Choosing a travel backpack is one of the most important parts of trip planning. This will probably be the first travel purchases you make and since you will get to know your pack very intimately, you want to make sure you pick the right one.
This is my good friend who recently went backpacking around Central and South America for 6 months. Look how excited he looks for his first trip, except he hasn’t had to lug all that gear around a town for an extended amount of time yet. Don’t make the mistake of the longer the trip, the bigger the pack and more stuff you bring. In fact, I have met several round the world travelers, on the road for 6 months or longer, and they have smaller packs than I do! This is because they know the secret: the more you are on the road and move around, the less important all of that weight and the essentials in that pack become. Think of your health people!
Size – How big is too big?
I recommend a pack 60-65L. I wouldn’t go any bigger than 70L max. The most seasoned travelers that are used to the minimalist lifestyle can get by with a 30 or 40L pack. NOTE ABOUT SIZE: usually if it says 60L, then that includes the daypack, so a main pack is really only about 45-50L. So if you plan on getting a pack without a daypack included, stay in the 50L range.
60L is too small you say? Here are some downsides to a large pack:
- You can’t carry it on to planes. The last thing you want is for your luggage to get lost when you first arrive in a foreign country and will be on the move. Trust me, it happens more than you think, and mine was lost when I checked mine coming home from Europe and I did not get it back for three days.
- It may be too big for some hostel lockers.
- Bigger bag means more stuff, most of which you won’t even end up using, and more weight, which gets old when trekking from bus stops to your hostel.
- A smaller pack is more convenient. You don’t stick out as much when walking around, it is easier to lug up on train racks and in some cases you can take it on the buses with you without having to stow it underneath, which is safer. And if you have ever ridden on a crowded subway with your pack on, you realize how much the locals will despise you if yours takes up a ton of space.
- A smaller pack can save you money. They are usually cheaper and if you carry on you don’t have to pay that checked baggage fee. More importantly, wouldn’t you rather buy a pack that you can use over and over than figure out when you are over there it is too big and have to buy a new one for your next trip? I guarantee you won’t come back thinking, “man i wish I had a bigger pack.”
Top loading vs. Panel Loading (Side Loading)
Panel Loading Top Loading
A top loading bag has an opening from the top and no zipper access. They expand upwards but not outwards and are designed for campers, so that gear like a tent can stick out the top.
Panel loading bags are more square in design, much like a much larger school backpack and zip open like one allowing easy access to all inside compartments. They tend to have more compartments and are designed for travel backpackers.
So which should you get? You will see this debated in travel forums all over the internet. When you are planning on travel backpacking and staying in hostels, I always recommend a panel loading bag. This is mainly because of the ease of access. With one zip, you can get to all the contents in your bag with minimal effort. It is also a courtesy to your hostel roommates that when you are looking for something in the middle of the night or trying to pack your bag to catch a 5AM train, you don’t have to dump the entire bag out to get to one item, or rummage through it making a lot of noise. You do not want to leave a bad last impression on your new friends. This is not to say I haven’t seen people in Europe with top loading and it won’t be the end of the world if you get one. I just think panel loading is the way to go.
Some key specifications that the most ideal panel loading backpackers have are:
- Lockable zippers. These are zippers that have extra metal loops on them that you can run a lock through to secure your belongings when they are left behind at the hostel. Some backpacks will have cloth zipper tags, which even if locked, can be easily snipped to get the lock off.
- Well padded hip and shoulder straps. The padding will add comfort for long trips when you have your backpack on and prevent back injuries. Hip straps are also essential because it takes some of the support from your back and distributes it to your hips, which can handle it better.
- Strong internal metal frame. An internal frame allows the pack to rest against your back, but with the comfort of a cloth covering. The frame is important because it distributes the weight better instead of at a few pressure points such as where your straps are. An external frame is reserved for hiking backpackers.
- Several compartments. More compartments (at least 4) make it easier to find things, and to separate items that may be dirty or wet from the rest of your pack.
- Water resistant. For when you get caught in the rain.
- Detachable daypack. Daypacks are around 10 -20L and can be strapped to the main bag, or you can carry it on your front or around town with you like a normal backpack. I find these convenient because they are smaller than a normal school backpack and usually more durable. This is optional though, because some people would rather bring their own little backpack.
To Wheel or Not to Wheel
I am not a fan of wheels on backpacks. I mean it’s called backpacking for a reason. And when on dirt roads in rural cities, or cobblestone streets of Europe, wheeling a bag around can really slow you down. It’s easy to maneuver around with the pack on your back. So no to wheels is my final answer.
Does Color Matter?
My backpack is black and gray, but that’s just because I happen to like black and be a simple person. But I have met people traveling with backpacks of every color in the rainbow before and even my travel partner in Europe had a green backpack. So color doesn’t really matter. I mean, you are already lugging a giant bag around on your back, so it’s not like the color of the bag is what is going to give you away as a tourist. I say go for it. Bag companies wouldn’t make different colors if people didn’t buy them.
Where to Buy
I am a fan of shopping online, but that is because you can look around and get the best price, and sometimes certain stores will offer free shipping. But it is recommended to try the bag on first, so if you can, go look at it in stores first. A lot of people say to try it on with weights in it to make sure it is comfortable. You can also do this in your home if you order it online enough in advance so if you have any problems with it, you can send it back and order a new one before your trip. Popular websites that offer panel loading backpacks are:
It is worth noting that the pricing for travel backpacks doesn’t vary from website to website, but I would check around before purchasing because some may be having sales or offer free shipping.
Here are some backpacks that have good reviews and that are great for a trip abroad:
50L from REI
50L from REI
Other brands worth noting that usually have a few quality side loading backpacks, but just not when I updated this: North Face, High Sierra, Gregory (all top loading, but some have top and side loading options).
Updated: August 2012