best backpacks for travelers

This blog has been quiet the past week because I’ve been checking out new travel gear at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Utah, seeing what’s on the way from all the top brands in the industry. There are more than 1,000 companies there showing off everything from skis to shoes to solar lanterns, but I spent a good amount of time checking out new backpacks.

If you’re in the market for a backpack, or will be soon, I’m going to provide a good cheat sheet that will make it very easy for you to get what you need. I’ve used $90 backpacks and $400 ones, tried them on year-round journeys, 3-week vacations, and biking trips, so I’ve got a more rounded view than most reviewers.

Here’s what you need to know about the best backpacks for travelers, from the general things to remember to the advantages of specific brands.

Get a TRAVEL backpack

If you go looking at backpacks, you’ll find a lot of pretty, lightweight, comfortable packs that load from the top. They are meant for backcountry hikers, backcountry skiers, or people planning to summit a peak of 8,000 meters. That’s not you.

What you want is a pack meant for travelers. Easy to zip open, easy to find things, meant to be loaded up with lots of clothes and gadgets in different pockets. Preferably one that can be carried with a handle on the top and side if needed. If the straps can be zipped up inside a flap for checking at an airport (or looking more respectable when entering a nice hotel) even better.

Buy a pack meant to last

Yes, you can find some piece of crap no-name backpack for $75 if you look hard enough, but there’s a good chanceĀ  you’ll be looking for another one six months from now. And you may not be somewhere with a good selection, so you’ll make the same mistake again—or pay twice as much as you would have at home. If you’re really short on funds, look for a pack from Kelty (more on that later) or keep an eye on the outlet section of the online gear sites to get last year’s model for half off or more. Ideally, you want something that comes with a lifetime guarantee, or close to it. You may not need it, but that shows they believe in their durability.

Gregory packs

Buy a rain cover or get one with a cover built in

Most backpacks are made of ripstop nylon or something similar that wards off a drizzle, but they’re not seam-sealed, so water can get through the zippers. Many good packs have a built-in rain cover, others require you to get your own. But when your bag gets thrown on top of a bus somewhere and then a rain storm comes, you’ll be very glad you had this on.

Ideally, try it on

I’m all for shopping the discount section at the likes of Sierra Trading Post, Backcountry, and REI Outlet because you can get a quality pack for half the list price sometimes, but if you’re new at this or have an odd body size/shape, you may need to try a few on in a real retail store with someone who can help. Walking for a year with a pack that doesn’t fit properly is no fun.

Be very sure you want a pack with wheels

When you hear someone rave about their backpack with wheels, ask them how they travel and what their budget is like. As I’ve mentioned before here and here, wheeled backpacks are great if you’re mostly moving between airports, hotels, and train stations via taxis. I gladly take one in those cases. They’re not so great if you have to walk a half mile down a dirt road or up 220 steps in my sometimes home of Guanajuato, Mexico though. Wheels and a handle double the weight of your pack and the way most of them are designed, the (dirty) wheels are hitting your back. This year at the OR Show though I saw some with straps on the front instead, so look for this option to avoid the wheels in back problem.

Watch the size

You can find backpacks that hold 90 liters, but unless you’re a very hefty man, you probably don’t want to carry that much once you fill it. For most people 65 or 70 liters is the max. If you’re going to mostly warm places, you should easily be able to get by for less if you’re packing the right kind of lightweight clothing and quick-dry underwear.

Who makes the best packs?

There are probably 100 companies out there making backpacks, but a lot of those you can ignore because they’re not making travel packs. Based on my 20 years of travel and testing loads of them for Practical Travel Gear, here are my “don’t have to think about it” picks for brands you can trust. Many come in versions for women.

hard shell suitcase backpackEagle Creek – lifetime “no matter what” warranty, sterling reputation for quality, constant innovation. Check out the Loche or Rincon models for long-term travel. If you want wheels and can wait until July, every writer and blogger I talked to at the OR show was drooling over the Morphus model pictured here.

Osprey – long one of the most popular brands for round-the-world travelers, with the widest selection, Osprey packs have a lifetime warranty, are super-light, and are well-designed. Look for the Aura, Waypoint, or Porter styles, or four different lines with wheels. The Porter is great if you already have a daypack you like as it’s only about $130.

Gregory – Another one with a lifetime warranty making durable, well-designed packs. I especially like their Savant packs that are light as a hiking pack, but open in the front in a U shape to get to your stuff.

Deuter packDeuter – You don’t see this brand in the U.S. a whole lot, but this German brand is all over the backs of Europeans. I like their Transit 65 pack if you’ll make use of the detachable daypack and it’s under $200.

Kelty – The cheapo traveler’s best friend, Kelty packs are well-made and rugged, but retail for $100 or more less than many competitor’s models. Find the beloved Redwing one at close-out prices or check out the more expensive Lakota line.

What backpack have you taken around the world, across cobblestones, through crowded markets, up stairs, and down dirt paths? How did it do?