As the baggage carousel at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport dragged it towards me, I noted the strap on my beaten travel backpack had started to tear; it was the strap that cinched the top of the pack closer to my right shoulder, and it was pretty damn essential considering the hundreds miles we had yet to travel on our round the world trip.
It wasn’t the best travel backpack. The 80L top-loading, camping backpack that my parents had salvaged at a yard sale 7 years before. Although we had made it through 15 countries together, to call the pack trusty would be a lie. In fact, it had a tremendous list of shortcomings — too wide, too tall, too big, too old, too many zippers, not enough padding, and a hood that sagged limply when stuffed — to name a few.
With the broken strap, I made up my mind. After we hobbled through Israel, Germany, Spain, and Morocco together, I was getting a new travel backpack. Of all the other travel lessons that went unlearned up to this moment, this one was different. Don’t ever leave home with a terrible backpack.
Picking the right bag is an awfully big decision, so how do you choose the best travel backpack for your round the world trip? I’m glad you asked.
Tips for Choosing the Best Travel Backpack
How do you pack it?
There are two major types of backpacking bags: top loading and front loading. Top loading only opens from the top, and can be convenient for camping and wilderness trips where you have larger items, and just need to stuff things in. A front loading backpack, on the other hand, can be used more like a suitcase with zippers running all the way to the bottom.
Our pick: A front loading backpack is way easier for travel. You’ll be better able to see what’s in your bag, and you’ll also have an easier time repacking.
How big is it?
Picking the size of our packs was probably the most agonizing part of the travel backpack decision. Influenced by fear of under-packing and the haunting memory of overpacking last time, we tried on just about every pack before landing on one that seemed to be the right size. Here are a few things to consider when picking your pack size:
- Weather + Climate: Consider the weight of the clothes you’re bringing. If you’re packing for a trip in Patagonia, you’ll need a bigger bag than you would for a beach trip to Koh Lanta.
- Travel Style: Think about how comfortable your trip will be with the extra weight. How much will you be moving from one spot to the next? Are you paying for comfortable transport, or will you be hauling your luggage from one bus stop to the next? Can you get away with casual style, or do you need to dress up? Do you need to bring along any technical gear or heavy equipment?
- Control: Imagine fitting a year’s worth of luggage in the overhead compartment or onboard with you. No waiting at baggage carousels, no worrying about it getting swiped from the underbelly of a bus, and no concern it will fly off the roof of a train. Picking a carry on sized bag is where it’s at.
Our pick: I’ve found a 50L backpack is the sweet spot for a round the world trip. When paired with a great travel daypack – a 25L daypack – While you may end up leaving the extra stuff behind, the ease of travel is totally worth it.
How comfortable is it?
Backpacking is kind of uncomfortable in its nature, but a good backpack can certainly help take some of your pain away. Here are some comfort factors that you should consider before buying a travel backpack:
- Size: The size of your backpack will influence both its weight and the ease of use. Packs that are too wide or long are awkward to wear, and no amount of extra space will make up for the struggle. If you can’t imagine yourself wearing it onto the crowded Tokyo metro, you may need to downsize.
- Fit: Find a size that fits your frame. Most packs come in different lengths so you can pick according to your height and weight.
- Padding + Straps: Pick a pack with padded hip and shoulder straps for the best shot at comfort.
A few more considerations
- Price: Most well-made travel backpacks are in the $100-$300 range. A good travel backpack will last you for years, so it’s worth buying the perfect one.
- Material: Go for a waterproof material (or waterproof it yourself!) Sometimes, you can also buy a fitted rainfly for extra protection which is great to have during, you know, an Indian monsoon?
- Safety: Many travel backpacks have lockable zippers that can help stave off opportunity theft. Additionally, less flashy colors are always better.
While there’s a lot to consider, most major brands have thought through the pain points. If you can settle on the size of your travel backpack, you’ll narrow your search significantly. Then, all it comes down to is fit.
I made a few overwhelming trips to REI and tried on everything. The final two were the Osprey Farpoint 55 and the Kelty Redwing 50, and I landed on what I believe to be the best travel backpack in 2017. Ya ready for it?
Why the Kelty Redwing 50 is the best travel backpack in 2017:
- Perfect size (50L) to be well packed without feeling overloaded
- Fits in the overhead compartment and meets the criteria for carry on
- Top and front-loading for quick access, but easy repacking
- Extra compartments for organization
- Padded hip and shoulder straps
- Ventilated airflow back panel for a less sweaty back
- Relatively inexpensive at $125
Packing for a Round the World Trip
Your bag is only as good as it is packed. Staying organized is key for longer trips where even an extra t-shirt can disrupt the sensitive backpack ecosystem. Here are a few luggage essentials that you’ve got to have for your round the world trip
Passport wallets are as dorky as the fanny pack once was. With that on the table, I have to tell you I never go anywhere without mine. With a internal zippered pouch on one side and velcro on the other, you can fill it with your passport, extra photos, boarding passes, proof of vaccination, insurance details, a pen, credit cards, and beyond. It will keep your round the world trip super organized, and your passport accessible throughout your trip.
Living out of a suitcase sucks when you have a bag full of semi-worn, wrinkley, horribly organized clothes to choose from. While there’s nothing to be done about the grunge, packing cubes are the best way I’ve found to organize my backpack on a round the world trip.
They work like dresser drawers within your bag, and you pack them accordingly (shirts with shirts, underwear with underwear, etc). Roll up your clothes and pack the cubes tight, and they’ll even help prevent wrinkling! With everything in its own compartments, you can pull out just what you need without having to unpack the whole load.
A Handbag for Daytime Use
Having a simple handbag packed away is an often overlooked travel necessity. My personal favorite is an $8 handbag from Goodwill, so I’m obviously using the term “handbag” loosely. Pick a simple purse that you can use as an alternative to your day pack for city travel, both for aesthetic and practical reasons. Prevent pickpocketing by selecting a zippable that you can easily hold in front of you. Mine is great with a large enough interior to hold things like my water bottle, a sweater, and my camera.