How to Pick (and Pack) a Great Backpack

Picking the right backpack is an important part of planning your trip. Too big, and you’ll have too much extra weight. Too small, and you’ll never fit anything in. Pick the wrong material, and when it rains, your stuff will be soaked. Plus, there are so many options and brands out there – it can all be very confusing.

We all need to find our Goldilocks backpack.

I spent well over an hour picking out my first pack – and that was also after hours of online research! But all that research paid off. My backpack lasted me 8 years until South African Airways lost it. It looked and worked just as good as it did the day I bought it.

So how do we get the perfect backpack? What are the key elements a good bag has?

As many of you know I’ve been building up my YouTube channel and doing regular videos, this week’s video is about picking a long-lasting, comfortable, durable, and affordable backpack:

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Good backpack companies

  • REI
  • The North Face
  • Osprey
  • Jansport
  • Kelty
  • Lowe Alpine

And how do you pack that bag? Check out this video about packing (two videos this week!):

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If you want a a text version of the packing list, click here.

A few final points

  • The secret to packing to pack light. Try to fit everything into one bag. There’s no golden packing list (they are all based on personal experience and needs vary) but getting everything into one proper sized bag is going be the key to success.
  • Get a bag that is proportional to you.
  • Don’t spend more than $200 on a bag.
  1. All good tips. The one thing we do a little differently is to break our stuff down in two small bags. A 40L backpack and a ~20L front pack. In the front pack we put all our electronics and stuff we never want to be separated from. Even though both bags are “carry-on size” it sometime happens that we end up stuck in “boarding group 8,000″ on a completely jam-packed plane and we need to check a bag. No way we’re checking our laptops or our good camera. The 20L fits comfortably under our seat or even on our laps on crowded buses.

    We also pack a fleece and a super lightweight windbreaker. Together they serve as a pretty effective cold-weather jacket.

  2. Micha?

    Matt, did you try Deuter backpacks?

    Actually it’s my favorite company (I have two backpacks), they make very good backpacks.

  3. I’m a minimalist traveller and picked all the ultralight stuff that I could find to survive most conditions. The exception was the backpack, I wanted it to be:
    – around 35L of capacity.
    – able to expand to 45-55L for hikes.
    – safe—no easy access to the bag’s content, few external zippers.
    – sturdy—it is going to suffer, a lot.
    – water resistant.
    – comfortable—every day use over a long period.
    – a goot fit—so I can run with it.
    – able to hold my laptop in an internal sleeve against the back.
    – as incognito as possible (simple design and not flashy colors)—if I can avoid being spotted as a tourist from miles away, that’s better.

    After long researches, I ended up picking the First Ascent Alchemist 40L. Apart of the latest point (it is bright blue), it is doing pretty well so far.

    Oh, and it has a frame on the back that can be remvoed and used as a bivouac!

  4. I tend to stick with 40L or less, since that will fit as carry-on on pretty much every airline I’ve traveled on. I also bring a smaller bag as well with electronics, in my case just a small 13″ laptop bag that I can stuff my laptop, iPad and micro four-thirds camera into. I’ve never been separated from my main backpack, but I do it this way just in case I am forced to some day (on a low-cost carrier, for example). I also usually toss the 40L backpack up above my seat and store my laptop bag (and electronics) under the seat ahead of me. When I’m walking around I can usually just stuff my laptop bag into my 40L bag and just carry it all together when I arrive somewhere.

  5. Never had a big backpack. This year I bought more of a daypack–32L that has a sleeve for my laptop and can still be considered a carry-on. Never thought about packing duct tape, and now I think I missed out on that option (maybe I’ll find some in Taiwan).

  6. I’ve seen people travel around with 2 small daypacks, but they were a bit smelly! For those in Australia and NZ, Macpac backpacks are great. I bought one and they’re very comfortable, and extremely durable. Been giving it a flogging and very happy with it so far.

  7. Hey Matt,

    Cool tips. I would add one thing and change one thing!

    Add: HOW to actually pack… My favorite thing is to put my items in different bags. So for example, all my tops in one plastic bag, bottoms in another etc…. It prevents “backpack throw up” because that’s just the worst.

    Change: No towel. Sarong instead! It can still do everything a towel does except it takes up much less space and dries 10x quicker. I love sarongs… I actually travel with two of them (both still smaller than a towel). There are better at the beach too because they are bigger and dry quick and can be used a bathing suit cover up. I have used it for picnics, a scarf, a towel, and a blanket before. They are the best thing EVER.

  8. kevan hubbard

    I HAD a lowe alpine pack(35 litres I think?) It strap came unstritched after less than a year of not too heavy use.i was in Glasgow, Scotland, when it happened so nipped in a shop called mountain warehouse and bought their economical own brand which has worked very well for about 4 years infact ill take it to Australia on the 11 th feb!I only take hand baggage now after a bad experience of air France losing my stuff enroute Paris to Cairo (took 6 months to get it back!).so packs over 40 lr are out.

  9. Sam

    Thanks for these tips Matt. I will listen to them next time I’m buying a pack as the last one I brought was HUGE (I spent a lot of time worrying that if I fell over in the street with it on, I’d have to just lay there like a flipped turtle). I also filled it with way too much stuff – it’s true, you don’t actually use 50% of the stuff you take. Next time it’s going to be carry-on all the way!

  10. Emily Taylor

    Easily the most irritating thing is trying to account for electronics. I want to put everything in my backpack, but I know that when I get to the airport I will have to pull it all out for x-raying. That means I end up carrying an electronics-only bag.

    My dream bag has a compartment for easy packing and retrieval of a laptop, hopefully I’ll find it one day!

    • Melody

      Check out The North Face’s Lay-Flat packs. The laptop compartment unzips all the way down on both sides so the pack lays open like a book, meeting TSA’s requirements for security screening. The Surge II Transit is a 32L pack, so not a big one, but great for carry on. I have the version before they added the lay flat, same pack, just a shorter zipper. I bought it specifically for my trip to Chicago, it will easily hold way more stuff than you’d want to carry around. I used it everyday to carry all my camera gear and everything that I’d need for walking the city all day. My back never hurt. It’s an excellent backpack, as I would expect from The North Face.

  11. Great post! My husband and I just bought our first backpacks last week. I, too, spent hours reading online reviews and then spent a few more hours in stores actually trying the packs on. It’s a lengthy but rewarding process when you are looking for something so specific and personal. We both chose packs from Osprey and I can’t wait to break them in on our first trip this fall!

    Thanks for the post!

  12. Kevvy

    The are are a lot of people afraid to make any decisions on their own it seems

    Do some people need advice on when and where to go to the bathroom also?

    #1 between 8 a.m. – noon and # 2 somewhere between 6-8 p.m., local time. only?

    use washrooms on the left side of the street (or odd-numbered) for # 1 and on the right side or even-numbered for # 2?


  13. Carlotta Barnes

    lol 12 pairs socks? can’t you buy things like socks or other clothes , and toiletries, and almost anything, in MOST destinations?

    the USA is the only place for these things?

    at least 99% sold in USA are made in Asia anyway lol

  14. 30 litre bag is all you need. Been using one travelling for 17 years now.If just travelling in hot countries then you could get by with15-20 litres. I went to Columbia with a 10 litre shoulder bag, got mugged and had it stolen. Ended up travelling for several days with just a plastic bag with toothbrush and toothpaste. That’s an extreme example, but I tell you what, I have never felt more free when travelling! Nothing to worry about, look out for, lug around. Ultimate escape. I look at the 30 litre bag I carry now and sometimes wish it was only a 10 litre bag again…

  15. Matt, took your recommendation and bought a new backpack from REI, so far I’m totally loving it. The other day was on a bus when it was raining and the new people getting on the bus threw their wet luggage on top of mine, so when I got my pack it was soaked. BUT everything inside was bone dry and nothing was damaged at all!

  16. Hi Matt, great post and video – we are in the process of planning our trip to Asia (entering via the Trans Siberian in June) and researching/buying our backpacks now. Probably going to go for Osprey (Kestrel 68l or Aether 70l) – you any experience with either?

  17. Great tips. Deuter are a great brand as said above. I would definitely recommend them. My 32L with 5L expandable section I find perfect for long haul travel. Boots on outside most of the time. Its a bit of a stretch sometimes to get everything in but so handy in general

  18. I’ve heard good things about a mystery Osprey backpack that is no longer manufactured. I cant remember the name off the top of my head. I’ve seen a couple on eBay. Any other place I could look to score one? I’d buy used, it would just have to been in decent shape.

  19. Lutan

    I am doing an adventourus thing. Having 35 ferrino xmt, for our rtw trip. Tried it on our Morocco trip and worked well.
    I tend to be very minimalistic, and I like being my backpack light enough for me to run to that bus that just drove off.

  20. When I went to the shop to try some backpacks, I immediately felt that some backpacks are ok, some really not comfortable and some great for me. I bought 60 liter Deuter contactpro backpack and so far I am satisfied. I don’t feel that this is too big since I’m always moving between cold and warm weather and doing trekking. it’s indeed really important to invest in a good comfortable backpack that suits you.

  21. Well done! Thank you.
    I live in Seattle, so almost have to be an REI fan (which I am). However, I discovered Gorilla packs last year and love them. They are far better priced and great quality (no endorsement, just experience). Before them, I was always a North Face fan. I think, however, that their quality went way down when they moved operations to Asia.
    I also like Mountainsmith. I have their day lumbar pack and love it. I always carry it as a side trip bag.
    Take care.

  22. Recently due to a chest injury (I tore some intercostal muscles) I couldn’t actually lift my trusty backpack, forget about trekking it any distance… so I was forced to buy a drag behind bag. This was my first experience travelling without a pack and it was actually a refreshing change.. in the 1st world.. as I ventured into the old world and Eastern Europe/Asia, it became totally unmanageable given the road/path/cobblestone conditions, just something to keep in mind. My preference is a light 35-40L pack that’s NOT top loading.. along with daypack. As for packing tips and techniques, heavy stuff towards the hips, roll clothing don’t fold it and always have some plastic bags with you..

  23. You could also skip the backpack altogether and travel wearing ‘concealed carrying clothing’ aka a jacket with over 25 pockets that can store everything you’ll need. No bagage fees on flights guaranteed.
    Rolf Potts proved you can travel the world like this in his “No Baggage Challenge”. For six weeks he explored 12 countries on 5 continents with no baggage.

    Just another idea :)

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