Choosing the right travel backpack and accessories is essential for comfortable long term travel. Our guide will tell you what to look for when choosing a travel backpack.
Old travel backpack, new travel backpack
There is an overwhelming selection of travel backpacks out there, so taking some time to choose the right one for you will easily pay off in the long term.
I (Charlie) made the classic mistake of grabbing a cheap pack in a clearance sale days before we set off. At around £17 ($24.50 USD) it probably was a bargain compared to its original price point but it really didn’t work out once we started travelling.
We soon found that it was cumbersome to handle when not on my back and things got lost somewhere in the deep bottom of the backpack. Not great when trying to find those important documents in a hurry at immigration!
I’ve since got a new travel backpack I’m really happy with. It’s the right size for me so in this part we want to help you get to the same backpack ‘happy place’.
If I’d have done some research in the first place I would have been good to go from the start but we hope to use this experience to help you pick your perfect travel backpack…
What to look for in a travel backpack
So what specific things should you look for when searching for the right backpack for you? Here are some pointers from our experience:
Unzips fully like a suitcase
My first backpack was a tall, top-loading one. It made it hard to find stuff as you need to put your whole arm in there to find anything at the bottom and it was just groping around in the dark pulling out the wrong thing.
Look for a travel backpack that you can lie on its back and unzip like a suitcase for easy access. This means you can pack things in neatly and not disturb everything trying to find something.
Padded shoulder straps
Depending on your travel style you might not actually be wearing your backpack all that much. Regardless, you still want it to be super comfortable when you have it on your back so padded straps are essential.
Many travel backpacks have straps that are padded right across the shoulder area for extra comfort. Also, look for straps that you can tighten at the top to pull the pack closer to your upper back. If there a big gap between your shoulders and backpack it can get uncomfortable very quickly.
Waist belt with padding
Equally a waist belt that clips around your front is great to help spread the weight from your shoulders down to your hips. Make sure it has padding here too for comfort on the go.
The same comfort requirement applies to the back of the back that sits on your back and spine. This part should be padded and contoured to your back for hassle-free use with some space so your back can ‘breathe’ a little. It can quickly get sweaty carrying your pack around whatever the temperature.
It’s good to have a compartment to keep your stuff separated, one big backpack can quickly get messy. The pack I now own has 3 main compartments so I can keep our electrical kit separate from my clothes.
However, packs with too many small or fiddly compartments can be a waste of time. My old backpack had a large zip-able pocket on either side which I filled up, to begin with but quickly realised they made the pack much wider when full. It also makes it harder to find things if there are lots of little pockets to check.
Space for your valuable stuff
If you are going to travel with a laptop, camera or other valuable kit you want to ensure you can stash it safely in your travel backpack. My new pack has a lovely padded pocket to keep our MacBook Pro safe from knocks on the go.
Something that I didn’t really think about before getting my new backpack but well-placed handles are a must. My pack has one on the top and on the side, this is very handy when chucking it on and off buses, trains and planes.
If you get caught in a downpour or have to leave your travel backpack somewhere it might get wet and you don’t want your stuff inside to get soaked. Check the pack is made of hardwearing waterproof material or at least has a tarp that pulls out to cover the backpack.
There have been a few times at airports when we have had to go to the oversize baggage check because of the straps sticking out from our backpacks. Some people opt to wrap theirs in clingfilm at the airport but this is costly and a waste of resources.
Look for a travel backpack that has a zip-able flap that covers the straps to save this hassle when checking in. It turns the pack into a neater bag and combined with the handles acts more like a suitcase when needed.
What size backpack should you get?
The real question is: what size are you? The pack needs to fit you not the other way round. We’ve seen plenty of backpackers whilst travelling struggling away with a pack that towers over their head when they wear it.
Ideally, the pack should be level with our just above your shoulders, any higher and you can become unstable when wearing it. Also if you have a massive backpack you’ll be more tempted to fill it up with stuff that you don’t need.
Equally don’t go too small so you have lots of stuff hanging from the side of your pack and end up carrying extra bags, this makes travelling around much harder than it needs to be.
We now both travel with a backpack around 40 litres plus an extra small daypack each. When moving from place to place we try and keep the daypack as light as possible with just a jumper, book, charger and water in there.
That works for us at the moment but it’s all about what works for you. Get yourself along to an outdoor retailer and try on some packs. In a decent store, they will put some weight in the pack so you can try it out properly to get a feel for what suits you.
Where to buy your travel backpack
As mentioned we would suggest trying on some packs in person at the store. It’s tricky to order one online unless it’s a straight replacement.
If you’ve seen a great deal online you could always find one in-store just to try it out and then buy online. Mention to the staff the deal you’ve seen and you might just bag (sorry) a discount.
Charlie now travels with an Osprey Packs Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack (US version) (UK version) and manages to carry all his clothes, laptop and kit in comfort.
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Do you need a ‘day pack’ too?
We travel with 2 smaller rucksacks that we’ve had for ages but serve us well, these are our daypacks as mentioned above.
They are really handy when you are travelling in a bus, taxi, plane, boat etc and just want a few items of valuables with you. We also take these out with us when exploring and leave the main backpacks at our accommodation.
We’d suggest just getting a small cheap pack of around 10 litres and see how you get on with it in daily use. Again make sure the shoulder straps are padded and it’s comfortable to wear as even carrying just a bottle of water and a book can get tiresome after several hours.
- Choosing the right travel backpack is key to hassle-free, comfortable travel
- Take your time to avoid the same mistakes as we made
- Use the list to check for some key features when choosing your backpack
- The backpack needs to fit you, not the other way round
- Go along to an outdoor shop to get an accurate feel for the size and weight
- Get yourself a little day pack too for carrying a few essentials on you when travelling
If you know someone who would find this post useful please share it via the social links. What do you look for in a great travel backpack? Let everyone know in the comments below…
Very helpful article! Well done guys 🙂 Looking for our perfect backpack and these tips will definitely come in handy
Glad you found it useful, Shaun! The bag is fantastic and well worth the pennies! We love their stuff and are looking into getting Osprey day bags for our upcoming travels 🙂
Nice Article! When traveling most people tend to pack way too much. Who actually needs multiple different pair of shoe and outfits when away from home? Toiletry items also can be purchased in most places that you go to also to lighten your load.
Hey Adam, thanks for reading, yeah it’s the no.1 travel issue – overpacking! We still do it occasionally but are slowly learning to be more efficient and a smaller backpack certainly helps!
Totally agree, for us being on the other side of fifty (not much) we reviewed, tried, looked at several, in the end Osprey gave us what we wanted as our main pack/bag. Research was the key
Yeah we love it and will get one for Kristina too soon 😉
These are wonderful bags and can be used at any occasion whether the long distance travelling or a short journey
Thanks Julie, we feel the same, they are the best! 😀
Excellent post to select a right size travel backpack.
Actually for me, backpack size depends on the travel duration. My first backpack was not so good because I was new in that case.
Some days later a have got new travel backpack than I was so happy because it was so good to see and easy to carry. A good backpack is very important because it can use for a wide range of purposes.
Thanks Antonina, we have been using 40l packs for over 6 months now and can carry more than enough with us. I see some people struggling with massive hard case luggage, I’m sure they don’t need to take so much stuff!