Your travel backpack is essentially your home while on the road. It will contain everything that you need to live for the length of your trip. What goes into your home is obviously important, but so is the size, structure, and security. All of these considerations will apply to your backpack, just as they would a house.
One of the recurring themes that you will find on my blog is that less is more. The smaller your backpack, the easier it is to carry on to planes, fit into lockers, stash on buses, and maneuver through crowds. A smaller pack will also usually mean a lighter pack, saving you excess baggage costs and allowing you to carry it longer without getting tired. In my opinion, the best travel backpack for your trip will also be the smallest travel backpack that fits your needs.
Standard carry-on sizes vary considerably from airline to airline, but usually are between L22″xW14″xH9″ and L26″xW18″xH12″ (L55cmxW35cmxH22cm to L66cmxW45cmxH30cm). Most airlines also have weight restrictions. That said, after several hundred flights, I have yet to been asked to check the size of my bag (except on discount airlines, like Easy Jet and Air Asia). My thought is that as long as your bag appears to be a reasonable size, you shouldn’t have any problems. As mentioned, some budget airlines will check a bag’s weight, so I will sometimes end up just putting on my trousers, shoes, and jacket, and board the plane heavy and hot, in order to meet the weight requirement for my pack. I also discovered this jacket which is a funny but possibly useful solution: http://www.rufusroo.com/new/index.html
February 2014 update: Emirates has recently been very strict on their 1 – 7kg hand bag allowance for economy flights and is weighing bags prior to entering immigration in Dubai.
The carry-on restrictions I set out above may allow packs anywhere from 42L to 89L. That is more than enough space! In fact, I suggest you aim for a pack size of around 30-40L. My personal goal is usually <30L for tropical destinations, and 40-45L for cooler climates or trekking trips. Of course, items like sleeping bags can significantly add to this volume, but these items are often available for rent for the few times you may need them.
There are several features I look for in a travel pack. The number one feature is probably the length of the zipper. I have seen many people travel with barrel style backpacks or even dry bags, intended for backcountry camping and kayaking, where everything has to go in through the top. These are great bags for the backcountry because they resist the elements well and everything usually needs to come out of your bag when you set-up camp anyways. Unfortunately, when you’re traveling, this means pulling everything out of your bag just to grab a pair of socks, clean underwear, or whatever else you happen to need from the bottom of your pack. It also means it’s difficult to pack items without stuffing them in, meaning loads of wrinkles when you pull clothes out at the next stop. Instead of dealing this these issues, I recommend bags with a full-length zipper. This means that you can lay your bag down, open up the entire bag like a clamshell, and access things packed on the bottom just as easily as those packed on the top. The benefit of zippers rather than straps or draw-strings (as commonly found on backcountry packs) is also that you can just use a small travel lock to keep the contents secure provided the zippers have large enough loops to accommodate a lock).
If you are intent on using a top-load pack, it may be worth investing in a number of smaller mesh organizational bags to make it easier to keep things organized in your bag.
Another key feature I look for is comfort. There is nothing to be said here except to try on as many packs as you can, have a knowledgeable salesman assist you in adjusting the straps, and put some weight in the bottom of the pack to feel it under real-world conditions. A proper suspension system with hip belt can greatly assist in spreading the load from your shoulders to your hips and can be helpful for long walks or even using your pack for trekking.
For organization, I do like having a few pockets and compartments available, but nothing too complex. I like to organize my belongings in smaller bags within my pack anyways. Zip-lock or mesh bags work well but I personally like to use the free toiletry cases you get when flying business class to organize. I will usually have a bag separating my toiletries such as toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, contact solution, dental floss etc., and another bag to hold my electronics and cables such as camera batteries, charger and cables, travel adapter, iPod, speakers, headphones etc. Finally, I have a travel wallet that contains all of my important documents and back-up cards, making it easy to toss my valuables in a locker or safe on arrival. Having these separate cases usually makes the pockets on bags irrelevant but one pocket that does come in handy is a sleeping bag compartment. This is usually a large pocket on the bottom of your pack that allows you to separate and easily access a sleeping bag. Though I don’t usually carry a sleeping bag when I travel, I do like having this compartment for stuffing in dirty shoes or to separate hard goods (electronics / toiletries) I need to access from my clothing.
As mentioned before, having a hip belt can be great for spreading out the weight of your bag and make it useful for trekking. Some hip belts also have small pockets, meaning that you can stuff maps, pens or sunglasses into your waist belt and not have to take off your pack in order to grab those items.
Although I like having a bag that’s small enough to carry-on airplanes, on occasion you’ll have to check your bag. For these occasions, travel packs with strap covers are very handy. These are basically packs that have a nylon cover which zips over the shoulder straps, making your bag look more or less like normal luggage and ensuring that the straps won’t get caught on things or damaged while in transit. The other benefit to this style of pack is that certain hotels look at backpackers with contempt, and thus having a bag styled like luggage can be useful for checking into nicer establishments. An alternative to this is to buy a rain cover for your pack. I personally don’t bother carrying a rain cover for the rain, but have seen people put them on their packs backwards (ie. over the straps instead of over the bag) and then tie or tape it to the bag for aircraft travel. This accomplishes the same thing as the fit-for-purpose strap covers by keeping them from getting damaged while in transit. Why don’t I carry a rain cover for rain? Firstly, I usually won’t be walking around with my backpack in the rain if I can help it. Secondly, it’s a hassle to fit a rain cover and even if I have a rain cover in my pack when it does start raining, I probably won’t bother to stop in the rain to pull it out and put it on. Finally, there are very few things in my pack that can be damaged by water and I just pack them near the bottom of my pack against where my back is for both security and protection from the elements. The back of a pack is usually flat so it accommodates laptops and e-readers well and provides a frame and/or padding to help protect electronics from drops or being struck.
I do like having a couple of external loops or straps on my bag for tying loose belongings to (shoes / sweater) or expanding the size of my pack by adjoining a second pack should I need to temporarily carry a sleeping bag or someone’s gear.
As mentioned under the zipper section, a small travel lock is usually all you need to keep the contents of your bag within your bag. A properly sized zipper lock will usually also be adequate for hostel lockers, so shop with this dual purpose in mind. Another security item I sometimes carry is a cable lock intended for skis and snowboards. These are relatively small locks with a 12-24″ cable that you can use to attach your bag to a fixed object. If I know I will be traveling on my own on a train and hoping to sleep, sometimes I will simply lock my bag to the luggage rack so I have piece of mind. In hostels without lockers, you can also usually lock your pack to your bed so no one can walk away with your whole bag. Of course, if someone wants your pack badly enough they can cut the straps with a knife and still take it, but the odds of this happening are low. One item you should NOT buy is one of the backpack “cage locks” that are sold for security. These basically look like steel chicken wire, which in theory you wrap around your pack and lock so that no one can cut into your bag. Seriously, these are the biggest waste of time and pack space I have ever seen. Not once have I seen someone take the time to wrap their bags in these silly devices and even if they did it would make their pack more noticeable and possibly sought after by those with criminal intentions.
I have owned and used numerous packs for traveling and have quickly reviewed a few of them below. I highly recommend that you spend the money to get a quality pack that is built to last. You’ll note that the packs I have listed are not overly expensive and yet are extremely durable and are guaranteed to last. Being a Canadian, my favourite outfitter is Mountain Equipment Co-Op as their equipment is extremely good value, built to last, and they tend to update and improve their products year after year based on user comments. Many of the models I show below are newer models than what I own, but as they are basically the same design, my comments generally hold true.
This is one of the best backpack combos I’ve used. For a day bag, I use a frameless, foam free, 14L pack that weighs in at 410g like the Ridgemont pictured above. I roll it up and stuff it into my larger 32L frameless Adventure Daypack while traveling between cities, but the Ridgemont it perfect for carrying the camera, water, tissues, fleece, etc. I need while wandering around town. The day bag I have has even fewer zippers and pockets than the Ridgemont pictured and any easily compressible pack like that is great to have as a lightweight day bag.
The 32L Adventure pack is my main pack, and fits everything I need. It weighs in at 1.1kg, and is L60cm x W25cm x D35cm. I have carried it on at least 100 flights and never had an issue, though sometimes I have had to detach the waist pack (I often travel without it altogether). Most airlines will allow you a “purse” or “handbag” so if you are concerned about the 32L size of the Adventure pack, you can always stuff your fleece or a few valuables into the 14L pack and claim it as your hand baggage. The main downside to a backpack like the Adventure Daypack is that it only has a waistband rather than proper hip support. While this helps keep the weight pulled towards your body, it does little to take the weight off your shoulders.
The Adventure pack is very simple, with few pockets or added bulk. The bag has 4 compression straps, which help reduce the size of your load, and 2 ‘ice axe’ loops, which I have tied shoes and sweaters to. The thing I like most about this pack is its simplicity. The zipper opens all the way up so it’s easy to access things throughout my bag. The zippers have large loops for a decent sized padlock for security, and the compression straps are great for both strapping stuff to the exterior, and reducing the bulk of the bag. The optional “waist bag” attached to the outside is great for travel as I keep my Kindle, pens, and travel documents there for easy access when in airports and boarding planes. It is likely not a great spot for your valuables when walking around town since pickpockets can likely open it without you feeling anything, but it works great for travel documents when in more secure settings like airports. The bag is also detachable and has a waist strap so you can sling it over your shoulder or around your waist. Though I rarely use this functionality, it has come in handy on occasion when I’m willing to rock a fanny pack out and about town.
I have also experimented with larger packs built for traveling, but find them to be too large, heavy, and bulky to carry on planes.
The regular sized 58L Sojourn pack is L60cmxW36cmxH50cm. The attached daypack is 18L, making the main pack 40L in size.
The regular sized 64L Walkabout is L65cmxW38cmxH20cm. The attached daypack is 18L, making the main pack 46L in size.
These packs are both built with the traveler in mind and I have previously carried the equivalent to the Walkabout. These packs are certainly more feature rich than the Adventure pack I recommended above but are both generally too big to be consistently allowed as a carry-on.
The benefits of these packs is that they have the zip-over strap cover which avoids damage should you have to check the bag in and also makes the bag look more like luggage and less like a backpack. The packs also have internal frames, and larger waist straps, allowing for better weight distribution and is better suited for multi-day trekking. There are also more pockets for organization in each, and a handle so that the bag can be carried as luggage, rather than as a backpack. As with the Adventure pack, the zippers are the full length of the bag for easy access, and the Walkabout has a sleeping bag compartment for effective organization.
My recommendation with either of these packs is to ditch the zip-on day pack and stuff something like the Ridgemont into the main pack for use on day-trips. The additional daypacks hanging off the back just make the bags to bulky and unbalanced for easy walking. My preference between the Sojourn and the Walkabout would be the Walkabout, as even though it is 6L bigger, the shallower depth makes it seem smaller in size for carrying and better for organization. When I was purchasing the older models, I also found the equivalent to the Walkabout much more comfortable than the equivalent to the Sojourn, though perhaps the design has been improved.