Picking the right backpack is an essential part of any trip. Too big, and you’ll have too much extra weight. Too small, and you’ll never fit anything in. 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.
I spent a good hour picking out my first pack, and that was also after hours of online research. That research paid off: my backpack has lasted me eight years so far and still looks and works just as well as it did the day I bought it. I have no plans to switch anytime soon.
There are many backpacks in the world and even more places where you can purchase one. I’ve tried, seen, and experienced many backpacks over the years. I know what works. So 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 purchase it knowing it’s incredible and going to last forever.
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 merely 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 upstairs 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.
Note: 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.
The best backpacks — the ones that last the longest — have all the following characteristics that make them durable, protective, and long-lasting:
· Water-resistant material – While your pack does not need to be 100% waterproof, 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. I 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 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 the 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 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 flip-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 is 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 carbon fiber or sturdy plastic, which makes them more comfortable 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 strap 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 comfort.
· Padded shoulder straps – These make carrying your load more comfortable, as the weight of your pack will also be pushing down 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 to 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!).
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 USD 199. Store brands are cheaper than big-name brands like North Face, Osprey, and Gregory.
I don’t believe that any backpack is worth USD 300, no matter how nice it is. These expensive backpacks tend to be large and have more bells and whistles, special padding, and material than you 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 intended 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 means you’ll have a stronger and more durable pack.
There are a lot of camping stores out there:
You can get all the big-name brands at any of those stores.