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Advice for choosing the right travel backpack

What is backpacking without a backpack? Right? I think one of the things people don’t invest enough in is how to pick the right Backpack. During travel, your travel backpack can make or break your enjoyment of the trip. Literally. If you are miserable carrying it, it is going to show in various aspects of your enjoyment of your time on the road. A good backpack will be with you through the highs and lows of your trip and will carry your stuff without causing you pain and discomfort. Most people tend to think pain is a natural occurrence of backpacking, but really it is because most people don’t put enough time and effort into picking the right back.

But we won’t be like those people.

So here are some things to make sure to look for in your choice of Backpacks.

A lot to carry on one's back - Tokyo - Japan

Size

Does size really matter? Well perhaps in backpacks yes and no. Small backpacks are great for short weekend trips, but if you are planning to go for longer you are going to need more space. Don’t just buy the largest size of whatever model of backpack! Instead find the right size backpack for your torso and find a model that both has your torso size and the right liter capacity. If you buy a size larger than your torso size you are going to suffer. Plus the larger capacity bags will probably have different harness systems (discussed below) that will complement the carrying capacity.

Weight

The heavier it is the more you are going to have to carry. There is a bit of a trade off with weight and durability and structure of the bag however. If you skimp on weight too much you might have straps lacking padding or backpacks that can easily tear. These days though some of the pricier bags do a really good job of having high quality lightweight material. Something to think about if your budget permits.  You might also want to think about whether you want to same bag for different types of trips. A large bag is useful on long trips but for shorter ones it can be a huge burden as well.

Harness

Probably the most important part of the backpack in terms of helping you with comfort. This is where buying a brand name really starts to stand out. Pay attention to the padding in the shoulders and waist especially. You want something that will sit comfortably. I tend to be a huge fan of the Osprey carrying systems here with their great harnesses and paddings. Also make sure to check the back padding and meshes as well. How does it sit on the back? Does it feel comfortable? Do you just feel like a sweaty tired mess carrying it around? A good harness here will make a huge difference. Also make sure to pack your bag right when you are trying it out. Your bag should sit more on the waist here and not on the shoulders. If you feel it heavy in the shoulders you should try to repack or perhaps try a better option for your body.

Material

Recently there has been a great increase in quality of material being used for backpacks. You can find ones that are both lightweight and very durable. However sometimes this can cost a bit more though but it if your budget allows definitely consider this as lower weight is going to help for those long trips. Additionally you want to look for things that have a level of water resistance. You probably are not going to get a fully waterproof bag (even the sprays are not completely effective here). If you are going somewhere with a lot of rain and are worried about your stuff consider getting a pack cover. I carry one from Sea 2 Summit that is great and can highly recommend.

Compartments

Organization is key. Some people love one big large compartment and some people like to lots of different pockets.  Figure out what works for you. I like a mixture of both personally. I find that a large compartment is great for me for my clothes and other big stuff (usually sorted with packing cubes or stuff sacks), and the using the side pockets for things that I need easier access to. Pay attention to the quality of the zippers and if they are interlocking, this allows you to lock pockets to keep people from going fishing in your backpack.

Frame

These days this is less of an issue I think as most backpacks for travel tend to be internal frame. I haven’t used an external frame since boy scouts many years ago. Actually, especially with air travel these days you are going to want to go internal frame as many external frames are restricted from being checked as luggage.

How much should you spend?

I would like to say that money is no object, but really money is always an object. Cheap backpacks will still run you at least 100 – 200 dollars. More expensive backpacks will likely be 200 – 500 dollars. You don’t need to get the most expensive backpack on the market to be happy. Honestly somewhere in the 150 – 250 dollar range is probably the sweet spot in backpacks. There are a lot of choices in this price point and likely something that will fit you. Try a few different backpacks and find the couple that match your needs and are at a relative good price.

You generally get what you pay for, but honestly ones that are higher than 250 tend to not provide a significant higher value for the higher price point. Sure they might have some “cool new tech”, but I find you get plenty in the mid-range.

Brand

Does brand matter? Yes and no. Actually a lot of the best backpacks are going to come from a few specific brands I have found. Whether its Gregory, or Kelty, or Osprey, Aryterx, or REI you can probably find something among those that will work. I love my Gregory backpack and it has kept up over many years on and off the road. Also for short trips I have a nice Osprey backpack that is my go-to for more urban shorter term travel. It is light but definitely not as comfortable to carry as my Gregory pack so I use it for trips that don’t require as frequent movement.

Where should I go and get a backpack?

Honestly the most important thing you can do when you buying a backpack is to try it on. Whatever you don’t do just go into your local discount department store and buy the cheapest one off the rack. Actually don’t go to your department store at all. They likely only have a couple backpacks to choose from and most of them tend to probably be lower cost and lower quality. Go to a good outdoor store for your this instead. I tend to prefer REI, they have one of the best selections and the best return policies around. After figuring out what you need from the above criteria they can help you whittle it down to a select few. Be sure to pack with weighted material and try walking around. After you pick your pack, take it home for a few days, pack it with your stuff, try carrying it around for a while. If you are not embarrassed too easily you should even wander around your neighborhood for awhile with it on your back. You are going to be carrying this a lot, it is better to learn the issues now instead of when you are thousands of miles away on a dusty village road.

Security

On an related note, paying attention to how you store your backpack is important to. I tend to separate my stuff between two packs, my large backpack for all my clothes and such and my smaller daypack for all my valuables. I don’t let my daypack out of my sight on travel. However sometimes you have to put valuables in your large backpack so its important to pay attention where you leave it. In a lot of hostels they might have luggage storage rooms where you might have to leave your stuff particularly during check in and check out (also some hotels / inns do this too). There is definitely a chance of theft in these circumstances. Depending on where you are traveling and how much you are roughing it you might want to consider getting locks for your bags as well. A bike lock might do well to let you secure it to something (as long as you have ties connect to your actual frame and not just straps) but I recommend a good metal mesh cable system that covers your backpack. They can get a bit heavy but depending on the locations you are visiting would be worth the cost and weight associated.

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