Choosing a Backpack
A Guide by Lexi Quinton
The first thing you need to think about is what kind of trip you are doing. There are two main options:
To make this simple let me define the terms above. Backpacking is what 99% of people who read this will be doing. Backpacking in this context means that you are taking a trip where you intend to travel to more than one destination in a given time frame. This could be within one country, or multiple countries. The type of accommodation is likely to be hostels or cheap hotels and transportation is likely to be buses, trains, tuk tuks, overland trucks, taxis and other local transport.
An expedition will be something like Raleigh International offers people; multiple days trekking from a-b-c carrying their own gear all the way. This might be through a jungle, in the mountains or in another remote environment. You are likely to be sleeping in tents or hammocks, cooking on stoves or campfires and probably washing in streams or rivers. This is not your Inca Trail, overland bus, Kilimanjaro or Base Camp Everest trek or any trek which has porters/pack horses.
The reason why it is important to differentiate is because there are two types of rucksack available to travellers in outdoors shops for different types of travel
There are a rucksack called a travelpack, and a rucksack called a toploader. A toploader is designed for an expedition; a travelpack is designed for backpacking.
What is the difference between the two?
A travelpack is a short, fat looking rucksack which is often displayed in store or online with a small daypack attached to it. This is the type of rucksack you will probably end up buying. These rucksacks are especially designed for backpacking because the features are included with the lifestyle in mind.
- The main factor is the fact that travelpacks open like suitcases which means that they are very easy to pack and unpack (or throw clothes etc into when you’re in a hurry for a bus/train etc).
- Because they open like suitcases they are easy to lock because they have two zippers which can be locked together, keeping your bits and pieces secure when they’re on a bus/airline/transportation or stowed in your hostel.
- The travelpack have a really helpful flap which can be zipped over the straps when they aren’t in use, for example to keep them secure when checking your luggage in on airlines. If this flap wasn’t there is a risk that the straps will get caught up on the various mechanisms the luggage has to pass and the way to and from the plane.
- Travelpacks come with a free daypack! Handy for day trips, short treks and hand luggage. I’ll go into more detail about this later.
A toploader is a long, slim rucksack which has a hood type opening at the top, and underneath the hood is a drawstring closure opening which gives you access to the main pack from the top down.
- There is usually only access from this top section although there are more toploaders coming onto the market today with zip sections for entry to the bottom, and even some which have access to the central panel of the rucksack.
- The toploader’s shoulder straps cannot be packed away. This means that in order to check them in on some airlines you will need to tighten up all the straps so they don’t hang loose. You may also need to have it wrapped in plastic, or buy a holdall cover to put it inside. If you check this type of rucksack in on planes, there is a risk that the straps will get caught up on the various mechanisms the luggage has to pass and the way to and from the plane. By having to tighten all the straps also means that you’ll need to readjust the straps to wear it after every plane journey.
- The biggest issue with toploaders is that they are virtually impossible to lock. Because it uses a drawstring closure, and a clip buckle belt to connect the hood (which covers the drawstring closure) you cannot use a traditional padlock on it. To secure it you would need to put it into a holdall which can be locked, or have it wrapped in plastic.
- Toploaders come as they are – a single rucksack unit. Because of the nature of travel they are designed for, when using this type of rucksack you wouldn’t need an additional daypack so they don’t come with one.
- The only similarity between the two is that on both types of rucksack the entire strap system adjusts to fit different size and shape people.
There are loads of options to choose from, where do I start?
The first place to start is your local outdoors store. Ideally it should be an independent or specialist store (often looking expensive) because the staff here are very well trained and will be much more likely to be able to give you advice and help than a large chain store which may have a fast staff turnover and less opportunities to train everyone to the same level. Examples of specialist stores include Nomad Travel & Outdoor and Cotswold Outdoor. It is worth shopping around and visiting as many shops as you can to get a range of advice to base your choice on.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, I guarantee that staff members in specialist stores will be happy to help you and hear your travel plans (as it gives them an excuse to talk about their travel experiences!)
The most important thing to do on each visit to a shop is to try on different rucksacks. Rucksacks are similar to shoes in that you might see one you like the look of and it just doesn’t feel comfortable once it’s on. A good member of staff will be able to help you try on a variety of different rucksacks. They should put something heavy into the rucksack so you can get a good idea of how it will feel once you have all your kit packed in it. They should also help you adjust the straps properly to show you how the rucksack should feel once it’s on your back and filled with your kit.
The key thing to knowing that your rucksack is fitting well is that around 70% of the weight feels like it sitting on your hips, and around 30% is being taken on your shoulders. If it feels like the weight isn’t distributed like this ask the staff to adjust the straps until it feels right. Once it is sitting comfortably it won’t actually feel like you are carrying any weight at all! To test this theory, once it feels comfortable on your back, take it off and see how heavy it is to lift it up from the floor in comparison!
What size do I choose? What are ‘litres’?
‘Litres’ are the unit of measurement for rucksack capacity. Rucksacks can range from 5 litre daypacks to 85 litre monster travelpacks!
There is no need to buy a rucksack that is more than 70 litres at the VERY maximum. The perfect size for most people is 60l, although generally girls are better off with 50-55 litres, and lads are better off with 60-65 litres.
The problem with having a larger pack is you fill it with stuff you just won't need, which then makes it much heavier than it needs to be. 50-55litres is fine for girls because they’re generally smaller than guys (so have smaller clothes and shoes), and 60-65 litres is fine for guys because it gives a little allowance for larger shoes and clothes.
I personally travelled with a 50l rucksack only two-thirds filled; my other half is a 6’5” 200lb basketball player who travelled with a 60l rucksack just over half filled. Our trip was 7 months long. It doesn’t matter if your trip is 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years long – the size should be the same.
Aside from the capacity there is also the size of the ‘back system’ as it’s called. The back system is the adjustable system of straps which is all connected together to be adjusted to fit the rucksack to a wide variety of heights and builds.
Rucksack manufacturers generally offer two sizes: the ‘ladies’ fit, and the ‘standard’ fit. The ‘ladies’ fit means that the back system is shorter to accommodate for the generalisation that women tend to be shorter, and less broad than men. The ‘ladies’ fit is also suitable for short guys, very slim guys and men with a shorter torso. There is NO way to tell the difference between a ‘ladies’ and ‘standard’ fit except that some manufacturers offer a ladies style in pink, so guys – don’t feel bad if you have to get a ‘ladies fit’ rucksack.
Similarly, the ‘standard’ fit does not only apply to guys. I am a 5’6, size 8 woman and only fit a standard fit rucksack because I have a long torso. Ladies, you may find that you are the same so don’t let the shop assistant tell you that you must only buy a ‘ladies’ fit. Chances are they will start off by showing you ‘ladies’ fit rucksacks but see how you get on. A good assistant will probably be able to look at you and make a guess about which size you would be more suited to.
What’s all this about a free daypack?
Travelpack type rucksacks come with a daypack zipped onto it. This is a fantastic idea by manufacturers who realised that the average gap year traveller needs not only something to put their entire luggage in but also a smaller bag to carry around during the day. However, there is something you need to be aware of when using the daypack when you are also carrying your main rucksack.
As you know, the daypack is detachable from the main rucksack. The ONLY reason it is zipped onto the main rucksack is because it's designed to be stored that way (and it is easier to sell like that). You should not wear the main rucksack with the daypack attached to the back. There are two reasons for this:
- If the daypack is filled with bits and bobs and attached to the back of the large rucksack, the extra weight will, at the very least, cause you to lean forwards as you are walking to compensate for the unbalanced weight. This can cause backache and generally make life more difficult. In the worst case (and this has happened to me), you will simply topple over backwards ‘turtle on its back’ style, which is not a cool look.
- When the daypack is zipped onto the main pack it’s easy for a potential thief to either: a) unzip it completely without you noticing b) unzip the zipper and grab something from there without you noticing.
On the straps of the main pack there is always a loop or attachment section which you can connect your daypack to. This means you are essentially wearing it on your chest, but it's clipped in place so you don't have to hold onto it.
There are so many brands to choose from, how do I know which one is best? And why are some so much more expensive?
With rucksacks the old adage “you get what you pay for” certainly applies in the majority of cases. There are quite a few manufacturers out there who have changed dramatically over the past 5 years, which can make it difficult to be specific about a brand to pick.
Arguably, one of the most common travelpacks in the UK is the Berghaus Jalan. This travelpack comes in the standard fit (60+15), ladies fit (55+15) and also one with wheels (65+15/70+15: ladies/standard). It is very popular with first time travellers. It’s is a pretty good quality, basic travelpack which seems to fit almost everybody comfortably and is the perfect capacity. It’s also reasonably priced (£90-110 on the high street and around £50-80 online).
Then there are the dark horse rucksacks, which go against the grain of “you get what you pay for”. Gelert rucksacks can be purchased for as little as £35 but Gelert offer a lifetime guarantee on many of their products, then often come with an integrated waterproof cover, rip stop fabric, expandable section etc. They have a wide selection of colours, (including pink!) and is generally a good value pack.
However, I would always recommend buying a rucksack that is as high quality as you can afford. Although the aforementioned rucksacks are good value, they may not last for more than a RTW trip and a couple of shorter trips. Although the Gelert has a lifetime guarantee, chances are that at some point you will need to take advantage of the guarantee and have something mended.
If you think you will travel again in the future, and are willing to make an investment in a really good quality pack, look at brands such as Osprey (which are the new up and coming brand of daypacks) or Lowe Alpine which offer fantastic high quality equipment. Something like this may actually last you a lifetime without any damage or at least a couple of RTW trips and as many 'normal' holidays as you take over the next 15 years+.
Once you've found a pack you like and is very comfortable, either buy it there and then (always ask for a discount - you just never know!) or look online to find it cheaper. Just make sure you know how to adjust the straps to fit you if you buy it online, as they will not come adjusted for your body size/shape when it's posted to you.
For most people’s gap year travel needs, a travelpack is the best bet for comfort, security and peace of mind. But if you already have a toploader or a trusty favourite rucksack without all the bells and whistles don’t feel you have to go out and spend money on something new. Just be aware of the potential issues I’ve outlined above and work out if it would be worth it to upgrade or change (or to take a stock of gaffa tape and string in case it falls apart!).
The most important thing is that your luggage is comfortable, it won’t fall apart halfway through your trip and it makes your travels as simple as possible. Happy travelling!
About the Author: Lexi Quinton
Lexi Quinton works for Different Travel, a charity challenge organisation based in the UK and part of her job includes leading charity challenge expeditions overseas.
Lexi is a gapyear.com moderator, and a very experienced traveller. She's visited more than 40 countries since she started travelling in 2000. Lexi's favourite trip to date is her first gap year, aged 18, when she spent three months living and working in Kenya and is where she fell in love with Africa.
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