We’ll be the first to admit that before a few months before we set out for our RTW trip in July of 2016, we were unaware that we had been shopping for backpacks all wrong. In fact, we had both been traveling the last few years with packs that were too big. We each survived several month long trips with 65liter packs that were unbelievably big for our bodies. We shopped based on fraction prices looking for packs under $100, but unconsciously we sacrificing comfort and convenience. If you’re a traveler you’re probably on a budget and the last thing you want to do is drop a couple hundred on a backpack. We get that.
There are a few options you can look into for bargain backpacks including secondhand or exchange shops, checking out your local (not chain) outdoor adventure shop, or scrolling the internet. But be mindful of exactly what you need and what questions to ask when working with bargain packs.
This article focuses more on equipping you with the necessary tools to pick out the right backpack for your body. We will say that although some of the prices are hard to swallow, it’s a purchase that will keep on giving. We each upgraded our packs in the last year and we're so thankful that we chose comfort over price. We want to go over some of the discoveries we made in the process of choosing the right pack and we'll introduce a few of the popular brands on the market.
Where do you start?
It’s ok to have no idea what you’re doing. Heading into an Outdoor Exchange, REI, Cabbalas or whatever outdoor shop you have near you can be really intimidating. There is a lot to look at and way too many eager attendants on hand asking you if you need anything. Getting to the backpacks is a good start and it’s totally natural to have no idea what you’re looking for. Initially, you’ll probably look at the price, that’s only normal, but take a deep breath and go through your basics to narrow down potential packs to try on.
What are the basics?
Savy for hiking when you will be taking out all of your backpacks components at once (i.e to set up camp). There is usually an assortment of pockets and compartments to keep everything organized. You only have one way to access the main compartment in the backpack, through the top. Some top loaders now offer pockets on either or both sides of the main compartment, but they don't connect to the main compartment. Depending on the size of your pack and the type of trip you're gearing up for, top loaders can get quite annoying on extended trips.
Comfortable for hostel hopping and extended trips as you can unzip your backpack and use it like a suitcase. Completely opening the front compartment makes it easier to stay organized. You can view all of your materials rather than having to pull them out one by one. There is usually an assortment of pockets and compartments including a divider to break up the main compartment and the lower compartment.
What size is your torso?
This is a strange bit of personal information to have on hand and nobody expects you to know this, but it's actually really important to find out in order to get the perfect fitting backpack. Make sure your preferred shop has a tool to measure your torso and if they don’t then you’re probably not in a good shop—get out of Walmart. It’s an odd plastic tool that wraps around your hips and then measures up your spine. Your torso size will allow you to find the size of pack that will comfortably fit your body. The fit is not only proportional but with the perfect size pack, the weight will be equally distributed between your shoulders and hips eliminating the stress on your lower back.
If you prefer to measure yourself rather than have someone else measure you, just make sure that the straps on the tool are hugging your hip bones on both sides. This is an important fact that we missed. It shouldn’t be resting on top of your hip bones or around your belt. Having it hug your hips will allow for more weight to sit with your hips and not your back. After securing the belt around your hips, you’ll find the top of your spine (the bony knot on the back of your neck level with the top of your shoulders) and that is the number you need to remember. Each size (S, M, L, XL) has about a one-two inch range of torso size.
What's the difference between the size of a backpack and the liters it holds?
The size of your backpack is different than the weight it can carry. This seems painstakingly obvious, but for awhile it seemed that the bigger, height wise, the pack was the more it could carry. But they are two different measurements. You can have an extra small 65liter pack and an extra large 65liter pack. Figuring out your size pack and the weight you want to carry comes down to your torso measurement (determining the height of your pack) and what you’re planning to pack. We’ve encountered travelers surviving months with their 35liter backpacks and some struggling to carry their 80liter backpacks. We personally feel the 65 is a good middle.
If you’re planning to do multi-day treks in the wilderness, where you plan to pack-it-in and pack-it-out than you might need more space. Backpacking via hostels, camping, hotels, etc. requires less space …or it should.
Try on different backpacks in shop to test out their comfort.
You’re going to be wearing you backpack a lot so why wouldn’t you try it on? This may be the point in your shopping/research experience when you call upon someone who works in the store you’re exploring. In most cases, stores will have someone in the backpack section who specializes in packs. You may not get someone who knows everything about backpacks, but they’ll at least know the brands, how they work, and most importantly how to pack them with weight so you can get a proper experience of the backpack.
How to best optimize space when packing your backpack.
We learned a great deal about properly packing our packs from REI. It made a world of difference in how we travel. Our expert explained that we should have all our items that bear significant weight closest to our body. Laying a pack on its side, you would put items that have more weight (shoes, jackets, books, etc.) lining the bottom. When facing the backpack upright all the weight will be parallel to your back.
Then distribute the weight so the pack grows in length rather than in width. The closer everything is to your center of gravity, the less work your shoulders and back are going to have to do to keep you and the pack up right.
We learned the purpose of all the straps on the different backpacks— to keep everything compact. You can efficiently shrink your pack by fastening all your clips. By compressing everything, again making everything close to your center of gravity, you'll reduce stress on your lower back.
Listen to your body when trying on different backpacks.
Backpacks are not strictly universal. One pack that is amazing and supportive to one person may be ungodly painful to another. Once you’ve had a chance to add some weight to a few different packs try them and give them serious consideration. Walk around. Really pay attention to how your body feels. Do you have pain in your shoulders? Is it pulling on your back or rubbing you the wrong way? If you’re traveling, this is your life for awhile, so gear up for comfort and get the perfect fit.
Our Checklist For Complete Comfort
1. Are the hip straps actually hugging your hips? Secure the belt tight so that the weight sits on your hips and not your back
2. Are the shoulder straps tightened appropriately? You can do this by leaning forward and by pulling your straps while extending your arms behind you. This is so your backpack doesn’t sag on your back, but instead sits higher and more comfortably on your shoulders
3. Make sure that your top straps attaching the top of your pack to your shoulders have a nice 90-degree angle so as to not pull on your shoulders.
4. Check that the chest strap is secure and resting level with your armpits to better assist in the distribution of weight.
What are the backpacks and brands you’ll be seeing?
Top of line packs, Gregory focuses on comfort. They specialize in different frames and fit, including different hip-belt angles. Many companies have different frames and fits, but this is what this company does best. Their designs are comfortable and extremely practical. Our top-picks are the Deva for women and Baltoro for men because of their maximum amount of space, the abundance of pockets, it’s comfortable fit and the convenience of being front loaders. We've had the opportunity to really put these backpacks to the test through 14 countries on four continents, and we love how comfortable and practical they are.
$180—$290 (for a 65liter)
Arguably, this is the most popular backpack out there. Osprey, since its beginning in 1974 has been dedicated to "creating high-quality packs for your greatest trips." They have a wide selection of packs, styles, and comforts. They offer a sleek selection for both men and women in full packs and daypacks. These packs are top of the line and you’ll meet loads of travelers who prefer Osprey. Our favorite is their new Aura AG that had extremely comfortable straps because of the anti-gravity design, but it only comes as a top-loader. They also offer the “all-mighty guarantee” giving people a lifetime guarantee for their products.
Mainly out of Australia and New Zealand, these packs are durable and come in a variety of styles. We don’t have the most experience with them, but we’ve come across loads of backpackers with this brand. The company focuses on how packs hold up in varying climates and are well tested in the field according to their site. Certainly a trusted company since the mid-eighties, but a hefty investment.
With a long history of supplying quality rucksacks and packs, first opening it’s ‘official’ doors in 1919, this German based company is a continual go to for travelers. The brand also offers innovative sleeping bags and quality tents. They do a good job on their site of dividing their selection into need-based backpacks. Do you want a backpack for hiking (smaller daypacks) or for trekking (extended trips and optimal support for distance)? Our top-pick would be the ACT Lte for its optimal support and its vast number of pockets.