Since your backpack will probably be the single most important purchase you will make before hitting the road, its worth taking the time to choose it wisely. It will be your best friend or worst enemy, depending on which backpack you pick.
With that in mind, here are a few pointers to consider when choosing a travel backpack.
Size IS Important
Before choosing a rucksack, have an idea of what’s going to go in it. Visualise the contents, understand your needs, and shortlist a range of rucksacks accordingly. The shortlist should contain rucksacks big enough for the largest loads you will carry, but no bigger - as the larger the backpack, the more you may be inclined to fill it. But don’t go too small either, as an overloaded rucksack may feel uncomfortable and unstable, and may force you to have to secure extra gear on the outside thus increasing the risk of loss or damage.
The choices on offer can be put into the following categories:-
Daypacks (15 - 35L) - Small backpacks with minimal or no internal frame to support loads, so all weight is transferred through shoulder straps. Perfect for day trips and shorter outings.
Alpine Packs (35 - 55L) and Backpacking Packs (55 - 75L) – This will be the area to concentrate in for a backpacking or RTW trip. If possible, the smaller alpine pack. Both offer many of the comprehensive features of larger rucksacks whilst keeping physical weight and size to a minimum.
Expedition Rucksacks (75 - 100L) – These packs are huge. Possibly necessary for trips involving many climate changes for those wishing to carry all their gear from the word go, or for those wishing to practice for SAS Selection! If you fill one of these remember that you may and up carrying mucho, mucho Kilos…
Travel Packs - Essentially, these are like soft suitcases with shoulders straps that can be covered (to avoid snagging when not being carried). They are most certainly an option to consider, as these front opening packs make it easier to access your gear compared to conventional top-loading rucksacks. They may also engender a greater air of respectability if checking in to hotels or at border crossings. The downside is that they are generally a little more expensive and also bulkier than their rucksack equivalent.
Choosing a rucksack that is a good fit is of paramount importance. If possible, try each rucksack with some weight in. It may feel quite different. Fill the backpack with the approximate weight that you will be carrying, and distributing it as best you can. After you have achieved a good fit be sure to test drive the backpack a little. Lean forward, backward, and also sway from side to side. The rucksack should remain snug, and not swing wildly or throw you off balance.
Walk around with it - even up and down some stairs if possible. Concentrate on ensuring yourself that the weight is being distributed evenly. Be aware of any minor niggles, as these will become painfully apparent after several hours on your feet with a heavy backpack on a hot day.
What to Look For
Shoulder Straps - Focus on rucksacks with wide, well padded (yet firm), shoulder straps. Ensure that the straps keep the rucksack central and well balanced, that they don’t slip (a good, solid chest strap should help with this), and that they keep the rucksack snug yet don’t chaff or restrict arm and upper body movement.
Hip Belt – Often overlooked, a good Hip Belt is essential. It should be strong enough to bear the main pack weight as it will, when used properly, transfer the weight from your back to your hips, thus considerably increasing comfort and reducing back strain when wearing the backpack for prolonged periods of time. Ensure that the band is semi rigid, and that it has soft, broad padding so to avoid creating pressure points that will all too quickly become very painful. On larger rucksacks, the hip belt is the main load-bearing component, so remember to use it – it makes a world of difference.
Other Straps - Side compression straps come highly recommended. After the rucksack is packed, these can be pulled tight to further reduce the size of your pack. It may make the difference between being able to have it as carry on luggage for flights, fitting it overhead luggage compartments on busses, and actually being parted with it on other such journeys. They also serve to increase pack stability by holding the load closer to your back.
Pay attention to the types of adjustments on these straps, too. Can they be adjusted whilst wearing the rucksack? Are they difficult to adjust? Inversely, do they adjust too easily and will therefore change when I don’t want them too?
Also look out for other types of adjustments. Although they may seem surplus to requirements at the moment, they will enable the wearer to further fine tune how the pack sits and feels at a later stage.
Pockets - Ensure there are enough pockets on the rucksack for all your needs. Lid pockets are especially useful for carrying items that need to be accessible in a hurry - such as guidebooks, for instance. Mesh pockets (usually located either side near the bottom of the backpack) are great for holding wet gear should you be fresh out of those handy plastic bags. Outer side pockets are also exceptionally handy for storing items that you want quick access to whilst travelling – or when your rucksack is half buried in other luggage - and are large enough to accommodate substantial items such as water bottles and tasty road-nibbles. In general, pockets allow for a better separation of your gear. If you like a modicum of organisation, including somewhere separate to put your skanky pants, you can never have too many pockets.
Compartments – If you opt for a top loading backpack then it’s advisable to choose one with at least two, separately accessible, compartments - thus providing access from both the top and the bottom of the backpack. This arrangement is ideal if packing/unpacking is a regular occurrence, as you can put your most used items in one compartment, and makes for a good compromise if you were also considering the purchase of a Travel Pack. You may also find that internal diaphragms separating the two can be unzipped to accommodate larger items if need be.
Top Flap – If opting for a top loading pack then look for a top flap that will extend if need be. It’s a must-have for those temporary overloads and can always be used to stuff extra little bits under when your rucksack is already packed and secured.
Back Pads and Stays – These days, rucksacks generally come with a padded back piece as standard, although better quality versions will also have ventilation features built in. Ergonomic, raised ribs of foam will allow better airflow between the carrier and the rucksack. This airflow means greater comfort, less sweat, and a smaller laundry pile after a few days of overland travel.
Lightweight, aluminium stays fitted in the rucksack (sometimes removable) maintain backpack shape and ensure good weight transfer between the shoulders and the Hip belt. Some versions are smaller, and therefore less intrusive, than others and will come pre-curved thus providing greater comfort.
Durability – Take a closer look. Check for durable, waterproof/water resistant fabrics and tightly stitched seams. Pay particular attention to where straps fix to the main body. Pull the seams apart, and be wary if stitching becomes clearly visible. Ideally, internal seams should be covered by fabric as it will make them less prone to wear. The base should be constructed from an incredibly durable material – or at least the same material as the body of the pack but double lined or double thickness - as that’s the part of the pack which will be most prone to being scuffed and torn.
Ensure that all zippers and catches look up to the job. Try them all several times to get a feel for their durability and functionality. Are the zipper handles too small? Can I fit a padlock through them? Are there double zippers that meet in the middle in case one breaks? These are all things to consider.
The benefits of hitting the road with the right backpack cannot be underestimated. Sure, you can travel with almost any bag – I used to borrow backpacks, in fact. But a comfortable, well-fitting rucksack will not only be physically beneficial, but will make life a little easier in the long run.