Last updated on June 24, 2023
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 round-the-worlders) are on the right track with a roughly 50L 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 Sized Backpacks
Know the size and weight restrictions for each airline you’ll use.
Check the carry-on size restrictions of the airlines you’ll be flying with. Most airlines have specific dimensions and weight limits for carry-on luggage. And what’s crazy is that sometimes they are just an inch off of each other. So a backpack that meets EasyJet’s carry on guidelines may not meet the guidelines for RyanAir, for example. Ensure that the backpack you choose falls within the international carry on limits to avoid any hassles or extra fees.
Does the backpack have carry-on compatibility features?
Look for backpacks with features specifically designed for carry-on travel, such as a TSA-approved laptop compartment, easy-access pockets for toiletries, and a dedicated sleeve for storing important documents. These features will make going through airport security checkpoints and organizing your belongings more convenient.
Look for backpacks with compartments and organizational features.
Opt for a backpack with multiple compartments and pockets. This will help you stay organized during your trip. Consider compartments for clothes, shoes, electronics, and small accessories. Even if you’re using packing cubes to organize your bag (and you should!), compartments will also help keep things close and handy on the road. A well-organized backpack makes it easier to find what you need without unpacking everything.
Buy travel-sized containers.
You’ll need to stay at the carry-on limit for liquids if you’re traveling the world with a carry on backpack. This can mean chucking out perfectly good shampoo or bug spray, and no pocket knives too. The best way to keep from throwing away items is to refill from guesthouses or hotels along the way—just use your own travel containers and refill whenever you find extra offered for free at your accommodation.
Carry on backpacks are a good option for a lot of travelers. It lessens your environmental impact, so 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 Backpack Sizes: What to Consider
I took a 52L backpack from Eagle Creek (that one on Amazon is the latest version of my beloved bag and I own it too!) 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 as an under-the-seat bag. This habit opened my eyes to traveling lighter and here’s some of the chief sizing issues and benefits to consider if you think you might want to pack for your trip in a backpack under 40L:
- 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 backpack 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.
- Smaller bags might mean less organization. There is such thing as picking too small of a backpack. If you are constantly sitting on your bag to zip it clothes, or if clothes explode out when unzipped, then you either packed too much, or someone convinced you to go lighter than you can manage. I use a packing cube system to pack more efficiently, but I also just us a bigger backpack than some hardcore travelers.
Backpacks vs Wheeled Luggage for Long-Term Travel
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 round the world travelers 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, such as European train travel I did with my toddler son in spring 2023—I managed to back us both into a carry on backpack.
How to Pick the Right Backpack Shape
The basic styles of backpacks 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 that offers no other entrance to the bag. 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. It’s also poor form to explode your belongings all over a dorm room because you went with a rucksack backpack and now can’t find something.
When I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, I actually bought one of these packs for the first time. And it really worked for our trip. But note that the gorgeous Osprey backpack I bought and used had a entrance at both the top and bottom of the pack, and that makes a world of difference.
Front-loading, Lay Flat Zippered Packs
These backpacks 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. This is also a good backpack option for backpackers and long-term travelers.
What to Look for in a Backpacking Backpack
Size and capacity
Choose a backpack with a suitable capacity for your needs. Consider the length of your trip, the type of activities you’ll be engaging in, and the climate of your destinations. A 40-60 liter backpack is generally sufficient for most long-term trips, but adjust the size according to your specific requirements.
Comfort and support
Look for a backpack with padded shoulder straps, a padded back panel, and a hip belt. These features will help distribute the weight of the backpack evenly across your body, reducing strain on your shoulders and back. Ensure that the backpack has adjustable straps so you can customize the fit to your body size.
A backpack for long-term travel needs to withstand the rigors of constant use. Look for backpacks made from durable materials, such as nylon or polyester, with reinforced stitching and sturdy zippers. Consider brands known for their quality and durability, as investing in a reliable backpack will save you from potential issues during your trip. My original Eagle Creek backpack from 2008 is still in usable shape. Sure, the fabric faded a bit, but there are no rips and it gets my gear where it needs to go.
Doo-dads and Extras
- Backpacks with compression straps on the outside of the backpacks can make handy ways to strap on any extra gear, a sleeping bag, or odds and ends. It also helps secure the bag and could help ward off spillage if a zipper broke.
- Some backpacks also come with 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.
- A backpack with a rain cover built in is ideal—either way you need one though. I bought one and it was pinched in India when I landed in Mumbai. They’re handy and, again, ones built-in and attached to your pack get bonus points for ease.
How to Ensure Your Backpack Fits Right
- Try it on before buying: Visit a store and try on different backpacks to see how they feel on your back. Pay attention to how the weight is distributed and make sure the backpack sits comfortably on your hips.
- Adjust the straps: Once you have your backpack, adjust the shoulder straps and hip belt to achieve a snug fit. The shoulder straps should be tightened enough to keep the backpack close to your back but not so tight that they dig into your shoulders. The hip belt should rest comfortably on your hips, supporting the majority of the weight. When the hip belt is secure, the should straps should actually sit really lightly on your shoulders—they are not there to hold weight in a backpacking backpack.
- Load distribution: When packing your backpack, distribute the weight evenly to maintain balance. Heavier items should be placed close to your back and in the lower part of the backpack. This will prevent strain on your shoulders and maintain stability while walking.
- Check the torso length: Some backpacks come in different sizes to accommodate different torso lengths. Actually measure your torso length and choose a backpack that matches or adjust the backpack’s suspension system to fit your torso properly. This ensures that the weight is distributed correctly and reduces the risk of back pain. When you’re backpacking for months or years, you just can’t get this step wrong.
- Secure the sternum strap: Most backpacks have a sternum strap that connects the two shoulder straps across your chest. Fasten it and adjust it to a comfortable position. This strap helps stabilize the backpack and prevents it from shifting while you’re on the move. It can make a world of difference in how the backpack sits on you once you’re loaded down and fully packed.
- Walk around and test the fit: After adjusting all the straps, walk around with your fully packed backpack to test the fit and comfort. Make sure there are no pressure points or areas that cause discomfort during movement. Pay attention to any rubbing or chafing, especially on your shoulders, hips, or back. If you notice any discomfort or imbalance, readjust the straps or try different backpacks until you find the perfect fit. Ask the sales representative at the store for help if you can’t get it to fit right—either you’re doing something wrong, or it’s not the right backpack for you.
- Consider weight distribution: Aim to distribute the weight of your backpack evenly across both shoulders. Avoid carrying an unbalanced load that could strain one side of your body. Adjust the straps and pack the backpack in a way that keeps the weight centered and stable.
- Test the mobility: Move around in different ways to assess the mobility of the backpack. Try bending over, squatting, and walking up and down stairs. A well-fitted backpack should allow you to move freely without restricting your range of motion or throwing off your balance.
- Consider ventilation: Look for backpacks with features that enhance ventilation, such as mesh panels on the back or breathable materials. This helps prevent excessive sweating and discomfort during hot and humid conditions.
- Make adjustments along the way: As you travel and your needs change, periodically reassess the fit of your backpack. Your body may adjust or require different adjustments over time. Take the time to readjust the straps and make any necessary modifications to ensure continued comfort and support. I lost weight on the road, and I was glad that my backpack cinched down tighter over time, while others gain weight and might need a backpack with a bit more room to grow with you.
That’s Overwhelming: Some Last Thoughts
Go as small as you think you can manage. The majority of backpackers I’ve met over 15 years of travel all agree that they over-packed for their first backpacking trip. My long-term travel packing list includes my initial packing list, along with updates from the road as I mailed items home and bought others as I progressed through my yearlong trip—and notes and advice gleaned from the subsequent 14 years of travel.
And buy 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. Maybe they don’t have the color you like, or there are some fun features on one back that just doesn’t fit as well as the backpack in a different color. Go for comfort.
Sure, look online and see if you can get the bag that fits and is also one you love. But this is an expensive purchase so take 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.