Hiking Backpacks are Awful for Gap Year Travel

Shawn Forno

Unless you’re trekking more than ten miles a day, you don’t want to travel with a hiking backpack. Look for a travel backpack that combines ease of use with the right organizational features that suit your packing list and trip needs, and your next adventure will be infinitely better—or at least easier to pack for.

Close your eyes and picture a “traveler.” No, really. Stop reading this and humor me. Close your eyes right now, and picture a stereotypical gap year traveler. I’ll wait.

Hey. No peeking. Close those peepers.

How’d it go? What did your stereotypical traveler look like? I bet I can guess:

They were probably wearing some kind of tan cargo shorts or pants with  few extra pockets. She probably also had on some scuffed hiking boots and a silly safari-style hat. He might have been wearing a button up collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up and maybe even a neckerchief or bandana scarf.

Was I close? Even if I have missed the mark on what this traveler was wearing, I bet I can nail the last detail that most of you saw when you pictured a traveler.

Strapped to this person’s back was a rugged, weathered hiking backpack complete with worn straps and carabiner clips bulging with hiking gear like a sleeping bag, water bottle, and maybe even some rope or hiking poles.

This description of a “traveler” might sound overly cartoonish (it is), but it’s important to realize that the way we picture travelers—often as rugged explorers— is largely why so many people are still buying expensive and completely unnecessary hiking backpacks for their next European vacation or gap year trip to Southeast Asia.

Making fun of the stereotypical traveler we just imagined is easy, but there are thousands of travelers that still cling to the notion that you need a rugged, survival style hiking backpack to go on a big adventure or extended gap year trip.

You don’t.

Hiking Backpacks are Bad for Travel and Gap Years

In fact, a hiking backpack might be one of the worst pieces of gear you can buy for your next trip. 

Backpacks have been around for thousands of years. But the modern travel backpack is a surprisingly recent invention. Just a few decades ago, your only option was a bulky steamer trunk or an awkward, external frame hiking backpack.

And while I love hiking backpacks for certain things (actually, they’re pretty much only useful for long hiking trips), there’s just no way that you should ever travel with a traditional, top loading hiking backpack. Here are some of the biggest reasons you shouldn’t travel with a hiking backpack on your next European or Southeast Asian summer vacation, or even your big gap year trip.

Top Loading Design

The first and most obvious reason not to use a hiking backpack for your next big trip is the way that hiking backpacks are designed.


The only thing top loading backpacks are good for is stuffing them to the brim with essentials that you’ll use everyday. You use the main compartment of a hiking bag like a big pantry crammed with food and gear, because odds are you’re going to dump the whole danged thing out when it’s time to make camp at the end of the day.

That’s just not how a travel backpack should work.

The clam shell design of backpacks like the Tortuga Setout (it opens like a suitcase) is such a game-changing feature because it means that you don’t have to dump your bag out and repack it every time you need to get a charging cable or a fresh t-shirt. Even better, if you pack like a pro you can reach into your bag for key items on the go without even opening it up all the way. As a frequent traveler, I can tell you how awesome it is not to have to shred my backpack every time I need to grab a sweatshirt or a quick snack from my bag.

Clam shell style travel backpacks also give you the Superman-like ability to unzip and open up your bag to see everything you packed at a quick glance. No more rooting around blindly for a specific shirt, only to realize that you’ve pulled out another pair of shorts instead. Opening up your bag to select a few items from your packing cubes, and pack away dirty clothes is fantastic.

This may sound like a stupid feature to highlight, but if you spend a few weeks struggling with a top loading hiking backpack for a change of clothes or an extra memory card, you’ll quickly lose your mind.

Don’t use a top loading backpack for anything other than an extended hiking trip. It’s awful, and I’m glad I haven’t done it in over a decade.

Packing Cubes

In that same vein, top loading backpacks just aren’t optimized for organization. And organization is key when you’re traveling. Packing cubes for instance, don’t fit well into a stuff-style hiking backpack. They tend to bunch up under the weight of all your other stuff, wrinkling the clothing you carefully packed.

I’ve recently become a big fan of packing cubes, and the thought of traveling without them—all my clothing stuffed and scrunched loosely in scattered clumps in a single unorganized main top loading compartment gives me hives. 

If you like packing cubes, you won’t like traveling with a hiking backpack.

Lack of Organization

A final note about the interior design problems of hiking backpacks centers around this lack of organization. 

Hiking backpacks don’t typically have many internal zippered compartments, dividers, mesh pockets, laptop compartments, gear organizers, pouches. Most have a front “stash” pocket for wet rain jackets and a thin top zippered compartment for keys or a snack, but that’s about it. Simply put, hiking backpacks just aren’t built to accommodate modern, tech savvy travelers—and why should they?

Hiking backpacks are designed for hiking—not traveling. And yes, those are different things.

If you, like most modern travelers and digital nomads, like to travel with a laptop, DSLR camera, external battery charger, journal, or even art supplies or a sketchbook, you’re just not going to find enough functionality for all your important work or creative gear in a traditional hiking backpack.

It’s true that some travel backpacks can go a little overboard with all the organizational pockets. I don’t travel with 20 pens either. But I’d much rather have a microfiber pocket for sensitive screens and tech gear that I don’t use much vs. one big compartment that crushes my DSLR with my hiking shoes. No thanks.

Don’t Buy a Hiking Backpack with a Frame

An internal frame (or even an external one) is great for taking weight off your shoulders and helping distribute that load to your hips. Hiking backpack frames are also great for helping your bag keep its shape when you load in really different items—like camping rations next to pots and pans and a sleeping bag. But you don’t need a hiking frame for regular travel.

Backpack frames—particularly external frames—add a ton of rigid bulk to your bag, take up precious space, and, ironically, make your bag heavier. The added weight is more than worth it when you’re hiking 20 miles a day with 40 pounds on your back. But if you’re just walking up a few flights of stairs to get from your taxi to your Airbnb, or at most walking through the airport or public transit system, you don’t need to go full road warrior. That’s what hip belts are for.

Hiking backpack frames are also terrible for carry on air travel. The added bulk of a frame keeps you from stowing your bag under the seat in front of you, and doesn’t let you squish or manipulate the shape of your bag for smaller overhead compartments (which happens all the time, especially on budget airlines).

Too Many Straps and Flaps

I hate superfluous backpack straps. Hate ’em. These extra straps and clips and ties are always flopping around, banging into stuff, and getting caught on peoples’ seats when you try to board a plane. Tons of modern backpacks, especially hiking backpacks, cram all these extra straps into their design not because they’re useful, but because they look useful.

People see all the extra places to loop their gear and tie down extra crap and they get excited about trekking into the unknown. The only problem with that is you will never use these straps. Ever. You don’t have the proper gear, nor should you pack so much stuff that you need to clip extra garbage to the outside of your bag like a packrat hermit crab at a garage sale. Stop it.

Hey, you know what’s not carry on compliant? An ice ax. So why do you have an ice ax strap on your travel backpack? Stop traveling with bags loaded with straps, clips, and doodads. You don’t need them.

Hiking Backpacks are Too Big (or too small)

Size is another big problem with using a hiking backpack as your travel backpack—and by size I mean “volume.” The problem: Hiking backpacks are usually all about carrying as much as humanly possibly on your back at one time.

Carting around 75L worth of survival gear isn’t a problem when you’re going on a week-long hike in the middle of nowhere. It’s an asset. You have room for extra food, water, camping gear, and tools that will make your trek safer and more comfortable, so the extra volume is a good thing.

However, carrying 75L of clothing, shoes, computer gear, and random souvenirs from hostel to hostel is a liability. Simply put, you just don’t need the excess space that most hiking backpacks provide for travel—even long haul trips that last for months.

Backpackers are a lot like goldfish. Both of these things will grow to fill the space their given. When you buy an 80L “expandable” hiking backpack for your gap year trip guess what? You’re going to pack 80L worth of stuff, most of which you don’t need.

I’m not going to go into all the merits of minimalist travel here, but there’s a lot to be said for limiting your packing list to things that can comfortably fit in a 35 or 45L backpack. You’ll save money on checked baggage fees, but you’ll also pack with more intention, bring less useless crap, and enjoy your trip a lot more with a lightweight, easy to carry travel backpack.

Hydration Pockets

Camelbaks and hydration pockets are awesome for long hikes. My (tiny 20L) hiking bag has one, and I won’t go on long hikes without it. But the last thing you need for a European or SE Asian vacation is a backpack with a full 3L water bladder.

You can’t take that much water through airport security, you don’t need that much water on a flight, and water bladders are just plain heavy, not to mention a pain in the ass to fill. 

Don’t risk getting all your stuff (including your laptop) wet. Pack a folding water bottle or small Swell bottle and fill your water up at the drinking fountain before a long flight or bus ride. You’ll be fine.

Hiking Backpacks are…well, Hiking Backpacks

You’ve done it. You’re on the trip of a lifetime. You’re zipping through exotic cosmopolitan destinations like Barcelona, NYC, Paris, Tokyo, Iceland, Rio, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok, and more. The only problem is, you look like you just stumbled out of an REI.

One of the biggest problems I have with hiking backpacks is that they look like hiking backpacks. It’s impossible to blend into the everyday life of a city or even a remote destination when you look like you’re about to summit Everest. If you use your hiking backpack for walking around the city or taking your laptop to the cafe to get some work done, you’re gonna stick out like a sore thumb—which is a bad thing.

While it’s impossible to ever completely blend in with locals at many destinations around the world, it’s important not to make yourself overly conspicuous for a number of reasons, but primarily for safety concerns. In many places, “travelers” are still targets for theft, pick pocketing, and outright robbery. When you wear a bag that screams, “I’ve got all my valuables on me, and this is my first time out of my home country,” you make yourself that much more likely to be a target.

Theft is bad enough, but hiking backpacks also signal that you might not be an experienced traveler, so expect things like the price of your taxi jump a few bucks compared to the local rates. I’ve seen it happen.

Don’t pack a hiking backpack for an urban destination. It’s guaranteed to single you out as a tourist. And that’s never fun.

TL;DR: Hiking Backpacks are Bad for Travel & Gap Years 

Gearing up for your next big adventure can be intimidating. You’re not sure what to pack, but you know that you’ll need a reliable, rugged backpack built for the long haul. And while it can be tempting to consider a top loading hiking backpack from one of the popular outdoor brands, a hiking backpack is simply one of the worst bags you can travel with, regardless of where you’re going.

Unless you’re trekking more than ten miles a day, you don’t want to travel with a hiking backpack. Look for a travel backpack that combines ease of use with the right organizational features that suit your packing list and trip needs, and your next adventure will be infinitely better—or at least easier to pack for.

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