By far one of the most difficult decisions you’ll make prior to a long term trip, is what backpack to buy. I learned this the hard way.
Part of what makes the decision so complicated is that everyone has different packing needs. Some people are fine with packing more clothes and walking around with a Point and Shoot camera for months. Others only pack two weeks worth of clothes into a 70L bag and use the remaining space for trinkets and gifts acquired along the way. If you’re like me you realize that you need more gear than you initially intended on carrying, including determining how to “make room” for a tripod and LED lights which will likely be acquired in January 2015.
The point is, that buying a backpack is a very individual experience. The best way to make that decision is being honest with yourself about what you need it to do and what features are most important.
Step One: Get fitted!
I started trying on bags and got professionally fitted at an EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) store around July of my pre-planning stages. Getting fitted is incredibly important! Knowing what your size is will help you figure out whether you need a S/M or an XS etc., moreover, is will also help you figure out if that brand’s S/M actually fits you or whether it’s going to be too big. Which is something i’ve encountered a few times now with certain brands.
Step Two: Try on a few different weights for bags
If you have an idea of what size bag you’re going for (i.e. 40L, 60L ), then a good plan is to try on one bag that’s obviously smaller than your desired size and one that’s obviously larger. Try each bag with weights (I generally began with 20 pounds in each of my three choices and then tried them at 15 and 10Lb). This gives you a good idea of how that bag not only supports weight, but how comfortable you feel carrying that weight. Trying on different sizes allows you to be honest about “How big is too big”, and whether or not the size you thought you wanted initially is right for you.
Step Three: Top Loading or Side Loading
This is when your personal choices start to color your backpacking needs. A lot of people (especially people who do RTW travel constantly) will swear by side loading bags.
The perks of side loading bags is that they allow you access to your things in a similar fashion to unzipping a suitcase. This prevents you from having to dump everything out to find an item at the bottom of a top loading bag. This feature also means that these bags are generally ‘lockable’ with TSA approved locks, which is a good theft deterrent.
Another perk to side loading bags is that, more often than not, they come with a way to compartmentalize the back straps allowing for your backpack to be checked baggage without worrying about straps fraying or getting caught on the belt in transit.
Top loading bags are a traditional favorite of many backpackers, especially the ones who spend less time in the city and more time exploring the mountains. These comes with a lot of wonderful external compartments (not generally a feature of side loading bags), that allow you to strap and stow away a number of items onto your backpack.
Of course these bags aren’t generally lockable, unless you figure out a system (like using a Pacsafe backpack protector). But keep in mind that where you’re staying (Hostel vs Home) should play a part in helping you decide how important it is that your bag is immediately lockable or easily accessible.
Step Four: What are you packing?
What you’re storing in your bag and how long you’ll be trekking around should greatly influence your choices. Do you need a Daypack for gear? Or are you only bringing a few small things (i.e. Laptop and small camera). Do you need everything to fit in a carry on overhead compartment? Or are you planning a trip solely involving buses and trains? Are you going to be using compressible bags? Or would you rather use a Pack-It Folder because your trip involves professional attire and you don’t want your clothes to get wrinkled?
All of these questions help determine what your needs are in finding the right backpack.
Step Five: Aesthetic
The aesthetic of your bag may not seem as important initially as your trying to answer a number of questions regarding your travel needs. However, this bag is carrying your life and you will be seen all over wearing it. Make sure you LIKE this bag, a lot.
It will become an accessory to your body that you can’t easily replace while traveling.