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Packing properly is possibly one of the most important aspects of traveling. People who travel regularly often become essentially ninja masters of packing. For everyone else, however, figuring out how to pack properly can be a chaotic mess. Long before you even start to figure out what to take with you, you’re faced with a dizzying array of options in regards to travel backpacks to put your things in.

Travel backpacks are one of the most convenient options for a wide range of travelers. They are convenient to carry through long airport concourses. But still leave your hands free to deal with travel documents, use electronics and other traveling tasks.

Most backpacks for traveling can be carried onto a plane, so you don’t have to pay extra or arrive early to check in bags. You don’t have to worry about them getting lost in transit and they are right there when you need them.

How to choose a travel backpack

Choosing the right travel backpack can be challenging because there are so many varieties and options to choose from. Which travel backpack you choose is also going to be dependent on the kinds of activities you’ll engage in while traveling. Plus how long you will be gone.

Are you traveling by plane, staying in a hotel for a few weeks and returning home? If so, your needs will be very different from someone who is traveling across Europe for several weeks and staying in a wide variety of places.

So, before you go out and buy a travel backpack for your next trip, here is a guide to help you determine what size backpack you need and different features you might find helpful.

Travel backpack sizing

Travel backpacks are generally sized by volume, which is generally measured in liters. The way the majority of backpack manufacturers determine the volume of their packs is by adding up the total volume of all closed storage compartments.

These include the main compartment: side, front or top compartments and any hip belt pockets that can be closed off or zippered shut. Some smaller manufacturers may also include open pockets, such as a water bottle sleeve or open mesh pockets when determining volume.

When in doubt, however, you can always contact the manufacturer to determine what criteria they used to determine the volume of their packs.

Some packs may be as small as 10 liters. But generally for traveling you will want a pack somewhere between 20 and 80 liters. However, you may want to pack a small 10 liter (or less) backpack in a larger backpack for day trips, when you just want to take a few essentials with you.

Here are some sizes for different types of trips:

  • 10-30 Liters: Day trips or overnight stays
  • 30-50 Liters: Weekends or 2-3 night stays
  • 50-70 Liters: Multi-day stays of 3-5 days
  • 70 Liters +: Extended trips of 5 nights or more, or if you are using one pack for multiple people

In addition to determining what size travel backpack you will need, you may also want to explore different features and options for the purpose of the pack. For instance, while you may need the same volume for a day hike as for an overnight stay, you may want different features in a pack you use for hiking versus a travel back pack.

However, when traveling abroad for an extended period of time, you may need a pack that is suitable both for carrying on a plane or train. It needs to be suitable as well for hiking several miles if you plan on visiting small towns and villages off the beaten path.

Here is a breakdown of some of the features you might need for a travel backpack, in addition to sizing for different kinds of traveling.

1. Day Pack (day trips or overnight stays/ 10-30 liters)

A day pack is great for a single day hike or an overnight trip. Small and light, you won’t need to worry much about what kind of support it has or a lot of additional features. For larger day packs, you may want to consider some lumbar cushioning or padded straps. Possibly even countered straps.

For a day pack, however, mostly all you really need to worry about is if it has enough room for the basic essentials.

Here are 10 essentials you should always have with you:

1. Map and Compass

While most cell phones have GPS and everything you will need to navigate most terrain, cell phones can be unreliable. They can drop and break, run out of battery unexpectedly or lose service or signal. It’s a good idea to have an old-fashioned map and compass with you as well.

2. Sun Protection

A hat, lip balm and sunscreen are must-haves on a day hike, but if you are particularly sun sensitive, you might also consider clothing specially designed to protect against the sun’s rays as well.

3. Insulation

It’s always best to be prepared just in case you end up being out after the sun goes down. If you are doing a spring hike, where temperatures can drop rapidly at night, you should bring include a sit pad, insulated jacket, hat and gloves.

4. Illumination

It’s always best to have a flashlight or headlamp and extra batteries just in case.

5. First-Aid Supplies

Always take basic first-aid supplies: painkillers, plaster and bandages, eyewash and pads, antiseptic wipes and cream, hot and cold packs, dressing tape, insect repellent sunscreen, cotton balls and scissors etc.

6. Fire

Whenever you are outdoors for any reason for any extended period of time, it is always a good idea to make sure you have the basic tools for making a fire.

7. Multi-tool

You never know what kind of situations you may run into, so having a good multi-tool is a great way to be prepared for anything.

8. Nutrition

Hiking will generally burn a lot of calories – particularly if you are wearing a pack, so you want to bring plenty of fuel along to keep you going.

9. Hydration

In addition to water, you probably want to also bring a water filter or Chlorine Dioxide tablets so you can purify additional water if necessary.

10. Emergency Shelter

It’s always a good idea to be prepared for the possibility of having to sleep outside overnight. At the very least, you want to be able to protect your torso from making direct contact with cold ground. The ground will absorb body heat, making it harder for you to stay warm.

Again, the cooler it is at night, the more important this is. Emergency shelter can be something as simple as a lightweight emergency blanket to an emergency bivy.

While these 10 items are also just as essential for longer trips, day hikers often don’t think about them because they may only plan on being out for a few hours.

No matter how long or how far you plan on roaming, you should always be prepared for an emergency. When going on a day hike, be sure and get a travel backpack large enough for at least these 10 essential items.

2. Weekend (1-3 nights/ 30-50 liters)

If you are flying on a plane and staying in a hotel, you might need a sturdier or more durable travel backpack. You may not need to think as much about support. Since you may be taking heavier items like: hair appliances, electric razors or a laptop computer, you will want to ensure your backpack is sturdy and durable.

If you won’t be carrying it long distances, you can probably still use a frameless backpack. You may, however, want to consider options like a padded laptop sleeve or multiple compartments to help keep organized while traveling.

On the other hand, if you are going to be hiking, then weight is of extreme importance. You will mostly likely want a pack with an internal frame. You will still want something that is sturdy and durable, but you also want to get the lightest weight pack available.

In addition, if you are going to be using a travel backpack for carrying your gear for several miles, think at the very least about padded straps. Some kind of contouring is good too, as well as lumbar support. At this stage you may not need to consider overall fit in terms of torso length, waist size or gender-specific fit.

3. Multi-day (Stays of 3-5 days / 50-70 Liters)

At this size of travel backpack, even if you are using it to travel on a plan and stay in a hotel, you will most likely want to start looking at packs with an internal frame. When you are carrying a fully loaded 50-70 liter pack, you want that weight distributed well. Even if you are only carrying it a short distance.

In addition, for multi-day packs, you also want to start looking at pocket options. They will help you sort and manage your gear and belongings much more efficiently. For instance, if you are staying in a hotel, you may want separate pockets for dirty laundry and clean clothing and an easily accessible pocket for toiletries.

At this stage, you may also want to find a travel backpack that has a removable day pack for carrying small items you might just for that day.

Some additional pocket options to consider are:

Elasticized side pockets

Elasticized pockets lie flat when empty, but stretch out to hold a variety of small items, such as a water bottle or tent poles. Some packs have an elasticized pocket on one side and an enclosed pocket with an open top on the other for holding small items that might slip through a mesh pocket.

Shovel pockets

Shovel pockets are basically just flaps sewn onto the front of a pack that are closed with a buckle on top. They are named shovel pockets because they were originally designed to hold a snow shovel.

Front pockets

Some packs have an additional pocket sewn onto the outside or a shovel pocket for holding smaller items more securely than a mesh pocket or open pocket. These are generally fastened shut with a buckle or snap of some kind.

Hip belt pockets

Travel backpacks with frames generally also have a hip belt that helps hold the pack securely to your back. In this case, they often come with pockets on the hip belt that can be used to carry small items you want to reach quickly; cell phone, wallet or snacks. You can also buy small separate “pockets” or bags that can be attached to a hip belt with a carabiner or other type of clip.

A pack with an external frame, and a number of other features, will allow you to carry the pack for longer distances, as well as a heavier weight. In addition, external frame packs also offer a wider variety of attachment points for organizing your gear.

If you are purchasing an external frame pack, this is where you also want to start considering torso length and getting an appropriately sized pack. Some packs will feature an adjustable suspension which allows the pack to be tailored for the person wearing it. This is great if more than one person will be using the same pack, but it can also add a bit of extra weight.

Think about waist size

Your waist size is also going to be a significant factor. Framed travel backpacks come with hip belts that help hold the frame snug. Hip belts are adjustable from between mid-20 to mid-40 inches. However, individuals with a waist smaller than 20 inches or larger than 40 may need a pack with interchangeable hip belts.

Women might also consider getting a pack made specifically with the female form in mind. These often include straps that conform differently around the chest. They are even designed to distribute weight slightly differently. A woman’s travel backpack can also be a better option for young people of either gender.

4. Extended stays/multi-use (5 days+ / 70 liters)

70 liter + packs are great for individuals that might be backpacking across a foreign country, or may be carrying clothing or gear for themselves and their spouse or children. This size pack is suitable for extended stays of 5 days plus, or carrying gear for multiple people.

At this volume, you will almost inevitably need an exterior frame pack. Preferably with a number of features that will make carrying it for longer distances more comfortable. You will also most likely need additional features to even carry the pack comfortably for even shorter distances.

Here are 5 essential features for a 70+ liter pack:

1. Pockets and compartments

For longer stays or when carrying gear for a number of people, organization becomes much more critical.

Before purchasing a pack, you may want to make a list of everything you will be taking with you. Check to be sure the pack has adequate storage for everything you need before buying it. For help making a list of what you will need, generate a packing list on Packing Essentials.

In addition, for 70+ liter packs and long stays, you might consider buying a number of smaller stuff sacks. This keeps everything neat, tidy and organized. In addition to helping balance your load, smaller stuff sacks can also help prevent you from leaving things behind.

2. Raincover

The longer you will be away, the more likely you are to encounter inclement weather. Many packs come with a custom rain cover, but if it doesn’t, you will want to devise some means of keeping all your clothing and gear dry

3. Attachment Points

The more gear you have to carry, the more attachment points you are going to want. These can range from simple tool loops to a gear loops on the hip belt or on the lower portion of the pack body.

4. Load Lifter Straps

Load lifter straps are sewn into the top of the shoulder straps and connect them to the top of the pack frame. They are designed to hold the upper portion of the pack snugly against your body. This keeps it from sagging on your lumbar region.

5. Sternum Strap

The sternum strap is a strap that can be connected between the shoulder straps which helps create more stability and also helps hold the pack more firmly in place.