How to pick a good backpack for a holiday in Asia
Other planning advice
Being a backpacker you'll need to get a backpack and if there is one single object that it is worth spending money on, this is the one. You'll be largely living out of the bag so you'll need something that is both durable and comfortable.
A word on cheaper backpacks in Asia. Once in Asia you'll be able to buy ripoff backpacks tagged as the real deal, often for as little as US$30. The main problem with these packs is inferior materials and poor stitching.
The stiching unthreads and the bags fall apart quicker than you'd expect -- especially if you've got you bag full to the brim. We've bought at least a dozen of these over the years and our store-room is full of broken, torn and generally unusable cheap packs. We've also got an authentic pack purchased in Australia for around A$300 in the early 1990's and it is still going strong. Sure it could do with a hose out, but the bag itself is solid and probably will be for another decade.
Pay the money and save yourself the grief of the cheap rip-off bags -- they're passable for a short-term day-pack, but as a main pack, buying one is a mistake.
Things to look for in a pack
What size backpack?
Don't get one that is too big. Regardless of what size you buy, rest assured you'll fill it, so the smaller you buy, the less you'll need to carry. Backpack size is measured in litres -- ie., how many litres of water (or beer, or milk, or ice-cream) need to be poured into the backpack to fill it. Generally speaking, anything more than 65 litres is overkill and anything over about 80 is crazy -- you do not need an 80 litre pack for a holiday in Asia. If, once you are on the road, your pack fills up, then buy another bag, but whatever you do, don't start your holiday in Asia with a giant-sized backpack.
What type of backpack?
The main decision is whether to go for a top loader or a back loader. The former tend to be tall and narrow -- rest assured that every time you need something, it will be at the bottom of the pack. The latter are squat, quite wide packs, often with daypacks that zip off the back. Rear-loading packs are the more popular overall among travellers in Southeast Asia.
Check the fit
Of course this is difficult if you're buying the pack online, but it is important to make sure the backpack is comfortable. You will be wearing it every other day so it really helps if it is a good fit. One way to approach the this is to go to your local hiking goods store and spend some time trying different packs -- then go and buy the same thing online for half the price.
Some things to keep in mind include:
Don't pick you backpack according to your overall height.
Despite what you may think, the tall thin packs are not for tall people, and the short fat ones are not for short people -- they're interchangeable. Rather the important length is your torso length.
Yes, torso length. It's (surprise, surprise) the length of your torso -- that being the length from the top of your hipbone (which will support much of the weight) to that lump on your neck between your shoulder blades, just below your head. Once you've got this length, you'll then be able to shop for the right-sized pack -- generally small, medium or large.
Try it on
Once you've got the torso length down, try a few packs on -- ideally fill each one with 65 litres of beer, but if the salesperson baulks at that, a few phone books should suffice. Once you're loaded down, walk around a bit and see how it feels. Does the weight sit comfortably on your hips? Are the shoulder straps comfortable -- firm but not biting? Are the shoulder straps and hip belt well padded and fairly wide? The shoulder straps should sit about midway between your neck and shoulders -- too close to the neck and they'll bite and be uncomfortable, to close to the shoulders and they'll not carry any weight and will impair your golf swing.
Check the backpack
Make sure the straps are sturdy and that there is a waist strap (which transfers almost half the weight of the pack onto your hips). Make sure the straps are sufficiently wide -- the wider they are, the better they'll distribute the weight. Avoid backpacks with very narrow straps as they'll cut into your skin.
Make sure it has an internal frame. Internal frames allow you to carry the load closer to your body -- this tends to be more comfortable and it also makes it far easier to keep your balance. External frame packs are best-suited to very heavy loads -- and you won't be carrying a very heavy load because you're on holiday remember?
Make sure it is waterproof. This is really important -- especially if you're travelling in wet season. If the pack is waterproof, you shouldn't need a poncho to cover it. If it is not waterproof, don't buy it.
Make sure the zippers have "eyes" that a padlock or security wire can be threaded through.
A day-pack is the most common extra. It's a small mini-backpack that attaches to the main pack and can be useful for ... you guessed it ... day trips. These are very common with the short, fat, rear opening packs -- less so with the tall thin ones. A day-pack is generally a very good idea.
Where to buy
Shopping online can deliver some significant discounts. Unfortunately the range at Amazon isn't all that comprehensive, but if you're looking for a pack under about the $150 mark, they're a good place to start.
While it's true you can pick up a pack in Asia for next to nothing, rest assured it will last nowhere near as long as the real deal. That said, for the average traveller there's little reason to spend $300 and up on a pack. Give the above a read and decide how much you want to spend. Then do some more research online, spend an hour in a gear shop trying on packs and make a decision. There's no shortage of perfectly adequate -- and reasonably comfortable -- packs, priced at under $100, so don't let a salesperson convince you you need to spend hundreds of dollars on a pack -- you don't.
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