Picking the right backpack is a really important part of preparing for your trip. When you’re on the road you’re going to be carrying your pack from place to place several times a week and putting stuff in and out of it more times each day than you would imagine. Not only will choosing the right bag make the experience a lot more comfortable but it will also make the process of packing and unpacking a whole lot easier.
I travel with the North Face Terra 65L backpack – (I have the green version) which I love because it’s super lightweight, durable, and the way it’s been designed makes it really easy for me to pack and unpack it. I’ve had this backpack for about three years and it’s still holding up really well!
If you’re backpacking long term you become really attached to your pack, kind of like you do with your first car. You’ll love it at times, you’ll hate it at times, but if you pick the right bag then mainly you’ll just really really appreciate that you have it. Here are some tips on what to look for when you’re shopping for your new pack.
Try It On First
The most important part of choosing your pack is trying it on, which is why I would discourage you from buying your bag online based solely on reviews. Go in to a store and try it on before you decide to buy. Sales assistants in popular outdoor stores are usually really well trained and can show you how to adjust the straps for your height and build. After a week or so of lugging your bag around you can definitely feel the difference if your shoulder straps aren’t the right length or your waist strap is at the wrong point on your body.
To ensure you’re really comfortable, get a bag with well padded shoulder straps, support for your lower back, and a padded waist strap. Pockets on the waist strap are really handy when you’re moving from place to place. My advice would be to do a little research into what you’re looking for, based on the criteria below, and then visit some stores and try on the bags that fit the bill. There is usually one bag that you put on and it’s the perfect fit, then you know you’ve got the right pack! I usually go online at that point and compare prices before I decide whether to buy in store or online. Even if you buy online you can still bring it into the store and get the staff to fit it for you.
Decide How Much You Want To Carry
Many backpackers, even long term ones, travel with carry-on luggage. You would be surprised at how much you can fit into a bag that’s still within the limits for carry-on! These bags can have a capacity of up to 45 litres, so you can still fit quite a bit in.
There are obvious benefits to going carry-on only: saving money on baggage fees when you fly, less weight to carry on your back, and it’s probably quite freeing not to have as much stuff with you when you travel. If you like to travel light then you might consider buying a carry-on bag, or if you’re travelling as a couple you could have on check in and one carry on bag between you.
For me personally, carry on isn’t an option. If I left my toiletries and fitness equipment behind I could probably backpack with a 45L bag, but I really like having them with me so I’d rather check my bag in! Check out some good carry on backpacks here.
Choose Between Top Loading & Front Loading
Most backpacks come in two different designs: top loading and front loading. Top loading bags are the classic design where everything is loaded into and removed from the main compartment via an opening in the top of the bag. With front loading bags you lie the bag flat and then open the main section right up so you can access everything in your bag at once.
There are lots of posts and videos comparing top and front loading bags and telling you why one is better than the other. I have a top loader and Tim has a Kathmandu front loader so I can actually compare our experiences of backpacking with the two.
Top loading bags are usually designed for hiking which means they’re a lot more lightweight than front loading ones, and they’re usually a lot more comfortable to carry. Even a little extra weight can make a huge difference when you’re backpacking. As well as being lighter they’re usually a lot slimmer, I hate carrying Tim’s bag around as it’s a lot bulkier so I bump into things a lot.
The disadvantage of top loading bags is that it’s not as easy to get at your stuff after you have packed. You have to work out a packing system that makes it easier for you to find things in your bag as you won’t be able to just open the main compartment right up like you do with a front loader. Personally I would recommend using packing cubes if you have a top loading bag, it makes it really easy to find your stuff.
Front loading bags are bulkier but they’re generally more secure than top loading. Because the main compartment is sealed with a zip rather than a drawstring, you can secure it with a padlock. It’s also just easier to slip a hand into a top loader and take something out. That being said, in three years of using my bag nothing has even been stolen from it.
The disadvantage to front loading bags that I have found is the fact that you need to lie it down to pack and unpack it. In Asia we’re often staying in tiny hotel rooms and hostels so when Tim needs to unpack he takes over the entire floor with his things. Once he has taken out one or two things and you stand up the bag again, all of his stuff gets jumbled up together as they’re not packed in tightly anymore, so the bag usually remains flat on the floor the whole time. With my bag I can stand it in a corner and I don’t have to move it to pack or unpack.
Have a think about what is important to you in a backpack and maybe try on both options to see how they feel. If you’re short or slight then top loading might be best simply because they’re slimmer and light. But if you’re travelling to a notoriously unsafe country and are worried about your stuff then consider a front loader.
Both Tim and I love our packs and we wouldn’t swap them out so neither option is better or worse than the other, it really is just personal choice!
Make Sure It’s Water Resistant
While your bag doesn’t need to be 100% waterproof, do try to find one that is made from water resistant material. Our bags were drenched in downpours and covered in sea water from being left on top of boats, but the stuff inside remained mostly dry. You can ask the sales assistant or check the product information to find out if the bag is water resistant.
Check Out The Repair Process & Warranty
Even though backpacks are a lot more durable than suitcases they still can get banged up. Straps and buckles are the most common casualties as you travel – one entire side of my waist strap was ripped off on one flight in Asia. It’s important to check out the warranty and repair service when you’re buying your bag so that you can get it fixed on the road.
Tim and I both got our bags from big brands that sell around the world – North Face and Kathmandu so whenever we have had any issues we have been able to contact local repair centres. Fees can apply unless the problem is a manufacturing error, but in our experience they have been pretty low. When you’re deciding on a brand take a look at where there repair centres are located and what their turnaround time is for repairs.
I hope this has been helpful for you! If you would like to recommend your pack to other readers then leave a comment below and let us know!
Brilliant description on chosing a bag!
I have a MEI Voyageur 40 l carry-on. Have been travelling with it for over ten years and it still looks almost new even though it has been on planes, trains, buses, in forests, deserts, campsites. It’s a mix of a front and top loading. Sturdy, light, no lost space in it when packing. I use it with packing cubes and with a drybag for the dirty laundry.