How to Choose the Perfect Backpack

Properly packing for a trip will take longer than haphazardly throwing things in a suitcase or backpack the night before. But having all your essentials purchased and packed a week or so before your trip will take the stress out of making it to the airport and any last minute goodbye phone calls.

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The first thing you should think about is what kind of bag you are going to throw all your stuff into. This ultimately depends on what type of trip you’re planning on taking.

Generally speaking, the choice boils down to two types of “hauling” equipment:

#1. A more traditional suitcase with wheels and a handle to allow for dragging through train stations and airports


#2. An internal frame backpacker’s backpack that, like the name says, you carry on your back.

Hell on Wheels

The first option may be good for the traveler who is flying into Paris and staying in Paris at the same hotel for the duration of the trip. They will only need to move to and from the airport or train station once and can leave the luggage unpacked in the room for the duration.

Minnie Mouse Luggage
Perhaps Not the Best Luggage Choice © joka2000

That being said, few things are more frustrating than trying to run to make a train departure and having to weave in and out of slow moving and disoriented travelers dragging large suitcases behind them as if they were part of a Japanese game show and you were the contestant who will soon fall flat on your face. Then, when you get to your train, invariably these same travelers are trying to hoist their overloaded suitcase up to their travel partner in the train, who already has two or three other suitcases around them, which are blocking any movement or entrance to your car or seat. All of this only makes the hilarious scene of these travelers trying to maneuver a suitcase on two small wheels over the cobblestones and uneven walkways of Europe more enjoyable.

So … by now you may have guessed my choice in luggage.

The Backpacker’s Pack

On every trip I have ever taken – be it seven days or forty, one country or six – an internal frame backpack is what I use. This type of pack allows you to move about hands-free so you can keep an eye on that all important map and is for all intents and purposes just an extension of yourself. You’re free to hop on a train and find your seat or climb the stairs to your hotel room without the struggles of carrying a suitcase. Being hands-free also has its advantages when trying to walk down a moving train car in Italy. It may very well save you the embarrassment of landing in a local’s lap.

Backpacker on Road to Mount Everest
© studebaker

What to Look For

New suspension systems on these types of packs relieve a great deal of stress on the back, in turn making them much more comfortable, especially when you consider everything you own is inside it. If you are going to visit several locations and use public transportation to get there, this is the way to go.

Purchasing a pack that has easy access to its contents is important. Some people prefer a bunch of outer-pockets for separating their belongings and others like one big “sack” like pack that everything fits into. In any case you want to be able to get to your clean socks at the bottom of your bag without taking everything out of it and having to re-pack every time.

In terms of size I have found that 4500-5000 cubic inches (that’s how the capacity of these packs are measured and noted at the store) has been perfect for short or long trips. All-in-all I pack about the same for all trips (see the packing check list I have put together) and this size allows for a little extra room for souvenirs but not so much that I end up buying stuff just to fill it and end up overloaded. In fact 4500-5000 cubic inches really makes it hard to over-pack and that can make your trip much more comfortable. In addition, a pack this size usually falls within the carry-on limits for international flights making the whole disembark-and-find-your-bag fiasco a thing of the past. Just watch what you pack or you may lose your Swiss army knife or fingernail clippers. Buying such things once you land is worth the benefits of getting to your hotel quickly right after an 8 hour flight.

As for how much to spend, this can vary because of any number of factors; not the least of which is how much you can afford. That being said, I see no reason to spend more than 300 dollars US on a backpack like this. $200-300 will get you a pack that will last for many many trips and years and several models now have the option of adding extra storage by attaching supplemental pockets should the need arise.

The Final Decision

No matter how much you decide is the right amount to spend try the pack on in the store and ask the salesperson to fill it with weights. This will allow you to see how the pack fits and if it is the right size and shape for you. Most camping supply stores that carry internal frame backpacks will have large beanbag type sacks that can be put into the pack to simulate the weight of your clothes and travel items.

Try to find a specialty store in your area as these will have knowledgeable staff that understand the products and genuinely love what they do. This of course translates, usually, into a willingness to help you through the sale by answering all your questions. REI, Trail and Ski and Bass Pro shops (outdoor world) have always been my favorite stores to shop for packs and other equipment.

Lastly you may be asking why an internal frame pack and not the good old external backpacking packs. Simply put: external packs are outdated. They do not stay as close to your body, place added strain on your back, and tend to be much broader which makes moving down plane or train aisles difficult. The internal frame pack tends to be much more comfortable and maneuverable and with the latest designs you don’t have to worry about airflow to your back on hot days.

Taking the time to find the right type and size of pack is as important as getting the right pair of shoes. Remember that it will essentially be your home and best friend for a couple weeks (or longer) and you need to likewise feel comfortable in it and want to keep it around.

  1. 4500-5000 (74 to 82 litres) cubic inches is not even close to carry-on size. Some 40 litre packs might make it as carry on but to be on the safe side, 35 litres max (2100 cubic inches)

  2. Maximum dimensions to ensure carry on: 21 x 14 x 7 inches.

    21*14*7 = 2058 cubic inches = 34 liters

    AND, those 34 allowable liters include any external frame and straps.

    Be on the safe side: 30 liters max for carry-on.

  3. I agree external frame packs are probably lousy for walking down airplane aisles, but the author clearly hasn’t a clue about them. Except for the extra pound or two they generally weigh over an internal frame pack, they’re no worse on your back than an internal frame pack if you’ve even the slightest inkling how to use a hip belt and adjust the shoulder straps.

    They do sit a bit further away from the body, but if one knows how to pack them correctly, external frame packs allow a more upright posture when walking and generally transfer the load to your hips better than internal frame packs. They also usually have more pockets and storage options for better organization, but are wider because of this.

    As for ventilation, external frame packs rarely leave a sweaty mess on your back like most internal frame packs will.

    To each his own; internal and external packs have their place if one isn’t worried about trail fashion.

    1. This article was obviously not written for people who are hiking trails. It’s for people whose travels include urban areas, trains, and planes. An external frame pack makes no sense in any of these situations.

    2. That’s correct. We’re primarily a travel site, so “backpacking” in this context refers to using a backpack as luggage. Not to trailblazing the backcountry, hiking in the woods, etc.

  4. Ok, so I’m a backpack virgin. Will a 50 litre be ok for one month in Europe? I’ll be only in hostels, traveling by plane and train, in about 6 countries. And I’m going in winter. And Im a 1.60m tall girl… And… that’s it. lol Thank u!!!!

  5. Backpack manufacturers such as Berghaus, Karrimor, Osprey, Lowe Alpine and Caribee have now introduced hybrid models into their range which are bacially backpacks with wheels. So you can wheel them along in the airport but also sling them on your back if you need to run! However because they need to be rigid to be wheeled the back systems are not as comfy or flexible as their traditional counterparts.

  6. Wheeled backpacks are convenient if you plan to stay in once place your entire vacation. But the wheels add a lot of unnecessary weight and there is no real advantage over the traditional backpack. If I was touring around Europe, I’d take a single backpack and go where fancy strikes me. External frame backpacks are making a comeback on the market with lighter and stronger tubing for the frame. And with hauling a big load, their stability is exactly what one wants on an extended journey – if you do a lot of walking, its better to take the weight off the shoulders and transfer them to the hips. You can’t put too high a price on comfort on the road.

  7. You don’t need a 70+ backpack unless you’re going on an expedition and need to take a stove, tent, sleeping bag, water, food, etc, etc. For backpacking and hostels 35 is adequate.

  8. I’m heading off to Nepal, Tibet (if the permit issue has sorted itself out in time) Bhutan and Thailand. There will be a huge extreme in temperatures so will need to pack for both hot and cold, would you suggest 50L or70L in this case? i am also a 160cm tall girl!

  9. who the heck talks in cubic inches? Come one, people, EVERY backpack is in LITERS. Why? Because companies manufacture their bags for the whole world, and the whole world uses metric. Oh, right, except for the US, and some people in Britain and maybe a few old people in Australia and Canada.

    I find it very hard to take this writer seriously for his statement about how bags are marked. I mean, most bags have the number of liters right in the model name. They make sense. They are in two digit numbers instead of four…… Aside from that, we are given only two options, a suitcase with wheels, or in internal frame backpack. How does one choose the right size? How many liters for how many days of stuff? Differences for women? Things to look out for? Straps? What if cycling with bag? There is not much in the way of useful information here.

  10. Tammy, I had the same reaction. Yuck to archaic units. Give me liters or give me death!

    For my last trip to Europe I bought a High Sierra AT-32, a wheeled duffel travel bag with backpack straps. With 1 m length and about 128 litre capacity, it has about max capacity for a checkable bag. Even with my range of clothes for conference and leisure, the bag had more than enough room. I was even able to add a 5 L mini-keg of good German beer and carry it up flights of stairs and onto trains (yes, you can bring this much beer to the USA in checked baggage). Not having to carry the bag on my back all the time was nice. A good compromise, although I would go for the next smaller size if I had it to do again.

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