How to choose the best travel backpack

For any trip that requires more gear than you can carry in your pockets—hiking, climbing, travel, you will need a travel backpack. Hit the trail with  the best travel backpack that fits your destination, your body and wallet. This guide includes information for measuring your size and adjustments for that custom fit.

What makes a good pack?

Fit – First thing you must do is get fitted. Find a local outfitter or REI near you and get your measurements. They will have equipment that measures your hips and back length. Your pack should not feel like all the weight is on your shoulders and back.

Trip length is another deciding factor as to which type of gear you should get. A longer trip will require more food and water. If you have all your gear (tent, sleeping bag, etc) bring it to the store and see if it will fit in your pack comfortably. Don’t be afraid of looking crazy, any store will understand the necessity of this step. Now walk around the store with the different bags and see which feels right on you. Remember, you will be carrying this pack on you for long periods of time, it’s important that at this stage to find the one that best suits you.

Not knowing your budget, here are the top brand of bags in my opinion, Granite Gear and Osprey which are on the high end side. Other cost saving options include REI Flash, or ULA CDT. Quality and materials will matter greatly when it comes to the gear you choose, remember these are investments that will last you through your travels.

Key measurements for your travel pack
1) Locate the c7 vertebrae, this will be the prominent bony bump at the back of your neck when you tilt forward.
2) Put your hands on the top edge of your hip bones and imagine a line running across your back along this edge.
3) Using a flexible tape, measure down your spine starting from the c7 vertebrae to that imaginary line you created along the top edge of your hip bones.

Pack Size
Extra Small

Torso Length
Up to 15″
16″ – 17″
18″ – 19″

1-2 nights
20-50 liters
1.5lbs – 4.5 lbs empty pack weight

2-3 nights
50-60 liters
2.5lbs to 5lbs empty pack weight

Multi Day
2-5 nights
60-80 liters
2.5lbs to 5+ lbs empty pack weight

5+ nights
80+ liters
4lbs to 6+ lbs empty pack weight

Key Features to Look For

Padded Hip Belt 
Padded hip belts will be helping you support the majority of the weight that you will be carrying, you’ll want a padded belt to help support you for a more comfortable experience. The belt will help to distribute the weight evenly causing less strain on your back and shoulders. The hip belt should be adjustable so that you can tighten or loosen for that extra support. Be sure to try on your pack and make sure that the hip belt is resting on your hipbones.

Padded Shoulder Straps  
The weight of your pack will be pushing down on your shoulders so it’s important to get a pack with padded shoulder straps for a comfortable journey. Make sure that the pad is a very thick and is made of one single piece of material. This pad will help keep pressure off your lower back. Just like with the hip belts, these too should be adjustable for better comfort.

Contoured/Padded Back  
A lumbar-shaped pack allows for a more natural contour to your body for a more comfortable experience. The arch allows for less back pain. Additionally, the shape of the pack allows for a slight gap which is helpful for ventilation. As you can imagine, carrying your pack can be quite the workout.

How much should I pay?

Figure out which features you’ll actually use before investing money into your gear. You may find that based on your preferences, it doesn’t make sense to pay an extra $100 for a pack that has all the bells and whistles when you’re just going daypacking. Think about yourself and your needs, if you’re pretty sloppy about waterproofing, a synthetic bag would be preferential over down. Additionally if you like to take shorter trips, it would be best to buy a smaller bag. It’s much cheaper to buy just the right gear for what you truly need.

Different packs for different occasions

How-to-choose-the-best-travel-backpack_dayhikesDay hiking

  • Typically 30-40 liters, and on the smaller side
  • Side pockets (usually mesh pockets)
  • Compartments to help organize loose small items and loose gear
  • Compatible to a hydration bladder


Rock and ice climb­ing require dense, heavy gear that can push the lim­its of a small pack. 30 to 50 liter packs are gen­er­ally big enough for most crag­ging, espe­cially if the rope is car­ried out­side the pack. Sev­eral com­pa­nies offer purpose-built climb­ing packs with stream­lined designs and orga­ni­za­tional struc­tures designed with racks of pro­tec­tion, slings, and ropes in mind.
  • A capacity of 40 liters (about 2,400 cubic inches) or so to hold climbing gear (ropes, carabiners, etc.) or extra clothing.
  • A narrow-profile pack for rough terrain.
  • Padded back or a framesheet for more comfort with heavier loads.
  • Specialized features such as an ice axe loop, crampon patches and daisy chain for lashing gear.


Ski touring

There’s quite a few brands out there that cater specifically for winter oriented packs. They’re basically daypacks that hold extra compartments or straps for skis, snowboards and even avalanche shovels. For something a bit more economical, REI’s Mammut Trio pro offers a ski-friendly 3,000-cubic-inch pack for a reasonable $199. It has outside straps that accommodate skis or boards, a front zip pocket that provides easy access to shovel, crampons, probe, or an extra layer. How far you travel and extra clothing will determine the size pack that you will need.
  • A smooth, narrow profile is ideal
  • Sternum strap and hipbelt are essential.
  • Ability to attach your skis/board to the pack
  • compartments for your shovel and probe


 Trail running

  • A small daypack, lumbar pack or water bottle pack are all good choices when it comes to trail running.
  • Lumbar packs (waistpacks) shifts less when you run. They are placed on your waist, keeping your back ventilated.