Why I Never Travel Without My Bum Bag

Shannon Whitney

Recognizing that lumbar packs go by a variety of names around the world, not all of which are PC across cultures, we’ve decided to go with “bum bag” to describe the small waist bags that are carried low around the hips, in order to keep the international giggling to a minimum.

When I showed up at the airport to meet my friend for a trip to Austin, she took one look at me and said, “That’s not a bum bag you’re carrying is it?”

Oh yes, it was.

The NorthFace Roo is one of my most trusted travel companions. I know what you’re thinking when you hear bum bag. In my defense, I don’t wear it around my hips, I usually buckle it over one shoulder. Try to erase the mental image of your mom at Disney World and think of it as a cool, outdoorsy purse. By the way, the proper term is a lumbar pack.

Weirdly enough these technical bum bags were popular as purses at my, all girls, Catholic high school circa 2003-2007. I never had one then because, admittedly, I found them embarrassing.

During college I went on a medical and dental mission trip to El Salvador. I took pictures all day and blogged about our experiences at night. I spent the week ducking in and out of exam tents, on the floor playing patty-cake, and standing on chairs trying to get the perfect shot.

I researched bags to carry my two small cameras, notepads, and other essentials but I kept stumbling across the Roo. I called my best friend, Emily, from high school, and, sure enough, she still had hers. After wearing it on that trip, I was in love. I bought my own and it’s kept me company on almost every trip since.


There are a couple of brands that make similar products: Jansport’s Ashland WaistpackHigh Sierra Classic 2 Series Envoy Lumbar Pack and Outdoor Products’ Element Waist Pack, and all weigh in at less than $50!

The Roo, which is my favorite and the one I own, is made of polyester with a soft foam back panel (which is the part that touches your body when you wear it). The waist strap is adjustable so it can be worn tightly around your waist or more loosely over one shoulder, which I prefer.

When it is empty, it flattens nicely and can be packed backpack or duffel. According to the NorthFace website, it weighs just 7 ounces.

Purse vs. Backpack

There are companies that make dedicated travel purses, such as Eagle Creek, Travelon and PacSafe. Most of them are cross-body bags that look a little bulky to me. I prefer the minimalist look of the Roo and its long shape as opposed to a deeper square. Also I find the bum bag more versatile and gender neutral; my boyfriend has carried mine here and there.

I polled my friends and discovered that most of them travel with their favorite purse or the bag they typically use, day-to-day, at home. Most of them preferred cross-body bags, the bigger the better. My purse holds the basics, but not my camera or snacks. Large tote bags wear on my shoulders during a long day of walking.

I’ve also found that the more room I have in my bag, the more things I seem to “need” to carry. By limiting the available space, I can be honest with myself about what’s essential. The Roo is the perfect compromise between a purse and a tote.

Many travelers (especially guys who don’t love the idea of a purse) already use a small backpack for this day-to-day stuff.  By wearing my Roo on my back for hiking or long walks, I keep both hands are free, and honestly, I forget about it like a backpack.

One feature that sets the Roo apart from a backpack is how it sits when I wear it over one shoulder.

When I need to get in and out of it often, I slide it under my arm or wear it in front of me. This gives me quick, close access to my camera or money. It’s smoother than taking off both backpack straps, setting the bag on the floor to open it and dig around to find something. I can swing it around and rest the Roo on a counter or my lap when sitting.

Shifting it under my arm makes me feel safer in a crowd than a purse dangling below my hip or a backpack that brushes against other people.

This also comes in handy when you have a backpack on your back, the Roo can slide to your side or in front of you comfortably. It snaps on and off for easy access when you’re juggling another bag.

Managing Space

My Roo Fanny Pack in Joshua Tree Park
If you need a laptop, or a full change of clothes, you’ll probably need a daypack. The Roo won’t hold that much, but is surprisingly spacious at 7” x 11”x 4.3”

During my trip to El Salvador, I packed my cameras, notebook, wallet, hand sanitizer, extra bug spray, some toys to give away, sunglasses, and other daily essentials in my Roo. On other trips, I’ve shoved in a cardigan and a paperback book.

There are two major pockets:

The smaller, one in front is great for chapstick, sunscreen, hairpins and sanitizing wipes; all of which can always be found in my pack, no matter the destination.

The larger rear pocket has a divider along the back. It fits the bigger items: a wallet, a camera (probably not a DSLR unless you’re lens is pretty basic and you don’t have too much else in there) maps, phones, sunglasses, a hat, a poncho, or a small water bottle. The possibilities are endless.

I’m waiting for the perfect opportunity to pack a toothbrush, my contacts and a pair of undewear for an overnight challenge.

my roo unpacked

My Roo unpacked: journal, poncho, camera, Germ-X wipes, bug repellent wipes, pens, chapstick, keys, sunglasses and wallet.

Always Ready

When I’m at home, I don’t use the Roo too often. Sometimes I’ll carry it to an outdoor concert, or Six Flags, because it has room for all the little extras and I don’t want to haul around a big purse. The way it sits on my back or side makes it easy to walk and I forget that I’m lugging around extra stuff.

When full, it’s not uncomfortable to wear all day long. I can switch shoulders as I need to and I will admit that there was one time that I did wear it around my waist when my shoulders were sunburnt. That’s not my favorite look, but I was glad to have the option that most purses and backpacks don’t offer.

After I return from a trip, I wipe my Roo off with a damp rag, clean out any receipts or tickets I’ve stashed in there and store it in my suitcase, where it’s ready for my next adventure.

What do you use for day-to-day needs when traveling? 


Bum bags, excuse me, lumbar packs are surprisingly cool travel companions. They hold just the right amount of stuff and offer easy access to what you’re carrying for the day.

Image: citizencope (Flickr)