When you travel, your backpack will become your home from which you live. It will either make your trip easier and pleasant or it will be a cause of frustration and pain, or both. Choose your backpack after thorough research and many, many different fittings. It is definitely worth the effort.
When travelling, the contents of your backpack are your world.
When traveling abroad, if you plan on doing a lot of moving around, avoid hand-held luggage and opt for a backpack. Your backpack should be light, durable and comfortable. Look for a 'bombproof' pack because it's going take a lot of abuse. Look for tough fabrics like pack-cloth or Cordura (especially in high-wear areas). Go with a reputable name-brand pack to ensure quality (hopefully). A name-brand pack will probably have some sort of warranty feature as well. Keep the colors subtle and 'easy on the eyes'... avoid hot pink and other disgusting colors. Aim to fit into the crowds as much as possible rather than stand out.
Your backpack is definitely one item that you do not want to try and save money on in exchange for poorer quality. You will be dependent on your pack, and any problems with it - and there will be more if you buy a low-quality pack - will directly impact your traveling experience. Spend good money on a good pack and feel confident that it will perform for you when you most need it to.
Internal vs. external frames
Older-style backpacks consisted of an external aluminum frame to help the pack keep its shape. The pack cloth material would then be 'hung' from within this frame. This was the only way to help distribute loads within the pack. External frame packs are very bulky and cumbersome to carry through crowds or on busses. They are also relatively fragile, as the main 'skeleton' of the pack is exposed to impact damage (such as while being loaded and unloaded on an airplane). They have too many exposed bars and straps and don't fit well on luggage racks on most trains. Needless to say, this is not the backpack of choice for most travelers, including myself.
Modern backpacks have an internal frame. Internal frame packs have of a number of flat aluminum rods that are strategically placed within the pack to help the pack keep its shape. The main rods go from the top to the bottom of the pack and rest close to the wearer's back (with padding in-between of course). These rods can be bent slightly to conform to the contours of the wearer's back as well.
The overall shape of internal frame packs is tall and narrow, perfect for walking in crowds. The shape of the pack is generally maintained by what ever is in the pack. If it's half full, it can be cinched up and made even smaller. Internal packs are often built for serious hiking. They have fully padded back support, very wide waist belts to take most of the weight of the backpack off of the shoulder straps, and fully padded shoulder straps for added comfort. This style of pack is without a doubt the best choice for budget travel.
Top-loader backpack (TL) - the only way to access the bag is through the top. To get anything from the bottom, you must remove some of your equipment.
Top loaders vs. front loaders (convertibles)
Among the internal frame packs, there are two additional styles to choose from. The first is the top-loading pack (TL). This is primarily a large backpack with a small opening at the top, closed with a cinch string and covered by a pocket flap. The other style is a front-loading pack, often called a 'convertible'. On this pack, the entire front of the pack unzips to expose the inside in its entirety.
TLs are by far the more durable of the backpack styles. They offer more protection from the elements (like rain), tend to ride better on your back, and are usually narrower, fitting very closely to your body. Plus, because the main compartment doesn't rely on a large zipper, you don't have to worry about zipper problems like you would a convertible pack. TLs are the first choice of hikers and mountaineers for these reasons.
Although TLs are usually more durable and have better support systems, TLs make finding items in your bag somewhat difficult. You usually have to pull most of your stuff out to get to what's at the bottom. This is also a safety concern because there may be someone watching you pull out your camera, binoculars, shoes, etc while trying to get at something at the bottom.
TL styles also usually have straps hanging out everywhere. If these straps get caught on a conveyor belt at the airport, the 'baggage bashers' will simply cut the strap to keep everything flowing smoothly. If you do use a TL, wrap and tuck the loose straps under each other to avoid this hassle. You could also consider buying a so called 'raincover', a protective sack with one large zipper in which you can put your entire pack. This takes care of tucking away all straps when you check in your luggage.
Convertible backpack - notice the large zipper that opens the entire face of the backpack up. This one has a zip-on daypack too... very convenient.
Convertible packs are designed specifically for traveling. With convertible backpacks, the front panel zips open completely, so everything stays organized and is easily accessible without unpacking each time you need something. You can also zip the shoulder and hip straps away in a compartment when you check it in at the airport.
Disadvantages to this style of backpack are that they are less weather resistant and the zippers may burst on you. Look for compression straps to take some of the stress off of the zippers. Travel packs are designed to have the civilized look of a soft suitcase. Because these packs are designed primarily as luggage, they tend to have a relatively less supportive suspension system than TLs. Walking for long periods or on uneven terrain will be less than pleasant while wearing a convertible pack.
Buying your pack
When you go to purchase your pack, try it on and let the sales person adjust the straps, pads and internal frame for you to fit your body size. A good store will have weight bags that you can put into your pack and walk around the store with to simulate loads. Check out the quality of the suspension system. The suspension systems of modern packs are designed to transfer most of their weight to your hips, reducing back strain. The waist belt should allow you to put most of the weight on your hips and the straps should be wide and have plenty of padding for comfort. Play with the adjustments to fine-tune the fit. If a pack doesn't feel right now, it won't feel right after several hours of walking around.
Fit is perhaps the most important factor to consider when choosing a backpack for a couple of reasons. First, backpacks come in different lengths depending on the length of a person's torso (upper body). Second, the larger the pack, obviously the more that can be carried in it. The volume of a pack's interior is usually measured in liters or cubic inches. If you are an ultra-light traveler, take a small pack. It's easier to walk in crowds and on trains with a smaller pack. If you run out of room, you should be able to strap extra stuff to the outside of your packs.
Take a day-pack with you. You can either buy a separate one or just buy a travel backpack that has a detachable one that zips onto the outside. Carry your daypack on the plane to keep your toiletries, travel guide, cards, etc in. When you arrive at your destination, just put it into your large pack (or zip it on if you have a travel pack). When you arrive, you can use your day-pack for daily outings while you store your large pack at your hostel or the local train station. Daypacks also come in handy when you have collected too much junk and your large backpack is full. You can wear your day-pack on your stomach like a baby holder.
Two notes of caution about your backpack while away
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