Choosing the Right RTW Backpack

Last updated on March 5, 2023

backpacking the world with two backpacks

The backpack debate is a big one in the travel community, and unlike some issues, this one warrants debate because the backpack you choose can have a huge impact on how much you enjoy your trip around the world … or anywhere for that matter.

As a general piece of advice, most backpackers (including year or more RTW-ers) are on the right track with a roughly 50L (litre) pack and a small daypack for electronics and important gear.

But that’s in general; let’s get into the nitty-gritty specifics of picking the right backpack for you.

Considerations for Carry-On Travel

  • Do you plan to use a lot of low-cost airlines/puddle-jumper flights? Discount airlines often charge $20+ for checked bags.
  • Are you content to stay at the carry-on limit for liquids? This can mean chucking out perfectly good shampoo or bug spray and no pocket knifes too.
  • It lessens your environmental impact. Eco-conscious travelers should opt for the least amount of stuff – and carry-on sized luggage makes it a lot harder to over-pack and accumulate a lot of extra weight. Plus it helps you embrace minimalism, so there’s a plus for that as well!

Picking Pack Sizes, What to Consider

I took a 52L backpack from Eagle Creek and 35L laptop daypack from the North Face when I left on my formal round the world trip back in 2008. Now, for any trip in the two week or less range, and to a single climate, I just use my 35L daypack. This habit opened my eyes to traveling lighter and here’s some of the chief sizing issues and benefits to consider:

  • How many climates do you need to pack for? It’s arguably easier to pack for a mostly summer wardrobe with a few warm weather contingency clothes. But if you’re traveling through snow and sand…that may mean a bigger backpack is ideal.
  • How big is your frame? And I mean you, not your pack. Buy a pack meant for your stature and your gender. Female packs generally fit differently; the waist and chest straps are purpose built for a woman’s shape. Taller frames can more easily pull off a larger pack and more weight.
  • What is your planned style of travel? Backpackers will really and truly benefit from a light pack – less space means less weight on your back week after week. You may find yourself hiking around to find your next hostel, or running to catch a train in India — most pointed, travel days are so much easier with less stuff to cart from place to place.
  • Smaller bags mean more safety. The smaller your backpack, the more likely you can keep an eye on it at all times. Larger packs get hefted onto bus rooftops and are targets for theft. If it fits under your seat, however, it’s a lot safer and you’ll rest easier knowing it’s close by.

Backpack Styles, Shapes, and Extra Doodads

This is where I make a brief mention of the rolling/trolley/wheeled suitcases first. There is an argument for using these – some travelers have a bad back, others plan to travel mostly through one country and with long stays in one place. For that, a rolling suitcase can work wonders.

On the flip side though, round the world travel is a whole different ball game and the most RTW-ers are happy with the mobility and ease that a well-fitting backpack gives them. After six years on the road, I bought this fantastic, highly recommended rolling suitcase and I use it when I go on trips where I’ll be traveling more slowly. I still use the backpack if I know I’ll move quickly.

Picking a Backpack Shape

The basic styles include top-loading rucksack packs, front loading zippered packs, and some sort of in-between shape.

  • Rucksack, Top Loading Backpacks
    I have yet to hear a convincing pitch for going with a traditional top-loading backpack. The main issue I have with these backpacks is the fact that you have to unload every single thing in your pack to get to something at the bottom — this makes for a personal annoyance, and makes it harder to keep your belongings organized.
  • Front-loading, Zippered Packs
    These packs are like giant versions of the backpacks you used secondary school. They zip around in a u-shape and give you access to the majority of your backpack’s contents in one fell swoop of the zipper. One drawback is that they have to lay flat on the floor to open, meaning you take up a wee bit more space in a shared dorm. I’m partial to these packs. Both of my packs use this backpack style and I find the front-loading backpacks more conducive to organization (something already hard enough to keep up on the road) and speed (I can re-pack like a fiend!).
  • Hybrid, Rucksack with Front-loading Zippers
    I’ve seen these in the wild, and they seem to do pretty well for their owners. They have few drawbacks and nicely marry the two designs.

Doodads & Pack Extras

Think about the compression straps on the outside of the backpacks — these can make handy ways to strap on any extra gear, a sleeping bag, or odds and ends.

Some backpacks also come with special, more hidden zipper compartments that make an ideal place to put your important documents and perhaps stash a safety wad of cash.

I love that my larger backpack comes with a built-in flap that zips around to cover the backpack’s straps — ideal for checking the bag on airplanes — it then folds back into the underside of the back.

The last consideration is a rain cover for your backpacks. I bought one and it was pinched in India when I landed in Mumbai. They’re hand and, again, ones built-in and attached to your pack get bonus points for ease.

That’s Overwhelming, So Some Last Thoughts

Go as small as you think you can manage, the majority of backpackers I’ve met all agree that they over-packed for their first trip. My packing list includes my initial one-year round the world packing list, along with updates from the road as I mailed items home and bought others as I progressed through my trip.

Go for comfort above all else. I can’t emphasize that enough. Go to your local outdoors store and try on packs. Ask questions. Get the salesperson to help you. Put some weight in the pack and walk around. This is an expensive purchase so take some time and buy one that fits your body well.

And then stop worrying about it! You have a lot on your plate if you’re planning a trip, so happy planning and safe travels! :)

Helpful Backpacking Resources

  • Round the World Travel Packing: In this post I talk more about the backpacks I use personally, and provide a detailed list of what I packed and found useful on the road.
  • Packing Cube System: Pack-It 3 Piece Set: Once you have your backpack selected it is time to turn your energies towards packing and finding a way to store your belongings neatly. Packing cubes are great way to save space and organize your clothing and gear.
  • The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light: Traveling with only a carry-on is not for everyone, but if you are planning to pack light this book has a lot of helpful tips and tricks. Even after years of traveling, I found some really nuggets in this book when I read it.
  • In a Sunburned Country: A little reading for the road, this book by Bill Bryson chronicles his adventures in Australia and is sure to provide hours of entertainment.

2 thoughts on “Choosing the Right RTW Backpack”

  1. Hi Shannon,
    I was looking for some information to create an infographic on Backpacking and came across your site.
    Very informative and thanks for taking the effort. After completing the infographics. I would like to share it.


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