The backpack is a traveller’s best friend. You see them everywhere, from camping trips to gap years abroad. There are different ones for different needs. So where do you start?
The first time I used a backpack was for a weekend hiking trip with school out in the Adirondack mountains. I had never been camping before (a side effect of being the child of immigrants from warm Africa living in cold Canada), and was very excited to partake in an activity that was ubiquitous in Canadian culture. It was a gigantic top loader that reached far above my own head, with many adjustable straps so that my 5′-4″ frame could carry more than its weight in gear without toppling over. My overpacking tendencies were tingling with joy until I got to the actual carrying part of the evening. All’s well that ended well though, thanks to those adjustable straps (and a campground that was a few meter walk to get to). *end scene from 1999*
The choices you have are many, but it will all start the basic question: do you want top-loader or a front-loader?
Trust me folks, you want a front-loader.
The top-loader definitely has its benefits – it works better for the more rugged hiking trips. But if you’re skip-hopping across one or many countries, a front-loader is your man. Reason being: it takes all the conveniences of a suitcase and places it on your back. While the weight of your stuff might make your back wish for the wheels of your suitcase, the wildly differing terrain you will cross in different countries will have your arms rejoicing at the portability of your trusty backpack. (I developed some serious side-eye for cobblestones when I rolled out of a Prague metro station to discover a sidewalk under construction. But I digress.) You don’t want to rifle through the piles of clothes only to find the item you wanted is in the last place you looked for: the bottom of your pack. Flip open your front-loader and there you will find everything you packed, ripe for the picking.
Front-loaders are not as abundant as their top-loading counterparts, but a quick internet search will point you in the direction of your nearest backpacking store with front-loaders in stock. MEC, The North Face, and Tortuga are among front-loading backpacks that are in the 40L range, which leads me to that ever important question of volume…
How much is too much? Let’s look into the world of 40L packs and beyond!
40L. It doesn’t say much to us backpacking novices who want to make the switch over from the wheeled world. I went through some research when I set out to get my backpack (which incidentally is the North Face Base Camp Duffel in the link above and picture below). Let me summarize my findings.
If you’re a light packer or you’re headed to a warm destination, go for the 40L pack. Major advantage is that a 40L qualifies as a carry-on, so you don’t have to worry about lost or delayed luggage. It can be a disadvantage if you aren’t into the light packing thing. Personally, being a reformed overpacker, I say you can do it. The North Face website recommends my backpack for a weekend getaway, but I hopped up and down the Croatian coastline for two weeks a few summers ago and never wore the same outfit twice. The trip was also sandwiched between two overnight layovers in Helsinki, and we all know the weather ain’t what it is in Split, so warmer clothes were included in my trusty travel pack.
If you’re going for a bit longer than two weeks and/or would like a few more outfits to choose from, go for the 55-60L backpacks. I’ve never tried this size myself, but I’ve heard great things about them, namely the ability to pack some versatility in your wardrobe, and also bring back a few more souvenirs from your trip abroad. This is basically the “suitcase on your back” option, big enough to even bring a day pack or small cross-body bag (my personal everyday go-to for all trips) along. MEC, The North Face (ok fine, this one is a 72L), and Patagonia also have packs in this size.
You may have noticed I sprinkled some of those links with duffels instead of backpacks. In my opinion, this is just semantics. The backpacks all come with cushioned straps for comfort, and have the additional option of a shoulder strap should you want to carry it as its name intends it to be. If I had to nitpick, I’d say the straps on backpacks have additional cushioning for added support, but let’s be honest: if you packed 25lbs of stuff, you’re going to feel like you’re carrying 25lbs of stuff. This is one thing that I struggled with at times while moving around Croatia, but, if I had to do it again, I’d do it exactly the same way. The backpack is your key to mobility and you need to remind yourself of its convenience while you’re contemplating the force required to chuck it into the Adriatic (speaking from experience). Trust me, your arms will thank you for it.