How to choose a good travel backpack

This is our 7 steps tips on what we learnt after purchasing our backpacks for our big travel adventure.

1. Size is everything

Travellers we met had backpacks which ranged from around 40 to 70 litres.  Too small, and you risk being too limited with what you can carry.  Too large, you are tempted to fill it with unnecessary items, which you are then stuck with.

A large number of travel bloggers like Indiana Jo have written about going from a 65l to a 38l: “Art of Packing Light”.  Backpacks we used in previous travels were around 65-70 litres so we decided to stick to this at least for now.

Best advice we found was to pile on your bed everything you realistically think you'll take and make an decision based on this:

What one of us packed
This is everything Stefan packed for our trip at the beginning

2. Top loading or side loading:

We found there are generically two types of backpacks.

The first is top loading, which you associate with most backpackers.  The second is a side loading backpack, similar to how a suitcase operates.

The top loading backpacks have a dedicated support back mechanism with padding.  This makes it ideal for more long term use such as trekking.  The side loading ones tend not to be as complex and are recommended for travelling short distances, such as airport to hotel/hostel.

We found the Osprey Aether was a good compromise between both.  It is essentially a top loading back pack but with a zip at the bottom and also in the middle for quick, easy access.

Posing with our Osprey Aether backpacks
Posing with our Osprey Aether backpacks at Acton, West London, the day we left London

3. Try them out and get measured:

Armed with lots of online research, we then visited the travel shops to speak to the sales rep, get measured out and try out the various bags with weights.

In London, the main travel based shops for buying a good backpack are Ellis Bingham and Cotswolds.  We found that the majority of these shops had their largest stores in Covent Garden, in particular: Ellis Bingham and Cotswolds.

We found Cotswolds the most helpful.  The staff spent a lot of time showing us their various backpacks and then measured us to determine our size.

This is done by placing a backpack waist strap on your waist with a measurer running along your back which will determine your size.

Backpacks usually come in three sizes – Large, Medium and Small.  Sebastien is a Medium and Stefan a size Small.

4. Adjustable back system:

A good backpack will have an adjustable back system so you can adjust the length according to your fit.

You wear the backpack with the waist straps covering your hip bones with the top of your hip bones ideally places in the middle of the waist strap.  At first this was awkward because we are used to wearing trousers / belts below the hip bones, so this does take some getting used to.

This is very important because the point is to have the majority of the weight based on your hips and the top of the back straps touching your shoulders without a gap:

Backpack fitting
Backpack fitting

A good adjustable back mechanism will also have a slight gap between your back and the backpack to let sweat evaporate.

5. Padding:

When buying a good backpack, one of the main points to consider is the padding on the back mechanism and also on the waist straps.  The greater the padding, the more comfortable the fit is likely to be.

The top loading backpacks tend to have a better mechanism for the back and also thicker padding.  The Osprey Aether ticked this box nicely for us.

6. Added extra features:

One of the reasons we loved the Osprey Aether was the added features.  For example, the top part is detachable and can be used as a day pack.

The detachable top of our Osprey backpacks
An extra feature we loved about our Osprey Aethers was the detachable top

Many backpacks, our Osprey Aether included, will have very handy zip pockets on the waist straps.

The buckles on some backpacks double up as a whistle – useful if stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Some backpacks have other features like space for a hiking stick or a front compartment with holes to put a wet towel which you did not have the chance to dry.

7. Cost:

We would recommend budgeting for upwards of £100 ($165) for a good backpack.

The best advice is to visit all the shops you can, get an idea of what is recommended, note down the brand names and prices, then go compare online.  For example, the Osprey Aether was £160 ($265) in Cotswolds and £190 ($315) in Ellis Bingham.  Online, prices ranged from £140 ($232) upwards.

We were able to negotiate a 15% discount in Cotswolds arguing we were buying 2 backpacks.  Total price came to £136 ($225) each.

A final tip is to try out the backpacks in the shops with weights.  A good shop will let you do this and will have weights for you to use for this purpose.  As a ballpark, we found we carry on average 10-15kg when travelling.

Our backpacks:

Sebastien bought the Medium Osprey dark blue Aether (70l):

Sebastien backpack
Sebastien's backpack

Unfortunately for Stefan, Osprey do not do small sizes for men.  However, he found that the women's medium size (65l) not only fitted him perfectly, but it came in a jazzy bright red colour…now Sebastien will never lose Stefan when he wanders off into a food market…

Stefan backpack
Stefan's backpack


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5 thoughts on “How to choose a good travel backpack”

  1. Good call with the Ospreys guys; ours have served us well over the last year of travel. I think smaller is generally better (we have 35 and 38L packs) but we’ve had to add a smaller day pack to cope with extra stuff we’ve picked up along the way, so maybe yours are a better size.

    • Thanks Amy. How on earth did you manage to get all your things into thirtysomething litres? Or are we just being a wee bit too high maintenance with our planning? He he he

  2. Aw, thanks for the mention guys! Buying a backpack is such an exciting day. I had a few bad purchases before I found “the one”. I used to be a serial handbag buyer during my lawyer days. Now I’m a bit of a backpack hoarder. Even though I’ve got three, I’m contemplating an Osprey for Latin America so I’d love to hear how you get on with them. And PS: love the jazzy red!

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