Travel Backpack Buying Guide: What To Look For

Picking the right travel backpack

Buying a new travel backpack for your impending trip can result in hair-pulling levels of stress for those who don’t know much about it. 

Personally, I don’t have any hair to pull out, but luckily for you what I lack in follicles I make up for in experience after spending multiple years of buying, hating, upgrading and loving many a backpack through 100+ countries until I finally got it right.

I’ve made all the novice mistakes during that time, so you don’t have to. I have blindly bought what I thought at the time was a backpacker’s bargain, only to feel the lower back pain from so-called spinal support or lack thereof.

In the earlier days, I had backpacks rip at the most inconvenient times, roughed it with non-existent compartments, and don’t get me started on backpacks that don’t have a fully openable function (more on this vital subject later on in the article).

Enough about my paid dues on my long journey to become a backpack critic; let’s take a look at what makes the best travel backpack for long-term travel. 

Features To Look For When Buying a Travel Backpack

When it comes to buying a travel backpack that will be your friend rather than your foe, there are some features that simply can not be overlooked.

 When purchasing a backpack, I find the following factors absolutely vital:

  • Front-loading system
  • Spinal support
  • Smartly designed compartments
  • Padded waist and shoulder straps
  •  Water-resistant material
  • Front-loading system

This is my absolute top tip and I won’t save the best until last, as this is a matter of utmost urgency I couldn’t wait to get this off my chest. 

Always, always, always get a backpack with a front-loading function.

A front-loading system, often referred to as a “panel-loading” backpack opens up like a suitcase, giving you easy access to all of your gear whilst keeping it relatively well organised.

If you don’t, you will have to rummage through all of your gear at the top of your bag to get to what you want, and inevitably you’ll throw everything on the hostel/hotel room floor in a tempestuous tantrum at least once during your novice journey.

I learnt this the hard way. The very first backpack I left with all those years ago didn’t come with a front-loading system, adding to unnecessary stress and becoming a time suck to my travels.

Here’s a photo of the aforementioned monstrosity (I am referring to the backpack, not my unforgivable fashion sense). It only lasted 3 months and although online income started kicking off pretty fast and I upgraded almost immediately, I was still pretty clueless about what to look for in a solid, comfortable and reliable backpack and the long journey of finding “the one” continued. 

Spinal Support

On the subject of comfort, you have to consider the fact that you are carrying most of or even all your worldly possessions on your back, often through temperatures that you are not used to, and maybe walking for longer than you would back home with that all unprecedented weight on your back.

There will be times when even the strongest of pilates puritans and gym bros will get tired, and when fatigue kicks in your body will naturally slouch. 

Not all backpacks are created equal when it comes to comfort and injury prevention and you should make sure you buy a backpack with a spinal support system, which provides a soft surface that moulds to the curvature of your spine.

They all have funky names for these systems which usually contain the word “flex,” such as Bioflex, or Flexvent.

Padded Waist and Shoulder Straps

Staying with the theme of comfort and body support when you travel, the waist belt should be padded and should sit on top of your hip bones. 

It should rest evenly in the middle of the back and not hang down to your bum.

This will distribute the weight that you are carrying. Your backpack should also have adjustable straps to tighten the belt to fit your body, as and when you need it.

The same deal for the padded shoulders – they offer weight support and stop the shoulder straps from chafing when the backpack pushes against you.

Scrimping on this feature can result in rotator cuff injuries or a very sore neck.

Water-resistant Material

‘Water-resistant’ does not mean the same thing as ‘waterproof.’ which means your backpack would need to be good enough for submerging deep into the water with all of your gear living to tell the tale.

That would be some serious hardcore travel you’re doing if you need that, but if you’re not in the SAS/Navy Seals and are a regular long-term backpacker; a water-resistant backpack will do the trick.

If, like myself, you’re from a rainy western country and haven’t left your continent yet, trust me; you don’t truly know what heavy rain is until you’ve been to the tropics!

It will hammer down hard and fast from nowhere at times, and although it’s wise to travel with a cover over your pack it’s also a good idea to look out for one made out of water-resistant material so that you have that extra layer of protection for your bag and gear.

Smartly Designed Compartments

I would agree that “smartly designed” is incredibly vague, but when I’m travelling one of my biggest pet peeves is having a backpack with god-awfully thought-out compartments.

When you need something from your backpack you usually need it quite fast and stress-free. You don’t want to have to fight for it, and one thing for me that sets apart a bad backpack from a good one is this factor. 

I’m also a believer that more compartments are better than one. Consider what items you are taking on your trip and how the pockets inside the backpack you’re thinking about purchasing will be a good fit, or not.

Being thrifty is a good trait to have, but try and avoid being so frugal or impatient in your search that you accept a backpack with lazily-designed compartments that will annoy you during your trip.

How Much Should I Spend on a Good Travel Backpack?

You get what you pay for with many things in life, and this rings true in the backpack-buying game. 

It’s tempting to get something under $ 100 USD like I did when I first left, but this is not being frugal – it’s being foolish.

It’s way too risky, with little reward. There are plenty of other ways you can penny-pinch to extend your travels, but if you buy a cheap bag with crappy fabric the chances are you’ll be forking out for another one soon.

A really good backpack usually goes for $150-$300 and above, but once it goes way over 300 it doesn’t really have that much more to offer than something between $200 and $300. 

I am not averse to spending money to ensure my backpacks don’t fail me on the road, so I have spent a little more than $300 on two occasions and I consider those to be sound investments.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, you could get lucky and buy a second-hand backpack that hasn’t had too many miles on it. 

Still, all of the above in terms of features should be considered when buying a solid travel backpack so be sure to check that the pouches/pockets and zips are still in good nick, there aren’t too many holes and that the spinal support and waist system is still in tip-top condition. 

What Is The Best Size of Backpack For Travel?

Does size really matter when it comes to purchasing the right travel backpack? 

Is a bigger backpack necessarily better than a humble little one?

This, of course, comes down to personal preference and how you like to travel. Personally, I shoot for a 70-litre backpack (sometimes 80) with cleverly designed compartments so I can be more efficient with my space.

When I travel with a backpack I also have a day bag on me for when I am in transit, and I always have the day bag with me when I’m on any form of transport as that usually holds my most valuable items such as electronics.

I tend to travel for a decent amount of time and engage in a mixture of activities, so it’s important for me to have a large backpack. 

If you’re high on the spectrum of minimalism then you can easily get away with a 40-litre backpack and I will bear this in mind when it comes to recommendations at the end of this article.

If you’re interested in what goes in your travel backpack once you’ve purchased it, check out my essential travel accessories blog post that I spent a lot of time on in order to get the most optimal gear list published.

Travel Backpacks With Wheels

Travel Backpacks with wheels are an ideal option for individuals who suffer from shoulder and back pain. I know a couple of people who choose them to prevent picking up injuries and I also know travellers who simply prefer it over a standard travel backpack.

They do tend to be more popular amongst business travellers as opposed to people that walk long distances and are always on the go.

Another draw to them is their versatility. If you’re enjoying a smooth sailing wander on a nice even concrete path but then have to navigate through some bumpy cobblestones or even muddy banks; you can just push the handle down and throw it over your back.

My Favourite Travel Backpacks

I own all of these backpacks and what type of trip I am going on dictates which one I will get out of my wardrobe, dust down and hit the road with.

My Chosen Backpack For Long-Term Travel: Osprey Aether Plus 60 Men’s Backpack

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Best Short Haul Backpack & For Digital Nomads: NOMATIC 40L Travel Bag

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Carry-on Backpack & Daily Use: The North Face Router Commuter Laptop Backpack

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Best Wheeled Convertible Travel Backpack: Samsonite MVS Rolling Backpack 19-Inch

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Best Ultramarathon Backpack: Ultimate Direction FastPack 20L

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And that brings the end to this travel backpack buying guide. I hope that you choose well, now you know what to look for in a travel backpack you should be fully armed for a solid purchase.

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Anthony Middleton

A former loser who took a risk. I now live in Chiang Mai, Thailand after visiting over 100 countries. Stay tuned for the next challenge against that clock!
Ultra runner walking in desert

Hi, I'm Anthony!

In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

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