How to Choose the Best Backpack for Travel

How do you choose the best backpack for travel?  To be completely honest, I knew absolutely nothing about travel backpacks.  While my parents have took me traveling my whole life, we weren’t exactly the outdoor backpacking kind of travelers.  We typically used rolling suitcases to get where we needed to go.

Josh on the floor at the airport double-checking the way he packed his backpack for travel.

As an adult, I had traveled extensively with my rolling suitcases for both work and leisure.  But after a couple visits to Europe where I was hauling luggage up 5 flights of stairs (with no elevator), I realized the benefit to being able to carry your luggage on your back. But I had no idea just how sophisticated and purposeful modern backpacking packs are designed.  This can be overwhelming to a novice like me.

Wall of some of the best backpacks for travel at REI store to choose from

Our advice on How to Choose the Best Backpack for Travel

Choose a Backpacking Pack that Fits Your Body Properly

One of the first things that we learned when choosing the best backpack for travel is that you need to choose the right size of pack for your body type.  This means measuring your torso.  Depending on your torso length, you may fit into different sizes of packs.

Read also Tips on how to Check your Backpack at the airport

Contrary to our belief, just because you are very tall doesn’t mean that you will have a long torso compared to shorter people.  In fact, very few people have a super long torso.  So even though Josh is much taller than me, we actually both fit into a medium size pack.  Josh is actually on the borderline between medium and large.

Josh standing at REI with backpack fitting associate getting measured to fit our new backpacks

The pack should hang where the hip straps are at the right height to fit snugly around your hip bone, technically below your waist.  This is important because the technology of carrying a backpack is that you actually carry the weight on your hip bones, which are a strong support and takes strain off your back!  You may also want to measure your hip size.  Most packs will have adjustable hip straps, but others may not.  So you will want to know whether or not it will adjust to fit the size of your waist.

The first backpacks that Josh and I purchased were inexpensive and very basic.  We both had exactly the same pack, except his was a bit larger capacity than mine.  However, companies like Mountainsmith do make female versions of packs.  These are great because they offer specialized customization to a woman’s body.  Typically they will have a more narrow frame and specially contoured shoulder straps and hip belts.

REI sales associate demonstrating to us how to fit our backpacks properly for travel

Mountainsmith is the Best Backpack for Travel for our Needs

Thanks to our friends over at Mountainsmith, we recently upgraded to our new backpacking packs.  I now have the Mountainsmith Juniper which is a women’s specific pack and Josh has the Mountainsmith Lariat.  

We are very excited to have these highly sophisticated packs with technology that we never had on our old packs.  In fact, we were a bit overwhelmed with all the straps and features.  So we had to do our homework and learn all about the features and benefits that came with these packs. 

Check out a recent posts when We asked Fellow Travel Nuts what is the Best Bag for Travel

Another great resource was the associates at our local REI outdoors store in Sandy Springs, GA.  We actually popped in for an appointment to get our backpacks sized and fitted.  This was a huge benefit to understanding our new packs and how to adjust them appropriately. 

Best Backpack for Travel – Fit Customization

Some of the features that you want to look for in the best backpack for travel are the custom fit capabilities.  The primary supports of the hipbelt stabilizer strap and shoulder straps, along with the back panel is together called the suspension system.  You will want some ability to adjust this system so that it fits your body best in the way that it rests on your hips and shoulders.  Some backpacks allow you to adjust the whole suspension, as well as having individual points of adjustment, such as load lifters, hip stabilizers / adjusters, and the sternum strap.

REI sales associate showing Josh how to test the stability of his backpack for travel

Our Mountainsmith packs have all of these adjustments.  So they are extremely customizable.  Although, having all these different straps can be overwhelming.  Again, that’s why it was great to be able to get a thorough explanation during our fitting session at REI.

The Importance of Load Support for your Backpack

The best way that the human body can carry weight is using your hips, which is a part of the pelvic region and one of our largest bone structures in our body.  And this area is also supported by some of our strongest muscles in our body.  So it is the most stable, and solid place to carry weight.  So the whole purpose of a good backpack is that the weight is carried mostly by those hip bones.  So when you are looking at packs and trying them on, it is important to verify how the pack is resting on your hip bones.  This is critical to your comfort and will take the strain off of your back and shoulders.

Check out also What to Look for in Secondary Travel Bag

Accessing Your Gear Easily makes for the Best Backpack for Travel

There are a lot of different kinds of backpacks out there, each with a variety of pockets and features.  Luckily for us, we had traveled a few times with our old backpacks so we had an idea of what we liked and what we didn’t like.  This was helpful in choosing our upgraded packs.  Practicality and personal preference is key to the design that works best for you.

Our upgraded Mountainsmith backpacks have a number of features that we really loved.  It is top loading so that we can load the pack the traditional way, but also since we are travelers who sometimes stay in hotels too, these packs can actually lay horizontally and open with a giant U-shaped zipper, similar to a piece of luggage. This makes it very convenient for the way that we travel.

In addition to a number of pockets along the side and top, these packs also have a removable day pack.  So we can choose to snap it off and just carry a few things around on a day outing.  Very flexible.



Another consideration to being able to access your gear in your backpack is in the way that you actually pack it.  If you use packing cubes then this feature is perfect for you.  There is certainly a method to this process.  We also learned more about packing our backpacks from our fitting session at REI.

Other Considerations to Find the Best Backpack for Travel

There are a number of other personal considerations to look for in the best backpack for travel for you and your travels.  Depending on the type of traveler you are, you may want a separate sleeping bag compartment, or a variety of external straps and loops so you can attach additional items to the outside of the pack.

Liz walking down the street of a rural town in Thailand with her backpack

Some packs offer hydration systems, where you can fill an internal pouch and use a hose to sip as needed.  Some packs have sophisticated ventilation systems to keep your body from getting sweaty.  And there are also lots of different levels of padding to choose from.

Download FREE Southeast Asia Packing List

Lastly, you might consider getting a rain cover to keep your gear dry.  Some packs come with this feature, but others do not.

Choosing the Best Backpack for Travel YOU is Important

Josh standing in a street in Thailand wearing his travel backpack and front camera pack

Ultimately, every person is different not just in their body shape and size, but in their travel preferences.  So everyone is going to want and need very different things in their backpack. Luckily, there are a wide variety of backpacks out in the market that meet these different needs.

It is important to do your research and look for the features and benefits that best meet your needs.

Being Mountainsmith users and fans for years, we were ecstatic to begin working with them.  However while we did receive free products to test and review, all opinions are strictly our own.


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How to Choose the best backpack for travel

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