When choosing a backpack to travel the world with, there are many things to think about and take into consideration. My first backpack was a lesson in what not to buy. We went on a couple of good trips together, but I learned some important things about what I do not like. My next backpack was chosen with a lot more care and it served me well for over 10 years (I suppose I have the first backpack to thank for that). Now I am embarking on a new chapter—a different type of backpack that is more in tune with my current travel style.
What to think about when buying a new backpack
Regardless of where you are at in terms of travel experience and travel style, below are five things you should think about before purchasing a new backpack…or any bag for that matter. This is especially useful for first-time buyers.
We are big proponents of packing light over here at Jane Sees the World and having the right-sized bag is the first step to packing light. The smaller your bag, the less likely you will over pack. Backpacks are easy to carry, leave your hands free and come with cool pockets. However, regardless of whether you are looking for a backpack, a typical roller suitcase or another style of luggage altogether, the important thing is that you pick a bag that is not capable of holding the kitchen sink.
Nowadays, we usually prefer to check our bags. With today’s technology, airlines are better than ever at tracking bags. Heck, you can track your own bag if you want. So losing your luggage is a rare occurrence. Sure, you have to wait a bit longer for your luggage at the baggage claim area. But we have found that the wait is usually worth the hassle of lugging luggage around the terminal and trying to find space in the overhead bins.
Regardless of whether you check your bag or carry it on, I still believe in packing light. (Looking for tips on how to pack lighter? Check out our posts on tips and trips and gear for packing light.) Your best bet is to have a bag that fits carry-on standards, even if you plan to check it. I definitely recommend something under the 50 liter range.
For years, R and I have traveled together with basically the same size of backpack. However, our backpacks were shaped differently. More often than not, R was asked to weigh and/or check her bag while I stood to the side with an equally heavy pack that no one noticed. This happened enough times that we could only conclude it had to do with the shape. While my backpack was wider, R’s was taller. Because it stuck up and could be seen over her shoulders, it must have looked bigger. This was frustrating when we did not want to check bags. Since we prefer to check our bags these days, the shape is not as big of a concern. But if you are looking to carry on, then you want to think about the shape of your bag and how heavy that shape makes your bag look.
You also want to think about the fit. We are all shaped differently and that means a backpack that feels comfortable on my back will not necessarily feel comfortable on R’s back. Even if you plan to buy your backpack online, I would recommend you head to your local outdoor store to try on different styles and shapes. Keep in mind that there are backpacks out there specifically designed for women.
Top loading = no good. Trust me on this one. My first backpack was top loading and it was one of the main things that made me buy a new backpack. Our friend S also had a top-loading backpack. The quality, size, shape and everything else made for a great bag. But since it was a pain to get into and keep organized, traveling with it made for a less-than-ideal experience. On her last international voyage, S actually borrowed my backpack instead of using hers.
Pockets, hooks, hidden compartments, etc. all contribute to how functional a bag is. Of course, these things are subjective and really a matter of personal preference. It is up to you to decide what you really need your bag to do for you. Think about it for more than a day. I know I spend a lot of time thinking about what color I want my bag to be. That is all well and good, but I should be spending just as much time, if not more, thinking about whether I really need a laptop sleeve or a place for my water bottle.
What kind of travel do you do? Trekking up mountains? Cruising around the Caribbean? Exploring Europe? All of the above? If you find yourself doing a certain type of travel, you may want to consider that when choosing a bag. Someone who prefers hiking Kilimanjaro might need a different backpack than someone who goes on a cruise and just leaves their bag in the room for five days.
We tend to do many different kinds of traveling so our bags get used in a variety of ways. I used the same bag on a five-day hike to Machu Picchu that I used on a group tour through Morocco (with really nice hotels). Honestly, my bag was not perfect for either occasion. But it did well enough for both. You just have to think about what kinds of trips you go on and which type of bag will work the best.
Another way to say this: think about cost. Like anything in life, when it comes to purchasing a backpack, you get what you pay for. If you plan to use your bag once every couple of years, then you probably do not need to invest in it too much. It you want it to last for dozens of trips, you are going to have to fork over some cash. Traveling puts a lot of wear and tear on your gear and cheap buckles, snaps, wheels, fabric, etc. are not going to last very long.
Most of the big names out there (e.g. Osprey, Eagle Creek, Deuter, North Face, Kelty, etc.) make excellent, high-quality bags. They also usually provide some sort of warranty. Quality and warranties come with a price. If you cannot afford to walk into a store and purchase a quality brand backpack right off the shelf, check out an outdoor consignment store. A quality, lightly-used item is just as good as a new one in my opinion.
Okay, so I have talked about what you need to think about when choosing a backpack. Now let us look at some specific examples.
Backpack pros and cons
Kelty Redwing 2500
- At 40 liters, carrying it on an airplane is not a problem. Plus, the size helps with packing light.
- A short and wide shape as opposed to a tall and long shape meant it looked smaller than other bags of the same size. I never got asked to weigh or check my bag.
- Front loading with a decent selection of pockets, keeping things organized was easy.
- Given the wear and tear I have put this bag through the past 10 years, there is no denying the quality is good.
- This backpack is comfortable…or as comfortable as 20 lbs can be on your back.
- There was never a good place to hold a water bottle. The mesh pockets on the side were a little too shallow.
10 years ago, I purchased this backpack. I chose with care and consideration and the bag treated me right for the next decade. The model I own is no longer for sale, but you can purchase a newer (and possibly better) model. I have no qualms recommending this backpack. The pros far outweigh the cons.
Gregory Serrac 45
- Very comfortable. The back had serious molding that made it easy to carry the bag for a while.
- Full-length zipper for easy access and packing.
- All sorts of straps and gadgets.
- Small pocket on the waist band that was easy to access while carrying the bag.
- Long and skinny makes for raised eyebrows when checking. At the end of trips, R has usually acquired a plethora of new items, which inevitably means the bag is fully expanded. The top of this bag would reach mid way up R’s head, so check in agents could clearly see she was hauling something around.
- Strange V-shape loading. When fully packed this bag was wider at the top than at the bottom. If they added a few more inches to the sides the tall topper wouldn’t have been an issue.
R had this bag for a few years and it saw some good miles. Overall it is a great bag, but probably not made for how R was using it. Did she really need that ice pick holder? Probably not. This is solidly a better backpacking backpack then a traveling backpack. That being said, R really did like it and would have kept it if it distributed space differently.
- Wider base. This bag is shaped similarly to my beloved Kelty. When fully packed, the load is much more broad than tall and R can sneak through questionable bag checking situations.
- Straps can zip into a special packet so the bag looks more like a duffle. This is useful when checking so you don’t have to worry about the straps getting caught on anything. Otherwise you have to tie the bag up tight with the straps.
- Shoe/dirty clothes pocket at the bottom of the bag is useful for keeping gross things away from the non-gross.
- Padded area for electronics (e.g. ipad). Not to be confused with the padded area for the laptop, see below.
- Really good materials and construction, removal of laptop sleeve was a challenge.
- This bag is geared more towards educational endeavors, so there is a sleeve for a laptop and an area full of slots to shove pencils and other items (kind of like by Jansport R rocked throughout high school). This stuff isn’t super useful for R and takes up space. She actually took scissors to the bag and cut out the foam protective sleeve that would protect a laptop, just to free up space.
R researched and found rave reviews for the Osprey Porter 46, but when she went to REI and tried it on, it didn’t feel as comfortable as the Ozone, which was sitting on the next shelf over. This bag has two trips under it’s strap and so far it is looking good.
- “No matter what warranty” which is a lifetime warranty that includes repair or replacement due to damage…regardless of the cause.
- The day pack is a great size and has a good selection of pockets. Also, it attaches three ways. No matter which option you choose, your hands are free.
- The size, at 40 liters, is carry on approved and exactly what I was used to in a bag.
- Front loading and easy to open wide. There are not a lot of pockets on the main bag, but there are plenty on the daypack. The main bag was made for packing cubes, of which I am a huge fan of.
- The wheels make it heavier than a typical backpack. Given that I wheeled it most of the time, this is not a problem. But if you primarily carry it on your back, you’ll want to keep the extra weight in mind.
- Color options are limited and black is boring. It does look a little sleeker when it comes to business travel, but the lack of color on the day pack is a con for me.
- This version requires you to use the same straps for the both the main bag and the daypack. They are not hard to switch, but it does take some effort and that means no switching from a rolling suitcase to a backpack while on the move.
Given my love for my Kelty bag, I was not in the market for a new backpack. But two things happened on my trip to Australia:
- I noticed a rather-large hole/tear in the side pocket. It did not affect the functionality of the bag too much, but I did wonder if it was even worth fixing, or if I should start looking at new backpacks.
- My time in Oz made me realize my travel style has evolved since I first purchased my Kelty bag. I started wondering if there was a bag out there that fit my new travel style.
Given these two events, I started researching immediately. After all, it had been 10 years since I even looked at backpacks. I was curious what was available. One option I read about that caught my attention was a backpack with wheels. I knew I did not want to give up the convenience of a backpack, but they can get awfully heavy after a while. I also felt it would be nice if I did not always look like I was headed out on a trek to the mountains whenever I traveled. A backpack with wheels seemed like the perfect solution. The market for this type of bag is not big, but there are a few options.
For me, it came down to two brands: Eagle Creek and Osprey. Both make several versions in various sizes. But what I liked most about these brands is that they made a version that included an attachable day pack. Ultimately, I decided to go with Eagle Creek. The reviews were slightly better and I found one on sale on Steep and Cheap.
Recently, I tested out my new bag out on a work trip. Normally, I pack a larger, wheeled suitcase for work trips. But I wanted to see if my new bag would work. It performed fantastically. I carried it as a backpack twice (to try it out), but mostly I wheeled it around. The all-black color looks sleeker than a regular backpack and I did not feel self-conscious walking into the hotel. I have no idea if this bag will hold up for the next 10 years the way my Kelty did, but I feel confident enough to give it a try. I do wonder what backpacks and travel and myself as a traveler will look like in 10 years. It will be interesting to find out.
UPDATE: I am still loving the Eagle Creek Switchback. It has been on several trips including an international voyage to the Azores. The size is perfect and it is holding up nicely. I mostly wheel it around and rarely use the backpack function, which I find interesting. I am still not a big fan of the all-black coloring, so I added a travel patch to spice it up. At this moment, I have no plans to replace it anytime soon.
Travel gear and technology are always evolving. Along with that, we as travelers evolve and grow. Your bag says a lot about the kind of traveler you are. That might be one reason there are so many options available. If you are making a new choice, hopefully, the things we discussed above will help you in choosing a new, perfect-for-your backpack.