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Going backpacking? Whether it’s a round the world trip or a short jaunt across a country, a backpack is a necessity. As you’re going to be carrying and living out of your pack for weeks or months on end, making the right choice is crucial. But there are literally hundreds to choose from – so how do you know which is best? And what should you look for when shopping for a bag? This guide will show you how to choose the best backpack for you and your travel style, so you can make an informed choice when picking your pack.
Who are you?
This isn’t a silly question – backpacks are not one-size-fits-all. You need to take in to consideration your height and gender. Don’t purchase a pack that’s too big for you as you’ll struggle to lift and carry it when fully packed. Packs designed specifically for women have waist and chest straps tailored to a woman’s shape. Getting the right pack to suit your physique is paramount. Good outdoor stores have professional fitters trained in getting you the perfect pack.
What Kind of Traveller Are You?
Are you a city slicker or an off the beaten track kind of traveller? For those jet setting between cities, gathering up the air miles and doing very little land based travel, a hybrid wheeled backpack or case might be perfect. Anyone going in to rural areas, doing overland journeys and staying in hostels will want a backpack. If you’re planning on hiking or trekking during your trip, you’ll want a pack that can cope with these demands. For a days hike, a 35 litre day pack will suffice. Any longer and you’ll probably want a bit more room, especially if you’re camping out in the wilds.
The Comfort Factor
Your backpack is going to be on your back. A lot. So it goes without saying that comfort is vital when picking a pack. For the comfort factor, look out for padded straps and back panels, plus designs that promote air flow. The right fit can make the difference between a memorable adventure and a painful experience, so before buying measure your torso and try several out packs out in order to get the perfect fit.
Backpack capacities are measured in litres. As a general rule, most travellers pick a pack around 55 -65 litres, with a smaller bag – around 25-35 litres – for day trips. Some packs have day packs which zip on and off for ease of use. What size you choose is entirely up to you. It all depends on how much you want to take and how much you are willing to carry.
Smaller packs have many benefits – less space = less weight, which means your back won’t take a battering from carrying too much. You can also keep a small pack with you at all times. This is especially useful when in a busy area or on crowded transport, where you can store your bag on your front, lap or under your chair, rather than on out of sight on the roof, making it a target for opportunistic thieves.
If you’re a super light packer, you can get away with just a day pack. When I travelled around Europe, I used my old school bag – a 35 litre rucksack, which only failed me last year (after having it for 16 – not bad going!) Travelling through Asia, I made the mistake of thinking bigger is better. I invested in a 65 litre pack with a 30 litre zip off day pack. Within a week, I had sent back most of my stuff, including the 65 litre pack, and travelled with just the day pack.
You should also consider the climates you will be travelling through. Although you can pick up many items of clothing on the road, if you’re heading to remote areas or extreme temperatures, a bigger bag may be necessary for food supplies and specialist clothing. If you’re chasing the sun, a smaller capacity will do, as your gear will be lighter. If you are taking camera equipment or a laptop, you’ll want a larger pack as the protective padded bags for your tech take up room.
Airline Luggage Rules
Airlines have several rules and regulations that could affect your choice of pack. If you’re checking your luggage in, you’ll have to pay an extra charge if your fare doesn’t already include checked bags. Some airlines charge for weight as well – another reason to pack smart. Saving money by only travelling with hand luggage may seem like a sensible option, however there are items which for extended trips you may need, which can’t be taken on a plane as hand luggage. These include liquids of more than 100 ml, camping stoves, pocket knives and tent pegs.
Best carry-on backpacks
Always check the weight of a pack before committing to buy – if your bag weighs a couple of kilograms, that’s already excess baggage you’ll be carrying regardless of what you pack. Sure, you want it your pack to be durable, but you don’t want to be lugging around unnecessary weight.
So now you know what things to take in to consideration when choosing a pack, let’s take a look at the styles of backpack available. What suits you is a matter of personal preference, and trying a few out packs is the best way to make a decision.
Top Loading Backpacks
The original backpack design, a top loader means that you only have one access point – the top – which is opened by zippers or buckles, revealing everything you own inside. The downside of this is that you can’t organise your things easily and everything is jumbled together. This means digging around for kit which inevitably finds its way to the bottom of your pack, making for frustrating unpacking. Many packs now have zips at their base too, which means you can access your gear from top or bottom.
Best top loading backpacks
Front Loading Backpacks
Also known as panel access backpacks, these are designed with organisation in mind. Front loading packs have a zipper which runs in a u-shape around the pack. This gives easy access to a majority of your gear in one quick unzip. Easier to pack and unpack than a top loader, the downside is you’ll expose everything you own when you open it up. Not a problem in a hotel room, but in a busy train station this can draw unwanted attention.
Best front loading backpacks
Top and front loading backpacks
Want the best of both worlds? This is it! Not all packs are made equal, but one with top loading and panel access makes life easier, having the benefits of the both and the cons of neither.
Ideal for those with back problems or for travellers not planning on carrying a pack for long periods, a hybrid is a good option. Hybrids are a cross between a suitcase and a rucksack, with both shoulder straps and in-built wheels for rolling. There are pros and cons to hybrids; they aren’t as comfortable or supportive as a purpose built backpack and are generally heavier. However, if you’re not going trekking or off the beaten track and are packing light, they may be the perfect solution to your travels.
Best hybrid backpacks
Backpack Quality & Features
With a backpack, you get what you pay for. Pay pennies, and expect a sore back, broken zippers and worn out fabric. Pay a bit more and get comfort, good quality components and durable fabrics built to withstand harsh treatment. Check seams and zips and, if the pack you like isn’t made from water resistant fabric, look in to getting a rain cover to protect your gear.
Other features you should look for are compression straps, for compacting your bag and attachment points. Attachment points are ideal for loading excess gear to your pack, such as waterproofs, hiking poles or camping kit. Compartments are helpful for keeping kit organised, and some backpacks have integrated sleeping bag compartments. An internal sleeve for stashing a hydration reservoir is useful for long journeys.
Lockable zippers are another consideration – great for deterring thieves and preventing people putting unwanted items in your pack. You’ll need to buy some small padlocks for these. A Pacsafe is another security option. Pacsafe is a mesh which wraps around your bag and stops anyone getting in or slashing your pack. Some packs have hidden pockets or zippers for stashing documents and cash out of sight.
For flights, a few backpacks have a zippered compartment which closes around the backpack straps, keeping everything enclosed to reduce risk of damage to your pack. A good backpack will also have padding and support in the areas you need it most – on the hip belt, shoulder straps and back. Check if the backpack has room between your back and it for airflow. Internal frames are also a consideration for your backs welfare, but going frameless saves weight.
Remember, you’re going to be carrying all your worldly possessions – comfort is essential! Make a list of the features important to you and your trip before parting with any cash.
When choosing the best backpack for travelling for you, think about what you need for your travels. It’s easy to over pack when going on a trip. Backpacker beware – carrying too much can severely hurt your back and therefore ruin your travels. The old adage ‘take half the luggage and twice the money’ is worth adhering to.
Think about what you would take on a 1-2 week trip. You should be able to manage with this amount for a year or more, washing your clothes as you travel and buying extra clothing and supplies as and when you need them.
Comfort is key, so don’t compromise on it. Whatever bag you go for, make sure it is a good fit and suits your purpose.
There are so many backpacks to choose from, but these are some of my top picks!