How To Buy A Travel Backpack: 5 Steps To Buying The Perfect Bag

I read an article years ago about a traveler who was trekking around the world without a bag. He stuffed his toiletries and an extra shirt in his coat pockets and was on his way out the door. Sounded like an amusing challenge, but not likely one I would care to try. For most of us, backpacks are a necessary part of travel, especially long-term travel, and buying a pack is one of the formative milestones of your preparation. It is what I get asked about the most, and having just walked The Camino I have seen A LOT of people carrying poorly-fitting and poorly-sized bags. Sooooo, I have broken down the process of buying a proper backpack into five simple steps, plus some additional considerations that will help you get the right pack and be on your merry way.

This woman's bag was bigger than she was. :/

This woman's bag was bigger than she was. :/

1) Consider Your Destination(s)

Location will often dictate the size of your bag. Colder climates generally require more clothing/gear considerations, and thus require a larger bag. Conversely, you can often get by with a smaller bag in warmer climates. If you can keep your trip confined to a single climate you can save yourself having to pack something for every possible temperature. Also, ask yourself How often will I be carrying this bag?  If you are just carrying it from hostel to hostel, then size wont be a huge problem. If you plan on doing lots of hikes, carrying your bag every which way, then you will definitely want a smaller bag UNLESS you HAVE to carry a lot of gear. Aim small: Less Is More.


2) Duration

             Mountain Equipment Co-op: my go-to for travel gear.

             Mountain Equipment Co-op: my go-to for travel gear.

The duration of your trip is surprisingly less relevant than you might assume. In the end, there is little difference between packing for a week and packing for a month (or a year!) as once you hit that five to seven day mark you can simply do laundry whilst on the road. Whether this amounts to you washing your clothes in a hostel sink or paying someone to dry clean your clothes is your call — just don't assume a longer trip needs a bigger bag unless you plan on stuffing it full of souvenirs.


3) The Test

Once you have considered the climate of your location(s), the approximate duration of your trip, and how often you will be carrying your bag you can go to a store and try on some packs. Generally, you will be looking in the 30L-65L range, depending on your specific trip needs. Try on ALL the suitable bags within your rough size range. Aim for 30-45L if you can get away with packing less, 45-65L if you HAVE to pack more.

Christine's 35L pack, and her rain cover.

Christine's 35L pack, and her rain cover.

After finding some potential bags and trying them on I would suggest leaving the store and returning with all your gear. Take everything you plan on bringing on your trip to the store and see what size pack you will actually need. It may be a tedious exercise but it will give you a very accurate outline for your pack size. Any respectable travel store wont mind you doing this, and should actually encourage it. Travel packs are an investment, so don't you shouldn't feel rushed or pressured into buying anything. Take your time and find out exactly what range of sizes you are looking for based on the items you NEED to pack. 

You will want a bag that fits your body size, your activities, and one that has ample pockets and storage.  Durability is worth paying for, too, as you don't want to have to replace your bag mid-trip.


4) Research: Learn Some Shit!

Once you have tested some specific bags, go online. Spend the time looking into reviews of the potential packs that you have been trying on. There are lots of travels blogs that review bags, as well as pack reviews on YouTube. Some companies even video demo their packs on YouTube or their website, and so you can find complete overviews if you spend the time. Check out the bottom of this article for some possible places to start.

Once you have a list of the collective pros and cons for your potential bags, go back to the travel store(s) and go through each option thoroughly, tempering your personal experience with whatever useful tidbits you have discovered online.

My 44L Osprey bag soaking up some rays in Spain

My 44L Osprey bag soaking up some rays in Spain


5) Purchase!

So, now that you have figured out a size AND read some reviews you can find the bag that's right for you. DO NOT just buy the most popular bag from some online store, however. As I mentioned above, you definitely need to go back and try on your specific bag. What is perfect for most people might not be a good fit for you, so always go back to try it on. Check out different stores if you have to, but make sure that you really have a good fit with your bag. Remember, if you are going on an extended trip you will be living out of this bag. It will be on your back everyday, and so you want it to be as comfortable as can be. Never buy a bag without trying it on and testing it out! 

I always encourage folks to shop local, but if money is an issue you can often find your ideal bag online for a decent price. First, try on the bag at a store that has it in stock to confirm that it fits and THEN actually purchase it online. My last bag was $50 cheaper online, so I ended up doing just that — I tried it on at a travel store and then ordered it online.


Additional Considerations

- You will want to make sure you have a rain cover for your pack, even if the bag is waterproof. This is especially true if you are bringing electronics with you.

- Some folks will also buy a smaller day pack so that they don't have to lug their main pack around on smaller excursions. 18-25L is the general range, so take a look at those and see if they are right for you and your trip.


Final Thoughts

  • You want a pack that is comfortable and practical.
  • Make sure there are plenty of pockets and ample padding, especially on the shoulders and hips — that is where you will be carrying the weight.
  • Easy access to your storage space will keep you organized on the road, so ideally you will want more than one way to access the main compartment. 
  • Pick a size that suits both you and your trip...but remember folks, bigger isn't always better.

Personally, I use a 44L bag from Osprey (pictured above). I have taken it on several trips, including a 4 month trip around Asia as well as across Spain on The Camino. For me, a 40-44L is perfect as I often travel with a DSLR and a laptop, so the extra space is worthwhile. 


Not sure where to begin? Check out these links:
MEC     Deuter     North Face     Osprey     REI

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For the record, I was not paid or compensated in any way for promoting these items. If you want to give them a try, though, feel free to use the links above as I will get a small commission via Amazon.