Saturday, June 20, 2009

Travel Tip: Picking a Backpack

Most backpackers have backpacks. Not all. And you don't need the perfect pack. Before this trip, my “backpacking” experiences didn't involve a real Backpack. I spent a week traveling around South India on my own with a black rolling suitcase. My only visit to Ireland (so far), I used a daypack built to carry a laptop. I'm not saying this to brag about some mysterious traveler's skill-- anyone reading this could have done the same if they tried. My point is that when you're making decisions about what backpack you're going to take, you don't have to worry so much about which of the two or three models you've narrowed it down to is the “right choice.” They'll both work just fine. Go with your gut. If your gut isn't helping, flip a coin. As long as it carries your things and you can carry it, it'll work.

That said, I can tell you a few things that will make your life as a backpacker easier. We'll start with the most important tips and work our way down.

First, the most important part of buying a backpack: go to a proper store where a salesperson fit you for a pack and show you how to adjust it properly. The backpack you're going to use is going to have a few more bells and whistles than your average daypack. You've seen the adjustments for the bottom of the shoulder straps, and the new, padded waistband part will be pretty intuitive, but you might not be familiar with the straps at the top of the shoulders, or the compression bits at the sides. A good store will have people on hand to show you how to use all of these things so that the pack will be both comfortable and healthy (I met one guy who'd done permanent damage to his back by improperly wearing an exterior metal frame bag while traveling for three years-- you want to know how to how to avoid that-- it's not “don't travel for three years”). Make sure the person helping you knows what they're doing, and make sure they put some weight in the bag when you're testing it out (any backpack will feel pretty comfy when it's empty). Most stores have special weights exactly for this purpose. Depending on your trip itinerary and body size, I'd ask to test about 20-25 lbs of weight (my bag clocks in a little over 25 lbs right now, and I'm carrying some extra stuff I plan on sending home soon). You will be carrying this bag a lot, so the most important features of your bag are comfort and health. A good sales rep will be a great help here.

However, there is one area in which these wonderful salespeople will lead you astray: size. I don't mean sizing the pack for your body, you can and should trust them on that. I mean cubic capacity. The bigger a pack they sell you, the more expensive it will be, and the more stuff they can sell you to put in the thing. Most backpacks are measured in liters. When you describe the trip you are taking, they will likely recommend something to carry at least 65-70 liters. This is too much. The reason you don't want a pack this big is that no matter how big a pack you buy, you will almost certainly fill it. Therefore, the bigger the pack, the more stuff you will be carrying. You want to pack light. I'm six feet tall, I carry a 55 liter bag, and it's more than big enough for me. I'm pretty sure I've seen people carrying 40 liters. I'm not sure I'd buy much smaller than that unless you are quite small, very good at packing light, and not planning on buying anything to bring home. But if you get a smaller bag, it will help you pack light because the stuff you don't need just won't fit.

Now, backpack features. These days, backpacks come with about as many features as cell phones. Top-load, back-load, side-load, compression straps, rain cover, wheels, internal frame, external frame, detachable top compartment, etc. etc. Some of these are useful. Some of them are not. Here's my opinion on which are which:

Helpful features:

-Internal frame- the metal external frame has (thankfully) gone the way of the videocassette and rotary telephone. The internal frames are just as sturdy and better for your back. Almost all backpacks have them, it's really only the daypacks that don't.

-Top loading main compartment- this means it will be a little harder to pack, but it also means people on the street will have a harder time unzipping it and poking through your stuff when you're not paying attention. A friend of mine I met in Mexico had a top-loading backpack with a zipper pocket on the back. When she was in South America, she had a cold. When she blew her nose, she'd put the used tissues in this back zipper pocket. Whenever she opened the pocket in her hostel, these would nearly always have mysteriously vanished. I haven't noticed the scrap paper I keep in a similar pocket going missing, but you probably still see the point-- you don't want the main compartment of your bag to be so easily accessed. Most backpacks are top-loading drawstring affairs anyway, so you won't need to think about this much.

-Side or bottom access to the main compartment-- my pack has a zippered opening in the side, which makes it very easy to pull out my rain jacket or med kit when needed without going through my entire bag. Ideally you'll want this secondary access to be lockable, but mine just has a couple compression straps across it, making it a lot harder for anybody to open it without my noticing.

-Compression straps- these straps on the bottom and sides make you bag take up less space, and bring the weight closer in to your body. Your bag will be less likely to get stuck in narrow or short passages and doorways. Also if you're having a hard time fitting something in, you can pack as much as you can, compress everything with the straps, loosen the straps again, and squeeze stuff in the newly freed space.

-Detachable top compartment- This might be slightly harder to find. Top compartments in general are good for storing stuff and can be used to tighten down your bag when adjusted properly. Detachable ones are a bonus. If you can remove it from the bag and add a camera strap, it becomes a daypack-- especially useful for bus, train, and plane rides where you have to check the big bag, but you want to keep a small one handy for your water, book, snacks, hand sanitizer, plus toothbrush/paste, and earplugs if it's an overnight ride. They aren't always built for the purpose though-- I attached a couple key rings to mine which made it easier to put a camera strap on. Also look at how much you can put in there if you want to use it as a daypack, some of these things are pretty small.

-Rain cover- I don't have one of these, I just toss a poncho or rainjacket over my pack, but these things can be quite useful. The worst thing about rain when backpacking is keeping your stuff dry, so this makes life easy. They're usually banded by elastic, meaning they're less likely to blow away than my rain jacket solution.

Unhelpful features:

-Wheels- these require an extra (heavy) internal frame to support them and are usually make your pack uncomfortable to wear. Also they themselves are extra weight. Anyway, the whole reason you're carrying a backpack is because you're likely going places your wheeled suitcases' wheels aren't useful.

-Back-loading main compartment- a security liability. They make things easier to pack, but when in public you'll have to constantly beware that they're locked every second you're not actually looking at the zipper. Also, top-loading bags often use the back for an extra pocket that provides two or three extra layers of material. The real advantage to this is that it helps deter one of the worst kind of thieves: bag slashers. Notorious for showing up in bus and train stations, these guys can sneak up behind you, slit your bag open with a small razor, help themselves to the contents, and leave, without your noticing. So even if a back-loading bag locks, you'll only have one layer of fabric to deter a blade.

-Detachable daypack- I know people who love these things, but personally I think they take up too much space and stick a lot of weight way out behind you, making you less maneuverable and forcing you to lean forward all the time to counter the weight. I also have heard a lot of complaints about how hard it can sometimes be to reattach a dayback to a fully packed bag.

-Metal mesh security net- usually sold separately from the bags, these provide good protection against slashers, but they're heavy and practically scream “steal this bag-- there's something valuable inside.” After six continents, I've never seen anyone actually use one of these. A subtle cable lock and/or luggage locks on the zippers (if they can take them) should suffice. But none of these security measures ware going to go half as far as vigilance and simple common sense will. (special note: there are newer bags nowadays that have this sort of metal mesh built into the main lining of the bag. This is a lot more subtle than the separate external nets and might be a good idea-- though you will still have to deal with the extra weight. Your call).

And that's about it for helpful or unhelpful features. Here are a few final tips for shopping:

-Buy a major brand. International brands like are found all over the world and therefore easy to fix or find replacement parts for if something goes wrong with it. Go to the maker's website and see how many countries they sell their product in.

-Try models in stores, write down the names, and then look up consumer reviews online to see how they stack up against similar packs, and how long customers have owned theirs. Often the customer reviewers take their reviews very seriously, and they're good resources. Most of them will be reviewed in terms of how well they hold up for 5-6 day hiking trips in the woods rather than 3-4 month trips around Southeast Asia or Africa, but it still should help give you some ideas.

-There are many areas of travel where getting cheap and used gear is a good idea. This is not one of them. Having a pack break in the middle of travel sucks. You want to avoid that if at all possible. Treat yourself well. Invest in a good, durable, comfortable backpack.

That's my advice for backpack shopping. More tips to come (suggestions always welcome).

Loved it? Hated it? Don't agree or find it confusing? Comment here or email me. Let's talk.


  1. Hola Joel!!!

    Como estas?, te cuento que ya estoy un mes en Spokane, y la anterior semana tuve la oportunidad de poder ir a la boda de tu prima Janel, que linda familia tienes, de veras que todos son muy amorosos y me alegre mucho de haber podido asistir a una boda maravillosa, conoci a tu padre y a tu mami, Julia, muy simpatica, tu abuelito Carl me sorprendio con sus historias y con los "tesoros" que tiene en la casa de piedra que el mismo construyo!...sorprendente!...en fin, tus tias y toda la familia que estuvo presente son personas tan bondadosas y el pueblo de Inchelium es muy hermoso!!!...Jenny y su enamorado Pete nos llevaron a mi a tia Sally, yo y tia nos quedamos en la casa verde, tu mami Julia se preocupaba por nosotras, realmente estuve muy agradecida de que me hayan permitido ir...fue un fin de semana inolvidable. Espero que estes bien y disculpa porque no te escribi anteriormente, siempre rezamos por ti y tu familia con tis Sally!...y les estamos muy agradecidas por todas las atenciones!...Hasta prontooooooo

  2. Hola! Cómo estás? Mi mamá me mandó unos fotos de ti con mi familia! Tengo celos-- no pudiera asistir a la boda. Cuales son estos tesoros de mi abuelo? Tal vez has visto algo que todavia no he visto! Me alegre mucho que conociste a mi familia despues de mi tiempo con la tuya! Me escribe cuando tienes tiempo, quiero saber como te ha tratado el oriente de mi estado (y tienes que visitar Seattle y el occidente, es muy differente que Spokane y Inchelium). Suerte, hasta pronto!

  3. Hi pal!
    Those tips to pack your belongs while traveling are very useful.
    Thanks for sharing!