How to pick a good backpack

How to pick a good backpack

Getting the right backpack or bag for your trip at the outset will save you a lot of pain and discomfort.

Planning categories

The first decision is whether to get a wheelie bag or backpack. We fall firmly in the backpack camp. Here's why.

Backpacks force you to pack sensibly

You wear a backpack, while you drag a wheelie bag. This is a big difference when you’re walking down a beach or clambering over rocks. Why? Because you drag a wheelie bag, people often load it with so much stuff it becomes difficult to lift—because it is designed for dragging. That’s fine on the smooth footpaths of Singapore, but not so hot along the beaches of Ko Lanta. A backpack forces you to only pack what you can comfortably carry.

Backpacks are quiet

Walking down a sleeping village street at 04:00 for an early morning bus to Nakhon Nowhere, nobody will hear you walking along with a backpack on. They will hear the steady rumble of wheelie bag wheels.

Backpacks are flexible

Ever tried to cram one of those tortoise shell wheelie bags into an overhead locker that is too small? We’ve been there. The rigid shell is great for protecting your goodies, but it has no give. Even the most overpacked backpack can be crammed into holds too small for it—just keep punching it and it will yield (okay, most of the time).

Raincoats, straps and stuff

Your wheelie bag may be waterproof, but it has no straps for tying extra stuff to. Most good backpacks will have a poncho you can pull over for some water protection, though in our experience, the bag poncho is best at collecting water at the base to periodically dump onto your bum.

When the wheels fall off

A de-wheeled or de-handled wheelie bag is worse than having no bag at all.

Flag bragging

If you’re one of those people who like to sew the flags of each country they’ve been to onto their pack (we were till a friend called us a name and it really hurt), naturally you'll need a pack. Stickers on a wheelie bag just don’t look as good.

Now, only rivalling the backpack versus wheelie bag debate is the top-loading versus open-loading backpack.

The top-loaders tend to be tall and narrow—rest assured that every time you need something, it will be at the bottom. The latter are squatter, wider packs, often with daypacks that zip off the back. Rear-loading packs are the more popular overall among travellers in Southeast Asia. Mr and Ms Travelfish have one of each.

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—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 Southeast Asia. If, once you are on the road, your pack fills up, you could buy another bag. But whatever you do, don’t start your holiday in Asia with a giant-sized backpack.

As a point of reference, when we’re travelling solo on a short trip (say under two weeks) we use a 30-litre pack. For longer trips, we have a 55-litre pack.

Fitting a backpack

Before you buy a pack, go to your local travel/outdoors store and try a few on. Expertise in a dedicated store can help in finding the right pack for you. If you want to support the store helping you out, meaning they will continue to be around to assist other travellers, please buy from them rather than online.

Getting a pack that fits well is important—you’ll be wearing it every other day, so you’ll curse an ill-fitting one. Don’t pick your backpack according to your overall height. Despite what you may think, the tall thin packs are not for tall thin people, and the short fat ones are not for short fat people—they’re interchangeable. Rather, the length to consider is that of your torso.

Torso length?

Yes, torso length. It’s (surprise, surprise) the length of your torso, from the top of your hipbone (which will support much of the weight of the bag) 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.

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 pairs of hiking boots 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, too close to the shoulders and they’ll not carry any weight and will impair your golf swing.

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. Never, ever buy a large backpack that doesn’t have a waist belt. Also 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.

A word on cutting into skin: When you are sunburned (and, lets face it, you will be) the cutting into the skin thing really comes into its own world of pain. Any weight carrying strap that is in direct contact with your skin needs to be broad.

(And pack sunscreen.)

Make sure the pack 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 the pack is waterproof (which practically means water-resistant). 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 in light rain. If it is not waterproof, don’t buy it. Quality waterproof bags will come with a poncho to help doubly protect the bag and your precious belongings.

Make sure the zippers have eyes, so that a padlock or security wire can be threaded through.

Where to buy

Shopping online can deliver some significant discounts, but as we mentioned above, if your local gear store delivers on service and advice, do consider buying from them direct. Support the businesses that help you pick the right pack, because Amazon certainly doesn’t care!

Cheap packs

A word on cheaper backpacks. Once in Southeast Asia, you’ll be able to buy ripoff backpacks tagged as the real deal, often for as little as US$30. The main practical problem with these packs is inferior materials and poor stitching.

The stitching unthreads and the bags fall apart quicker than you’d expect—especially if you’ve got your 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 1990s and it's still going strong. Sure, it could do with a hose out, but the bag itself is solid and probably will be for another decade. Thank you, Karrimor.

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 serious mistake.

In summary

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 $400 or up on a pack. Give the above a read, and decide how much you want to spend.

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 around the $100-$200 mark, so don’t let a salesperson convince you you need to spend hundreds of dollars on a pack.

Further reading

Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.

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