Backpacks differ in quality, durability, functionality, size and weight so picking a pack simply because it looks good is can end up being a huge mistake. For one, a good pack is an investment, and second, you don’t want to have to lug around a big, uncomfortable backpack traveling through cities, countries or trails that was not designed for your body. It pays dividends having a comfortable pack that you enjoy using.
When choosing a backpack there’s a list of things to make sure it has to ensure you have maximum comfort. Foremost, look for a backpack that is sized for your body, is breathable, sturdy, has comfortable hip and shoulder padding, and provides easy and adequate storage access.
Things to check for when choosing a pack:
The size of your backpack can make or break the ease of your trip. Take a trip to your local REI or other outdoor store and ask to get sized if you need help with this, but you can do this at home with a friend. Using a tape measure, get the length of your torso. Measure by starting at the tip of your spine down to your iliac crest. Generally you can use that measurement to determine your pack size, but sizing does differ across brands.
Extra Small: Up to 15-1/2 inches tall (up to 39 cm)
Small: 16 – 17 1/2 inches tall (40 – 45 cm)
Medium: 18 – 19 1/2 inches tall (46 – 50 cm)
Large: 20 inches and up (51 cm and up)
Backpack sizes for women are slightly different from men’s sizes as they are a bit more narrow at the shoulder and have a more fitting hipbelt.
Ideally, your backpack should hold at least 30 lbs. You can test your pack by asking an associate at the outdoor store to stuff the pack with 30 lbs of sand bags. Proper weight distribution is important so that your pack doesn’t wear you out.
Another factor to consider when choosing the right pack is what types of trips you plan on using it for. Are you backpacking fives months through South America or are you taking it on 3 night trips in the Cascades of Oregon. The longer your trip, the bigger pack you’ll need, but to a limit. The bigger your pack is, the more you’re likely to over pack with unessential items. Be critical on what your packing and whether you will actually need it to avoid carrying an extra load on your back.
For long extended back country trips that you have to pack all your food and gear you will obviously need a pack on the larger side of things. For backpack travelers, you don't necessarily need all that space--unless you plan on acquiring tons of souvenirs or carrying a tent and sleeping bag. I have found that I prefer to pack light and do laundry more often than lugging around an extra 10 lbs of dirty clothes when I want to take the long route to the hostel through town.
Typical capacity based on trip length:
Day or overnight (1-2 nights) 20-50 liters
Weekend (2-3 nights) 50-60 liters
Multiday (2-5 nights) 60-80 liters
Extended (5+ nights) 80 liters
Since the majority of your pack weight will be sitting on your hips, you want to make sure that your hipbelt is comfortable and not agitating. The padding will ease the heavy weight pressing down on your hips and make it much more comfortable than without. Note: some super light packs skimp on padding, so make sure its comfy and worth the compromise of saving weight.
Internal frames are the types of backpacks that have the frame hidden within the pack. You should only need an external frame pack if you are hiking in the wilderness and plan to lug supplies, is what an outdoor expert from REI informed me of. External frames are also heavier and made of metal whereas internal frames are made out of a lightweight carbon fiber or aluminum that stays hidden which makes it more comfortable to move around.
In case you can’t stash away your backpack in a locker, then locking your pack with the zippers is the next best alternative to making sure your belongings stay safe. Ideally you will never have to leave your pack out in the open, but if you do be sure to take all valuables and passport with you.
Though more expensive, you can never go wrong with a waterproof backpack. You never know when mother Nature will decide to downpour and nothing is worse than having a drenched pack with all of your items soaked wet. If your pack isn’t water proof, you can purchase a rain cover fitted for the size of your pack.
Aside from the main compartment, an important feature of the pack is whether it has accessible compartments to store some of your essentials so that you don’t have to unpack to get to something you need. Side pockets for your water bottle and zipper compartments for things like your phone or snack are things to consider.
A backpack with good ventilation will allow for airflow so that sweat can dry quicker during your long hours of walking with your backpack on. While sweating is not so much a huge issue, it can help prevent getting chilled during your cool down.
A good backpack that fits your needs can cost anywhere from $100 to $300, but the most expensive doesn’t mean the best. You need to make sure that you look for a pack that fits your specific needs and have the as many important features as possible.
I used the Gregory Jade to backpack trails for days as well as for travel for a weeklong travel vacation. When I use it to travel, I tend to over pack it with two weeks worth of clothes including tennis shoes and sandals, but is always a perfect fit. It also fits perfectly as a carry on when packed efficiently. It’s a very comfortable backpack and being more on the petite end I found it very easy to haul around for hours and miles. I plan to use this backpack for years to come and create more memories with it. One of the many features I like about this pack is the inner pocket I use to store my passport and important documents in without having to worry about someone pickpocketing them. I also like that the hip straps have zipper compartments that I can keep some cash in or my phone without having to stop and look for them in other parts of my bag.
Comfortable, light, and durable. What more can you ask for in a pack? I have taken my Atmos 50 on six different multiple month/country trips and it hasn't faltered. The storage layout is nice with the two large vertical zippered pockets on the front and it also has a large main compartment. Your back will thank you on hot and humid days abroad because the mesh and suspension frame allows cool air move between you and the pack. For me the size is perfect, when it's fully packed before a trip there is just enough room for picking up some unique treasures along the way.
Although not technically a backpack, this is one of my favorite travel bags. It is perfect for hostel-to-hostel traveling because you can lug it on your back with the straps, or you can carry it as a duffel for short jaunts. The bag is absolutely bomb proof and fairly water-resistant (just no water-proof zippers) because the material used is similar to what white water rafts are made from. It will keep your goods dry when your bag gets thrown on top of the local bus, back of the pick-up, or when you are wandering around and it starts to rain. The small and medium size work great for carry-on, and are my go to bag for shorter trips. It also has four compression straps that you can use to compact the bag if it's not full.
What is your favorite travel bag or pack? Share in the comments below!