Made for Adventure: the Field Bag

Robert Ryan discovers the long history behind - and Belstaff's modern incarnation of - the Field bag.

You will, of course, be familiar with Levison Wood, the telegenic face of modern adventure travel, who came to prominence as the first explorer to walk the length of the Nile. His latest migration has been to the bookshops and billboards of the UK, where he can be seen standing in front of the rugged Himalayas, the subject of his most recent perambulations in wild, unforgiving places. Look closely at the book cover and the poster for the TV series and you will see he has strung across his shoulder a field pack - that bit of kit essential for every explorer. It made me wonder - what does Levison keep in his pack?

'When I was walking the Himalayas, I used a rucksack as my main bag,' he told me, 'and a shoulder satchel for when I had pack animals and could afford to get by with just my camera and a few small grab items. That shoulder pack usually carried my Leica and lenses, a compass, my phone, maps, GPS, satellite phone, emergency money (concealed, of course), a lightweight windproof jacket from Belstaff, some warm kit, a head torch and my notepad.'

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Mekong Delta, near Tan Hung Dong - Rene Burri (1963)

Wood's field pack is a descendant of the lightweight bag of essentials that travellers have long used. In the early 1800s, most sailors had a bulky canvas kitbag for the voyage but also a 'ditty bag' - a small pouch that would contain a sewing kit, letters and mementos from home, money and, as often as not, a sharp knife.

The modern version is generally thought to have its origins in WWI, when the British army adopted the musette bag (named after a bagpipe-like instrument) for officers to carry indispensable items such as toothbrushes, personal papers and housewives (sewing kits). However, such a bag had already found favour with ramblers, climbers, anglers and hunters.

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The Field Bag shot by Paolo Pellegrin

In 1912, the US publication Field & Stream advised its readers: 'In camp and when cruising about the woods, there are certain essentials, and many other small articles of constant use, which one should always have handy. They aggregate about two pounds weight and if disposed about one's clothing will make these garments heavy and uncomfortable… The ditty bag has the inestimable advantage of being the place for everything small and losable - all you have to do is to go and ferret it out instead of having to do the same thing through 18 or 19 pockets.'

Following such sage advice, in the 1930s the US army introduced the M1936 field bag for mess gear, rations and other essentials. After WWII, these surplus bags were adopted by civilians - many as day packs for walking in the great outdoors - but also by photographers, who were increasingly having to carry a large variety of lenses, light meters and camera bodies.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Belstaff - with its heritage of producing clothing and accessories for extreme conditions - has teamed up with the legendary Magnum photo-agency to bring the field bag into the 21st century. Photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin, the winner of 10 World Press Photo awards, among many other prestigious accolades (you will have seen his work in Bosnia, Iraq, Uganda and in New Orleans, post-Katrina), has been travelling with the new Belstaff Colonial Canvas bag. This was actually co-designed with input from Magnum - whose photographers know a thing or two about venturing into harsh terrain - with the aim of updating the pack for the contemporary traveller/adventurer.

Pellegrin has photographed it and other Belstaff accessories in often inaccessible and inhospitable parts of the globe to produce a portfolio that places the stunning new line of Belstaff leather and canvas bags against some of the most beautifully rugged spots on earth. I'd like to think that, somewhere along the way, he might have bumped into Levison Wood. Perhaps they compared notes. 'What's in your field bag, then?'

Robert Ryan writes for The Times and The Sunday Times and is the author of several historical novels, including The Dead Can Wait, a tale about Dr John Watson set during WWI.

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