Not too many people have been setting off on a round-the-world journey these past two years, but plenty have been doing some kind of slow travel trip where they’re seeing fewer countries but staying longer. Whether you’re going fast or slow, the best way to carry everything you own for months on end is to get a proper travelers backpack.
For years I ran a site that reviewed travel gear and I would go to the biggest trade show for that 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. I’ve also used a lot of them over the years, from when I backpacked around the world for three years solid to more recent trips when a wheeled suitcase wasn’t going to cut it for where I was headed.
If you’re in the market for a travel 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 newbie reviewers and travelers.
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 TRAVELERS’ 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. The kind of people setting off on the Appalachian Trail use these.
That’s not you.
What you want is a pack meant for travelers, not thru hikers. You want a pack that is easy to zip open, easy to find things in, one meant to be loaded up with lots of clothes and gadgets in different pockets. You want a backpack that can be packed and unpacked every few nights.
Ideally, look for one that can be carried with one handle on the top and another on the side if needed. You’ll be checking it on planes or at least putting it in the overhead compartment, so handles are important. If the shoulder straps can be zipped up inside a flap for checking at an airport (or looking more respectable when entering a nice hotel) even better.
In other words, you want a pack that does not have the words “trail” “hike” or “backcountry” in the description. You’ll be cursing your decision every week if you get one of those. That means you can eliminate entire brands like Black Diamond, Mountain Hardwear, and Granite Gear. Those packs are for mountain trails, not overland trips through the Americas (unless you’re just buying a daypack).
Buy a Backpack Meant to Last
I don’t always believe the old saying, “You get what you pay for.” Just look at the widely divergent prices of laptops, earbuds, and watches for proof that many people are willing to overpay based on emotion, not specs. When it comes to a travel backpack you’re going to use for weeks, months, or years of travel, the adage is basically true.
Yes, you can find some piece-of-crap, no-name backpack for $75 if you look hard enough, but there’s a good chance you’ll be looking for another one six months from now. And you may not be somewhere with a good selection when that cheapie starts falling apart, so you’ll make the same mistake again—or pay twice as much as you would have at home for a quality name-brand option.
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 to last a lifetime, but that shows that the company believes in their products’ durability.
Buy a Backpack Rain Cover or Get a Pack With One Included
Most backpacks are made of ripstop nylon or something similar that wards off a light drizzle, but they’re not seam-sealed, so water can get through the zippers and seams. The longer and heavier the rain, the more likely your belongings will get wet. This can even happen on the airport tarmac if your pack is checked.
Many good backpacks have a built-in rain cover that folds into a pocket at the bottom, but most require you to get your own. When your bag gets thrown on top of a bus somewhere and then a rainstorm comes, you’ll be very glad you had this on. Search backpack covers here.
Ideally, Try a Few Backpacks 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. If you’re new at this or have an odd body size/shape, you may need to try a few on though to see if you really like that model or not. You can do some of this in an ad hoc way if you’re traveling with others, but that’s not ideal.
The best place to try on backpacks is 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. Any good outdoor gear store, whether that’s an independent one or the likes of REI or MSI, will have someone who will help you find a pack that’s right for your body size, shape, and strength.
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, wheeled backpacks (or suitcases) are great if you’re mostly moving between airports, hotels, and train stations via taxis. I gladly take one in those cases. There’s less strain on your shoulders and other joints if you can wheel something behind you.
They’re not so great if you have to walk a half mile down a dirt road or up 120 steps to the hostel, which can be the case where I live in Guanajuato, Mexico. I see people lose those wheels on a regular basis on the cobblestone streets and rough sidewalks in old colonial cities.
Wheels and a handle can double the weight of your pack on its own and subtract from the available packing space. Plus the way most of them are designed, the (dirty) wheels are hitting your back. If you do feel you’ll really use the wheels a lot, look for one with straps on the front instead.
A Bigger Backpack Means More Weight to Carry
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. Those packs hold so much that you might be over the weight limit on the checked bag maximum.
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. If not, find other ways to keep it low with layers, quick-dry clothing that’s easy to sink wash, a minimum of shoes, and clothing that can be mixed and matched easily.
If you’re really good at packing light, you may be able to travel around cold places with just a 40-liter carry-on. That takes some work though and it means wearing the same few outfits most of the time. If you want to travel carry-on only and never check a bag, 39 liters is about as high as you’re going to be able to go, 35 more likely to be sure for small planes and European standards. The max carry-on size is in the USA is generally 45 linear inches, as in 22 X 14 X 9 to fit in those spacers they have at the airline gates.
You’ll Be Glad About Those Extra Straps
While a small school backpack only needs to hang on your shoulders, a pack with lots of weight in it needs some extra support. A quality travelers backpack will have a padded hip belt that tightens around your waist and a sternum strap that tightens around your chest.
These straps take a lot of weight and pressure off your shoulders and let other parts of your body do part of the carrying work.
Who Makes the Best Backpacks for Travelers?
There are probably 100 companies out there making backpacks, but most of those you can ignore because they’re not making travel packs. Or they only make small daypacks. Or their products are cheaply made and won’t hold up.
Based on my 25+ years of travel and testing loads of packs when I ran Practical Travel Gear, here are my “don’t have to think about it” picks for brands you can trust. These are reliable brands that have been around for a decade or more and stand behind what they sell.
These packs are going to set you back $200, $300, or more in some cases, but this is a real investment. That price is probably a fraction of what you spent on your last smartphone and you’ll be interacting with it almost as much once you hit the road. A bad backpack can really ruin your mood while traveling, while a good one can feel like your best companion.
Eagle Creek – This brand offers you a lifetime “no matter what” warranty, a sterling reputation for quality, and constant innovation. They keep changing their model names and designs, so I don’t want to call out specific ones, but everything I’ve used of theirs has been great. They also make good daypacks that hold a laptop if you’ll be carrying two bags. See my raves about Eagle Creek here.
Osprey – Osprey has long been one of the most popular brands for round-the-world travelers, with the widest selection of packs for those who will be on the move for a while. Osprey packs have a lifetime warranty, are super-light, and are well-designed.
Gregory – Gregory is another one with a lifetime warranty making durable, well-designed packs. The current models they’re selling that are meant for travelers are Detour, Tetrad, and Border, from 40 to 70 liters. Like most of them on this list, they make different versions for men and women and offer a variety of colors.
Tortuga Backpacks – I’ve only used one pack from this company and it’s sized to be more of a weekender than a long-term option, but people that love them rave about them and I know what they make is of high quality. You have to buy from them direct online, so no option to try things out in a store, but they have a generous return policy. On the “pros” side, their packs are highly water-resitant. On the “cons” side, the largest one is only 45 liters, so they’re meant for light packers.
Deuter – You don’t see this travel backpack label in the U.S. a whole lot, but this German brand is all over the backs of Europeans. They seem to be making a lot more hiking packs and kid carriers these days than backpacks for travelers, but maybe that’s just a Covid adjustment and we’ll see that change as time goes on.
Quechua – This is another European brand (a division of the Decathalon conglomerate) that you see frequently in other countries but almost never in the USA. If you’re reading this from elsewhere or are buying abroad, they’re worth checking out. As with Deuter, most packs are made for hiking, but they do have some that will meet the needs of long-term travelers too.
Kelty – The cheapo traveler’s best friend, Kelty travel packs are well-made and rugged, but frequently retail for $100 less than many competitor’s comparable models. Find the long-beloved Redwing one at a mere $130 for the 50-liter version if you want a good pack at a reasonable price.
Another way to save a few bucks is to buy a pack from REI itself. Their own gear is priced lower than the brands they carry, but they’re often made at similar factories in Asia. Some of them have an eco-friendly touch too, made from recycled materials.
What travelers backpack have you taken around the world, across cobblestones, through crowded markets, up stairs, and down dirt paths? How did it do?
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