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How to Choose and Buy the Right Travel Backpack (2018 Edition)

Picking the right backpack is an important part of any trip. Too big and you’ll have too much extra weight to carry around. Or you might not get your bag on an airplane! Too small and you’ll never fit all your stuff in the thing!. Pick the wrong material and your stuff will be soaked in the rain.

There are so many options out there that it can be very confusing to pick the right backpack.

There’s actually a science to knowing what the perfect backpack for traveling is! I spent hours picking out my first pack. In the story but was also after hours of online research. That research paid off: my backpack has lasted me 8 years. In fact, the only reason I bought a new backpack was because an airline lost mine!

There are many backpacks in the world and even more places where you can purchase one. I’ve tried, seen, and experienced backpacks over the years. I know what works. So in order to save you hours upon hours of research, I’m going to lay out all the good qualities a backpack should have, so when you find one that matches these criteria, you can simply purchase it knowing it’s amazing and going to last forever.

The Eternal Question: Suitcase or backpack?

I hate suitcases. Despise them. Your luggage is going to get thrown about and piled high on buses in random countries. It will get used and abused, and it’s simply hard to walk up hills and stairs with your suitcase bump-bump-bumping everywhere. Suitcases are a pain in the butt.

Suitcases are great for weekends away or if you’ll be staying in one place for a long time. But if you are moving around a lot, it is far better to have a backpack. Backpacks are simply more versatile. They’re easy to carry up flights of stairs and pack into tight places, and overall, they just make life simpler. I don’t need to pick them up when getting on the escalator. I can just walk on. Simple. Easy.

Even if you are only going on a two-week trip, I still suggest ditching that oversized, heavy suitcase. Backpacks just make more sense, which is why this page is devoted to them and not suitcases.

If you have back problems and can’t use a backpack, a smaller suitcase with wheels and a long handle can be a good substitute. It will still be difficult carrying it up and down stairs, and annoying as you roll it across uneven sidewalks, but there are many companies (those listed at the end of this section) that make fairly good and lightweight travel cases.

Additionally, you can get a hard backpack with wheels that’s sort of a hybrid. That works too but my personal preference is for a backpack so we’re going to talk about that!

What to look for in a good backpack

Here’s a video of me dissecting a backpack and going over what I look for and what you need in pack that will last you a lifetime!

Don’t want to watch the video? No problem! Here’s a summary of it:

The best backpacks — the ones that last the longest — have all the following characteristics that make them durable, long-lasting, and will protect your stuff from the rain:

  • Water-resistant material – While your pack does not need to be 100% waterproof (that is unless you are going on some long multi-day hike), make sure your bag is made out of a semi-waterproof material so everything doesn’t get wet in a drizzle (many packs come with tarps you can put over them in case of a severe downpour). Moreover, make sure the material won’t stay wet long and thereby get musty. I look for material that is thick but lightweight. Treated nylon fiber is really good. You should be able to pour a cup of water over it without the insides getting wet. I’m not traveling a lot during torrential downpours or monsoons, but I have been caught in small rainstorms before, and because my backpack is made out of a good material, I’ve never opened my bag to find wet clothes.
  • Lockable zippers – Make sure each compartment has two zippers so you can lock them together. While am not really worried about people breaking into my bag and stealing my dirty clothes in a hostel, I like locking up my bag when I am traveling. I’m always paranoid that someone is going to put something in my bag or that a grabby baggage handler in an airport is going to take my stuff.

    When purchasing locks, make sure the package says they are TSA-friendly locks — these locks have a special release valve that allows the TSA to open the lock without breaking it so they can check your bag. You can purchase TSA locks at any large retail store, such as Target or Walmart.

    If your pack doesn’t have two zippers, you can always get Pacsafe (www.pacsafe.com), which wraps a lockable metal mesh around your whole bag and can be tied to a large object. It means that not only is no one breaking into your stuff, no one is walking away with it either. Pacsafe is a good form of protection for your bag, especially if you are going to be somewhere where your bag will be unattended for a long time. One thing to remember about Pacsafe is that this metal mesh also adds a lot of weight to your bag and it can be burdensome to carry around. Most people I know who use Pacsafe are photographers who carry a lot of expensive equipment around.

  • Multiple compartments – A good bag must to have multiple compartments. This way, you can break up your belongings into smaller sections so it’s easier to access and find the stuff you need. For example, my clothes are in the main compartment of my bag, my umbrella and flips-flops in the top, and my shoes in the separated side compartment (that way they don’t get everything dirty). It saves having to dig around your bag.
  • Internal frame – The majority of backpacks today are internal-frame packs, meaning the support rods and frame are built into the backpack and hidden from view. However, there some are still external-frame backpacks, where the rods are separate from the actual pack and stick out (think of those backpacks you see in old hiking movies or movies about people backpacking Europe in the 1970s — a big, clunky metal frame). Don’t get one of those. Make sure you buy a backpack with an internal frame. It not only looks better but the rods won’t get caught on anything and your bag will also be slimmer, making moving around easier. Additionally, internal-frame packs tend to be lighter as the frame is composed of a carbon fiber or tough plastic, which makes them easier on your back as well as more durable.
  • Padded hip belt – Most of the weight you will be carrying around will be pushing down on your hips, so you’ll want a padded belt to make supporting the weight more comfortable. The belt will help provide support and distribute the load more evenly on your back, causing less strain. The hip belt should also be adjustable so you can tighten it for extra support.
  • Padded shoulder straps – These make carrying your load more comfortable, as the weight of your pack will also be pushing downward on your shoulders. The pads will put less pressure on your shoulders and also help take pressure off your lower back. Make sure the padding is very thick and made up of a single piece of material as it will be less likely to split and thin out.
  • Contoured/padded back – A lumbar-shaped pack makes carrying it more comfortable, as it helps distributes weight more evenly — the same principle applies as is used in contoured chairs. It allows for a more natural arch ensure no back pain. Moreover, this type of pack creates a small space between your back and the bag, allowing air to move through and help keep you slightly cool (lugging your bag around can build up a sweat!).
  • Front loading – A front loading backpack is one that allows you to zip open the face from the side and access all your stuff. A top loading bag only allows you to access your stuff from a hole in the top. This makes getting your stuff (especially if it is at the bottom of your bag) really difficult. Always get a backpack that it “front loading” so you have easy access to all your gear.

Does size matter?

One of my most frequently asked questions about backpacks is about size. Everyone wants to know what the perfect size is. No one backpack size is better than another. What matters is that your backpack should be proportional to your body — that might mean a backpack that is 40 liters or 60 liters. If your backpack is too big or too small, the weight won’t be balanced properly and will cause back pain or maybe even make you topple over. You don’t want a skyscraper rising up from your back, but you also don’t want a pack that is clearly too small and overflowing with your stuff.

You want a backpack that is big enough to hold just a bit more than the stuff you are bringing and not more than that. If a backpack fits everything you want, has a bit of extra room, and feels comfortable, then you have found the perfect backpack size. Manufacturers also have suggested torso and waist sizes for each model they produce, but I’ve found that the best way to know if a backpack feels right is to simply try it on.

When you are at the store (and any good camping/outdoors store will do this), they should be able to stuff your backpack with the equivalent of 30 pounds (15 kilograms) so you can see how that much weight feels on your back.

It’s important to remember that the bigger your backpack is, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to carry it on the airplane. Additionally, since you can no longer bring liquids in containers larger than three ounces on airplanes if your bag has soap and liquids in it, you’ll be forced to check the bag. Most baggage sizes are 45 linear inches (22 x 14 x 9 in) or 115 centimeters (56 x 36 x 23 cm) including handles and wheels so if you get a backpack with those dimensions, you’ll be able to carry on.

You won’t face any baggage fees from the major airlines for checking your bag when flying internationally. Budget airlines, on the other hand, charge a fee for checking a bag based on weight, so the more your bag weighs, the more you will have to pay to check it at the gate. Even though my bag fits in the overhead bin, I often have to check it when flying a budget airline.

How much should you spend on a backpack?

Backpack prices depend a lot on size, fabric, and brand. Most backpacks cost between $99–300 USD. The medium-sized store brands generally cost around $199 USD. Store brands are cheaper than big-name brands like North Face, Osprey, and Gregory.

I don’t believe that any backpack is worth $300 USD, no matter how nice it is. These expensive backpacks tend be large and have more bells and whistles, special padding, and material than you really need as a traveler. Anything in the $100–200 range will be perfect.

Additionally, you’ll find that most travel backpacks are hiking backpacks, meant for camping and multi-day treks in the woods. Buying a backpack that was meant to be used in the Rockies instead of the streets of New Zealand doesn’t matter, though — backpacks are pretty interchangeable these days, and getting a backpack meant for the outdoors simply means you’ll have a stronger and more durable pack.

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