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Travel Backpacks - Choosing the Best Pack for Your Trip

Updated on September 1, 2010

Backpacking around the world can be the trip of a lifetime. Whether it's a summer in Europe, a full round-the-world trip, or a jaunt down-under, a backpacking trip is a rite of passage for any travel lover.

The most important piece of equipment you'll purchase in preparation for your trip is your travel backpack. Buying a travel backpack isn't like picking out any old piece of luggage. This pack will be your home for the duration of the trip. It'll hold all your gear, it'll face up to rain and dust, and it'll get tossed on, under, and around all kinds of planes, trains, and busses. In other words, choosing a travel backpack requires some serious thought.

In this article, I'll share some of my experiences of traveling with different kinds of travel backpacks and my advice on what kind of pack to choose for your trip.

Eagle Creek Truist
Eagle Creek Truist

Types of Travel Backpacks

There are many choices when shopping for a travel backpack: Internal or external frame? Wheeled or not? Top-loading or front-loading?

I've rarely seen an external frame (suspension) pack when traveling the backpacker circuit. These may be handy for serious trekkers -- where you're actually "backpacking" and not just using a backpack as luggage -- but they're generally overkill for the hostel-dwelling budget traveler.

As for wheels, these have their benefits and drawbacks. The big plus, of course, is that if you're in a city with relatively smooth pavement, a wheeled pack can take a big load off your back. Wheeled packs usually convert between being wheeled and being carried, so if you're navigating cobblestones, stairs, or the narrow aisles of trains and busses, you can carry one on your back. If you have a non-wheeled backpack that fits well and is properly balanced, it should be comfortable to carry on your back. But if you prefer to wheel your luggage, I recommend you shop around, read some reviews, and maybe head over to your local REI and try on some wheeled backpacks.

The final distinction is between top-loading and front-loading packs. I've traveled with both of these and I've come to loathe top-loading packs. These kinds of packs are by far the most popular -- both in stores and with travelers -- but they're such a pain to pack and unpack. Whenever I traveled with one, I ended up re-packing my bag on an almost daily basis because you'll inevitably pull out all your gear in search of something towards the bottom of the pack.

The North Face Backtrack 70
The North Face Backtrack 70

Front-Loading Travel Backpacks

As the name implies, front-loading backpacks have a zipper that runs along the front of the pack and zips all the way open. This way, you can access your gear easily and have a nice overview of everything you've packed.

Here are several well-reviewed front-loading travel backpacks in a range of prices:

High Sierra Compass Convertible Travel Pack

This pack is slightly on the smaller side, but should still have enough room for a multi-week trip. It has a 54 liter capacity and includes a detachable daypack. It costs around $150.

Caribbee Zulu 75

This is a larger pack with a total capacity of 75 liters. It also includes a detachable daypack. It costs around $170.

Eagle Creek Thrive 75L

Finally, this model from Eagle Creek has a capacity of 75 liters (77, including the daypack). It retails for $230.

Osprey Waypoint 80

Osprey is another well-known brand of durable backpacks. This pack has an 80 liter capacity, including the daypack. It retails for $259.

The North Face Backtrack 70

North Face is very well known for making rugged, durable gear and this bag gets very good customers reviews. its capacity is 70 liters and it includes a detachable daypack. It costs about $280.

REI Grant Tour Travel Pack (Women's)
REI Grant Tour Travel Pack (Women's)

My Pack: REI Grand Tour Travel Pack

For my latest trip, I bought a new pack: The REI Grand Tour Travel Pack. It's available as a 68.5 liter pack for men and a slightly smaller 66.5 liter pack for women. It's a front-loading pack with a detachable daypack.

I used the pack on a 4-week trip to Australia and really liked it. It was comfortable to carry with well-padded shoulder straps and a sturdy waist belt. It's not a huge pack, but it was big enough for all my stuff with a little room to spare. (Keep in mind that packing light is one of my ongoing travel goals.) I usually kept the daypack detached and the main pack was a lot easier to zip up this way. The zippers are sturdy and lockable and the pack held up well on the whole. My favorite part is that I was able to carry the pack on the plane on the way home. It fits into the overhead bin as long as it's not overly stuffed.

This pack retails for $189 at REI.


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