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The Gapyear.com Guide to Choosing a Backpack

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Written by: Tom Griffiths

You’re a backpacker, therefore it is your job to put a ‘pack’ on your ‘back’.
It’s essential that you get a good one. If you’re on a long trip, or have never had a backpack before, probably a new one. If the thing falls apart on you, or damages your back because it’s the wrong shape, then it can ruin your trip.

A Note about Backpacks

If you have never owned or used a backpack before, take note of what I’m about to say. When I first went, I didn’t have a clue. It was clearly obvious that we were first-timers. My foot actually got caught up in one of the straps. Luckily the guy in the shop decided to take pity on us. He therefore took us through the whole concept of backpacks – i.e. what sort there are, what they do, why some are more expensive than others, how to pack it and, most importantly, how to wear/carry the sodding thing!
There are so many types of backpack; the only thing you can do is check out loads and find one you like. Comfort is the most important factor. Don’t be tempted to buy a huge pack, unless you really need that much space; whatever size pack you buy, you’ll fill it. And when you’re carting around a backpack the size of a block of flats in 40 degree heat, you’re likely to regret it.
Pick the brains of the sales assistant – they’ll undoubtedly have travelled themselves. And it is a good idea to put a few heavy things in a pack when you try it on – it will feel a lot different when it has more than just paper stuffing in it. Once you get it home, fill it with your stuff and practise walking in it. I’ll go into this a little more later…
Prices vary enormously and while you generally get what you pay for, price does not always mean quality. Shop around and ask yourself whether you really need all those up-to-the-minute features – remember, always think comfort.
Choosing a backpack

Choosing the Right Backpack

When you go into the shop to check them out you’ll be faced with loads of the things. So, which to choose? At the end of the day it’s not a fashion contest; you need something practical. However, if it’s a manky old colour and you end up hating the sight of it you’ll regret not going for the ‘spangly green with racing blue straps’. Remember, you’re taking it round the world with you and you won’t be able to escape it…
Grab an assistant and get some help – after all, that’s what they’re there for, so make them earn their money. Get them down and try them on. See what they feel like. Bear in mind that every backpack you try on when fully clothed and when it’s empty is going to feel comfortable. There’s a way round this – go get some stuff and fill it up. Make it heavy and bulky and see what it feels like then. Stick a load of jackets, candles, camp stoves, torches, boots and anything else a camping shop has on its shelves. Don’t be shy as you are about to offer them a decent sale with the backpack… oh, and everything else you’re going to need.
Does this feel right for you? You might well find that one of the cheaper ones is actually the best for you… they’re all different. So what to look out for. I look for zips and pockets. I have found that two of the most useful pockets are the side pockets – big, long and deep. However, there is now a trend for these backpacks that can be zipped up and made to look like a holdall. Yes, these can be useful for reasons that I will explain in a minute, but the problem for me is that they don’t have side pockets! The other pockets I like are the ones at the very top of the backpack where things can be accessed quickly. (I told you I’d go into backpacks a lot more…)

Backpacks that Convert into Holdalls

It’s a funky little idea and loads of travellers seem to be buying them. If ever you want to try and not look like a backpacker, you simply zip the back-straps away, turn the thing on its side and carry it by its side handles like a holdall. Most of them also come with a small day sack attached to them – a small backpack that is zipped to the front, which can either be used as a compartment to the pack, or unzipped and used as a separate day bag.
The problem with this is that on a 65 litre backpack, once you take the 10 litre or so day bag off, is now reduced to 55 litres. Is this going to be enough for you?
There are so many backpacks to choose from
When I go away I generally take my trusty 65 litre knackered old banger of a backpacker and a day bag, which probably amounts to another 10 litres or so. I think this is about right for me.
If I am confusing you about the size in ‘litres’ of backpacks, don’t worry too much about it… you’ll see when you get there. Generally the ones you want to think about are the 55l, 65l, 75l and 85l. 85 really is too big, as if you fill it, chances are you won’t move it! Even 75 is a bit of a beast. 65 is about right – again, if you fill it, it will turn into a heavy bastard, but that’s for you to be aware of and to watch out for. A lot of girls travel with the 55, which when combined with a day bag, seems to do the job. Again, if you find you’re filling these things up straight away then you’re probably taking too much, so empty it. Many say that maybe it’s a good idea to go one stage up so that you can be sure of having enough space… the thing is, you’ll find that you’ll only end up filling it up anyway, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Backpack Buzzwords

Here’s some buzzwords that you’re going to need when buying a backpack:

  • Adjustable back systems – Allows you to slide the pack up and down your back till you’re comfortable.
  • Solid back supports – These strengthen a pack and stops it bulging into your back, which can be very uncomfortable.
  • YKK zips – These are heavy duty and corrosion resistant zips to avoid pesky broken zips at inconvenient moments.
  • 55, 65, 75 and 85 litre – Backpacks are measured by volume. So a 55-litre backpack is smaller than an 85-litre one.
  • Finding one that suits you – I am, let’s say, in a PC kind of a way, ‘vertically challenged’. I believe that I am about average height (He’s actually incredibly short – Ed). It’s important therefore that if I fill the backpack so that it weighs more than a small horse that it’s comfortable to carry and doesn’t wreck my back. My belief is that due to my stocky frame, the thing actually sits quite comfortably on my back and we tend to balance each other out well. If you’re 6’6″ and went through school accompanied by the nick-name ‘Lofty’, ‘Bean-pole’ or ‘The Lankster’, a heavy backpack not in tune with your centre of gravity (which is around your waist if you didn’t know) will kill your back. Likewise, if you’re a young lady, about 5’1″, with, lets say ‘The Atlas Mountains’ as opposed to the ‘twin peaks of Derbyshire’, balance and comfort are the key to make sure that you don’t wreck yourself.

It's important you choose the right backpack

Things to Look Out For

Here are some things you’re going to need to look out for when buying a backpack:

  • Bum bags – Some backpacks now have bum bags attached to them as extras. These are really handy – they’re not the best to wear (you look like a Swiss tourist!), but can be great to put stuff in when you’re out and about.
  • Back support bars – Solid supports in the bit that your back rests against. Some packs that can be converted into a holdall lack these, as they don’t fit in with the design. These supports can be very useful as they stop your backpack, when stuffed to the max, bulging in the opposite way to your back, making it a tad uncomfortable to carry. These supports tend to make the pack stronger. Unfortunately I arrived home once overloaded to the hilt, causing one of my supports to actually burst through the top of my pack, which was a bit of an arse… but it still does the trick. So, have think about this.
  • Waterproofing – Get a cheap backpack and you could get a bit of equipment that lets in more water than the Titanic. You can actually waterproof it if you want to. Likewise, if you get a good one and you want to make it impregnable to everything except bomb blasts and foot and mouth disease, you can buy waterproofing to go over the top. Loads of backpacks now have their own ‘fly sheet’ – a waterproof sheet that is stored at the top or the bottom in a little pocket which can be stretched over the entire backpack should it decide to piss it down whilst you are outside.
  • Stitching – Is it strong and tight? Poorly made backpacks, when they’re put under a bit of pressure and a bit of hammering after a few airport experiences and Indian buses, will start to fall apart on you. One of my straps bust off, leading me to do a bit of a boy scout number on it. The thing gave me jip from then on… and mine was a good make. Also, if there’s anywhere that it is going to leak, this is the place.
  • Zips with holes – These holes have to be wide enough to take a small padlock so that the zips can be padlocked together. Have a little root around. Imagine you have a couple of small padlocks – can you secure all the main pockets of the bags safely? Smart arses will always point out that the small padlocks can be easily broken and that ‘If they want to get in…they will’. Nice one Sherlock! Of course they will… if I wanted to get into any house in the country I’d smash a window, but I wouldn’t do it if you were sitting in the front room…

Locks and Security

Tiny padlocks will always stop opportunist thieves. These guys will, if given half the chance, flip your pack/zip open, have a delve around, and within ten seconds be away to the hills… well, they’d better be if they went delving into mine… mind you, poor buggers would probably end up pulling out my manky pants and a pair of minging socks… after that experience they deserve everything they can get their hands on! The point is that should they see a few padlocks they’re going to look elsewhere rather than have to mess around with the padlocks in full view of everyone (if it’s opened and unlocked they will simply pretend that it is their own and root around as casually as a truffle pig in a particularly nice forest in Truffle Land!) This is the same principal as the car locks – they act as a deterrent, which can be the difference between being robbed or not.

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