UPDATE (and short answer): The Travel Trekker II ND60 is the perfect backpack for long-term round the world travelling.
Travelling solo for a year means there will be very few constants in my life. The most important of which will be my backpack. Choose the right one and it will make my journey easier…choose the wrong one and I’ll be cursing it for being like a ball and chain that I can’t escape from.
I thought finding my perfect travelling companion would be easy, I figured it was largely a matter of deciding what size I wanted and then just choosing one. How wrong I was. What I thought would be a quick decision has taken ages…so I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt along the way, just in case you’re thinking of doing something similar.
I learnt one key thing during my trip to Laos (the dry run for my big trip) – the most important thing for me was to get a pack that opens from the front than from the top. My toploading rucksack drove me mad – while there was supposedly some access from the front, it was pretty useless, and it felt like I spent about half the trip packing & re-packing to get to stuff at the bottom of the bag. My friend Chris, who I was travelling with, had one that opened all the way round like a suitcase when laid flat, giving access to the whole bag. This was my first experience of pack-envy. These type of packs are typically called ‘travel packs’, and give vastly superior access to classic toploading backpacks (that are designed for hiking, not extended travel)
Rule one: get one that loads from the front
The second thing I learnt was to check the bag is properly lockable. While it was possible to loop a padlock through the two main zips, there was still a gap between them that could easily be opened up for people to root around in, which is not ideal when your bag is going to be accessible by other people on buses, in hostels, and when being checked in for flights. Not being lockable may be OK for people on hiking trips, but it’s not acceptable for a long trip like mine.
Rule two: make sure it’s lockable
With my Lao experience in mind, I started looking for packs, and quickly discovered that the vast majority of rucksacks on sale are really designed for hikers rather than travellers – and in fact what I was looking for (particularly with my obsession with getting a front loader) was not a “rucksack” but a “travel pack”
Rule three: look for the words “travel pack”
Searching online quickly taught me one thing about travel packs: they nearly all come with a detachable daypack. “How useful!” I thought, and quickly narrowed my search down further to these. It wasn’t until I went into a shop to try one on (my early favourites, the Osprey Waypoint 60 and the North Face Backtrack), that I realised that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea – the Waypoint’s daypack is badly designed and miniscule; the North Face one really poorly attached to the main pack. Further reading online suggested that having the detachable pack attached moves the centre of gravity backwards, making your more unstable on your feet, with the solution being to wear it on your front for better balance. I figured if the daypacks were poorly designed and not ideal for wearing attached anyway, I may as well buy a proper daypack separately. Oh, and most importantly they all look really ugly. And who wants to be stuck with an ugly backpack for a year and face the mockery of your fellow travellers?
Rule four: avoid the ones with a detachable daypack
The trickiest decision is what size to go for. On previous backpacking trips to Laos & Guatemala I reckon most travellers look like they have 80L or more packs; meanwhile hardened travellers in places like the Thorn Tree and the BootsnAll forums seem to compete to see who can travel with the smallest pack, with 40L or less being advocated. I travelled Guatemala with 40 and Laos with 60, and I found the Lao experience better, despite the extra weight, as I felt like there was nothing I was missing. I’ll do a dummy packing run with my existing (but evil top-loading) pack just to check I can get everything I plan to take into a pack that size, before I make my final purchase
Rule five: Too small and you’ll have to leave stuff out. Too big and you’ll do your back in. 60-65 litres (that’s 3,500-4,000 cubic inches for my American visitors) feels about right, although a more sensible packer than me could get away with 50 quite easily
This last two requirements really narrowed my choice down further – essentially to just two:The Lowe Alpine Travel Trekker ND60 & the Osprey Porter 65. (nb – see the update at the bottom of the post for the newer version of the Lowe Alpine bag)
Making a decision
One final factor came into play in terms of deciding which to go for: I want to be able to try the pack on to see how comfortable it is – after all, it will be on my back weighing me down for the next 12 months. I’ve been unable to find a stockist for the Porter in London (and anyway, it’s the uglier of the two), so my current favourite is the Lowe Alpine.
It ticks all the above boxes, but as well it has the following features that are helping convince me:
– Adjustable back means it can be fitted to suit my size, making it more comfortable
– Its own raincover which tucks away
– The main straps zip away into a compartment at the back, making it look more like a suitcase and meaning there is less dangling to get caught up in baggage reclaim systems
– Well padded hip-belt
– Various internal pockets for better organisation
– It also has better padded straps and back support than most travel packs, making this closer to a hiking backpack, and therefore hopefully more comfortable to wear for longer periods.
Now the eagle-eyed among you may spot that this is technically a women’s pack (the male equivalent is the Travel Trekker 70L – but that is bigger than I want and is a less comfortable fit for me, especially as I’m a bit of a hobbit) but I’ve been assured that there is very little design-wise that makes them different other than slightly narrower straps.
I’m planning to buy in the next week or so – unless any more experienced travellers can point me to anything obvious I’ve missed?
Hopefully that’ll be useful for anyone planning a similar purchase – of course this is a purely personal view that you may disagree with, here are some links to other articles that I found helpful, even if I didn’t come to the same conclusions:
The ever helpful Nomadic Matt gives his guide to choosing the right pack, including links to various brands
Brave New Traveller has an interesting article on one man’s obsessive hunt for the perfect backpack
Australian site bakpakka goes into quite a lot of detail on types of pack including useful stiff on the right materials and zips
Gapyear.com has some useful stuff on the kind of features to look out for.
Cotswold Outdoor have some useful tips on how to pack
UPDATE I have now bought my backpack. After an hour or so trying the two bags on, having them properly fitted by the everso helpful staff at Ellis Brigham in Covent Garden, and filled with weight to simulate what it would be like with a full load, it turned out that the Lowe Alpine back was also the most comfortable, so I’ve gone with that.
The bag I went for (the Travel Trekker ND60) has now been replaced with the Travel Trekker II ND60. Haven’t tried them out but if there’s as good as their predecessor (which has been the perfect choice for me – 6 years on it’s proved to be the perfect travel pack – comfortable, well-made, and super-easy to load and unload) then it should still be great choices. It also comes in ‘men’s’ 70L versions but I reckon that’s too big for most RTW backpackers’ needs.
Meanwhile for those looking for a slightly smaller, carry-on size back, at 40L, should try the TT Carry-on 40.