How to Choose a High Quality Backpack for Travel

Megan Lee

Top-notch quality backpacks exceed expectations in the following arenas: harness systems, packability, materials, durability, all-weather, and suitable to your body shape.

There are plenty of travel backpacks on the market today, so it’s no wonder you’re scratching your head wondering what to look for. What distinguishes one travel pack from another? Is it the style, durability, or support systems? Should you pay attention to it’s organization system? 

Before you get too deep into the rabbit hole, you need to assess the type of traveling you like to do. Are you an urban traveler with a penchant for short layovers or 72 hour stints in new-to-you cities? Do you love minimalist packing, even for longer excursions? Are you the king of the capsule wardrobe?

Having a sense of your travel style will narrow your search—for instance, you probably don’t need a 72L backpack built for the backcountry if you’re romping around Europe. Build your budget and figure out what you can afford, then start to look for features that will allow you to enjoy the use of your backpack for the long-haul (your passport isn’t expiring anytime soon, right?). You’ll want to analyze the features of travel backpacks that fit your price range.

Top-notch quality backpacks exceed expectations in the following arenas: harness systems, packability, materials, durability, all-weather, and suitable to your body shape.

Here’s an easily digestible overview to help you figure out which backpack is right for you.

How Big Should Your Backpack Be?

Most backpacks are between 25 and 85 liters. That range is huge.

Smaller bags, starting around 25L, are ideal for use as daypacks. This size works well when you’re only carrying a few items that you need to keep handy, like a light jacket, book, or camera. Twenty-five liter bags can also be used for short weekend trips if you’re a light packer.

Very large bags, 65L and up, are for long hiking trips. These bags work well in the outdoors when you will be carrying multiple days worth of clothing and camping gear.

Bags larger than 65L are too big for urban travel, even on extended trips. If you’ll be traveling for more than a week or two, you’ll need to do laundry. Pack light, preferably in a carry on bag, and do laundry every few days. Don’t carry your entire closet on your back.

Between these two extremes is the sweet spot for luggage size. A 35 to 45 liter pack is ideal for most travel. Choose a 45L travel backpack if you like to pack a little more, and 35L if you prefer to pack light.

Travel Backpack Features

Harness System

Your backpack suspension is more than the frame and hip belt of the bag: it also includes the stays, back panels, load lifters, and harnesses. But rather than spit a bunch of travel gear jargon at you, here’s the thing that matters most: Your pack system should be adjustable, so you can customize the wear to YOUR comfort.

A well-built harness system will effectively transfer the weight of your gear from your upper back to your hips and legs. For instance, Outbreaker’s hip belt can transfer 80% of your pack’s weight from your shoulders to your hips. The torso section of your backpack should also adjust to fit your height, so that you can move more freely and naturally while wearing your pack. 

Even elements like the height of the shoulder straps can be customizable to the wearer in some bags, allowing your pack to fit you like a glove—making it more comfortable and sustainable to wear over longer periods of time, reducing the strain on your back.

Packability

A great backpack utilizes smart systems to improve access to your items, even the ones deep down towards the bottom of your pack. What should you look for? The key is organizational structures. You want pockets and zippered compartments galore to help organize your clothes, electronics, toiletries, paperwork, etc.—not to mention the items you want easy access to (like your headphones or water bottle).

Packing a top-loading backpack feels like loading a trash bag (and makes it hard to retrieve items from different parts of your pack). Instead, choose a backpack that is front-loading and opens like a suitcase. Much easier.

For more specifics of how this looks in an actual backpack, check out the Setout Packing list. It recommends storing electronics in the mesh pockets, whereas packing your laptop or tablet flush to your back in the large electronics compartment. The hideaway shoulder straps make it even easier to double your backpack as a handheld back when it benefits you.

Your future self will thank you if your backpack has smart organization systems.

Backpack Materials

Picture this: You’re island hopping in Thailand on one of those cool, colorful long tail boats. Since you’re planning to stay on Koh Phi Phi for the night, you overstuffed your daypack just a bit so that you’d have everything you need. As you go to grab your pack and set foot on the island, you hear a giant riiiiiiip. Rut-roh. There go your delicates across the bottom of the wet boat.

Don’t let this be you.

Make sure that your backpack is built with materials that can sustain adventures of all kinds; materials that are suitable for your activities. Look for travel backpack fabric that will last and is both practical and sturdy. Stronger, denser fabrics, like nylon and polyester, or even waterproof sailcloth, will help you avoid emergencies.

Look at the stitching. A travel backpack with reliable structural integrity will have 6-10 stitches per inch, especially in load-bearing areas (such as shoulder straps). You’ll want to double check that your travel backpack has YKK-grade zippers to avoid a last-minute tailoring amidst your travels.

Durability

The durability of your travel backpack is highly related to the materials from which it is constructed. Pay extra close attention to the shoulder straps, stitching, and zippers—these are the most common parts of a travel backpack that start to wear down over time.

Investing in higher quality materials up front will improve the overall longevity of your pack. Don’t treat this like another throw away item; shop smart for durability and enjoy your gear for years to come.

Weather Resistant

You may not need a 100% waterproof backpack, but a bag made from water resistant materials will protect your items more successfully. To this end, it is great to have padding in your backpack to further protect your more fragile contents, like your laptop.

Travel backpacks made from nylon and polyester are better options for weathering the occasional rainstorm. You might also want to pay attention to the thread count of your backpack, as more threads per square inch of fabric is more indicative of better water resistance

Be mindful of how your backpack’s fabric can stand up to excessive UV exposure, too, lest you’re left with a backpack that is starting to break down and color that is starting to fade.

Women’s Fit

If you’re a woman, your proportions and unique body shape should be taken into consideration when choosing a travel backpack (especially since 99% of gear seems to be made for men). 

Typically, women have shorter torsos than men, so it is essential that you find a backpack that offers options for 1) torso length 2) shoulder straps 3) padded hip belt.

“Tightening the shoulder straps will help the bag ride higher on your back, not sag down low like a teenager’s school backpack. Carrying the load higher on your back will prevent it from pulling on your shoulders and causing you pain.”

TL;DR

Shopping for a travel backpack can be overwhelming. Is it light enough? Long enough? Attractively designed? Durable enough?

Cut through the noise and pay attention to these six markers of a high quality travel backpack:

  • Harness systems
  • Packability
  • Materials
  • Durability
  • Weather resistance
  • Suitable to your body shape.
 

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