Traveling Fast and Light: Tips for Selecting the Perfect Travel Backpack

Not every trip is well suited for your standard rolling luggage. Flying home for the holidays, spending a week in the Caribbean, or a quick business trip are all excellent opportunities to put some miles on your roller. Taking that roller on a multi-destination adventure in far-off lands, however, may just bog you down. When you’re making multiple connections and using many different forms of transportation on your trip (planes, boats, buses, or donkeys) you can save time and headaches by selecting a travel backpack instead of traditional luggage. 

Tips for selecting a travel backpackI recently took my backpack on a trip to Nantucket Island and realized how much of an advantage it provided as I disembarked the ferry and rode my bike to our beach-side hotel. From dock to door the whole experience took no more than 5 minutes, while my fellow travelers wrestled with their rollers, their bikes, and their transportation.

There are quite a few guides out there for selecting a travel backpack that cover the basics (Nomadic Matt has a good post on choosing the right pack). They don’t, however, get into some of the nuances that can make or break a solid travel backpack purchase. While I was in college I paid my bills by selling backpacks at a few different outdoor sport outfitters, and I’ve come to appreciate what makes a good bag. So if you’re contemplating using a backpack on your next adventure, here are a few tips to consider before selecting a travel backpack.

Above all else, make sure your backpack fits properly

Selecting a travel backpack is a lot like buying a pair of shoes. You’ll hardly even notice a properly fitted pack. But if your pack is too big or too small you will feel its weight all day long. I would go into an outdoor sporting store to try a pack on before purchasing, or at least give yourself enough time to return an ill-fitting purchase.

Each backpack model typically comes in at least three different sizes—small through large.  The sizes are based on the length of your back. This is typically measured by finding the base of your neck, or that bumpy vertebrate that sticks out just above your shoulders, and measuring down to the small of your back. REI has a good outline of pack fitting on their site here.

Once you pick the right size it’s important to try the pack on with a reasonable amount of weight in. You can do this by loading the pack up with a combination of blankets and heavier items, and most stores have special weighted bags you can use to load the pack. Add the heaviest items close to your back and just below the top of the shoulder straps. Make sure only light items go into the very top of the bag. It should be around 30 to 40 pounds.

If loaded properly, nearly all of the weight in the bag should be supported by your hips. When putting the backpack on make sure all of the straps, including the shoulder straps, are extra loose. Tighten the waist belt on top of your hips first. Then tighten the shoulder straps and the chest strap. Finally, tighten the load-lifter straps that connect the top of the bag to the top of the shoulder straps. These final straps will pull the weight into your body to reduce your overall center of gravity—or likelihood of falling over.

Capacity is important too

In addition to the fit of the bag, you should also be conscious of its carrying capacity. If you choose a bag that is too small you won’t be able to bring home any souvenirs. If your backpack is too big you will chronically over pack.

Larger backpacks are typically measured in litters and I find that a bag around the 55L range is about the right size. It is big enough to carry about a week’s worth of clothing without being so big that it weighs as much as you. The first time you pack it for a week long trip you may feel like it’s just too small. If you’re able to work in some time to do a load of laundry as you go (most hotels offer laundry service), you will enjoy the freedom and ease that comes along with a lighter bag.

Selecting a Travel Backpack Brand

The fit, size, and versatility of a backpack are the most important factors, but selecting a reliable brand is important too. You want to make sure you have a bag that will be comfortable, last a long time, and get the job done. When it comes to brands you will, of course, find competing points of view. Based on my experience selling, owning, and using many of these different brands, here are a few of my favorites:

The Store Brand (REI, EMS, etc…)

The biggest struggle folks tend to have when selecting a travel backpack is picking between a store brand bag and a more expensive “name” brand bag. This is for a good reason. These store brand bags are well made, well thought out, will last just as long as the others, and are about 30% cheaper. If you are looking for value, this is the way to go. If you are looking for comfort, quality, and features use them as a benchmark to judge others.

Gregory Mountain Products

Gregory bags are one of my favorite. The company specializes in backpacks. They know what they’re doing. Although their bags are all very much focused on outdoor sports (hiking, climbing, etc…) they work well for travel.

Gregory backpacks are the ultimate in adjust-ability and versatility. Their bags often include unique features like adjustable hip belts and their crossFlo suspension system that allows your back to breath while wearing their pack.

My current backpack of choice is the Z55: Gregory Mountain Products Z 55

The J53 is the corresponding model for women: Gregory Mountain Products J 53 Backpack


Osprey is another great brand that makes innovative packs for both hiking and travel. Osprey tends to focus a bit more on the features than the fit when compared to Gregory, but both are solid choices.

One of the innovative features that many Osprey’s travel backpacks have are smaller detachable backpacks that can be used once you’re at your destination. I love this idea because you will always want a carry on bag or something to hold your camera as you’re exploring new lands. The smaller detachable backpack saves you from being that silly tourist touting a backpack on their front, and their back. We’ve all seen them…

Here is an example of a great Osprey bag with the detachable backpack: Osprey Farpoint 55 Travel Backpack

Eagle Creek

Another brand to look into is Eagle Creek. You may be familiar with them as they are much more of a travel focused brand, unlike Gregory and Osprey who cater to both travelers and outdoor adventurers. Eagle Creek has some really neat products, like a rolling suitcase that turns into a backpack (check it out here), but what you can in flexibility you will often times lose it fit and comfort.

Keep this in mind if your trip will require you to carry your load on your back for an extended period of time. A quick connection between trains, not a big deal. Walking from one end of a big city to another, might be uncomfortable.

Eagle Creek also has bags that come with detachable daypacks: Eagle Creek Deviate Travel Pack 60L

The bottom line

At the end of the day, there are a lot of options available to you, and a lot of competing features. If you love to travel, but also do a bit of camping or hiking, I would recommend going with a Gregory or an Osprey that can do double duty. If you’re planning on traveling across Europe, but sleeping in a tent with creepy crawlies isn’t your thing, chose a more travel focused bag.

Regardless of your choice, the most import thing to do when selecting a travel backpack is buy a bag that sized to fit you properly. Try it on loaded with weight. Make sure you are comfortable adjusting the different straps. Wear it for a while indoors like a new pair of shoes. There is nothing worse than trying to make a fast connection with an ill-fitting bag.


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