You’re gearing up for your big trip abroad and need to buy a backpack. Like so many other travelers before you, you buy the stereotypical top loading backpack – tall, cylindrical – from NorthFace, Osprey, or the like. Everyone else uses them, so it must be the right move.
You just committed the biggest mistake most backpackers make.
While your new bag may look the part, it’s from from ideal. The reason is that these backpacks are made for hikers and outdoorsmen, not travelers.
Don’t be ashamed, I made the same mistake on my first backpacking trip in 2009 with a GoLite bag.
Most top loading backpacks are not secure, and too large to carry on to a plane, making them wrong for travelers. Let’s take a closer look at these shortcomings and what you should be looking for in a travel backpack.
Most hiking bags only open from the top, like a garbage bag, not from the front, like a suitcase.
The problem with a top loading backpack becomes obvious when you need to get something out of it. Need the pair of jeans at the bottom of the bag? You’ll have to dump out everything else to get to them.
Every time you need something that isn’t at the top of your bag, you’ll have to unpack, then re-pack, everything you brought.
Contrast this with a suitcase where the entire front opens, allowing you easy access to any item in your bag, without disturbing the rest. By opening the side with the largest surface area, you have the largest possible space from which to access your gear.
Unfortunately, suitcases have their own drawbacks. Instead, opt for a front-loading (also called panel-loading) backpack for the best of both worlds.
The top opening described above on most backpacks is closed by tightening a drawstring and/or buckling a flap down over the opening. This type of closure leaves your valuables a snap away from the hands of a thief.
Are a drawstring and buckle enough to secure your camera and passport when your bag is sitting out in the open of a hostel dorm room, next to you (fast asleep) in a train station in Zagreb, or piled with dozens of other bags atop a bus in Mumbai? Hell no!
Your backpack needs zippered openings that can be locked with a TSA-approved lock or a standard padlock. This is the minimum acceptable level of security.
Add-ons like PacSafe bag protectors can provide an extra layer of security.
You will never be completely impervious to theft, but every security measure you take gives criminals another reason to skip your bag and move on to an easier target.
“Too big?!? But I neeeeeed all my stuff!”
No, you don’t.
Sure, it all feels necessary, but you really don’t need a bag larger than 30-50L, even for an around the world trip.
Hiking bags can exceed 80L, but the extra space is used for sleeping bags, lanterns, food, and other items to keep a hiker alive in the wilderness. Your survival does not depend on packing another striped button-down shirt.
As the saying goes, “Bring half as much stuff and twice as much money.”
Giant hiking bags encourage you to bring extra stuff that you don’t need and are too big to be carried on to planes.
Checking luggage will cost you roughly $50 roundtrip and could result in your bag and its contents being lost, misrouted, or damaged. You don’t need any extra worries, so stick to a bag that will fit in the overhead compartment. The max dimensions for carry ons are 22″ x 14″ x 9″ for most US airlines.
Rather than struggle to use a product designed for someone else, choose a backpack made specifically for travelers.
I recommend our flagship product, the Outbreaker, which is made by and for travelers. If you opt for another bag, just make sure it’s front-loading, secure, and carry on-sized.
Have any other advice on travel backpacks? Please share it in the comments.