Choosing a backpack. Eurgh.
Ok I admit I’ve been putting this post off. Partly because its quite a technical area that I’m probably not knowledgeable enough to advise on. Partly because choosing a backpack is a personal thing and whenever I read about it before my travels, it always just made me more confused. And partly because its just not as fun as writing Shopping Guides and Tour Talk posts…
But ok, it’s kind of essential I cover this. Here goes.
What I should start by saying as that, as ever, your choice of luggage is completely subjective and ALL DEPENDS on where you’re going, what you’re doing, the duration of your trip, your height and build, how active you’re going to be and what you want to take with you. Can you see why I was putting this off?
When you start out planning, you probably won’t know most of these things. So to start you off, you should probably take a trip to Blacks or Millets or wherever, just to see what choices there are and educate yourself a bit on types of backpack and the different sizes. If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you will realise quite early on that the 35 litre top loader that girl on the gapyear.com forum recommended will barely hold your shoes. I’ve had overnight bags bigger than 35L. Seriously.
I’m a believer that backpacks are trial and error and finding what’s right for you. But here’s my backpack story anyway…
I started out on my first trip to the States with a 65 litre ‘Travelpack’. These bad boys are pretty similar to suitcases. They zip all the way around and have handy wheels and a handle so you can roll it along. But it also has straps for occasions when you want/need to carry it. Sounds pretty nifty right? Another benefit, well supposedly, is that you can access everything in your bag without pulling everything out first. But as mine was pretty jam-packed, everything would fall out when I unzipped it anyway.
The reason I went for the 65 litres, is that I read that that was the maximum weight a girl should carry! And I’m all about the maximum weight! But to be honest it still looked smaller than a suitcase I would take on a week’s holiday so it was still a challenge.
It’s worth mentioning that on my America trip, almost everyone I met in hostels and on tours had suitcases. Before I left I had been under the impression that suitcases are the devil in the backpacking world. But clearly not. I think if you’re just doing the States, suitcases are acceptable. But remember there’s not always lifts. Travelpacks are ideal for this kind of trip where carrying your bag will only happen now and then.
When I went on my second trip, I decided that I would use this same bag. It would save me money after all. Now what I learnt in my first week in Thailand is – travelpacks are NOT for Asia.
That’s just my opinion of course. But carrying your bag in Asia is a much more frequent occurrence and I just don’t think travelpacks are made for it. There are no lifts in Asia, sometimes you will have to go up 4 flights of stairs to your room. You will have to lug your bag onto tuk tuks and songthaews and buses. You have to weave through busy markets and cities in pursuit of a hostel. It’s pretty hardcore heavy lifting. Now this is why that girl told me to get a 35 litre backpack…
Well naturally I figured my bag was too heavy and that was what was holding me back. Until my bag split open in Phuket airport right before my flight to Singapore. Luckily I managed to find someone with Sellotape and cling film to hold it together for the flight, but when I got to Singaore, I had to go on the hunt for a new backpack.
This time I went for the ‘Top Loader’. This is the one you think of when you think ‘backpacking’. It opens at the top and usually has pockets and straps on the outside to attach things to (like your Microfibre Travel Towel). I went for a 60 litre this time – attempting to downsize but realising I have a lot of stuff. The difference it made was incredible. Well I don’t think those 5 litres made much difference, but the fact that it was a top loader just made carrying it around feel so much more comfortable. I think it’s just more compact and balanced out a bit more so you don’t feel like the weight of your belongings is pulling you backwards and killing your back.
The downside to top loaders is that it’s hard to find things in there and you often will have to pull out your heels and your dirty washing just to find a plaster. But personally I think this can be solved with some good packing skills. I could access my stuff from the drawstring at the top or the zip at the bottom, so everything I knew I wouldn’t need often was packed in the middle. And I put things like my first aid kit and hair bands into side pockets for easy access.
I also found that top loaders were easier to pack. Travel packs are like suitcases, trying to hold everything together and sitting on it to get the zip done up. Whereas with top loaders you just keep stuffing clothes in there! And if ever you can’t do the top up (because you’ve packed in a hurry), you can leave it semi-open and cover it with the top section!
Ok now I should mention that when I got to Australia, I did miss my travelpack a bit. There were a few times when travelling between places would have been easier with wheels! But then equally, sometimes there wasn’t a lift or it was a crowded city and I was glad to have my top loader!
So there really are pros and cons to each option and it does ALL DEPEND.
But I mean, clearly I am biased and pro-toploader in this argument but that’s just what worked for me. I like to get as much stuff as possible in as small a space as possible which equals top loader!
What I will say when choosing a backpack is that whatever kind you go for, try and get one that stands out a bit. When you’re getting off an overnight bus or a ferry between Thai islands, there can be hundreds of bags that all look alike. And finding yours first might be the difference between getting the first lot of tuk tuks, beating those suckers to the hostel you want and getting a room in the area you want to be in… or not. I also think that when your bag is on a baggage carousel or in a hostel storage room, it’s the ones that look like everyone else’s that get stolen. But that’s just my opinion of course. I embellished my travelpack with badges from all of the States in had visited in America, and I chose a green toploader that stood out a bit more. I also attached full moon and tubing memorabilia to it, which I’m sure helped some…
So there you have it. Travel packs and Toploaders are the options you have here and really it’s a personal choice. Remember you’re the one that has to drag it around for the entirety of your trip.
And at the end of the day. It’s never going to be big enough anyway…