6 Things to Consider When Buying Your First Backpack

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When it comes to travelling for the first time, other than maybe buying a plane ticket I reckon there’s nothing that says you’re really ‘doing it’ more than going into the store and buying your backpack.

Striding up to the counter, credit card in hand and a big smile on your face, proudly telling the poor shop assistant exactly what it is you plan to do with your new purchase. “Oh, I’ll be carrying this for six months around Europe,” you happen to slip into the conversation. “I hope this is big enough to fit in everything I need for my round the world trip,” you proudly proclaim.

As with all important purchases, however, it’s vital to pick the right option. Especially when that option is going to be sitting on your back with all of your possessions in it for the next several weeks, months or years.  Getting it wrong will only result in unnecessary frustration and expense, limit your options, and probably provide you with a visit to the chiropractor to boot.

Here are a few pointers I’ve come up with over the years, that I wish I’d known when hitting the travel stores for the first time.

Size Matters (but Bigger Isn’t Better)

Like a few other things in life, size matters when it comes to choosing a backpack — but not in the way you might think. Based on many years of dragging excessively large backpacks around the world, I have to say bigger is not better. You do not need an 80 or 90 litre pack. No really, you don’t.

No matter how much you tell yourself you won’t fill it up, or it really isn’t that big, or the extra space is ‘just in case’, or whatever your justification is, the reality is this: if you don’t have the space to start with, you can’t pack things you don’t genuinely need.

Trust me, your back will thank you for it as you’re climbing the 150th stair out of a tube station in London, or walking to a campsite in Rome that’s a few km out of town because you got off the bus in the wrong place. These things will happen, and if you’re not carrying around half your bodyweight on your back at the time, you’ll be a lot happier for it.

Find the smallest size you think you can get away with, and then choose the size below that. Even if you can’t get away with carry-on size luggage, a 50 litre pack is plenty big enough for even the longest trip if you pack well.


No, not in, on or with your backpack (although whatever works for you, I guess), but rather what sex you are. As you may have noticed, boys and girls have sticky-out bits in different places, and good backpacks are designed with that fact in mind.

Ask the sales assistant to show you the packs designed for your gender — one size does not fit all, especially if you’re female.


As a general rule there are three main types of backpack: the hiking pack, the travel pack, and variations on the ‘backpack with wheels’ theme.

Unless I was actually planning on spending several days or weeks walking and camping in the bush, I really wouldn’t buy a pack designed primarily for hiking. For starters, they usually open only from the top, which aids in waterproofing at the expense of, y’know, actually being useful. I don’t know about you, but I’ve haven’t found the need to ford too many waist-high rivers while exploring New York City.

I have, on the other hand, needed to get things from the bottom of my pack on a very regular basis. After pulling everything out and dumping it on the sidewalk for the third time in a day, I suspect you’ll be a little less thrilled with your hiking pack.

These packs also tend not to have the option of attaching a daypack to them, which means you’ll either not be carrying one (impractical) or wearing it on your front (not much better). Finally, hiking packs usually don’t have a zip-away section at the front to stow the straps when being checked onto a plane, which increases the likelihood of (a) the pack getting damaged and (b) the check-in assistant giving you a very dirty look.

The latter may not matter much to you, but the former definitely does.  Carrying a pack with two straps can be bad enough.  Doing it with one (or none) is just torturous.

A backpack with wheels is another option, often pitched by sales assistants as ‘the best of both worlds’.  Sadly I doubt anyone who says this has actually tried travelling with one, as in reality they’re more like worst of both worlds. Every one I’ve come across seems to be too heavy, very uncomfortable, and generally impractical for everyday use as either a backpack or a suitcase.

The best travel packs have a panel design that allows easy access, plenty of internal pockets for storing bits and pieces, a comfortable strap and harness mechanism that zips away when not required and both a shoulder strap and a top or side handle to give different carrying options. Realistically, these are far and away the best choice.

The Sleeping Bag Dilemma

Sleeping bags on bunk beds

For the first few years I travelled, I always took a sleeping bag with me. After using it maybe five times, these days I don’t bother unless I absolutely know I’ll need it.  Despite that, though, I’ll always look for a pack with a sleeping bag storage compartment at the bottom.

Why? Other than being the obvious place to put a sleeping bag on the odd occasion you actually do need one, it’s a great place to throw muddy shoes, dirty or wet clothes, and other stuff you don’t want mixing with the rest of the things in your pack. There’s nothing worse than having all of your clean laundry covered in dirt and smelling like damp dog. Unless that’s your thing, of course. If you can find a pack where the internal lining extends all the way into the storage compartment when not in use, even better.

Give It a Go

This one may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many people don’t seem to think about it. When you’re checking out which pack to buy, try it on with weight in it. Fill it up with all sorts of random stuff from the travel store -– sleeping bags, jackets, boots, whatever you can find.

Full packs sit differently on your back to empty ones, and what seems comfortable off the rack may not be with 20 or 30 pounds of gear in it. A couple of minutes spent now can save you hours of pain on the other side of the world.

Price vs Quality

Good quality backpacks can be expensive, and it’s always tempting to try to save money wherever possible to spend on important things like beer. While I certainly wouldn’t say you need a brand name pack, spending a little extra on quality will save you a lot of grief in the long run. Trust me, you won’t be slapping yourself on the back for saving a hundred bucks when your zip jams or your strap breaks a few thousand miles away from the nearest warranty claim centre.

Compare all the packs on display at the store, and see if you can figure out what makes the expensive ones so pricey. Is it just the name, or are the zips and buckles noticeably more robust? Pull the zippers backwards and forwards a dozen times –- if they keep jamming, move on to the next pack. Same with the buckles and clasps. Tighten and loosen the straps several times, and make sure they slide easily and stay in position once locked in place.

Check the quality of both the exterior material and the inner linings, and avoid any that look noticeably inferior. Take the time to google for other people’s experiences, as they’re  worth far more than anything most sales people might have to say. Once you’ve finally settled on the one you’re after, negotiate hard and don’t be afraid to shop around for the best price.

Your pack will be one of the most important pieces of travel equipment you ever buy, so be prepared to spend a bit of time and money finding the perfect one for you. Once you’ve bought it – celebrate!  You’re one big step closer to starting the adventure of a lifetime!

So What Do I Recommend?

As you can probably tell, there’s no single “best backpack” for every traveller. If I was buying a new one today, though, I’d start out by looking seriously at the following:

Travelling carry-on only? Check out the Osprey Farpoint 40 or Kelty Redwing 44.

Want something bigger? Take a look at the Osprey Farpoint 55 or Deuter Transit 50.

Backpacker image via faungg

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  1. Wow thanks so much, this article was so helpful as I had absolutely no idea what features to look out for (or avoid) when shopping for a travel backpack! Cheers!

  2. No extra points for a bigger bag, dang …

    I won’t be buying my pack until next year but I am already convinced that an 80L back is not going to be an option.

  3. @Nick – totally right. I am amazed every day here in SE Asia at the size of the packs that people are carrying round in 35+ degree (C) heat. They must be dying…

    @ayngelina – yeah I know what you mean. I’m happy with my 55L, I have to say – enough space that I’m not washing my underwear in the sink every night, but small enough that I’m not tempted to carry crap that I don’t need. Smaller would be nice, of course, but the compromise works well for me…

  4. These are some great tips! I will be going backpack shopping in a few months and I know I most def want a SMALL backpack. I just dont wanna be carrying a big bag cus I know I will hate it on like day 5…lol!!!

  5. I’m sure glad I exchange 60L for a 50L. Black Diamond just came out with front & top open hiking pack this year. I’ll wear mine ($100 less) until it falls apart then get that one.

  6. Thanks a lot, I will buy a smaller backpack and definitely try it at the store! Thanks for the bright ideas! 🙂

  7. I was going to go with the Osprey Waypoint 65L. Great pack! Then I found the Osprey Farpoint 55L which is identical except for the size. Every detail of this bag is well thought out and there is plenty of room for a rtw trip, not to mention, its small enough so you never have to check it and you save tons of cash if you fly often.

  8. Great article!
    I currently use a 70L MEC pack when I was traveling. For my RTW trip, I’m definitely going smaller. I have my eye on a Gregory Contour 60L Men’s travel pack.
    Thanks again for writing this! 😀

  9. I just bought a new backpack and it can only carry about 30L. I’m not planning for a long-term travel YET so I think it will do!

  10. After many years of being a minimalist and working hard to lighten my load I recently made a 180 degree change and am jumping up to a 73 liter pack from a 45. I spend a lot of time in the Andes and the truth is that my reality may be a little different, but I have had a few experiences where I was in danger because I didn’t have a piece of equipment that I would have had with a bigger pack. For travel the smaller the better, but remember to consider exactly what you are going to do and what you really need on your back.

  11. I gotta ask, does this only apply if you’re not carrying food?
    I mean I’m going to do a trip to Iceland this summer and I’m concerned that a 55 L (that i currently own)
    will not be large enough for my clothes (gotta pack warm) and 5 days worth of food + Fuel + cooking gear.

    1. Yup, correct. I’m using backpacking in the UK/Europe/Aus/NZ sense here (as in, travelling with your life on your back, but staying and cooking in hostels, guesthouses etc) rather than the US sense of back-country hiking and camping. My recommendations for both size and type of pack are quite different in that case.

  12. Backpackers who clog up 90L rucksacks are FUCKING STUPID. Investing in a good quality trolleycase is way cheaper on the wallet and easier on your back. Unless you’re Hulk, maximum load shouldn’t be more than 10 kg. Climbing up and down a flight of staircases isn’t funny.

    1. Trolley cases (which I’m assuming are wheeled suitcases) are great when the surface you’re dragging them on is smooth. On cobbled streets, broken pavements, mud, dirt and sand? Yeah, not so much.

  13. My 15yo daughter is going on her first hiking trip to Borneo with school at the end of the year. I have read your tips which I will keep in mind, but can anyone give me a good brand as I will probably buy on line. I don’t want to spend a lot of money but I do want one that is comfortable as I think this will be a once off trip.

  14. Some good points in this article. I have a 60L crumpler LLA which comes with a lifetime warranty. It was a bit expensive at 295AUD but the quality is outstanding, has ample storage compartments and great shoulder straps. Crumpler make some awesome gear which doesn’t scream tourist like most of the other brands out there.

  15. Hey Dave thanks! but I’m still bent towards a 70L though I won’t fill it fully but because I being from a warm country travelling to a snowy cold country with zero experience of cold areas, I need to pack extra warm, foam jackets+ wool sweaters+ wool socks+ wool caps & wraps. Summer would have been a different story completely!

  16. I have a 70L but just compress it to about 50L – it just depends. My view is that you can make a big pack small, but you can’t make a small pack larger. If you need more space for whatever reason, how are you going to do that? It’s that simple: If you stuff your pack when leaving home, of course you’ve got too much gear. And I’ve managed to get in on as hand luggage. With a small pack, your options are limited: just my opinion.

  17. I travelled SE Asia for 3 months with a Karrimor Airspace 28 I bought for 29.99. It was great. I decided it was too big, and when I went back took my Belkin 18L laptop bag for 2 weeks (weighed 3.7kg at check in including a Lenovo X230). If I went again for longer, I’d probably not even take a backpack atall (unless I wanted my laptop), you can buy clothes and a backpack there for very little if you really need it.

    Sort your life out and leave everything at home. You don’t need it.

  18. Hey Dave, please give me an advice for backpacking around 9/10 days in Patagonia ( food,sleeping bag, tent, gaz stove etc…) better 70 or 90 liters?!

    1. I haven’t done a trip like that, in Patagonia or elsewhere, so I can’t give you first hand experience. My advice would be to find a ~70 liter pack you like, try it on in the shop with examples of all the stuff you plan to take with you inside it, and see what you think. Generally I advise that smaller packs are better for most people, as they’re not tempted to take crap they don’t need, but whether you can fit everything you genuinely need for your Patagonia trip into 70 liters is something you’ll have to find out for yourself, I’m afraid.

  19. I just got a 35L and it’s perfect for my needs. I was able to find it at a great price on Ebay. I love all the front and side pockets and separate zipped container on the top, plus two places to slip water bottles in. It is perfect for putting my phone, note pads, pens, my mini head flash lights and wallet in for quick access. I’m surprised at just how much you can fit in there. Best of all are the extra strap options to hook my tent and sleeping bag on :o)