On our previous backpacking trip Navi and I both lugged around 65 litre backpacks with a 25 litre day pack attached. You know the ones. The really huge suckers in the outdoor shops. It wasn’t that we really thought about it. That’s just what you did back in 2006, or so we believed.
Perhaps it was “a thing” but I don’t remember the concept of “carry-on” luggage back then either. Anything larger than a comfortable day-pack went in the aircraft hold and that was that.
If you’d tried to board the cabin with a 40 litre suitcase you might have gotten away with it, but only because the rules hadn’t been written yet.
Nowadays “carry-on” is big business. With a maximum of around 45 litres of space. It’s tempting for budget backpackers to try to pack light and avoid costly check-in fees.
This time around (you guessed it) Navi and I are backpacking light. We still want the best experience though so choosing the right backpack for the job is key. However long your trip and no matter your destination, there are some tough considerations. Here’s my take to help you make up your mind.
Carry-On vs Check-In
Most backpackers take too much stuff. We certainly did. Checking in bags is expensive and time consuming. Navi and I missed a connecting flight once due to check-in time regulations. If we’d had carry-on only, we could’ve proceeded straight to the plane with time to spare.
There is also a very small chance your luggage will be lost or stolen. I prefer never to be separated from my belongings.
If you can whittle down your stuff to the bare minimum and squeeze it all into a carry-on bag then do it. This is something every backpacker should be considering really.
Huge backpacks are only for newbies and the seriously fashion conscious nowadays – aren’t they?
Backpack vs Wheelie Case
Being from London I’m not a fan of wheelie cases. They double the footprint of an average person. This slows everyone down and jams up train stations, escalators and busy pavements. Unless you can’t carry a regular type bag for medical reasons, wheelie bags are a little inconsiderate in busy cities. But what about for rural backpacking or island hopping?
For low budget backpacking I personally prefer a backpack.
Wheelie cases don’t work on rough ground. They certainly don’t work if you are ejected from a boat a mile out from shore in 3 feet of water (happened to us once).
In addition, I love to walk places for all kinds of reasons. Wheelie cases are noisy and can’t be dragged without disrupting the natural human walking motion. This upsets my mental and physical rhythms and takes the fun out of walking.
Some wheelie cases have backpack straps but they are for short term use only. They wouldn’t serve you on a mile hike to a bus station.
I can see why travellers opt for a wheelie case over a large 65 litre backpacks. Who wants to carry that much weight when you can just wheel it around? But weighed against a small, contoured hiking backpack? It’s no competition for the kind of “off the beaten path” travel Navi and I are planning.
Carry-On Backpack vs Trekking Backpack
I tried the largest carry-on backpack I could find. 40 litre, square with padded shoulder and waist straps. Awesome for packing. Plenty of room. But I couldn’t wear it for any more than about 3 minutes of walking. It wasn’t order totally uncomfortable but I could just sense my posture was all wrong. I was hunched. I could feel the weight right across my back and neck instead of on my hips where it should have been.
After this experience I opted to take a little less stuff and squeeze it into a smaller contoured professional hiking backpack.
Fully loaded my hiking pack is hefty but still comfortable to carry. 30% load, used as a day-pack the pressure distribution is so good I don’t even feel it. This pack has been on my back for 3 hours per day here in London for 2 years and it will be on my back every day whilst I travel.
Top Load vs Front Load Pack
For ease of use front load wins hands down, no denying that. But when you choose front load you actually have to make a more significant choice of zip vs drawstring. Why is this significant? Two main reasons. Security and reliability.
All front load backpacks have zips. Every zip backpack I’ve ever owned, suffered from a broken zip eventually. It took nearly 6 months of rugged travel on my first backpack but it broke all the same, rendering my pack useless. Drawstrings don’t break permanently.
There is nothing that can happen to a drawstring mechanism that can’t be fixed on the road with a bit of string and some ingenuity.
For a reliable pack in in all conditions. Drawstrings are best. You can gamble on comfort and ease of use for short trips, but for long term budget travel, reliability becomes a much bigger factor.
Whenever I make the drawstring argument someone always mentions security. Really? Why do people assume that zips are secure? A standard zip and feeble travel padlock are no match for a cunning opportunist. Just google it.
Zip locked bags can be opened with a ball point pen in under a second.
If you don’t have a pen handy a 3 digit combination padlock can be brute forced in under 10 minutes simply be starting a 000 and trying every combo to 999. Heaven help you if you are targeted by a serious thief with a razor blade and a screw driver.
I believe the best form of security is diligence. My trusty drawstring backpack never leaves my side on bus or train journeys. I hold it in front of me in busy places and I never take my eyes off it at border checkpoints.
Not giving crooks any opportunities is the surest way to hold on to your stuff.
Backpacking Light Then?
I’m opting for a 38 litre drawstring top loading backpack form Osprey. It’s small enough not to raise any eyebrows when I carry it into an aircraft cabin. It’s rugged enough to withstand the rigours of long term budget travel. It’s a great day bag. It’s a great trekking backpack if I want to climb a volcano. It is comfortable, reliable and versatile.
That’s not really the whole story though. Everyone has their own idea of what’s truly important and each person’s circumstances will be different. Not everyone will want to be backpacking light. For a two week vacation, I’d go for a very different bag to the one I use for long term travel.
When it comes down to it, a good bag will quietly get the job done leaving its wearer free to experience the trip.
The best trip bag is probably the one you never have to think about.