By Jillian Kramer
October 16, 2019
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What you pack your things in is, arguably, as important at what you actually pack—and travel backpacks can be one of the most efficient and practical luggage options. They are both sturdy and light, with more compartments than standard suitcases and often small enough to carry on a plane. But because they offer so much, travel backpacks can also be quite confusing for first-time buyers. As Mark Thibadeau, design director of Thule packs, bags, and luggage, says, “There are so many choices with nuanced differences that likely aren’t clear to most users—so people are understandably overwhelmed” when choosing.

What’s more, “bag brands are offering more and more features in an effort to differentiate in a crowded market,” he adds. “These features are often designed around very specific use scenarios, which are not well explained to the customer.” For example, a travel backpack might offer a pocket designed for Bose headphones—and you own a pair of Beats, he says.

So, how can you choose the right travel backpack for you and your travel needs? We asked three travel backpack experts to weigh in on what to look for in the perfect pack for you.

Consider its size—and weight.

First things first: A travel backpack must be big enough to hold everything you plan to pack. According to Chris Clearman, founder and CEO of Matador, if you plan to use your backpack as a day pack—and not your primary piece of luggage—it’s unlikely you’ll need something larger than 30 liters. But Mark Correll, Eddie Bauer’s division vice president of product line management, challenges you not to go too big, even if the backpack will be your only bag.

“Go smaller by being smarter,” Correll says. “Getting a big pack will eventually lead to a larger and heavier load. A smarter design in a smaller pack will encourage you to select what you are packing carefully and make a big difference in the long run for easier travel.”

Weight, then, is another important consideration. Be sure to select the lightest, yet most durable, pack you can find, Correll advises. “If you’re going to be traveling extensively, you want to make sure you aren’t too loaded down,” Correll points out. “An extra few ounces on your back can certainly wear you down over the course of a long day.” So, “make sure you get a bag that is light on weight, but still offers the quality and features you need,” he says.

(Clearman suggests Matador’s 30D Cordura backpack, which is lightweight and durable.)

Purchase for quality, not price.

If you’ve never purchased a travel backpack, you might be shocked at how expensive they can be. (The best bags can be hundreds of dollars.) But according to Correll, this can be one time you get what you pay for—and he advises you “invest like you are carrying important stuff, because you are,” and emphasizes that high-quality backpacks should last years, not just a trip.

Make sure you are getting your money’s worth by checking for quality finishes on the bags you’re considering. “Look for nylon or heavier weight polyesters—or real leather,” advises Thibadeau. “Canvas can also be a great material as long as it doesn’t feel too light and has a good protective water-resistant or wax coating.” Plastic buckles aren’t necessarily a sign of shoddy design. According to Thibadeau, they can be as good or better than metal closures. But you’ll want to look for YKK zippers, which are “generally a benchmark of high-quality.”

Other things that indicate you’ve selected a high-quality bag include: Lining throughout, pockets and straps that are sewn into to the main compartment, and double-sewn finishes.

Know what features you want and need.

Travel backpacks offer many more features than traditional luggage, but to take advantage of them, you’ll need to know what you, well, need—from water bottle holsters to external compartments to hold snacks to internal pockets for tech and waterproofing. So, “consider what you really need and find a pack that offers all of the necessities,” advises Clearman.

(Eddie Bauer’s Adventurer pack offers mesh panels for water bottles and an organizational pocket for tech and other necessities for travelers who want the best of outdoor utility and work practicality; Thule’s Landmark bag is perfect for those with security concerns, as it has a covert CashStash compartment that will keep money and passports safe and hidden.)

If you’re not sure where to start, think about what you need to access the most often, says Correll. The answer to this question can help you prioritize the features that you’ll need. For example, if you’ll pack a lot that you’ll frequently need to grab—think: laptop, ear buds, and other small necessities—you might choose a bag with a top roll for easy access. On the flip side, those who won’t frequently dig into their bags might prefer a front-loading design.

Comfort is king.

Unlike traditional luggage that you pull behind or beside you, you’ll be carrying this travel backpack on your back—making how it feels while you wear it a priority, says Thibadeau.

“You’ll be wearing this bag a lot, sometimes stuck in airports, standing on hour-long train rides, or just trying to kill an hour or two on some last-minute bus tour,” he says. And if it doesn’t feel good in the store, we promise it won’t feel any better in any of these situations.

Perhaps most importantly, the bag’s straps should be comfortable, he says. “I always look for shoulder straps that feel really robust—and sometimes firmer foam is better in the beginning, as most will soften fairly quickly with use,” Thibadeau advises. “Super-soft or cushy foams feel great initially, but pack out over time and lose their comfort.” Be sure to test how the bag will really feel by asking a store employee to fit the straps to your body, then add weight to the pack when you try it on. “This is really important to do,” he says.

Another thing that can impact your comfort is whether a bag has a back panel—a mesh layer that will allow airflow behind the pack and keep you cool in hot weather or on long treks. “I travel a lot in Southeast Asia, so it’s important that I don’t get too sweaty when carrying the bag around, says Thibadeau. (Thule’s AllTrail backpack has this feature.)

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