Buying the Right Backpack for You – What’s the Best Travel Backpack?

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Choosing your backpack is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make before going traveling. There’s such a large selection of backpacks out there these days that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and confused by all the options.

People often as “what is the best backpack for travel?” As with most things, the term ‘best’ is subjective, and the best backpack for you will depend on the kind of trip you’re taking (i.e. where you’re going and for how long), what you intend to bring with you and how much you’re willing to spend.

Saying that, the best travel backpacks are the ones that are comfortable, easy to carry, affordable, well-made and with lots of pockets and storage space.

A good backpack will allow you to glide through your travels whereas a bad backpack will be burden around your neck

On this page I’ll explain all about the different types of backpacks (internal frame, external frame and frameless), what the advantages and disadvantages of these different types of bags are, what additional features you should look for in a backpack and how to choose the right one for you.

Internal Frame Backpacks

Internal frame backpacks are perhaps the most popular type of backpack for long-term travelers these days. They contain a rigid frame (made from either metal, plastic of fiberglass) inside the bag that helps to give the bag its shape and support the load.

Internal frame backpack

Advantages of Internal Frame Backpacks

  • The internal frame in the backpack can be adjusted in all sorts of ways, allowing you to fit the bag perfectly to yourself – making carrying it a breeze.
  • Because internal frame packs don’t hang down as much, they stay much closer to your body, meaning your centre of gravity isn’t as distorted. This is particularly helpful when hiking and walking over potentially treacherous terrain.
  • They are far better suited to rock climbing and skiing as their increased flexibility (when compared to external frame backpacks) allows them to move more freely with your body.
  • There is often a great selection of straps (such as a hip and chest strap) that enables you to spread the weight of the bag out over different parts of your body. Having more straps also means that your bag won’t shift around as much when you’re walking, meaning your balance will improve.

Disadvantages of Internal Frame Backpacks

  • Due to their complex design, they’re typically the most expensive style of bag.
  • Most internal frame packs have little or no ventilation between the bag and your back, meaning that you’ll get hot and sweaty far more easily.
  • On average, they have far less pockets than external frame backpacks, meaning you won’t be able to spread you items around as much (making them easy to find in a hurry).

External Frame Backpacks

These backpacks are made up of a bag attached to an external frame (usually made from metal). Although they aren’t seen as frequently these days, they were the most popular style among backpackers in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

External backpack

Advantages of External Frame Backpacks

  • Typically, external frame backpacks have more pockets and storage areas than any other kind, meaning your luggage can be separated out more and organized better (making it easier to find things). This also means it’s easier to separate out items that shouldn’t be stored together – such as bottles of liquid and electronic items).
  • The external frame means you’ll be able to carry much heavier loads than with internal frame packs as the frame will give you more support.
  • The rigid frame allows you to carry the weight of the load more on your hips, taking the strain off of your back and shoulders.
  • Ventilation and air circulation between your back and the bag is plentiful, as there is much space between the two. This means your back will be kept cooler and dryer.
  • Since the bag is separate from the frame, it’s easy to modify your pack a lot more, meaning it’s easier to carry all kinds of other objects (such as wood or equipment boxes).

Disadvantages of External Frame Backpacks

  • Because the external frame tends to stick out above the bag (and above your head), it’s easy to it get caught under low hanging trees or similar objects. This is something that doesn’t happen with frameless or internal frame backpacks.
  • External frame packs are terrible as carry-on luggage (as well as on buses, taxis, trains, etc.) as the straps and the frame are rather cumbersome and can get easily damaged.

Frameless Backpacks and Rucksacks

Frameless backpacks are an ultra-light alternative specifically designed for those only looking to carry the minimal amount of gear.

Frameless backpackAdvantages of Frameless Backpacks

  • The lack of a frame makes them EXTREMELY light.
  • Despite being light, these bags can still come with hip straps and comfortable shoulder straps making them easy to carry.
  • They’re cheaper.

Disadvantages of Frameless Backpacks

  • The lack of a frame means that support is minimal, so your total load should not exceed 30 lbs.
  • Because there is no frame to take the burden of the weight, your these bags often don’t last as long, as they tend to rip and fall apart far more easily.

Important Features to Look For in a Backpack

Brand/Make – If you’re going to be carry around all of your belongings in a bag for months on end, you’ll want to feel safe in the fact that your bag won’t fall apart after a couple of weeks of hard traveling.

Obviously you don’t want to spend more than you have to (as that’s less money you’ll have for your trip), but try to get a backpack from a recognized brand, such as GoLite, Mountain Hardware, Osprey, Kelty, or Deuter.

Before traveling around South-East Asia for 3 months I made the mistake of buying a cheap backpack. After 2 weeks there was a massive hole in the bag near to top of the strap that I had to continually patch up and mend every time it ripped back open.

I knew that the bag I was taking wasn’t the best quality, but my mindset was ‘If this bag breaks, I can just buy another cheap one while I’m on the road’. Sadly, backpacks are not readily available in lots of places, so it’s best to buy one that will last the distance.

Weight – Look for the lightest backpack you can find (whilst meeting all of the other requirements), as you’ll really appreciate it on the road. As a guideline, a ‘lightweight’ backpack will weigh around 3-5 lbs, whereas heavier backpacks can weigh up to 10 lbs.

Comfortable Shoulder Straps – It’s often hard to judge just how comfortable the shoulder straps will be without trying the backpack on (with a large amount of weight in it), but you can get a pretty good idea by looking at the padding on the straps and by reading various online reviews of the bag (as they often mention how comfortable the bag is/isn’t).

Hip Strap – Most people who’ve never been backpacking don’t know this, but by doing up the hip strap on your backpack you can actually carry most of the bag’s weight on your hips (instead of on your shoulders). Because of this, it’s important the buy a bag with a comfortable, padded hip strap.

When walking for long distances with a heavy backpack, I like to continually transfer the weight from my shoulders to my hips (and back again) every so often so that the different parts of your body can get a rest.

Waterproof – Make sure to buy a backpack that’s waterproof, as you never know when you’ll get caught in a storm. Most backpacks are waterproof (to the extent that they’ll stop the rain coming in), but if you’re going hiking and you think it might rain you might also want to invest in a backpack rain cover (which is essentially a bag/cover that you fold over your entire bag as protection).

Ventilation – Because your backpack will be pressed right up against your back most of the time, there’s going to be very little air circulation going on. This often results in a sweat back (especially if you’re traveling to a hot country).

To counteract this, look for a backpack with some kind of ventilation built in. This isn’t a necessity, but it is certainly nice to have.

Pockets – While you’ll want the space inside your bag to be as large as possible, it’s good to have a few outside pockets where you can store items that need to be accessed regularly (such as bottles of water or maps).

When buying a bag, think about how easy the pockets will be to access and what you could store in there.

How to Choose the Correct Backpack Size

Packing Light

I alluded to the fact earlier that you should try and buy a backpack with the largest amount of storage space possible. Well… this isn’t completely true… The number one mistake that most travelers make is that they bring WAY too much stuff with them. As the old vagabonding saying goes, “Pack twice the money and half the gear.”

The problem here is that if you buy a massive backpack, you’ll naturally start to fill it up with more stuff than you need. Remember that you’ll be carrying your bag around with you for long periods of time through busy streets and up large hills, so don’t buy something that will feel like an anchor; pulling you down all the time.

Buying a smaller backpack will force you to pack light, as you’ll be restricted by the size of the bag. You’d be surprised as to how little you’ll actually need on your trip. Keep this in mind when choosing a backpack (although don’t go crazy and think you can travel without any bags at all – as Tim Ferriss tried to here).

Note that the length of your trip shouldn’t affect the size of your backpack. Whether you’re going away for 3 weeks or 8 months you should pack the same amount of stuff, as you can just wash your clothes ever couple of weeks.

For more information, check out this article about lightweight backpacking.

Backpack Sizes

Backpacks sizes are typically measured either liters or cubic inches (although liters are the most common measurement). Most backpacks fall between the range of 35 liters (2,100 cubic inches) to 100 liters (6,000 cubic inches).

As a guideline I like to stick between the 35 liter and 50 liter mark when buying a backpack, as anything over that is a bit excessive, and if you go for anything smaller you’re going to have trouble fitting everything in.

Carry On Baggage

If you want to take your bag on the plane with you (possibly to avoid baggage fees that some budget airlines charge or because you don’t want your luggage getting), then look for bag under 50 liters (3,000 cubic inches) and be sure to check the airline’s baggage policy.

The best carry on backpacks are also the ones that don’t have an excessive amount of straps dangling off of them, as this makes them a pain to fit in the overhead locker.

The 2nd Backpack – The Daypack

When going traveling I always like to take a second, smaller bag with me that I can use as a ‘daypack’ (for storing my camera, lunch, jacket, journal, bottles of water, etc). This means that I can leave my main backpack (with all of my clothes, etc. in) at the hotel/hostel and take out this smaller bag with me for daytrips.

Drawstring Backpack

I find that drawstring bags are extremely good for this (see the picture) as they can be folded up when not in use, are extremely light and don’t take up a lot of space in my main backpack. The only problem with them is the straps are a bit uncomfortable (if you’re carrying a lot of heavy items).

Some larger backpacks actually come with daypacks/rucksacks attached to them (although these are few and far between).

For specific details/reviews on different backpacks, check out BackpackGearTest.org.


Related posts:

  1. How to Protect Your Backpack from Thieves
  2. Should You Swap Your Backpack for a Suitcase?




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  • Myalternativelife

    Hey, Great article, just finished my Southeast Asia Backpacking trip and im missing it already!

    Check out my blog
    http://www.myalternativelife.net

    For more tips and guides on backpacking in Southeast Asia.

    Thanks