Backpacking Basics Part 2: Picking The Right Backpack

This is the second part of 5 in a series of backpacking basics. You can catch up with Part 1 (What Is Backpacking?), Part 3 (What Is A Hostel?), Part 4 (Where To Start Backpacking), and Part 5 (The Backpacker’s Dictionary) if you missed them.

man with backpack

In Part 1 of backpacking basics you found out the basic definition of backpacking and that it revolved around one central item – the backpack. Ironically, the backpack is often the last thing new backpackers think about after making trip plans, booking tickets, and getting ready for their first trip.

Getting the right backpack for your next trip is easy but finding the best backpack for your next 10 trips is much more difficult. Choosing the right backpack is a very personal decision and more of an art than a science. You can find that right pack for you however by taking a look at your travels to come and forgetting about your very next plane ride.

40L, 50L, 65L…Size In Liters

One of the basic categories of backpack size are measured in liters – a rough guide of the volume a backpack can carry. Backpacks ranging from 40-65L are generally a good size to consider if you’re only traveling with one bag. While you’re researching online you should read the specs for any backpack as the actual volume may vary (even if it’s labeled a 50L, it could be bigger, smaller, or not include one of the detachable pockets).

  • Most backpacks measured in liters also come in sizes, small, medium, and large. These different sizes are for people of different heights and weights so it’s important to try on a new backpack before buying it. Most generally come with guides that will let you know the right size based on how tall you are.
  • Many of the 50L and under backpacks can be stored on planes as carry-on luggage which might save you on airline fees.
  • Get a backpack that can hold a small day pack so you don’t have to lug around your main backpack all the time. Some backpacks have detachable (~10L) daypacks you can zip right off.

two backpackersYour Travel Pattern

Each individual trip you take is one in a lifetime of travels. Begin your quest to find the right backpack by thinking about how you’ve traveled in the last 3 trips you’ve taken (short or long) and the next three you’re planning on or would like to take. Did you pack light or were you always 10 pair of underwear too many? A good way to give yourself a reality check is to ask anyone you traveled with or saw you pack.

  • Sizing is important because getting a pack that’s too large or small can end up making your back or shoulders sore after a few hours of walking.

I’ve found that if you’re in doubt between two sizes of backpack, go with the smaller one. You’ll be forced to pack more efficiently – buy a larger backpack and you’ll inevitably fill it up with more stuff (and weight).

osprey backpackImportant Things To Keep In Mind When Picking The Right Backpack

  • Reliability – Read online reviews, ask your fellow travelers, and hold the backpack you want to buy and take a look at the seams. You don’t want to have to replace your backpack after a few trips or loose a strap in the middle of the Thai jungle.
  • Front Loading – Many backpacks are ‘top loading’ meaning you pack them from an opening in the top of the pack. They are generally a bit lighter but you’re better off getting a top and front (or side) loading backpack for easy access.
  • Color – I prefer backpacks that can look dirty easily and when brand new don’t sparkle as such. The more ordinary your backpack looks the less likely it will interest a potential thief or hostel opportunist.

Backpack Recommendations

For US residents REI is an excellent resource to try out many of the major backpack brands such as Osprey, Gregory, and Kelty. REI themselves make excellent backpacks and I’m a particular fan of the REI Ridgeline 65L backpack. Some other good backpacks to consider are:

Nomadic Matt also has good advice on choosing the right backpack with some information about internal frames and padding. Selecting the right backpack for you can take a bit of time so start looking well before your trip so you don’t make a rush decision and end up with something that doesn’t suit you or last.

Selecting the right backpack can be fun and frustrating at the same time but once you find your pack you’ll know it. Tomorrow in Part 3 I’ll introduce you to anothe backpacking basic, the hostel.

[photos by: Canadian Veggie, Eliel, andihefti]

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  1. Ian E O says:

    Hi Anil
    I am in the UK 25 years after traveling here with my back back and hitch hiking around Europe for 10 months. I am not sure just how much has changed regarding the basics of carrying a backpack. However communication technology has changed the experience irrevocably and made it much easier.

    I agree with you completely on not over packing. I suggest to would be travellers to do a couple of trial runs and work out what you did not use on your trip and dispense with it. What you need for week is all you need for a long trip. A light load makes an amazing difference to your travel experience. Also, you can always buy and additional shirt if needed. Washing clothes frequently is easy. Carrying a heavy load is not.

    All the best in your travels.

    Ian

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  2. I have Eagle Creek Women Explorer backpack and daypack combo, 60ish L in total. My best friend. I’m small, short and not very strong. I won’t be able to carry around this by hand-lifting, but once it’s fitted to my back, all straps adjusted, I’m ready for the far walk. It feels quite light actually! Design really matters! So are all of those straps.
    I’m a fan of traveling light, and some people can argue that this size backpack is not really consider as traveling right. But My husband and I don’t have permanent home anymore, have been on the road for a year, and not knowing/planning when we will go back to Ontario. So we have to have with us inside our backpacks everything that we need. Ideally, this packs are not full to the top, except the times we bought big size potato chips bag :)

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    • Anil P. says:

      I’m living out of my backpack for the most part too and design is very important. Quality straps and construction is important – I value reliability very much when picking traveling gear. I like the 50-65L size, a good range for most situations.

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  3. LAURENCE says:

    Hi there, I just got back from an over packed 3 months in which my main bag a rolling duffle stayed, filled to the brim with stuff I never used, in hostel luggage storage while I marched about with a 35 L North Face Big Shot. This looks like a typical day bag. Just walking around with this filled for any length of time caused two problems: shoulder pain (no hip transfer)) and BAAAD sweat.

    I am almost settled on Osprey Atmos 35L primarily because of GREAT trampoline suspension which keeps pack off back a HUGE factor in tropics, Asia, etc.

    If anyone has actually measured a 35L Medium size Atmos, I’d like to know if it qualifies for International carryon (like 21″) Send me an email

    BTW if dimensions aren’t a factor checkout Osprey EXOS-it’s amazing!!! It seems weightless with weight.

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  4. Priyank says:

    MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) is an excellent store for backpacks. For a long time I didn’t know how important it was to ensure that backpacks fit your back properly. I have a faithful backpack since few years now, and although its top loading, I don’t really mind because it forces me to plan packing in advance. For camping purposes, its wise to have a number of straps and hooks on the exterior, to hang wet shoes, utensils, ropes etc., but these props may cause annoyance during traveling in crowded buses or trains. :)

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    • Anil P. says:

      Cool site, looks like they’ve got quite a bit of their own backpacks as well. For some reason the logo looks very familiar, I must have seen them around.

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  5. Gemma Ray says:

    Having backpacked twice around the world my top tips would be

    1) DON’T get a ‘daypack’ which opens up like a case. it’s just a pain in the ass.
    2) Vacuum bags are brilliant and allow for so much extra space.
    3) Get a pacsafe bag – they are brilliant!
    4) always distribute your valuables all over your bag if you can’t keep them on your person.
    5) make sure every room you stay in (not shared hostels – that’s not fair) is a complete mess. Thieves can’t be bothered with messy rooms (we found out the hard way!)

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Gemma, thanks for the well thought out tips. Staying in a mess isn’t too difficult for me, at least now I’ve got a good excuse for it.

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  6. joe says:

    Are Kathmandu backpacks a desent brand?

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    • Anil P. says:

      I haven’t used them but will ask around for you and see if I can get some firsthand information.

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      • Dave says:

        Re: Kathmandu backpacks – the answer is ‘no, not really’. Like most of the Kathmandu stuff, the quality is low to average, and the price is only any good if you get it during one of the regular sales. I own a basic Kathmandu carry-on size pack – it’s fine for long weekends, but I wouldn’t use it for anything more than that. They just don’t hold up to the rigours of backpacking for any length of time.

        If it’s any help, I wrote a post about choosing a backpack for my current RTW trip, including the reasons why I discounted Kathmandu, at http://whatsdavedoing.com/blogs/travel/finding-my-new-pack/

        Cheers

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  7. Berge says:

    You haven’t said anything that makes sense on this post and yet you had a lot of praising responses…when does the BS stop?

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  8. Greg says:

    There’s this pretty new company out there called Mile High Mountaineering. They have what seem to be (from videos and just reading stats etc) well thought out and made packs. I’m looking into buying one, but since they are newer, there’s not a lot of feedback out there. I’d like to get one of their 80 Liter ones just because the dream is to do some really long trips out in the middle of nowhere. However, considering the feedback throughout the comments from people saying that it isnt a good idea, I’m not sure. So far, on the couple trips I’ve been on, I used a pack that was 70-75 L and didn’t fill it completely and didn’t get sore on our 12 hour day or the lesser ones either. I’m a young’n, and my body still works well… that may change later, but… just wondering if you could give some feedback on that pack if you’ve heard anything. Thanks.

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  9. OllieGS says:

    Hi,

    I am going travelling in october and am new to it all!
    I was thinking about getting a large pack probably around 70/80ltr with a day pack attached, I am going for about 18 months starting in the UK and first stop being USA and wanted space for gifts to give my family in NZ which is my next stop!

    I am soooooo unsure what size bag to get now

    advice would be great

    cheers

    ollie

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    • Anil P. says:

      Pack for a week – and count out all of the things you’ll be carrying to help you decide. If you’re just getting a bigger pack for the gifts, you’ll end up filling up that space once it opens up. You might be better of shipping the presents if they’re not to big (saving your back over the long haul).

      Personally I travel with a 60L and a day pack; though everyone has a different style. I would also strongly recommend buying a few to try out then return – nothing like packing a bag to see how much space you need or have left (also helps you discard those things you over-packed).

      Hope this helps and let me know how it goes!

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  10. David says:

    Love your site. Any opinion or information on the Eagle Creek Thrive 65L pack, that is my current front runner.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Thanks David. I’ll ask around and get some opinions and maybe some first-hand accounts about that pack. I’ll have them posted here for you.

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      • Anil P. says:

        Hi David,

        Been checking up on it. I’ve been told it’s a fairly reliable pack but a bit bulky when completely full. The weight (2.52 kg) also seems a touch on the heavy side.

        I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for you and post any updates here. Hope this helps a bit!

        -Anil

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  11. In the late 60s and early 70s I was a Boy Scout … actually made it to Eagle Scout. Though I never “backpacked” through a foreign country, I probably trail hiked about a thousand miles in my day. You had to carry a tent, food (mostly dehydrated), stuff to cook it with, AND your clothes. Back then, backpacks were made of a canvas-y type material and were water “resistant”. It was also pretty much one size fits all and all external frames. God I wish I could do it again … but with today’s packs, please! Anil, thanks for the memories!

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    • Anil P. says:

      You’re welcome Rod :) I always thought that Boy Scouts was such a neat way to learn a lot about traveling and survival. I never did it but envy those who had the experience.

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  12. Ayngelina says:

    Completely agree with @Luke, I always fill the bag so I go as small as possible so that when its full I can carry it on my back.

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    • Anil P. says:

      I know, even when there’s just a little bit of space left, it’s hard not to think “hey could never hurt to throw in an extra pair of socks, etc.”.

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  13. A decent outdoor store will let you try the pack by walking around with it (weighed down with sandbags) I always look for helpful, knowledge salespeople, especially if you’re buying a pack for the first time. They can size up frames and suggest a model that might work for you.

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  14. Erica says:

    Before I first traveled abroad on my own at 18, a 60L backpack was one of the first things I bought for my trip. In hindsight, I could have done with a smaller size. As I quickly realized, I wouldn’t need all that stuff I had brought. And I totally agree about getting a top and front loading backpack. Being able to access ANY item in my backpack within seconds, made things a lot easier.

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    • Anil P. says:

      I won’t even consider a backpack that’s not front loading. Such a hassle to get stuff out otherwise.

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    • John says:

      It’s interesting about the size of backpacks people carry around. I’ve seen so many 80-100 liter packs whilst traveling through Asia and wondered what exactly is in them?

      I guess I’ve done quite well as I started with a 45 liter McKinley pack in 1999 (a top loader) which served me pretty well until it got partially eaten by rats whilst waiting for a 2am train in India!

      I used a Karrimor Travel Pro for a while, lovely pack, but it’s so heavy I stopped using it.

      I’m now using a 48 liter Kamiliun pack that’s meant for commuting and weekend getaways rather than backpacking. It’s good for me because it disassembles into four smaller packs. Great for keeping my stuff organized and it makes my gear really easy to access. I’m glad I’ve found a pack that suits the way I travel.

      Great blog by the way. =)

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  15. Luke says:

    I think one other thing to note with backpacks is that, just like the old physics rule of “a gas will expand to fill it’s container”, the amount of gear you pack will expand to fill your pack.

    You have a 50L pack, you will fill a 50L pack. Have a 75L pack? You will fill that just as easily. It is extremely rare to see people partially filling their pack, unless they are deliberately leaving space for souvenirs.

    So grab a pack which is the size you want to travel with – your packing technique will change to suit it.

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    • Anil P. says:

      So true – while I was thinking this post up I made an effort to notice how many half-full backpacks I saw in various shapes and sizes. The ratio of full backpacks was overwhelming.

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  16. anjuli says:

    what an amazing source of information!! My son and his wife backpacked for their honeymoon- and I can see by your suggestions, he was making the right choices when he chose their back packs.

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    • Anil P. says:

      There are so many backpacks out there but once you’ve got an idea of what to look for it’s fun to search and find the right one. Just curious, any idea what backpacks they ended up with?

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  17. flip says:

    i bought a cheap 40L deuter backpack from MBK in Bangkok, im not sure if it’s just an imitation or a factory overrun item… i think it cost me less than $50. and it’s still working after 3 years :-) just a lucky find among the heaps of pirated, low quality reproductions i guess.

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    • Anil P. says:

      There are a few things I’m willing to spend a bit extra on – usually the items I use most. Backpack, laptop, and well…I guess that’s it. Some knockoffs do last a while but it’s hit or miss (many times miss). Glad you’re one of the lucky ones!

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  18. Great post Anil. I wish I had some of this info when I started backpack shopping. I went through three before I found my Kelty that I love so dearly.

    Thanks for linking to my review as well!

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    • Anil P. says:

      You’re very welcome, it’s a great review and brings up a good point that people usually get their first pack way too big. Almost wish there were a backpack renting company since we all seem to go through a few before finding out perfect one.

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  19. Thanks Anil, as this is one of the most important aspects of backpacking. We went through four bags on our last trip. The first two, Lauren broke because they were cheap Chinese made knock-offs. It was not fun to look for another backpack in the middle of our trip. Eventually she bought an REI bag and had it shipped to us. No problems then. I also had a cheap Chinese made bag and it broke in Almaty last year. Luckily we met up with a friend of mine who brought me a good quality bag from home. For what it cost us to replace these “cheap” as many times as we did, we could have each just bought one really nice high quality bag each.

    Make sure you load them up with at least 40 pounds of weight and go for a walk to test it. You will be glad you did when you are climbing a mountain or hiking in national parks.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Which backpacks did you both end up with?

      Having a backpack break or tear on the road is the worst and those things always seem to happen in the worst places.

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  20. Ian E O says:

    Hi Anil,

    A little more to add on backpacks. I have had great experience with White Mountain Backpacks. Extremely well made, great materials and very economical. They have a great summary on backpack selection. http://www.whitemountain.com.au/product_selection/introduction.html
    I have used 3 of their products and have found over the last 5 years that they are robust and very reliable. I have not used the larger backpacks as I still have the same Karrimor from 25 years ago – 65 litre, top loading, with a bottom access compartment. Nice and narrow for travel on trains and generally walking around and not clipping people walking the other way. It is still going strong. It had a lifetime warranty when I bought it and looks like it will genuinely meet that claim. It is a bit dated by the colour scheme though. I must admit it has not had a lot of use in the last 10 years or so. More business travel with a wheelie for me. Though as an lady once said to me many years ago when I was hitch hiking in Sweden, she always got “Away sickness” never did she get “home sick”. Starting to feel way that reading your blog.

    Safe and interesting travels.

    Ian

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Ian,

      Thanks for the link – reliability is key for me when it comes to travel gear. It’s one aspect of everything I obsessively research and nowadays the Internet makes that process so much easier and more efficient to narrow down the choices. (Like your comment!)

      Hope you’ll keep in touch and cure your away sickness soon with another trip :)

      -Anil

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