How to Choose the Best Travel Backpack

As someone who has backpacked numerous countries, I often have people ask me what to look for in a backpack. The pack you choose will have a big impact on the comfort and success of your trip. To help you make the right choice, use this guide on how to choose the perfect backpack for traveling.

Size Matters

For those who think they can just walk into the nearest sporting goods store and choose whichever pack looks the nicest, you will probably end up being very uncomfortable on your trip. The right pack should complement your torso length and sit snugly on your hips. Instead of measuring the length of your entire body, focus on the area from your shoulders to your hipbones. Likewise, you’ll need to choose the appropriate capacity of the bag. While REI suggests choosing a pack that’s 80 liters or more for an extended trip, I don’t think this is necessary unless you’ll be hiking and camping for two weeks or longer. Most of the backpackers I know, myself included, use packs that are about 55 liters for extended traveling, which is plenty of space unless you’re a heavy packer.

Don’t Be Cheap

I’m not saying the most expensive backpack is necessarily the best; however, having a good backpack can make or break your trip. If your backpack is uncomfortable, you’ll have a difficult time enjoying yourself. I’d recommend going to a passionate outfitter, like REI, where knowledgeable staff can help you choose the perfect pack. It’s a good idea before purchasing to walk around with rocks in the backpack to test it out. And, if the more expensive pack feels more comfortable, buy it.

Top Loading vs. Panel Loading

Top loading and panel loading refer to how you will pack and unpack your belongings. While top loading packs, not surprisingly, make use of the top of the backpack, panel loading makes use of the sides. Both have pros and cons, so it’s really about your preferences. Top loading can be a hassle. Every time you need to get something that’s not on the top of the bag, you’ll need to unload your belongings until you find it. However, the inside usually features a waterproof liner, which isn’t usually the case with panel loading bags. Likewise, panel loading tends to add weight to the pack, and the zippers are more likely to break off. If you can’t make a decision, one good backpack to consider is the REI Mars Pack, which offers top loading and a zippered front panel opening, giving you the best of both worlds.

Padded Straps

I would not recommend purchasing a backpack without a padded hip belt and shoulder straps. The padded hip belt helps to distribute the weight in your pack more evenly, while also giving you more support. Likewise, padded shoulder straps allow for less pressure on your shoulders and lower back.

Numerous Compartments

It can be difficult to stay organized when backpacking, especially for an extended period of time. Having a backpack with numerous compartments can help you keep related items together within easy reach. For example, I use a Gelert Wilderness 55, which allows me to separate my toiletries, tank tops, undergarments, socks, medications and thin shirts in the bag’s extra pouches. Because of this, I never have to unload my backpack to get to these items.

Contoured Back

Make sure the backpack you choose has a contoured back. Not only is this more comfortable, as it fits with your natural arch, it also creates a space to allow for air to flow through. One of the biggest obstacles with backpacking is, because the pack sits on your back with a lot of extra weight, you start to sweat more than usual. Some packs will even say on the back if they have a featured cooling design.

Internal vs. External Frame

There are two types of frames when it comes to backpacks, an internal frame and an external frame. Basically, an internal frame supports the backpack from the inside, while the external frame does so from the outside. In my opinion, internal frames are a lot more logical. Not only do they help to effectively place your weight on your hips, they tend to have a slimmer shape for easier maneuverability. They tend to be more comfortable, lighter, easier to carry and more aesthetically pleasing. External frame bags were the first type of backpack, and although internal frames are now an option, there are still those who enjoy using the old school, more rugged method.

Extra Features

This is the most fun part of choosing a backpack. Each backpack is unique in its own way due to the extra features you’ll be able to get. Some of these include secret compartments, camel backs, compression straps, adjustable torsos, sleeping bag storage, bite valve shut-off switches and much more. Think about what exactly you want your backpack to be capable of doing – for example, keeping you really organized or keeping your luggage dry – and then go from there.


There are myriad great backpacks out there, but some of my favorites include:

  • REI Mars Pack– This pack was built to handle heavy loads during extended trips. Some features include a hip belt webbing system, foam padded back panel, a “rip and stick” torso adjustment and dual-openings.
  • Gregory Z65 Pack– Good for lightweight multiday trips, and includes features like an adjustable hip belt, waterproof compartments and a hydration compatible design.
  • ALPS Mountaineering Denali 5500 Pack– This 90-liter backpack is good for those who will be doing rugged trekking, or have a lot they need to pack. A few of the features include an extendable lid and cinching collar, a removable top that doubles as a day pack and moisture-wicking fabric to help cool you down.

[images via Haolenate, Kurt Forstner, Matthew D. Lutze]