What Kind of Backpack Should You Buy?

What kind of backpack should you purchase? This, my friend, is a much more important question than you might think. Your backpack will be your closest traveling companion—your wardrobe, your locker, and filing cabinet—and you want to be sure to choose wisely. There are a number of things to consider when buying a backpack, and I’ll walk you through exactly what you need to know. And if you’re thinking about packing a suitcase instead of a backpack—I’ll tell you right now, don’t do it. Carrying your luggage for any considerable period of time will be a royal pain in the ass with anything except a backpack. Carrying a suitcase is a terrible idea, and will severely limit the things you can do.



Backpacks come in a number of sizes. The most common size for backpackers is a 65 liter bag…you can fit everything you’ll need in there and not much more. Personally, I have a 65 liter bag which expands to a 80 liter bag when you pop the top up. I usually wear it at 65, but have the option of fitting more stuff on the top if I need it.


I would recommend going no smaller than a 65 liter bag…any less than that, and you’ll really be wishing you had more space. The first photo shows the bag at 65 liters, the second shows the bag at 80 liters:




Ensure that your bag has sturdy straps that you’ll be comfortable walking long distances in. The bag should also have a strong waistband—this will take a lot of the weight off of your shoulders and save you a lot of angst and sweat when traveling on the road.



There are two main kinds of bags: those that open only from the top, and those that zip open from the front. If possible, I would highly recommend buying a bag that zips open from the front. It is a royal pain in the ass to pack everything from the bottom up, and even more annoying when you need something from the bottom of your bag. If your bag only loads form the top, you’ll find yourself constantly taking everything in and out. Do yourself a favor, and get one that opens from the front as well!


If your bag has a second or third compartment, these are also huge pluses. You’ll be carrying electronics, documents, books, shoes, first aid kits—the more organized your bag can be, the more efficient of a traveler you’ll be. Buying the right bag that suits your needs at the start will save you a whole lot of hassle.



Go with a reliable brand here. I know, these backpacks are FAR more expensive than you ever could have imagined—it can easily be the single most expensive item on your packing list aside from your plane ticket, but it is WORTH IT to have a reliable bag. There’s no shame in buying one used or online—that’s exactly what I did, finding a backpack that I liked in-store with a sticker price of $450 and buying it on eBay for $90. Spend time hunting for a bargain. A brand-name backpack is built to last, so buy one that you’ll have for years. Top brands include Gregory, and Osprey; though go to an REI store and try on as many as you can. Just get a name brand bag! You won’t be sorry.


Pro tip: Do not buy the bag online sight unseen...visit a store and try it on first.


Pro tip: use your waist strap when carrying your bag around It will greatly reduce stress on your shoulders, and make your bag much easier to carry!





You should be able to lock your bag, easily. Get a small, wiry non-key lock (this one from REI treated me just fine, though apparently a lot of people had problems with it…either way, shoot for something like this model) and ensure that it works on your bag. Any backpack can easily be broken into if someone wants to badly enough, but locking yours up reduces the likelihood that yours is the one broken into.



Most bags aren’t waterproof. Do yourself a favor, and buy a waterproof cover that fits your bag—and do it now, before you leave. Store it in an accessible pocket on the outside of your bag. You don’t think you need it until you find yourself standing under the awning of a storefront during a torrential Bornean downpour, wishing you had spent the ten dollars and bought the damn water cover.


There’s not much more to it. Simply ensure that your backpack is comfortable, of good quality, easy to navigate, and will be an overall asset rather than a hindrance. This is one piece of equipment that you absolutely have to try out in-store…trust me. Now, pay a trip to REI and try a few on to get a sense of what you’re looking for!

Matthew KollerTravel Tips