THE BLOG
07/31/2013 05:57 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Lessons Learned Dating Online: Beware of the Backpack

He was a top 10 match for me on Plenty of Fish so I took a peek. Masters Degree, good looking, two beautiful children, a job in NYC, and lived close by. We had common interests and both wanted a committed relationship. We chatted on the site then took it to text. When we talked on the phone he invited me to a very nice restaurant for dinner. Wow! Could online dating really work in just a few days for this divorced single mom? Eureka!

When I arrived at the restaurant he had already secured a booth and his first impression did not disappoint. But then... as I sat down across from him... wait for it... I noticed a bright red camping backpack the size of my youngest daughter on the seat next to him... he had brought a camping backpack on a date. What was in the backpack? Was he living out of the backpack? Is his lunch date in there? Am I next?

I had been warned of the crazy I would encounter in world of online dating. But I had not been warned that someone might bring camping equipment on a date. I rode the wave of that dinner silently laughing at myself. Clearly my filter needed fine tuning. I sat with the experience and realized there were several key pieces to dating online that would help me navigate the process.

Do not get attached too soon: He might have a backpack.
You see a profile, he likes all the same things you do and wants to build an amazing life with an amazing woman "just like me!" Oh my gosh have you found him? Record scratch moment... back it up sister. Cancel the appointment with preacher. You haven't even met him yet. Do not get attached to a fake reality you create in your head because you want to find love. You need to meet him first, end of story. Could it work out, sure, but a backpack could walk in the door and you will be crushed. I've heard many stories of people putting significant time in on text and talking on the phone getting their hopes up only to be really disappointed when a first meeting takes place.

Stick with coffee, sharing an entire meal with a backpack can be too much
A friend of mine (who met his girlfriend online) gave me some great advice after hearing of my backpack encounter: It is best to meet up for coffee, minimal time commitment. Once you determine the area is clear of any backpacks, you can always add another cup of coffee or a few muffins. If you are meeting at night, just start with drinks at a bar, it can turn into dinner but only if you want it to. (Table for two - good. Table for three because the backpack needs a seat, abort mission).

You have to have a really great sense of humor when you spot the backpack
As I described in a previous post , just my initial foray into the world of online dating was gut busting hysterical. The insane messages continued past that first night, men with ridiculous profile pictures (dude, ditch the Lederhosen), young guys begging me to turn Cougar, and a voluptuous woman hoping I would switch teams. Then you go out on a date and the crazy gets kicked up a notch. Several times over you may find yourself having dinner with different types of backpacks. I learned to laugh and move forward.

Be very clear about the backpacks
When I started online I had my list of desirable traits for a mate: matched values, wanting to build a life, has kids, in shape, committed to health, and whole and complete. I also had a few dealbreakers: no smoking, addictions, or uncontrolled anxiety. As I started meeting different types of people I found more clarity. Already divorced became important as lots of men out there are going through the process and already online. No matter how happy they are, I didn't want to build a relationship on their path to freedom. I realized I wanted to find a guy who has a very large presence in his children's lives. Some dads have custody only one day a week and that didn't sit well with me. Oh, and its fine if a guy likes the great outdoors and owns a camping backpack... in fact, highly desirable. But the backpack should not be part of his daily ensemble. I learned to be crystal clear with potential suitors right from the start, no need to waste anyone's time.

It takes time to weed out the backpacks
Searching through profiles and answering messages on the site was time consuming. Texting and talking on the phone were both difficult to fit into my schedule as a busy single working mom. Finding time to actually go on dates was hard even when my children were not with me. Many online daters compare the process to a hobby or even a part-time job. To do it right you need to put in the time. A note of caution, relax into the process and give it time as your schedule allows. Also, while you need to be safe and stay true to the list of what you want, don't try to find backpacks that aren't there, you will make yourself crazy.

Lastly, and the best and most surprising lesson of all, there are a lot of really really nice guys out there online. I met some wonderful men and had many very nice dates. And I am absolutely shocked to report that you actually can meet someone online. While the details are not for public consumption, my profle has been deleted. Turns out if you are careful, clear and enjoy the process well, there are "a few good men" out there for sure. The trick my friends is enjoying the ride of online dating until you find a person who has a backpack that matches with yours.