culture and to be curious enough to want to experience it for yourself. It’s also good for that culture’s economy — some places depend on tourism for survival — assuming you are respectful of the mores and values of the site you are visiting.
Which brings me to the backpack. Like the aforementioned sneakers and baseball caps, backpacks are one of those practical accessories with specific historical associations — school, hiking — that has been co-opted by the fashion world.
It was way back in 1984 that Prada burst onto the scene with its nylon backpack, the Vela, starting a trend that has never entirely abated. Backpacks got tiny (hello, “Clueless”) and then they got urban (hello, hybrid workplaces), and now, given that the ’90s are back, they are having a renaissance. It’s hard to think of a major fashion or leather goods company that doesn’t offer a version of the backpack.
All of which is to say: It’s not the backpack in general that will make you stand out in a particular setting. It’s the kind of backpack and how you wear it.
Don an Osprey, REI or Patagonia number, hang a water bottle off the side, stuff it full and wear it as it is meant to be worn on the trail, with the hip and chest straps buckled, and you will stick out like a neon sign on a city street — pretty much anywhere in the world. (You will also be forced to check your bag almost everywhere you go, and security guards in museums will follow you around in horror lest you unwittingly whack the art when you turn.)
Instead, go for a more tailored, urban style (see Everlane as an example) with fewer pockets and a slimmer silhouette, and you will access the benefits of a backpack — even weight distribution across the shoulders and carrying capacity — without looking like a camping cartoon. Just remember to eschew the mini backpack, one of those inexplicable fads, as well as the temptation to hang the backpack off one shoulder, and you won’t look like a fashion victim either.