I began traveling long before I can remember. I must have been only a week old when I took my first trip to Antwerp, Belgium, where my extended family lives, and I have gone back to visit almost every other year since. In between these reunions, I’ve also managed to explore at least 14 other countries as well as a handful of states within the U.S. And it goes without saying that I’ve had to pack a suitcase for each of these trips. Well, except maybe the first few.
In nearly 30 years of traveling, it’s safe to say that I’ve probably tried every variation of suitcase on the market: small and large duffel bags with and without wheels, hard-frame carry-ons, full-sized hard-frames, luggage backpacks, and travel backpacks… you name it, chances are I’ve tested it. Through it all there has been an undeniable evolution of my preferences when it comes to what kind of luggage suits my needs.
Of course, what suitcase I choose usually depends on the type of trip I’m taking. If it’s just for a long weekend, then I still reach for my beloved carry-on duffel. Though anything longer sends me straight for my travel backpack. After trying many other variations, I’ve come to prefer backpacks for a few reasons. The most important being convenience. You can usually get all your things into one place and still have free hands. They’re much easier to haul around than duffels or even wheely suitcases, which is important if you’re taking public transport.
Still, sorting out which backpack is right for you is a challenge all its own. I myself have been through a few experiments before finding what I now refer to as my stuff-soulmate. Luckily, unlike some adventures, you don’t have to go at this one alone. I’m here to lend my experience and expertise to help you sort through the mud and muck so that you can find the right pack for you and be on your merry way. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
In the coming pages, we’ll explore why you should get a pack, and what types work best for what, as well as the best steps to choosing your own. Eventually I’ll even throw in some personal recommendations for good measure. By the end, you’ll know everything you need to know about choosing the best travel backpack for you, and you’ll be ready to hit the road. Alright, let’s get started!
A Guide to Choosing the Best Travel Backpack
Why Get a Backpack for Travel?
I see your question and raise yet another: Why not? Seriously. We use backpacks for plenty of other things, like to hold our school supplies for approximately 20 years or to take our laptops to work or even when we need to carry food and water up and down a mountain. Why, suddenly, when we need to carry more things a little farther than usual, should we turn our backs (pun intended) on such an obviously useful tool? The truth is that travel backpacks are ideal for so many reasons.
I’ve already mentioned the first: convenience. Take an imaginary walk with me. We’ve just gotten off a plane in a new city, and we’re not exactly sure where our hostel is or how we’re going to get there from the airport. We’ve looked at some options (bus, taxi, horse-drawn carriage) but we didn’t book anything. We pick up our bags, me with my backpack and you with your wheely, and decide to take the bus. But we find out we have to walk a half mile to the stop across cobbled streets. We’re starved so we also grab a sammie on the way out.
Here we are, approaching the bus… Well, actually, I’m approaching the bus, sammie in hand, pack on, digging for my change with my spare hand. Meanwhile you’ve stopped, because with one hand on your food and your other on your suitcase, you couldn’t possibly gather change (and I’m obviously not nice enough to pay for you—we’re not that close). Boom. Convenience.
The second reason to get a backpack for travel is storage. These things come in all shapes and sizes (more on that later) and most of them with more ingenious pockets than you can possibly imagine needing. Not only do you need them – literally all of them – but you will soon realize how much you love them. Some travel backpacks come with pockets that are more subtle, making them better places to store things you don’t want to misplace or be within reach of the general public (read: money and/or identification).
Speaking of keeping things safe, backpacks in general are less likely to be swiped than other types of luggage, considering you wear it snuggly on your person. It’s much harder for pickpockets to grab a pack strapped to both of your shoulders than it is for one to grab one out your hand or loosely draped over your shoulder.
And after safety we have: health! The weight distribution of bags is not something we often think about but it turns out long hauls with heavy weight can be really hard on your body. Throwing a strap over just one shoulder can cause overuse of that muscle, and wearing a backpack evens out the distribution of weight across your body. More evenly shared weight means less back pain or muscle tension, which, let’s be honest, you’ll get enough of from the flight alone!
Now that you know why you should get one, let’s talk about which type is right for you in the next phase of our travel backpack review!
Types of Travel Backpacks
Sometimes it seems like there are as many types of backpacks as there are people to carry them. And, well, you probably wouldn’t be wrong if you thought that was true. But the truth is there are really only four main types of backpacks, and the rest are all variations on the same models. When I went on my first trip around Europe, I made the mistake of getting the wrong type of backpack. Now I want to help make sure you don’t make the same mistake!
Lets cover some basics when choosing the best travel backpack
The four main types of backpacks suitable for travel look like this:
Now, that’s a list we can wrap our heads around. Once you decide which type you need, then you can get into the details, like size and features. But we’ll take it one step at a time, so as not to overwhelm ourselves. Because this, like your trip, should be fun! If you get this right, you’ll have your backpack for years to come. A fully-fledged, tried and true, stuff-soulmate to call your own. So, onto the specifics.
A hiking backpack is also known as a top-loading backpack. Because they were originally made for thru-hikers and campers, they tend to be lighter in weight and better fit to the body. They’re designed to hold a lot of weight, and are built with solid supports so that you can carry them comfortably for long distances or periods of time. Often, there is no zipper for the main compartment, just a drawstring opening toward the top of the pack. This can make packing and unpacking frustrating for some, but I promise you’ll get the hang of it if this is the route you choose. This is a very informative guide on the healthiest way to pack your hiking backpack.
On the flip side, travel-specific backpacks are often comparable to hiking backpacks except that they usually have a front or side zipper instead of the opening at the top. This can make it easier to access more things at once, which is especially helpful if you’re not a particularly organized packer. The other way in which they differ from hiking backpacks is that they can be a little heavier. Since they aren’t intentionally designed to be carried for extended lengths, the general design isn’t quite as lightweight. But because, in most cases, you’ll only be moving it to and from accommodations and transportation, the weight shouldn’t be a problem.
More recently, convertible backpacks have stepped up their game to compete with hiking and travel backpacks. These guys are the ones that have multiple strap options that you can add or remove as needed. In addition to the two standard backpack straps, you’ll often find an extra side handle or an over-the-shoulder option you can stow depending on your mood. Sometimes they even come stock with a removable day pack for those who, like me, get immense satisfaction out of perfectly fitting things into other things. In theory, with these you can put the essentials in the day pack pockets, drop your main pack, unzip and hit the road without even waking your hostel mates. Everyone will want to know how you did it.
While we’re on the topic of day packs, this is the last type of travel backpack we’ll cover. And we’ll start with this: these are not for the faint of heart. Day packs, or ultralight backpacks, aren’t really meant to serve as suitcases. They are, for all intents and purposes, meant for day use, like carrying your wallet and your water plus maybe a book and a sweater. You get the idea. However, the advantage of these guys is that they are light and compact, and I almost always want some variation on my travels in addition to my suitcase, so I can bring along my lappy or whatever I need for the day. Or if you’re a magician and can pack a weekend into a day pack, this might be the type for you. And more power to you.
By now, you hopefully have a general feel for what would be the best travel backpack for you. These four types, though basic, should give you some idea as to what would best suit your needs. That said, these categories are incredibly basic, and there are still several other things to consider when buying a travel backpack. We’ll unpack that next.
More Travel Backpack Considerations
At this point maybe you’re thinking, “I either want a hiking backpack or a travel backpack, but I’m not totally sure yet.” Don’t sweat it. There’s still a lot more to explore, and it may help you get clear about what you want. Some of the most important considerations, no matter what type you go with, include size and fit as well as an assortment of other features.
When it comes to fit, it’s worth noting that some packs are made gender-specific. And by this I don’t just mean they come in different colors, though some do. What I mean is that in some cases the frame of the pack will be smaller to accommodate for a feminine build. In general, backpack frames are designed to fit a certain torso length, not a certain height, and it’s important to get this right because your comfort depends upon it.
In any case, at this point many backpacks offer adjustable heights, so even if you don’t rely on a gender-specific option, you can find something that works for you. Some of the most important features to look out for include:
- Shoulder straps – You want to make sure you can adjust them to your comfort with some room to spare. Don’t max anything out before you take it out of the store.
- Hip belts – Make sure this sits on your hips and is well-padded. The majority of your pack’s weight should rest here, so you want this to feel good.
- Ventilation – Some travel backpacks offer additional boning or padding in the back to keep your pack from making direct contact with your back. This creates some air flow so you don’t overheat.
- Compartments – You’ll want to consider how you normally organize and what you usually bring. If you like your water bottle handy or a secret pocket for your money, make sure to look for those options.
And, last but definitely not least, you’ll want to pay special attention to the size. No matter the brand or the gender-specification, backpacks come in a wide variety of sizes, usually ranging from around 30 litres up to 100+. Yet the size of your travel backpack will depend primarily on two things: 1. Your size and 2. Your needs.
Even if you have a tendency to overpack, the last thing you want is to get a backpack that’s too big for you. Actually, this is especially true if you overpack. If you try to carry too much on your back, you run the risk of struggling to get it on, toppling over, or worse, injuring yourself.
For reference, I’m about 5’6” and I have a 45 + 10 litre backpack. That means the main frame of the pack holds about 45 litres and there is some extra fabric at the top that extends to provide another 10 litres of storage should I absolutely need it. Meanwhile, Justin, who is about 6’1” has a 75 litre + 10, but he almost never uses the extra ten.
In general, somewhere between 40 and 50 litres should suffice. Any less than that and you’re essentially looking at day packs. But if you find something that fits well, but you think you’ll need more space, I’d sooner recommend taking another bag or, if you’re backpacking, planning for some caches. Plus, you always learn a few packing techniques to help you take advantage of less storage space.
In all reality, the backpack lifestyle isn’t for everyone. If you’re fairly certain backpacking suits you, let’s carry on (Hah! I just can’t help myself). Next up: we cover the process of picking your pack!
How to choose the best travel backpack for you
So far, you’ve learned about why you should get a travel backpack, what kind is right for you, and what features you should look out for. All that’s left to talk about now is how you go about choosing one. Where should you buy a backpack? When is a good time to get one? And what kind of accessories might you need?
Let’s start with where. Because the fit of a backpack is so important, I’d always recommend visiting a sporting goods store first. Even if you ultimately make the purchase online, you want to try these things out in real life first. It goes without saying that REI has a great selection, but there are many smaller, local shops where you can get an idea of what’s out there.
Make sure that wherever you go, they give you the option to add some weight to your pack during your trial run. REI, for example, has bean bags they can throw in to give you a more accurate feel. Realistically, you’re never going to be carrying an empty backpack anyway. So as a general rule, you’ll want to test the comfort around with around 20 – 30 pounds of weight.
Don’t be afraid to mess with the settings, including the shoulder straps, hip belt, or adjustable frame. And take some time to walk around with the weight, so you can see how the backpack settles in after a while. Whatever you do, definitely don’t rush the decision!
While we’re on the subject of timing, let’s talk about when you should get a backpack. The only real rule here is that it shouldn’t be the day before you leave. Because in that case, you’ll be in a hurry and you may end up with something you don’t like. (Been there, done that!) Otherwise, the best time to buy might just be around a holiday sale so you can get a good deal.
If you want something to last you for more than a few years, you’ll probably have to spend between $150 and $200 USD, which is exactly why sales come in handy. Travel backpacks aren’t cheap, but they should be seen as an investment—one that will make your adventures easier in the long run.
Accessories are another way to make your backpacking easier. If you’re hiking, or will be somewhere with inclement weather, I’d recommend getting a rain cover. They pack up small and will keep your stuff safe in a pinch.
On the other hand, if you’re one of the aforementioned overpackers, you might want to consider getting packing cubes or compression sacks to keep your stuff organized inside your backpack. Dry bags, a Pacsafe, and water bladders are also worth looking into depending on your adventure.
And with that, you have almost all you need to know to make an informed decision when buying a backpack for travel. Still ahead: we’ll share some of the best travel backpacks we’ve come across.
Our Favorite Travel Backpacks
I’ll cut to the chase. My personal favorite is the one I have: the Deuter Women’s ACT Lite 45 + 10. In addition to being light, it has an adjustable frame, plenty of padding, and pockets in all the right places. Plus it comes in my favorite color. This bad boy isn’t my stuff-soulmate for nothing.
Justin’s personal favorite, and the one he’s had for more than 10 years, is a Gregory. He has top and front access, as well as a coveted rubber bottom to keep everything dry in any sticky situations. Seriously, TEN. YEARS. His pack is no longer for sale, but the updated versions look fantastic!
Other popular packs include:
The Osprey Fairpoint, which comes in a 40, 55, 70 or 80 litre capacity with unisex dimensions and optional straps, meaning you can store them when not in use.
Want more to choose from? Quechua, Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear South Col 70 OutDry Backpack all make reputable gear worth exploring.
Remember: find somewhere you can see them in person and try on several, if not all, of them!
Still reading? I’m impressed. Or, TL;DR:
Why you should get a travel backpack:
- It frees up your hands for easy mobility (and eating)
- It’s better for your back and body in general (plus you look cool)
- You get to join an elite club of backpackers (and you look cool)
What kind of backpack should you get:
- It depends on how you’ll use it, but generally either something that:
- Opens at the top (mostly for hiking)
- Opens at the front or on the side (hiking and / or specifically for travel)
- Converts (not recommended for extended wear)
- Is small enough for day use (or wizards and minimalists)
What features are important in a travel backpack:
- The size, both frame and capacity (because it has to fit)
- The shoulder straps (which should fit comfortably with room to spare)
- Comfortable hip belts (this is where you bear the most weight)
- Ventilation (so you don’t sweat through the one shirt you brought at the airport
- Size (again, in case you skimmed over it the first time & because: crucial!)
- Compartments (for organized and messy packers alike)
How to choose the best travel backpack for you:
- Try them on. Lots of them. All of them.
- Make sure you add weight and walk around in it
- Do this well in advance of your trip
- Bring a friend or ask an employee for an opinion
- Compare prices online or wait for a sale if you’re patient
What are our favorite travel backpacks:
There. That wasn’t so much to think about, was it? All you need know is a flight and, well, a backpack. If you still have questions, feel free to write us. Thanks for reading and, as always, bon courage!