Finding Your Perfect Backpack – UPDATED!
A common point of contention between people who travel often is whether to use a backpack or rolling suitcase to carry your belongings. Both certainly have their merits. I can certainly appreciate the ease of pulling a suitcase on wheels behind me as opposed to carrying the weight on my back, but that being said, the moment you encounter stairs, everything changes. Have you ever tried carrying a 50 pound suitcase up three stories? It doesn’t look fun.
In my opinion, backpacks are for travelers and suitcases are for vacationers. Suitcases are typically heavier, don’t travel well over unpaved surfaces, and their rigid shape limits what you can put in it. On the other hand, a good hiking backpack is typically much lighter, can go anywhere, and is able to compress down or expand depending on what you need to bring.
On top of that, if you get your pack properly fitted to you, the weight of the bag is spread evenly across your hips, minimizing any strain felt on your back or shoulders.
What to Look for In a Backpack
The first thing to consider when looking for a hiking backpack is size. If you intend to be out for over a month, I would not recommend looking at anything under 50 liters. There are some backpackers who swear by the ultralight lifestyle and travel with far smaller packs, but personally, I like to change my clothes once in a while (just kidding, you ultralighers out there).
On the other end of the spectrum, some bags are too monstrously huge. Anything over 80 liters and you risk being vilified by strangers on the overcrowded bus you’re bound to take at some point. Next, you should consider features. When searching for the perfect backpack, you should look for a bag with the following:
The contents of your bag are going to be heavy enough without the backpack itself weighing you down. When you also consider that most airlines charge for your luggage on a sliding scale of weight, it becomes increasingly important to shed some pounds wherever you can. Many modern hiking bags are built with an internal aluminum frame for a solid construction with minimal overall weight.
Keep in mind, however, it’s important not to skimp on materials in the quest for weight reduction. A featherweight bag is no good to you if its paper-thin fabric tears in the first week of using it. A well-made backpack should strike a balance between the two.
Inevitably, you are going to get caught in the rain at some point in your travels. In everyday life, this isn’t a terribly big deal, but when you’re carrying all of your worldly possessions in a backpack, it’s very much akin to living in a house with a cloth roof. In addition to using a rainfly, it’s important to find a backpack made with water-resistant materials. Cordura or any other ripstop nylon is a safe bet for lightweight water protection.
• SEPARATE COMPARTMENTS
There is nothing worse than looking for one small item in your backpack and needing to unpack the entire bag to find it. Having separate compartments makes organizing and finding your belongings much easier. For instance, you can keep emergency items that require immediate access, such as a medkit, in the hood.
Meanwhile, things like your sleeping bag can be kept in a compartment at the bottom of the bag, as there are very few emergency situations that require you to deploy a sleeping back in seconds. Also, while not entirely necessary, having a backpack with bottom access is a nice convenience feature that can save you precious unpacking and repacking time when you need to grab something from the bottom of the pack.
You’re going to be carrying this bag around for the better part of the foreseeable future. Better make sure it’s comfortable. As I mentioned earlier, a properly fitted bag should have the majority of the weight sitting on your hips, so it’s important to make sure those hip straps are well-padded. Discovering that the straps dig into your sides a few days into your trip will undoubtedly make the rest of it seem long and miserable.
While your hips will be doing the majority of the work, it’s important to not neglect your back and shoulders either. Just like the hip straps, the shoulder straps should have plenty of padding as well. I would also recommend finding a bag with a well ventilated back surface. Until you experience it, you would not believe how much heat builds up between your back and the bag, especially during those hot summer days. Being able to get some airflow between the two makes a world of difference when it comes to your overall comfort.
After all that, you’re probably wondering what bag I personally recommend. My go-to backpack is the Osprey Aether AG 85. I’ve gone around the world with this bag and it’s held up perfectly in every situation from mountain camping to urban exploring. It’s comfy, feature-rich, and most importantly, spacious.
Of course, everybody is different and every situation is unique, so there is no one size fits all answer to which backpack you should buy. I highly recommend stopping into an outdoors store such as EMS or REI and talking to a professional before committing to any one bag. Once you’ve found the perfect backpack for you, you can start figuring out what to pack. And as always, should you want any more advice from me on the subject, don’t hesitate to contact me!