Choosing the right backpack for Round the World travel (updated March 2015)

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.

UPDATE 2
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.

23 responses to “Choosing the right backpack for Round the World travel (updated March 2015)

  1. Oh, I was about to write on this topic. I couldn’t get what I wanted and ended up buying a top loaded one. But that’s not the last backpack I am going to use. :-)

    You have mentioned everything I could think of. Happy buying !!

  2. Hi Geoff

    Thanks for adding me to your Blogroll – I wonder if you could change the link so it points to my new Travel Site at

    http://heatheronhertravels.com/

    Many Thanks
    Heather

  3. Thanks for the rundown Geoff. We haven’t bought our packs yet either although we have certainly checked lots out. I was leaning towards a toploader (thinking better security?) but, given your advice here, I will check out the front loaders too!

  4. From what I’ve looked at, the frontloaders are generally more, not less secure, as they have better quality zips and are more likely to be securely lockable, as they are designed to be checked into flights, so security is a high priority.

  5. Great advice, Geoff. As we’ve said before, these front loaders are improving all the time.

    There are several on the market now that I would consider using as a long term travel pack.

  6. Hey – front loaders are definitely the way to go. Top loaders will drive you mental when trying to find something specific. And 60-65 L is about right. I (a 120 lb girl) had a huge male 85L for my trip last year and I pretty much killed myself. I have a 65L now and it is just perfect.

  7. Good luck with all your final preparations…and if there is anything I can let you know about Mexico City…

  8. Hi Geoff,
    Finding the right travel pack is hard, and I’m totally with you on the weight issue. We tend to travel for 3-4 months at a time. We both carry 60L backpacks which usually weigh in around the 50L mark.

    I spent a lot of money on my pack in 2002, and it’s still kicking. I almost hate to retire it. It’s been all over South East Asia. It has all the features you mentioned above.

    The one thing I’ve learned, especially while traveling in Asia, is that a lockable bag won’t stop someone if they want to get into your belongings. A friend of ours had his pack cut open with a razor blade. They went right around his lock. Since then, John and I have always locked our bags and we keep them in their rain covers at all times. We figure going through twice as much material might be a pain in the butt for others.

    Good luck with your travels and thanks for stopping by the other day. I’m looking forward to reading about your next adventure!

  9. Thank you for the link love and I hope my guide helped you in your pick!

  10. This is really helpful! Thanks for putting this together.

  11. Thanks for cluing me into the Lowe Alpine’s — Tatiana’s in the market for a new pack, and I’m researching for her.

    Perhaps this fellow will be added to the list, for her gear + baby Aidric’s:
    http://www.ebags.com/lowe_alpine/tt_tour_70/product_detail/index.cfm?modelid=123135

  12. Geoff, great rundown. We both initially thought big when it came to the backpacks. I must have tried on 20 bags! I finally chose the NorthFace Primero 70L because of the top, bottom and side load access, comfortable back, shoulder and hipbelt, and high level of water-resistance. My wife found an Osprey Ariel 65L which was a perfect fit for her, with an ingenious two-part hipbelt, and good torso-length.

    We read about people having to pay for extra seats on trains and buses because of huge bags, and after a test pack we found her Ariel was only about 75% full. I also looked into downsizing, but the Primero is 29″ tall, and anything 50L or bigger is still 28-30,” so loosing all the things I love about the Primero wasn’t worth it.

    My wife’s new/now backpack is the Deuter Futura Pro 42L. She hestitated quite a bit about the small size, but it has a incredible back area that lets in tons of air, and very clever compact shape. In fact, Deuter bags kind of came out of left field for us and we’re both very impressed. Extensive attention to detail and nice unique features like integrated rain covers really make the brand stand out.

    In terms of bigger front-loaders, my wife actually considered Deuter’s 55L travel bag which loads in the front and has a detachable 10L daypack. We thought the Deuter travel bag was neat because it didn’t compromise in having a lousy hipbelt and didn’t have bulky uncomfortable wheels. Overall, however, it weighed quite a bit more than her 42L.

  13. Hi

    I’m looking for recommendations on different front loading backpacks to try that are between 40 to 55 litres.

    I’m going backpacking for a year and following initial web research I’ve decided that I want to try (not buy yet!) such a pack. I’ve spent the last week trying to find such a pack online and also gone into high street shops (Nevisport, Blacks, Millets and Cotswold) but with little success. Apparently, they are rare! Most shops have said that if I find one they would order them in for me to try. Hence this post!

    I’m travelling with my fiancee so suggestions for females equivalents are welcome too.

    Peace.

  14. Hi Geoff,

    I’ve been looking for a new backpack as well and found your post very helpful. I was actually trying to decide between Wavepoint 60 and Lowe Alpine Trekker Pro ND60+16 at first. I went to the store and tried on the Wavepoint and hated it. It fit like a duffel bag, too big and too high behind my head constantly hitting it. Not good for a 5’4 girl.
    Now, I’m looking at the Lowe Alpine bags, but can’t decide which one to get. I was don’t want to get the 60+16 with the daypack as I decided the daypack is not really an advantage too. So my options are the two new models you pointed out, the new Trekker II ND60 and the TT Tour ND60. The problem is I can’t figure out the difference between the two. Do you know what it is? How do both compare to your older model? Unfortunately, there are no stores near me that carry either. I’d love your input!
    p.s. I just got back from Guatemala and Honduras. I loved Utila. Hope you enjoyed it.

  15. It looks to me like the Trekker has a few extra features that aren’t very necessary, and is also more than half a kilo heavier (which can matter if you’re packinh it full and have budget airline weight restrictions to deal with!).

    On the other hand the Trekker also has a rain cover, which could be useful if you’re travelling in the rauny season anywhere (or in England at any time of year). In terms of comparing to the old model – they look pretty similar technically but a bit more stylishly designed.

    Hope that helps – and enjoy your next trip!

  16. Thanks for responding so quickly! I called Lowe Alpine today and they said the TT Tour is a simpler model with less features and no rain cover. The price difference is only $15 on Amazon US, so I think the rain cover is worth it. They also told me about a store in NYC that didn’t show up on their site. I called and they have the Trekker II and the Pro model in stock, so I’m excited I can go check them out in person.

    To be honest, I kind of prefer the older style. It seems more narrow and I like the compartment at the bottom. But I can’t find it on any US sites. There is one listed at eBay UK for 85 pounds, but they said they only ship to Europe. Blah.

  17. So I tried the Trekker II ND60 today and was disappointed. It fits kind of like the Wavepoint 60 on me because my torso is pretty short. I can see it fit an average or a tall man well, but it’s not a good option for a short girl, unfortunately. It’s really too bad. Also too bad I can’t try get the older model anywhere. I’m going to be looking at Gregory Deva and Kelty packs now. So disappointing. Thanks for your help though!

  18. Yep, we adjusted it. My torso is pretty short though..it’s rough being a small girl! I wear an Extra Small in a Gregory backpack. I found a great deal on Gregory Deva 60 which has a horseshoe zipper on the front and access from the bottom in addition to the top. So I think I’m going with that one. It’s really one of the most comfortable packs I’ve tried on and the size is perfect. So with 3 ways to access the main pack, I think it will work best out of my options. Thanks for your help again!

  19. Thank you for taking time in order to publish “Choosing the
    right backpack (updated Feb2010) | Itinerant Londoner”.

    Thank you so much once again -William

  20. Hi Geoff

    Thanks for the article. Yours is the only review I can seem to find on these Lowe Alpine backpacks, which is incredibly frustrating! I’m looking for a pack between 55 – 65L for a 7 month trip in a variety of climates (including Antarctica!)

    I’m looking for something that can
    1. Help keep me organised (lots of internal organisation)
    2. Can double as a trekking pack
    3. Is very durable and has a good warranty
    4. Is a front loader & can zip away into a suitcase to avoid damage at airports

    So far I’ve narrowed it down to the travel trekker you recommend, Osprey’s Waypoint 65 (I’ve used this before and it’s bearable + the warranty is brilliant) and the Black Wolf packs seem quite good as well, but again no reviews (see link)

    http://www.blackwolf.com.au/product/Cedar-Breaks/2/category/31
    http://www.blackwolf.com.au/product/Cuba/14/category/31

    Your advice will be greatly appreciated!

    • Hi Taryn,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t know those other packs, so can’t really comment on them, but just to say again I love my Lowe pack, and even after a solid year of RTW travelling and several subsequent longhual holidays it’s held up perfectly. It fits 2, 3 & 4 fine.

      The one thing I wouldn’t worry about is the internal organisation – don’t get the pack to do that, buy packing cubes instead. They are far more flexible, and come in loads of sizes. I really don’t know how anyone travels without them!

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