backpacking europe

How to Choose the Right Backpack For Your Trip

Whether you’re off for a weekend in a city hostel or a six month round the world hiking trip, the wrong choice of backpack can turn your trip into an often painful nightmare. With so many sizes, styles and kinds of backpack on the market, though, how can you choose the one which is right for you?

I remember my trip to venice a few years where I was lost in the city with my outside frame backfit walking up over what seemed like millions of bridges trying to find the train station only to end up back at my venice hostel in the end. Thankfully I took their directions and made my train to Florence.

There are four main factors to consider: the backpack size, its frame, its fit and its features. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Choosing the Right Backpack Size

Backpack size is typically shown in liters according to its volume. You may be tempted to choose the biggest one you can afford, but a few days carrying around more weight than you need will soon teach you that this is not a good idea!

How much volume you actually need for a given trip depends on how heavy or light a packer you are, but as a general guide: for an overnight stay, you need 30-50 liters; for 2-3 nights you’ll probably want 50 liters; for longer trips, all but the lightest of packers will require something in the region of 60-80 liters.

However, the most important thing about backpack size is that it should be proportional to your body—which brings us to fit.

Ensuring the Right Backpack Fit

The key measurement you need here is your torso length. To get this, bend your head forwards; the top vertebra you can feel on your spine at the back of your neck is your starting point. Next, feel for your iliac crest at the top of your hips. Imagine a line connecting both hips at this point, and measure to where the spine intersects this line (you’ll need help unless you’re a contortionist!).

The majority of the backpack weight will be born by your hips, and it’s important to ensure that the hip belt is therefore a snug fit. Some backpacks are designed specifically for women, to accommodate the different hip shape. Your chosen backpack may also come with lift loader straps attached to the shoulder straps, which will help to stop the backpack pulling away from your body and sagging.

Staff in a good outdoor shop should be able to help and advise you when it comes to backpack fit, and should also have some dummy loads for you to carry.

Choosing a Backpack Frame

Most backpacks come with an internal frame, but you may decide to opt for an external frame instead. External frames are most suitable for when you are carrying a very heavy or unstable load, or where extra ventilation is a must, for example in very hot climates. You can also buy frameless backpacks, also known as climbing packs, but these are only suitable for ultralight packers.

Useful Backpack Features to Look For

Look for backpacks where each compartment has two zippers, so that you can padlock them together when necessary, for your security and peace of mind. Surprisingly a gun lock like this one with the wire works great for your backpacks and bags by looping them through the zipper holes.

A good backpack will have a variety of different internal compartments, so that you can organize your stuff carefully and not have to empty the entire contents every time you want to access something (although intelligent packing also helps with this).

A special lumbar shaped backpack may be more comfortable to carry, and also allows for an air pocket which will help to keep you cooler.

Backpacks are waterproof treated, but most are not designed to cope with torrential rain. If you’re heading out into the monsoon, for instance, it may be worthwhile to invest in a fitted rain cover for your pack.

Buying Online or in a Store?

If you’ve never bought a backpack before and are heading on a long trip, it would be best to visit a good store, where the staff can advise you.

If you are a more confident shopper, there are certainly bargains to be had online, but do take the time to read reviews carefully, especially those from people who have undertaken the same kind of trip as you are planning.

Buying a used backpack can be a real money saver, but exercise due caution over the pack’s condition, and in particular check for bed bugs or other infestations which could ruin your trip. And remember that just because it’s used doesn’t mean all the same advice about finding the right fit doesn’t matter—you’ll regret sacrificing your comfort for the sake of a few dollars.

Favorite Backpack Online Sites


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