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Choosing the right backpack is absolutely essential to any successful traveling experience, but with the market being flooded with so many sub-par, generic rucksacks it difficult to know what to choose! How many litres should your backpack be? Is the brand important? How much should I pay? I’m going to run through the criteria you should consider when purchasing your backpack

choosing the right backpack

SIZE: Backpack size is measured in litres, so how many litres should your backpack be? You want to choose something between 55litres to 70 litres. In terms of kilos, a full 55 litre backpack will weigh around 14kgs approximately whereas a full 70 litres backpack will weigh around 20kg. Naturally, as a backpacker you want to travel as light as possible so I would recommend taking a 55litre, although on my first few trips I struggled to choose what to take and went with a 65. Now I carry an (only partially) filled 55 litre and it’s perfect. Just remember though if you take a larger bag, you will fill it (probably with unnecessary extras!) so be vigilant, buy a smaller bag, and reap the benefits for the duration of your trip. No-one wants to be lugging around 20kg I promise you that!

SHAPE: If I had one piece of advice for any first-time backpacker it would be this – get a side access backpack, NOT a top-loading one. This is one feature you should not compromise on, there’s few things more infuriating than having to unpack your entire belongings to get access to the one shirt you carry for a special occasion! With a side zip everything is on hand and easily accessed, much much more desirable!

Also, search for as many interior compartments as possible. Certainly a minimum of a mesh divider in the main body to keep either your dirty clothes or electronics separate is a must. Hidden pockets for US dollars/spare credit cards etc is a huge plus too.

BRAND: To be honest unless you plan to redesign your life and be on the road constantly over the next few years then brand isn’t important. Any run of the mill backpack should last the course of one 3month-1year trip, however if you plan to be on the road indefinitely it would be worth your while to go for a high-end brand (Berghaus, , Osprey etc) as they are much more robust (and expensive!)

COST: Backpacks range from $50-$250 so the choice is ultimately dependent on your budget. I’d avoid the cheap cheap, cheap bags unless you’re just jetting off for a week or two. Normally you get what you pay for and you don’t want the bottom of your bag  falling out on the way up Machu Pichu now do you?! If you spend more than $150 you’re getting top of the range, from there on up you’re pretty much guaranteed top quality bags.  Aim to pay over $85 but no need to pay more than $150 really.

That’s the quick rundown then guys, I went through the purchasing process myself last week and it can be a real nightmare – have an idea of what you want before you step into the store and you’ll be all set. Good luck!

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20 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Backpack

  1. I realize this is an old post. I’ve traveled a little (N/C/S America, SE/C/E Asia, Europe, Africa) and still prefer to take a day-pak and a 22in roller. I’m not camping or hiking the AT. Always have a couch or bed at night and usually have a private room. For a weekend trip, the day-pak works alone, so if I jet off to Iquazu Falls from BsAs for a few days, no need to take the roller. Outside of Europe, the roller is the carry-on and the backpack is the “personal items” purse. 😉
    Have 2 backpacks – both with water reservoir compartments. A old (now) Jansport Odyssey 38 which is the big, need-to-carry-rain/cold-gear pak and a smaller Camelbak model (not just a hydration unit) which can hold a 15in laptop, jacket, phone, camera, snacks. About to head off to Alaska for 3 weeks and just decided the Jansport Odyssey with some waterproof coating will be sufficient. Basically, we are doing 2-3 nights in different parts of the state – Denali, Anchorage, Homer, and Brooks Lodge, so only day hiking from 3-8 miles is expected. At home, I don’t hike in the rain, but on this trip-of-a-lifetime, I will.
    Took the Odyssey for a few weeks in Nepal – 1 working in KTM and the other week near Pohkara. Only got a few days hiking in, but it held up great.

    Of course, for people who need a full pack (tent + sleeping bag + camping stuff) my solution just won’t work.
    I’ve read that the newer Odyssey’s aren’t a comfortable as the old one I have and none of them appear to have water-repellent coatings. Paks with water-repellent designs seem to be out of my price range and lacking in important design points. Getting lots of inside pockets is something I really miss in the Camelbak, but don’t always need as many as the Odyssey provides. Plus all those extra zippers don’t really help with the overall weight.

    1. Just to clarify – I’m taking the 21in roller to Alaska too. Need a place to store shoes, jeans, and a chromebook these days. Back around 2008 on 2 trips (C-America and E-Asia), I traveled with just a 4.5in Nokia tablet. It worked amazingly well and weighed only .20kg. Battery life sucked compared to devices today. in 2010, tried to travel with a 10in tablet in Europe when wifi wasn’t everywhere (not in every hotel), so spent 3 days in Barcelona, 4 in Florence, 2 in Vienna and 1 in Prague without in-room internet. Plus a few of the hotels blocked the VPN, so I need a little more connectivity than a tablet OS can provide. 2lb chromebook is just enough and cheap compared to alternatives. Can find them for $95 these days.

  2. Amen. Just was sitting in a train from Zagreb to Budapest and it was filled with young interrailers with 75+ backpacks with sportshoes tied on the sides and sleeping bags and towels on the top. There was no room for people who had a reservation..

  3. Generally speaking, do you (or does anyone?) have any advice on a backpack size that most airlines will allow you to take as carryone. Sam above mentions a 35L, which ….wow…I don’t know if we could get away with that…but does a 40-45L still generally count as carryon? I know it varies a bit with each airline, but….?

    Thanks for the post – this was helpful!

    1. hey Skott,

      I think 45lt would be too big to be honest, i reckon 35 would be the top end. Obviously it depends more on the shape than the weight/volume but i very much doubt you could squeeze anything over 35lt into the overhead compartment!

    2. In Europe the low cost airlines have the most strict rules on the cabin baggage. This quote is copied from the Ryanair site (the most strict)
      “Strictly one item of cabin baggage per passenger (excluding infants) weighing up to 10kg with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm is permitted. (handbag, briefcase, laptop, shop purchases, camera etc.) must be carried in your 1 permitted piece of cabin baggage.”

      Litres does not matter. I have had some issues wit a bag that fits the criteria, 25l, but looks bigger in the bottom, so, I have to fit it in the box for measuring. Normal airlines may be ok with even a bit bigger bags, but the low cost in Europe are a pain and you often need to pay an extra charge.

  4. Hey Johnny,

    I suppose this is also a personal preference, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone to get a bag with a capacity of more than 40 litres, because, as you say, it means you have more space to fill with (probably useless) things, and therefore more weight to carry. Personally, I have a 35 litre bag, and am currently travelling in cold places with it and don’t have it completely full. Also, smaller (and lighter) bags can often be taken on flights as hand luggage, meaning you avoid extra charges for hold luggage where they exist (of course this means you can’t pack sharp things or liquids of more than 100ml each, at least in Europe).

    1. certainly if u can squeeze your earthly possessions into a 40lt then that’s the way forward, personally speaking though i couldn’t do it! kudos mate 🙂

    2. Last year, I back packed Central and South America (Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador) for 2 months with a Jansport Odyssey, which is about 2350 cu. in. (38 liters). It worked well, but I decided that my next trip I am taking to Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and New Zealand, I will go with an Eagle Creek 45 liter Adera back pack.

      With the Jansport, I was packed to the gills. Fortunately, I bought one of those heavy duty nylon REI duffle bags that stuff into a ball when not in use. Great purchase! I was able to use that for the last couple of weeks when I bought various gifts and trinkets, dirty laundry (that I had been putting in a side compartment of the Jansport. Quite frankly, the smaller pack was great for the climates I came across (warm weather), but I think I would have been caught short if the weather had been colder.

        1. One of the trade offs I made with regard to going to S. and C. America with a Jansport Odyssey (38 liter/2350 cu. in.) is that I left my 15 in. Macbook pro laptop at home and purchased a Samsung Galaxy 7″ Plus tablet . . . This worked perfectly for keeping in touch via email, Facebook, etc., albeit, typing on one is much slower. The Odyssey had 4 compartments, including 1 water camelback compartment – which I left at home and used for documents; main compartment – 2 cargo pants, bathing suit, 2 pair of shorts, tablet; 2nd main compartment – 6 underwear, 3 short socks, 2 long socks, 4 TShirts, 1 long sleeve fleece, one long sleeve light cotton Guatemalan pullover shirt I purchased in Panama for sun protection ; 3rd compartment – toiletries, first aid, cell phone, camera; and, 4th compartment – misc. stuff that was “soft” and wouldn’t be damaged if I dropped the pack.

          Personally, I think you always try to go small with regard to a back pack. As others have indicated, you get a bigger pack, then you will find more stuff to take that you probably don’t need and will regret taking. I did upgrade to a 45 liter Eagle Creek pack, but I think that’s the max I would ever go. With my new pack, I will definitely bring sandals, along with my nikes this time around.

          Steve

          1. Thanks again Steve, awesome insight 🙂 i use a 55lt mate, but i travel indefinitely so i need hot/warm clothes and casual/smart clothes so unfortunately i can’t get away with the smaller bag!

          2. Almost forgot – The main reason I purchased the Jansport was the fact I didn’t want to check in any bags. Similarly, Johnny’s comment about size being more important, then weight is absolutely correct insofar as airlines allowing you to carry on your pack vs. checking it in. The Eagle Creek 45 liter advertises itself as being approved for carry on. See their link and look at the pictures, especially the diagram showing the day pack being able to dis-attach from the main pack. I think this is the main reason, you can get it on most airlines, i.e., if they question you, you just dis-attach the day pack part of the bag and you’re good to go.

            http://shop.eaglecreek.com/adero-45l/d/1001

            By the by, the $215 cost was discounted for one day only at Sierra Trading Post for $79 (close out). I was fortunate to see this sale, as everywhere else had it at the full retail price.

  5. Some advice I’ve been given is as follows:

    try to get a backpack with wheels just like luggage. I guess they exist and are worth springing for. I’ve heard of people switching from the classic backpack to standard luggage just for the wheels.

    I haven’t bought my bag yet, so I don’t have any first hand experience to pass on.

    1. hey Mike,

      sorry mate – i have to disagree, i avoid any bags with wheels – extra weight and less volume for size plus you rarely rarely use them! just personal preference i guess 🙂

      1. Def personal preference
        I have one with wheels and prefer it, it’s good as i dont need to worry about the weight of the bag etc. Mine is a 70l caribee fast track, you can convert it into a backpack, but I have rarely done this. I have used wheeled bags to communte to and from uni most weekends for two three years so are used to them 🙂
        Poi on the other cant stand wheeled bags and prefers to have everything on his back.

      2. Yeah, wheels don’t cut it on cobblestone, uneven and dirt/rock streets, which you usually find in 3rd world countries (and old world Europe, e.g., Italy, Spain, Greece).

    1. hey calvin, never my big backpack mate but when i have my main backpack on i wear the smaller bag no my front (with laptop, iphone, camera etc) although that’s more for comfort than safety!

      if i’m only carrying my small bag, that goes on my back – never the front to be honest.

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