I've recently bought a new rucksack,so I thought to write this useful guide about how to choose a travel backpack, sharing the criteria that I used to select my own and helping other fellow travellers to save some time on choosing the best backpacks for their needs. (If you are in a hurry skip the text and go directly to my backpack checklist at the bottom)
What's the perfect travel backpack size?
The size should be the very first parameter to choose and your choice will clearly be influenced by your travel style. If you usually travel for a short time or you are an ultralight backpacker going in a tropical country, then a 40 liters backpack might be enough. If you are an hitchhiker travelling for 6 months and ranging from winter temperature to summer hot beaches, then look at a 65-80 liters rucksacks. If you are hostel-hopping and moving by train you might even consider a different type of luggage, like a trolley or a backpack with wheels (still too heavy at around 4kg-9 pounds to be considered for backpacking). If you love nature and spend most of your time camping or trekking, then look for an hiking backpack.
At the same time, your travel style and the length of your stay are not enough to define the final capacity of your rucksack, more subjective criteria need to be considered. I rather prefer to have a bigger backpack and keep some space unused, to be filled maybe along the way, rather than having a smaller one and hanging all of my belongings unprotected on the exterior. This is still a personal choice.
What about the weight of my travel backpack?
The next important parameter to consider when buying a new backpack is the weight. It is essential to keep the weight as low as possible to be able to travel as light as possible. But also the weight clearly depends on the backpack size: the more the volume the heavier it is going to be. I might consider a light 65 liters backpack to weight 1.6 kg - 56 oz and a light 90 liters rucksack 2 kg -70 oz. But I would be suspicious of a 90 liters backpack weighting 1.6 kg - 56 oz: it's probably going to be low quality and with a really basic back system. If an heavier backpack is providing a better support and weight distribution, then it might feel lighter in the long run than a lighter backpack with a back system with poor performances.
Famous backpack brands or unknown Chinese copies?
There are many famous and good quality backpack brands like Karrimor, Deuter, Lowe Alpine, Salewa, Ferrino, Vaude, Osprey, Berghaus, Vango, Kelty etc. Usually they are quite expensive but they are also selling quality products. A rucksack it's a long time investment: my previous travel rucksack lasted longer than 10 years.
But in my last experience it worked out much better to do more researches in internet to find a less known but still good brand that was fitting all of my needs and was even cheaper. For others it might be the best option to take one of the known quality backpack brands, or other might find their perfect solution in an Army surplus backpack. Everybody has a different need.
Buying locally or online?
After selecting your favourite travel rucksack, the best would be to try it in a shop with some weight on it, to see if it's fitting your body and your torso length and if it's up to your expectations. Just ask the seller, they are used to have this kind of requests. But sometimes, as in my case, it's not easy to find locally what you are looking for because of the limited options, so your final resort is buying it online. In this case it's important to look very carefully at return policies, if it's possible to send it back in case you are not satisfied, and how much it would cost you for the shipment. If you want to save every possible cent, and you can find locally your perfect travel backpack, then an extra possibility, maybe the best, is to try the rucksack locally in the shop, and if you are satisfied with it, then buy it online for a cheaper price.
What else should I consider when buying a new backpack?
By having an idea of the capacity needed and combining this value with the available budget, it's possible to restrict the list of available backpacks: then considering all the extra details in the checklist, it's eventually possible to understand what's the best choice for each one of us. Often the perfect backpack doesn't exist, it's a matter of compromise and to understand what characteristic is more important to you.
Below you will find my complete list with all the criteria I considered to guide me in the choice of a new travel backpack. Most of the parameters in the checklist are easily understandable, so I'll explain only the most unusual.
In example the circumference of the main compartment is a parameter that you won't probably find in any specification list. But I'm writing this because I had to return one rucksack because the opening on top was too narrow, and I couldn't manage to pack comfortably. I realized that a circumference between 100 and 110 cm (39"-43") is good enough for my needs. At the same time since I'm really skinny and I tend to lose even more weight while travelling, another important criterion for me was the minimum circumference of the waist belt, to be sure that I could distribute most of the weight on my hips.
And the last "strange" parameter might be the width of the rigid back system. I tend to put my laptop on the top-back of the backpack: if the rigid part is too narrow, it can't protect my laptop from shocks.
The rest of the list should be quite easy to understand, if you have any question, just comment at the bottom.
- Size in liters
- Dimensions (length, height, width)
- Shape (wide and short, tall and narrow, pyramidal)
- Internal or External frame
- Circumference of the main compartment
- Separated bottom compartment
- Accesses: top, front, bottom? Does it need to open all around with a zip like a suitcase?
- Closing system of the bottom compartment, inside (draws cord?) and outside (zip going all the way to the back?)
- Front pocket
- Side pockets (voluminous or compact? tall or shorts?)
- Internal pockets
- Lockable Zippers
- Shoulder straps shape
- Padded waist belt
- Minimum and maximum circumference of the waist belt
- Adjustable back system
- Width of the rigid back system
- Weight distribution and support
- Ventilation System
- Chest strap
- 45° degrees Load-lifter straps
- Compression straps
- Possibility to expand the backpack
- Shock cord attachments
- Waterproof material or rain cover
- Design and look
- Backpacks for men, for women (they might have specific adjustments), unisex
- Colours (blending with nature or cool fancy colours?)
- H2O Hydration pack integration
- Does it have positive references on internet?