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HOW TO: Choose a Backpack for RTW Travel

by Globetrooper Todd | 43 Responses
How To Choose a Backpack for RTW Travel

This isn’t one of those ‘How To Choose a Backpack‘ guides that presents millions of options for hundreds of scenarios. No, instead, I want to give you very few options based on my personal experience with just one scenario, round-the-world (RTW) travel.

No matter how many guides you read, it will take at least one solid week on the road to know what makes a good travel backpack. But by letting you in on the secrets of my own mistakes, hopefully you’ll be able to make a more informed decision from the outset.

First Things First

Most backpack manufacturers include the size (or capacity) of their packs in the model numbers. The typical capacity metric is litres. So when you see the Deuter Futura 32, you can assume the pack has 32 litres of capacity. Of course, many manufactures and retailers in the USA haven’t cottoned on to the metric system, so they still report backpack capacity as cubic inches. Nonetheless, you can use Google to decipher ci’s for L’s. Just type the following (replacing 1000 for the number you want to convert) into Google and click Search:

convert 1000 cubic inches to litres

How To Choose a Backpack

One of Osprey's many great trekking packs

Our Mistake #1: two packs that are 30 litres don’t necessarily fit the same amount of gear. The shape of the pack can make a big difference in the arrangement (and hence amount) of gear you can carry. I recently purchased a 32 litre pack over the Internet after viewing a similar 28 litre pack. But the 32 litre pack fits much less gear due to its shape.

Carry-On Limits

Lauren and I (try to) travel with carry-on baggage only. What that means is our backpacks are small (and light) enough for airlines to allow them into the cabin of the plane. Their are many direct advantages of carry-on-only, such as airlines not losing your bags, and many indirect advantages, such as being forced to pack lightly and not buying too much while abroad.

Airlines have different carry-on restrictions, but for most flights you’ll be safe with the following:

55cm (22in) x 35cm (14in) x 23cm (9in) and ~7kg.

These dimensions equate to a capacity of about 44 litres. So keep this in mind if you subscribe to the carry-on-only philosophy.

Our Mistake #2: the difficult part of carry-on-only is not the dimensions, but the weight. I can fit all of my gear into a 32 litre bag, but its weight comes in at almost 10Kg. Even with a 10Kg bag, I’ve only been asked to check it once on a domestic flight from Lima to Cusco (Peru).

Trekking Packs Only

It can be tempting to opt for designer totes, shoulder bags and professional cases, but after ten minutes of dodging traffic in a foreign locale, your shoulders and back will murder you for it. Even if you only plan to visit developed countries, you’ll still spend a lot of time walking with your pack.

There is simply no alternative to…

a well-made trekking backpack with an internal frame, padded shoulders, a thick padded waist-belt, integrated rain cover, and back-panel ventilation.

You can try to convince yourself that you won’t be walking much, but if you’re even mildly adventurous, you’ll be walking all the time.

How To Choose a Backpack

Lauren with Todd's Deuter backpack - it looks rather small

Our Mistake #3: Lauren and I sold our trusty trekking packs after Kilimanjaro for more professional bags. I bought the Tom Bihn Tri-Star and Lauren bought The North Face OnSite. Both had backpack straps, but neither was designed to carry heavy loads, even over short distances. It only took one day walking around Montreal looking for a hostel to realise we’d made a mistake.

How To Choose a Backpack

You don’t have to adhere to the carry-on only philosophy, but minimalism rules when it comes to round-the-world travel. Why? Because having less to carry and less to think about gives you more energy for exploration and enjoyment.

Step 1. Select Type

As aforementioned, you want a trekking backpack. Not a climbing pack, not a summit pack, not a snow-sports pack, but a trekking pack. It must have a thick waist belt and a contoured back. Many travellers extol the virtues of panel-loading packs (where the front opens up like a suitacase), but this feature is rare in trekking packs. Plus, top-loading designs allow for more stuffing and are generally more durable.

Manufactures of good trekking packs include Deuter, Arc’Teryx, Osprey, Berghaus, and Lowe Alpine.

Step 2. Select Size

If you plan to carry-on only, you’ll need a bag 40 litres or less. In fact, even if you’re not planning to carry on, I still wouldn’t go for a bag much bigger. You want to feel comfortable, but this is a good chance to decide what makes you comfortable and not just take everything ‘just in case‘.

I take the following with a 32 litre bag (wearing some of the clothes):

3 x t-shirts, trekking shirt, formal shirt, a pair of cufflinks, jeans, trekking pants, 5 x underwear, 4 x socks, set of pyjamas, fleece lined jacket, thermal underwear, beanie, hat, 13inch Macbook Pro, external harddrive, compact camera, Amazon Kindle, electronic language dictionary, cell phone, charges and cables, lots of toiletries, a -10C down sleeping bag, rain jacket, plastic poncho, flip flops, Gortex hiking boots, Moleskine and pen, and much more.

As you can imagine, my bag weighs a tonne! Or close enough, about 10Kg. So capacity can be deceiving, but I still prefer to have it all in a smaller bag so I can walk the streets without knocking people over and so I carry the bag on my lap if needed (which is often, especially on public transport in developing countries).

Step 3. Select Features

Once you select your type of bag and ideal size, you’ll be left with maybe 10 to 15 different backpacks. Let’s not kid ourselves, at least half of those packs won’t be to your liking (looks, shape, colour, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with not liking the colour or shape of a pack, we’re all human, and you’ll get more enjoyment out of a pack that you like.

Let’s say, based on look and feel, your’re now down to 3 to 5 packs. How do you choose between them? Features! Your backpack will be your home for many weeks, if not months, so features aren’t just luxuries, they’re conveniences, safety and enjoyment.

How To Choose a Backpack

Deuter backpack with important features such as sternum strap and thick waist belt

The following is a list of features are important in any ‘How To Choose a Backpack’ guide. The list isn’t exhaustive and not all these features are important to me, so pick and choose as you find necessary.

  • Integrated rain cover: useful if you plan multi-day hikes in tropical areas, overkill for light rain in the city. Also a handy protector if you plan to check your bag.
  • Waist belt pocket: for easy access to sunscreen, lip balm and trail mix
  • Thick waist belt: always useful, helps to carry heavy loads, reduces stress on shoulders
  • Back ventilation: reduces sweating, but gives a curved shape = harder to pack
  • Water resistant material: a must for light rain; doesn’t have to be fully waterproof
  • Internal pockets: a must for storing valuables and items very susceptible to rain damage
  • Sternum strap: helps to keep shoulder straps together and to balance load
  • Water bladder storage: not really necessary for RTW travellers (water inside your bag can be a disaster) but some of them are the perfect size to carry a laptop

Yay for eBay!

I mentioned in the beginning you need at least a solid week with a backpack until you know if it’s right for you. So what happens if the bag, which fit well in the shop, just didn’t cut the mustard in practice?

Well, sell it on eBay. You don’t need to make life difficult when abroad, and you certainly don’t need back injuries, so don’t settle for second best. You may lose a few dollars, but I’d gladly miss a few meals to save on back pain and other hassles.

We’ve been away for almost 4 months now and it just wouldn’t have made sense for me to keep struggling with my old Tom Bihn bag. So I put it on eBay in Montreal, ordered my current bag from the US, and now I’m a happy camper.

Recommendations

Deuter Futura 32

This is my current backpack, and I absolutely love it, but some days it seems a little small. With that said, I am carrying a sleeping bag at the moment, so when I get rid of that, it will be perfect. The Futura 32 has an integrated rain cover, excellent back ventilation, lots of useful pockets, a very supportive waist belt, and lots more.

Arc’teryx Axios Backpack 35

This is Lauren’s current backpack, and some days, I wish it were mine. It’s seems a lot bigger (even though it’s only 3 litres bigger) and its shape is better for packing. However, it doesn’t have an integrated rain cover and it doesn’t have nearly as good back ventilation, which is the reason it has a better shape for packing.

Osprey Kestrel 38

I almost bought the 28 litre version of this bag, which seemed larger than my Futura 32, but it has one serious problem. There is no real internal support, so the bag is one big noodle. However, the larger 38 litre model has great internal support and lots of great features. I would buy this bag if it weren’t for the Deuter Futura series.

Posted in Featured, Gear & Gadgets, How-To Guides | October 11th, 2010

43 Responses to HOW TO: Choose a Backpack for RTW Travel

  1. Great comprehensive article for choosing a backpack. You go very in depth whereas other articles just cover the generic basics. Good job.

    • Thanks Jenny. Love the design of your blog, by the way. And I can’t believe your allergic to mushrooms. I lovvve mushrooms.

  2. Hello Guys,
    Hope you are doing great.
    Loved the post. :)
    Take care!

    • Hey Diana, hope all is going well. We’re still in Peru, staying just a couple of blocks from Plaza De Armes. We also started spanish lessons yesterday and having a great time. Let us know if you’re coming back to Cusco and we can meet up. Todd & Lauren

  3. and here I was thinking of taking my 90L or considering getting one just a little smaller…..

    • Hey Rick, all depends on what you feel comfortable with. If you’re going to be uncomfortable leaving certain stuff at home, then it makes no sense to go for a much smaller bag. Also, if you’re travelling with other people who have large bags, then it may not be so much of a problem. If you end up with a tiny bag, you’ll just have to wait for them anyway.

      • Yeah, I think what Ill have to do is downgrade, but I think the best fit for me will be a 55L, along with the day pack (10L) that came with my 90L

        90L is way too big, but 55L looks a good size, plus I do need to cart a sleeping bag with me. As constant travelers, I guess you guys know what you suits yourselves, I am pretty sure at this stage check-in only is too small, but clearly 90L is too big for long distance walking (I was thinking if I had a large gap of time to fill while in Europe, I would walk a few hundred kms of the pilgrimage trails, so obviously my pack needs to be small enough I can do it, but large enough that I have all ill need for that time frame )

        I am quite partial to the blackwolf bags myself, my 90L was one, I have a 38L (or so) hiking pack (way too small and awkward to use for even what you’re suggesting for carry on – I took it on the Inca trail hike and had troubles fitting the stuff for the hike, not including the stuff that went with the porters). I think I will get another. I personally (for any bag) do not like the feel and fit of those mesh air separators, which is another reason wolf pack feels nice for me.

        Anyway, good article to get me thinking about this stuff nice and early.

  4. I recently posted a review of my own selection process and the bag I ultimately chose, the Deuter Quantum 55+10. You can see it at: http://www.lengthytravel.com/selecting-and-reviewing-my-backpack-deuter-quantum-5510/

    • Hey Jeff, nice post. Interesting comparison too, between the Deuter and Osprey. Looks like that bag doesn’t have a waist belt. Does it hurt your shoulders at all?

      • Which bag? The Deuter has a very nice padded waist belt. The Osprey Porter 46 that I used does have a waist belt but with almost no padding, so it does help some but generally, yes, it hurts the shoulders after just a bit of walking. The Osprey Waypoint has a much better padded waist belt and harness than the Porter series.

  5. Perfect! This is exactly the personal experience information I have been looking for :-) Planning my first RTW trip to start August 2011 and your article is proving extremely helpful! Thanks!
    Kristin

    • Great to hear Kristin. Good luck for your trip. Are you leaving a job or working while travelling? Time frame in mind, or just going with the flow?

  6. Excellent in-depth article. Like trekking shoes it’s really worth spending a bit of extra money to get extra quality. It’s not just for comfort, I’ve seen a backpack burst when somebody sat on their fully packed “bargain” backpack. Not something you want to happen in the middle of nowhere.

  7. I’m currently deciding between the Futura and Kestrel lines. After reading this I can’t wait to go try them on again. Thanks so much for the thorough article!

    • As much as I prefer to sell than buy things, gear shopping is aways a blast :) Have you tried Arc’Teryx too?

  8. Hey,

    Loved the article! i travelled through africa 2 years ago with a teeny bopper eagle creek i think its was 2500- it was panel loading and now i cant think to have it any other way. I travel super super light (sometimes i think i shud stow a dressy dress for just in case) but what i do a lot is pick up a lot of travel/cultural stuff along the way ! So for this time’s peru trip i’ve got a kelty 4750( i think thats 65L)…is that too big ? First time with the Kelty but its got both front and top loading which is great and it kinda packs down when its not full. But it doesn’t have a rain cover !

    How long are you guys on the road ?

    • Hey Tara, great to hear from you and can’t wait to catch up in Cusco.

      We’ve been on the road for about 4.5 months now, and are not sure how long we’ll be travelling for. It’s cheaper to live on the road in certain places than to return home, so while we’re trying to build Globetrooper, it makes sense to keep travelling, but slowly.

      As for the pack, we met a gril recently with a 65L pack that packed down as small as my 32L pack. So if ou’re planning to take lots of souvenirs home, it could be a good idea. I wouldn’t worry about the rain cover, unless you’re doing a long trek. But even then you can just take a few garbage bags and pack your stuff into those bags inside your pack. I don’t ever think I’ve used my rain cover on treks here or in Africa.

  9. Great choices, but I think it’s unreasonable to only have a 32litre pack for a RTW trip. I bought at 65L Osprey and I love it! It’s almost 19 kilos at this point (I’ve been traveling for 5 months, stuff adds up) but it use to be much lighter.
    This is the perfect pack because it has the detachable day pack!
    Great though post though.

  10. Thanks for the good advices..

    Does anybody know, if the Deuter Futura Pro 38 would go as Cabin Luggage as well? It seems only a bit bigger than Deuter Futura 32..

    • Hey Lasse, yes, I believe it will, as long as its light enough. Even my 32L is too heavy, mostly due to my laptop and electronic bits. Actually, I think I could pack even a 22L to be too heavy. However, most airlines will give you some leeway if you don’t have bags to check in. Also you can carry your laptop in one hand nd bag in the other, since most airlines allow 2 on-board bags.

      I’ve previously taken a 45L Deuter on a plane; including regional African airlines that had much lower limits. The key is to be nice and friendly and stress that you don’t have bags to check in.

  11. I love my Deuter 32. I have the women’s version and I love the fact that it is specifically cut to fit a woman. Great ventilation on even some of the hottest days.

    • Heu Vicky, good to hear from you. Yeah, I still love my Deuter 32, even after many days on Indian railways and lots of other adventures. Perfect size, very comfortable, etc. I wish I could travel with a smaller bag, but there’s always something that takes up extra room (sleeping bag, warm jacket, etc)

  12. Very comprehensive list! Wish I read this sooner.

    I bought the Samsonite carry-on bag recommended by Ryanair. I’ve been able to carry loads and even been hitchhiking with it. But I am concerned about the wear on the wheels :)

    • Hey Roy, great to hear you’re getting around with the carry-on philosophy :)

  13. I have a Deuter 45 womens pack, becasue I have a very short torso and I was told this was the only size available. I have used it before as a check in luggage, but I am planning a trip in which I would like to take it as a carry on. Do you think it will be too big for a continental US flight?

    • Hey Sam, I don’t know anything about US Continental flights, but I’ve travelled with a 45L Deuter between Australia and Africa as carry-on. The size is as much as a problem as the weight if it’s full. Even then, it depends on the person at the check-in. You can even leave the bag with something else while you check-in. Most of the time we have no issues being over-weight, though one time in Peru we had to check in a 32L bag that was 2kg over weight. I think it will be fine s long as you don’t overpack the 45L.

  14. I have a Berghaus Dart 30, I think its a 30L. It is lightweight and very mobile, ideal for mountain trekking. I cannot fit my sleeping bag inside though, but attached with straps outside. I was refused to bring it with me into the cabin from Delhi with Aeroflot.

    • Hi Christoffer, we had a problem in Peru too, but otherwise it’s been fine. Maybe the sight of your sleeping bag put them off. We fit our sleeping bags in the bottom compartment of our bags. But we don’t have them anymore; too hot in South East Asia for sleeping bags :) Berghaus are another great brand from all reports.

  15. Thank you so much for writing this article! I got a lot of useful information from it! I’m getting set to embark on a 6 month teaching gig in S. Korea and from there hopefully taking the very long way home with no set itinerary or dates set. I’m trying the find the right pack for such a trip. I find a lot of the packs listed on after googling them but I would really like to physically throw em on my back and see how they feel before leaving. I try typical stores in the U.S. (ie: EMS) and they only carry those tech bags for climbers. Any clue where I might find these being sold in the states??

    Cheers!

    • Hi Shawn, great to hear that you’re about to hit the road. I’ve only ever spent a week in the US, so I don’t really know where you can find bags. Does REI have a physical store near you? Otherwise, head to Montreal :) Lots of travel and adventure outlets there.

  16. Awesome post! My GF & I are kickstarting our 8 month RTW. And right now we’re looking at the Osprey Porter 46 and possibly even the ebags weekender motherlode. Mainly because of the carry-on size feature.

    • You really won’t regret going carry-on. All those things you leave behind and think you’ll miss will disappear from memory in no time. Only thing I missed was throwing out my Australia AC adapters before arriving in Argentina. For some odd reason Australia and Argentina use the same AC config.

  17. Wow, nice work fitting all that gear into your futura 32 Todd. I have the same pack and it is rather small… I’ve only ever used it as a day pack!

    • Hey Kim, talk about a blast from the past :) Hope things are going well. I see you’re working at a vineyard; that sounds dangerous (in a good way). Wine is quite expensive in Asia, but super cheap here in Germany. The corner shops have a few shelves; one for 2 Euro, one for 2.50, another for 3. Certainly drinkable.

      We’re actually “brewing” our own fruit wine at the moment. Calling it wine is a stretch. It’s just 100% fruit juice with yeast and a bit of honey. Self-carbonates and tastes really good. We met a few backpackers doing it in Asia. Anyway…

      There’s not much room left in my 32 once it’s fully packed. That said, we did travel with sleeping bags for a while and it was still enough. Great pack though. Once you try to fit everything in, it seems to get a lot bigger.

  18. Hey, great idea about getting a pack where the bladder can double for a laptop! Any specific models known to work? And are we talking 15″, 13″ or smaller laptops?

    • Hi Aaron, my 32 Litre Deuter has a space for a bladder, which could fit a MacBook Air 13. Although it has a couple of rigid aluminium frame-stays, so the laptop may need a cover. I think any of the adventure (opposed to travel) packs have bladder pockets. They’re also much ore comfortable in my experience.

  19. Great detailed post – its good to see proof you can travel with a smaller size bag which some would only use for daytrips! One problem with smaller backpacks is that the back length is too short to fully make use of the load bearing qualities of a good waist belt which should take the majority of the weight on your back. However at 7kg you shouldn’t have any real problems. Worth noting that brands such as Lowe Alpine have load weights with their rucksacks to give you an idea of what they can handle comfortably.

  20. Great post! This is the first post I have seen that talked about what size of pack works as a carry on which is very helpful. I am studying abroad in Europe next semester and am looking to buy a pack for some 2-3 day trips on the weekends. I was at our local outdoors store and tried the Deuter Spectro AC 32 on, which was very comfortable. Do you know anything about it versus the Deuter Futura you mentioned? Thanks so much!

  21. I need a backpacking backpack that meets RyanAir dimensions and I need help! What liter bag should work? Is 50L too big?

  22. It is actually a great and helpful piece of information. I am glad that you simply shared this useful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Great post! We are leaving in a little over a month and are making our first trip to REI tonight to start trying on backpacks! Many great points here that we will definitely be taking into consideration. I know for a fact I want a carry on friendly bag so will be staying under the 40L bags!

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