Looking for the best travel backpack? Walk into any REI and you’re bound to be overwhelmed by the number of travel backpack options. Should I choose medium or large? Unisex or women’s? Blue or black?
With so many choices, it’s no wonder travelers struggle to find the best backpack — the most important piece of travel gear. But it’s not impossible. Here’s how to find the best backpack for you.
Best Travel Backpack
The Gender Question
“Backpacks have a gender?” you might ask. That answer is, sort of. Most major backpack brands have a least a few offerings designed for women’s frames. Your options in the world of backpacks are men’s, women’s, or unisex. The first step in choosing the best backpack is to decide whether the backpack “gender” is a factor you want to consider.
For many shorter or more petite women, the design of women’s backpacks is more comfortable. Try a few on and see what makes sense for you. Besides going to a store you can also consider buying several backpacks and returning the ones that don’t fit since they have free shipping.
photo credit: gcbb
Size: Go Small or Go Home
For an extended trip, you’re going to be hauling your travel backpack around for months. Do you really want that extra space, just in case? Be realistic about how much stuff you plan to bring, but know you’ll rarely regret packing light and a small backpack will help you achieve that.
Hint: If you can’t get your gear-filled backpack on by yourself, you need a smaller backpack. For tips on lightening your load, read our Ultimate Guide to Packing Light.
Weight: Don’t Let Your Pack Hold You Back
Along those same lines, consider the weight of your backpack. Backpacks have come a long way in the past few decades and most are fairly lightweight. That said, even one or two pounds will make a huge difference when you’re carrying your backpack for months on end.
If you’re torn between two choices and one is a bit lighter, go with the lighter one as this will help you find the best backpack.
Design Is More Than Pretty Colors
Look at how the backpack is laid out. Is there only one opening at the top? Is that going to work for you, or would a front zipper be easier? Are there pockets that will make your water bottle and other frequently-used gear easily accessible? My favorite backpack has a number of very convenient pockets that make it perfect for extended travel.
Destination and Climate Matter
Sometimes the best backpack for the job depends on the destination. If you’re going to explore the plains of Kenya, you’ll probably choose a different backpack that if you were traveling around Northern Russia. Think about where you’re going, what the climate will be like at that time of year, and how that will affect how you use your backpack.
To Daypack or Not to Daypack
Daypacks — smaller, detachable backpacks or bags — can be great for people who pack light. You just zip off the top or front part of your backpack, and you’re off. But you definitely won’t blend into a metropolitan area carrying one of these. Determine whether you’d use a daypack and factor that into your search.
If you’re an environmentally friendly traveler, check out recycled travel backpacks. Mountainsmith has a good collection of quality backpacks made of recycled materials. With so many options available, there’s no excuse for buying a non-recycled backpack.
How You Will Use It
Is your backpack’s sole purpose to get your gear from one hostel to the next? Or will you take it hiking and on overnight camping trips? Think about all of the ways you plan to use your backpack and make sure the model you choose is suitable for each use.
The Comfort Factor with the Best Travel Backpack
Perhaps the most important factor of all — is your backpack comfortable? This means the shoulder, chest, and waist straps fit perfectly. It rests just right against your lower back. You don’t feel like you’re going to fall over when it’s full of gear and you put it on. A full backpack will never feel weightless, but it shouldn’t feel like torture, either.
Ivy by Mountainsmith Recycled Backpack
I love bags. They are perhaps one of my favorite (non-edible) things. So, when Kimberly told me Ivy Mountainsmith Recycled Backpack would be sending us travel backpacks for our 4 month South and Central America trip I was super excited. I chose the Mountainsmith Ivy Recycled pack in the green mist color.
Overall, the Ivy by Mountainsmith Recycled Backpack is great. A sleek design and awesome color make it look amazing. But the folks at Mountainsmith clearly care about more than just looks — they’ve got the littlest details nailed.
Size Ivy by Mountainsmith Recycled Backpack
Carry-on size — need I say more? Technically it’s a little tall for a carry-on but that is only if you stuff it to the very top, so just don’t tell the folks at TSA… The Ivy pack at 32L has enough space for an extended trip (such as ours) but is small enough to use as a day pack. We’ve used it for several day trips where we’ve needed extra water, jackets, or extra room to store some Mendoza wine.
Because you can only access this bag from the top it’s very secure. A thief would have to unstrap the top cover and undo two drawstring closures to get into this bag. That said, because it’s a top load only, it makes it a little difficult if you’re looking for a pair of clean underwear at the very bottom of the bag.
What amazes me most about this backpack is the straps. The shoulder and waist straps are super padded. And, if you’ve ever had a large pack you know that when you tighten these straps the excess tightening strap hangs down. With the Ivy they’ve included small elastic loops to tuck the excess strap into; this keeps it looking clean and prevents tangling.
Fabric Flexibility Ivy by Mountainsmith Recycled Backpack
Another difference between the Mountainsmith Ivy and other backpacks I’ve used is the fabric — it’s flexible. So, when I stuff my fleece and rain jacket into the bottom the fabric gives. Overall, the Mountainsmith Ivy is a really great pack.
It would be perfect for a weekend trip or anyone with lots of stuff to strap to the bag (such as skis or ice picks). It is also great for longer haul backpackers who don’t need a lot of outside pockets. (If you’re looking for a backpack with a lot of pockets check out the Lily Mountainsmith backpack review.)
The one thing that’s missing for me is somewhere to put my water bottle (besides on a carabiner) so it’s easily accessible, but its other features make up for that. Oh, and did I mention Ivy by Mountainsmith Recycled Backpack made out of recycled materials? Amazing.
Lily Recycled Backpack by Mountainsmith Eco-Friendly
When we decided to backpack through South America, I knew I didn’t want to haul around the ginormous pack I used to travel Europe. I wanted something more compact. It was time to find a new pack…the Lily recycled backpack by Mountainsmith! I did some research into greener options and was surprised by the lack of backpacks made of eco-friendly materials. After all, backpackers and hikers are very much outdoorsy types who care about the environment.
So I was psyched when I found Mountainsmith’s line of recycled packs. The folks at Mountainsmith were kind enough to send me a Lily backpack made of recycled PET. I love it. It’s the perfect size for extended travel if you pack light, though it’s designed for shorter trips.
And it’s carry-on size, which was a huge selling point for me. Its 31.5 liters hold more than you’d think and at just 2 lbs 8 oz, carrying it is a breeze. It works well as a day pack, too. My favorite part is the pockets. The pockets on either side are big, and the front compartment has lots of smaller pockets to help you stay organized.
There are even two water bottle pockets large enough to hold my 24 ounce water bottles. The shoulder and abdomen straps are extra padded for added comfort. The Lily recycled backpack by Mountainsmith pack is designed for women and it fits me better than most unisex pack do. It even has a safety whistle, which I’ve fortunately never had to use, and can hold trekking poles, a sleeping bag, and an ice axe.
All in all, the recycled Lily recycled backpack by Mountainsmith is a great pack for anyone who’s looking for a small pack for extended travel, or a large daypack, and I applaud Mountainsmith for leading the way with eco-friendly backpacks. I would definitely recommend the Lily to any green traveler.
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