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The Backpack: Better Than a Suitcase

If you're taking a long international trip, bag the suitcase and go with a backpack. They're not just for kids.

When planning a recent multi-stop trip, I decided to go with a backpack instead of a conventional suitcase, and I'm glad I did. The pack was easy to carry and it left my hands free to deal with tickets, passports and other hassles.

backpacks2.jpg[Standard backpack that could be used for travel]
(Photo: kwan kwan/flickr)

The only problem I had with the pack was buying it. Instead of researching price and features, I went straight to a local super-store that catered to outdoor enthusiasts. Inside, it was the size of a national park. The floor was a herringbone maze of aisles displaying gizmos with digital readouts and clothes with more pockets than a four-piece luggage set.

I tracked down a salesman who had just traveled through Southeast Asia. As he leaned against a rack of overpriced travel pants, he raved about the cheap massages in Bangkok. He raved about the cheap massages in Koh Samui. He raved about the cheap massages in Phuket. He seemed a little too knowledgeable about the subject, so I avoided shaking his hand.

I tried on a few packs and settled on a man's large. The clerk loaded it with 30 pounds of weight, and I took it for a 15-minute spin. I tried running as if being chased by South African street thugs. I tried moving my hands around as if I were fending off frisky Bangkok masseuses offering multi-visit specials. I tried balancing on one leg for no reason at all.

It was good spending the time because the bag jabbed me just about everywhere. The clerk recommended I try a medium that was available at another store. Between finding the clerk, listening to his tales, and realizing that this model didn't fit, I'd wasted nearly two hours and still didn't have a pack.

front_backpacks_sm.jpg[Backpack on the back and small daypack across the chest]
(Spare Change News)

I learned about backpacks the hard way, but you don't have to. Here's the world's shortest guide to buying a backpack for long-term travel.

What to Look For
  1. Price
    Expect to pay about $200. You may find an off-season deal or lower price on a store brand, but this is no place to skimp.
  2. Size
    Look for something 40 to 60 liters -- about 2,400 to 3,700 cubic inches -- the smaller the better. Smaller size means you'll bring less and be more comfortable lugging the bag around. If you're a 130-pound woman, a fully loaded 60-liter bag maybe more than you want to deal with. In hiking lingo, you are looking for a weekend pack, a two- to four-day pack, or rucksack. You don't want an expedition pack, which is fine for climbing Mount Everest but not for stuffing into the overhead bin of Boeing 747. Remember, if you're going on a long-term trip, you'll be best off bringing only a few days worth of clothes and washing them regularly. (Click here to read up on packing tips.)
  3. Limited Access 
    You don't want a lot of compartments that are easily accessible from the outside. In many countries, anyone with a backpack is a good target for petty theft. If someone can reach into your bag while you're wearing it, they will.
  4. Comfort
    A fully loaded pack can jab you in several places, most notably your lower back and inner shoulders. Lower back pain is a no-no. After trying on several packs, I got the back right, but still had some rubbing on my inner shoulders. I was able to live with it
  5. Style
    Avoid flashing colors and logos that imply, "I'm a rich tourist, please mug me." Also, the bag will likely include more straps than a strait-jacket. Fear not, these compression straps are relatively easy to figure out and serve to squish down all your belongings in the bag so they don't flop around while you're racing through an airport or bus terminal. 
The Shopping Process
  1. Go to a general purpose outdoor gear store like REI or Eastern Mountain Sports that carries multiple brands of packs.
  2. Find a salesperson who will put a couple of different packs on you. Sizes are not standard across brands, so you may need a medium in a Northface but a large in an Osprey.
  3. The salesperson should load the pack up with about 30 pounds of weight and let you tromp around the store.
  4. Ask about the return policy and, as always, pay with a credit card.
  5. Take the bag home and load it with your gear and walk around the neighborhood for an hour or so to see how if feels. On my trip, I knew I would be biking 10 miles with the pack, so I loaded it up and road around with it.
  6. If you don't already have some kind of large, puncture-resistent bag to cover the pack, buy a pack cover. They're a total rip off at $25 or so, but they will help keep your bag clean and dry.
What I Bought: Pros and Cons

I bought a 60-liter, 3,700 cubic inch Osprey Aether pack for $199 in a drab green.

Pros:

  • Indestructible
  • Relatively comfortable
  • I could cram a lot of stuff in and on it.

Cons:

  • Too big (because I went windsurfing on my recent trip, I had to bring bulky gear, such as a harness belt, rubber booties, rashguard shirt).
  • Some pinching in the shoulders.

Experience At-a-Glance

If you want more detail on backpacks, check out these links:
  • Goxplore -- Designed for hikers, this site includes useful information for normal travelers, such as how to pack your pack.
  • Outdoorhighadventure -- The information is provided by REI, which carries much of the same gear as EMS.
  • Wikipedia -- This article discusses terminology, history and other details.
  • Top 5 Packing Tips -- Make sure your belongings stay safe, secure and dry.
Other links and resources:

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The Author

Randy Ross

Randy Ross

Travel Adviser

Randy Ross, an award-winning magazine editor, is the publisher of RossTravels.com, which provides international news, advice and cautionary tales for people on the go. He's based in Boston.