How to Choose a Backpack?
Backpacks are incredibly versatile bags that allow you to schlep around your camping/ hiking gear, textbooks, work essentials, and personal stuff when going on vacation. Knowing how to choose a backpack can save you a great deal of frustration and money, which you might otherwise waste on packs that are less than ideal. So, what makes an ideal backpack? There are several criteria for a pack to meet in order to become your best travel companion.
How to Choose a Backpack?
Pick a backpack that is proportional to your body, i.e. is neither too big nor too small for you, and is durable, comfortable, and well compartmentalized. The perfect backpack should be able to double as a travel backpack and a day pack or work backpack in the blink of an eye.
However, there are activity-specific backpacks that can hardly double as a multipurpose pack. You should never turn a hiking backpack into a travel backpack or daypack and the other way around. The size, materials, frame, lack of compartments, and inability to be locked down disqualify hiking packs for the most reliable travel pack position.
If you prefer a travel pack for travel, get a multiuse pack or something that can easily double as a travel backpack. Swapping your duffel bag or wheeled suitcase with a backpack has plenty of advantages, including freedom of movement, lower risk of getting lost or stolen, and lighter load. Also, a backpack will force you to pack only the essentials when traveling and can be used as a carry-on if it meets airlines’ carryon size requirements.
When choosing a backpack, you should be keeping a close eye on three primary factors:
Make sure that the backpack is big enough to fit all your gear and small enough for you to easily carry it around and for it to pass most airlines’ carry-on size requirements if you travel a lot by air. Keep in mind that budget airlines, especially in Europe, have stricter size requirements for carry-ons.
In general, 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm) is the standard of carry-on size requirements for international travel. What’s more, when loading your pack make sure that you don’t overpack. Airlines have weight limits for carry-ons, too, which may often go down to 15 lbs (7 kg).
Backpack size is usually measured by volume (i.e., liters), rather than the load they can hold. For a week-long trip, if you are a woman a 30 Liter or 35 Liter backpack is enough. If you’re a man, a 40 Liter or 45 Liter option is more than sufficient. Eighty Liter backpacks or larger are either for hikers that need to fit all their camping gear or for overpackers.
For weekend getaways or 1 to 2-day trips, a 20 Liter or 26 Liter travel backpack is all you need. For ultralight travelers with insane organization skills, a 20- or 26-Liter pack should do the trick for several weeks (!) of travel.
For the rest of us mortals, a 40-50L pack offers ample room for all our stuff when leaving home for a couple of weeks, unless we need to take all our camping gear, food, and water with us on the road.
Padded pads and straps
Look for a backpack that is comfortable to wear even when you have to carry around heavy loads. A good travel backpack should come with padded shoulders, padded back, and an adjustable padded hip belt. A daypack or work backpack can go without the hip belt. The hip belt and adjustable straps for your chest ensure that the load is evenly distributed across your torso instead of pushing down on your shoulders and hips, fueling some nasty back problems. This is one major drawback of backpacks: people with weak joints or back issues should steer clear of them when hauling large loads and should opt for a wheeled duffel bag instead (see or top picks here) or a rolling suitcase. A nice bonus would be some compression straps, a feature that allows you to turn your loosely packed travel pack into a compact carry-on.
Water Resistance (Optional)
This feature falls in the it-would-be-nice-to-have department, especially if you’re traveling to rainy destinations. Don’t look for a 100% waterproof bag. Invest in a quality rainfly and you’re set (a tarp is usually included in hiking packs). The backpack should be water resistant enough to ensure that your stuff doesn’t get wet and musty. Get a backpack made out of treated nylon fiber if water resistance is a priority.
A great backpack is a pack that has tons of compartments to keep your gear organized. When compared to daypacks and travel backpacks, hiking backpacks lag behind in the organization department. They are usually designed as top-loading black holes in which you have to dig around for every single item you may need.
A good backpack has extra compartments to keep shoes, toiletries, dirty clothes and clean laundry separate. It should also come with front compartments to have easy access to your essentials while on the go. Alongside a roomy main compartment, a good backpack should also have an organization panel in the front, which should include a key clip and plenty of slots for your phone, cards, pens, meds, and whatnots. Check out our Rapid-Pass Backpack (pictured below) for a textbook example of excellent compartmentalization
Panel Access (Optional)
A well-designed backpack should come with panel access. This means that instead of being top-loading, like most hiking packs are, it should open like a suitcase for easy access. This feature is nice to have since it adds many bonus points to packing convenience as you will not have to dig everything out to grab that one tiny item at the bottom of the pack. If your backpack is top-loading, you can make your life (a lot) easier with some strategically placed packing cubes.
Internal Frame (Optional)
Frames are optional but they can add much-needed structure especially to bulky backpacks. School backpacks and daypacks lack an internal frame. Travel packs and hiking packs usually come with an internal or external frame. Backpacks with external frames are great for long hiking trips as they offer more ventilation and stability than their internal counterparts. Internal frames make versatile backpacks as they are invisible and usually lighter than external frames.
We recommend getting a backpack with an internal frame for the said reasons, and if the frame is detachable, all the better! An internal frame that cannot be removed can become an inconvenience if you need to squeeze your backpack into the overhead compartment of a plane.
Lockable Zippers (Optional)
These are a must for serious travelers as a secured backpack can discourage thieves. Ensure that every compartment (or at least the main compartment) is equipped with zippers that can be locked together with a pad lock. A secure system can deter any potentially curious cleaning lady at a hostel to inspect the contents of your pack or a weak-willed baggage handler to make your beloved possessions theirs. Make sure that the pad lock is TSA-approved to prevent the TSA from breaking into your bag if they find something that looks suspicious inside. You can buy TSA-friendly locks on Amazon or your local big-box retailer. Top-loading backpacks do not come with lockable zippers as they usually use drawstrings to secure the opening. This one is another downside of using hiking packs when traveling.
A work backpack or a school backpack needs a nicely padded laptop compartment. Even a carry-on travel backpack needs one if you plan on going on a business trip or just can’t live without your beloved MacBook. As an added bonus, the laptop compartment should be designed in a way that the laptop stays suspended to prevent it from accidentally meeting the asphalt when the owner is not paying attention.
The laptop compartment can double as a hydration sleeve if you plan on using the pack on the trail. Also, the compartment is handy when going through airport security as laptops in padded sleeves are not required to be removed from the pack. For a work backpack or casual day pack, our Cool Sling Pack Backpack with 15" Laptop Sleeve and our Cool Cyber Backpack fit the bill perfectly.
External Pockets (Optional)
Any extra feature is a big plus for a backpack as long as it stays useful. For really small stuff like coins, pens, and snacks, added easy-to-access compartments can be very handy. Also, side mesh pockets for water bottles are a nice feature to have as long as the pocket is not too loose or too tight and the compression straps do not block access to the water bottle while on the road.
The materials used in a backpack can greatly improve its durability and desirability. A tough material like canvas makes a pack heavier, which is less than ideal for long trips or hiking expeditions. Lighter materials will not weigh you down, but the backpack might lack structure or durability.
Look for a good backpack that will not let you down while in a foreign municipality or country. Test drive the pack days if not months before your next trip. A quality backpack should last at least a couple of years before you replace it.
One popular nylon material that is widely used in premium backpacks is Cordura. The high-tech performance fabric is sturdier and more durable than regular nylon and packs plenty of water resistance. If you are looking for a puncture-resistant material that feels like cotton but offers plenty of ventilation and minimal water absorption, then Cordura is for you. The only major downside of this fabric is that it is a great lint and dust attractor.
Canvas is the traditional material backpacks and duffel bags used to be made of. Cotton canvas is a sturdy and durable material that can offer superior water resistance if coated with waterproof wax. The major downsides of cotton canvas are the weight and low abrasion resistance. In humid environments, cotton canvas bags may rot or develop mold. Canvas is still a pretty popular material in kids backpacks, handbags, and tote bags.
Nylon backpacks are the most popular and budget friendly packs. Nylon is usually treated with silicone or PVC for water resistance. Treated nylon is relatively abrasion resistant but offers little to no breathability, which might cause the backpack to become a breeding ground for mildew especially if water seeps inside through the zippers. A variety of nylon is rip-stop nylon. This type of fabric comes with tightly sewn threads that prevent tears from becoming a disaster. The material is lighter than Cordura and canvas, which makes it very popular among backpackers.
Some backpacks are made of polyester, a material that is less rugged than nylon or canvas but it is very resilient when it comes to sun damage. UV radiation does not only cause colors to fade but it may also destroy a fabric during prolonged sun exposure. UV resistance is a great bonus of polyester backpacks. Another factor that may influence fabrics' level of UV resistance is color. Darker tones tend to absorb more UV light, leading to quicker deterioration of the fiber, while lighter tones tend to repel UV light.
To Wrap It Up
We hope we have answered your question on how to choose a backpack. There's no ideal backpack for everything and everybody. What might look like a perfect backpack for your hiker friend or IT specialist at work might make an awful travel or day backpack for you. Picking a backpack is a very personal experience that needs to involve a lot of research, but once you find that perfect multi-use backpack you will never look back.