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When it comes to active travel, backpacks are far more convenient than duffel bags or suitcases. They’re easier to carry, fit snugly into tight spaces (ideal when visiting friends in tight living quarters, or staying in hostels), and allow faster maneuverability.

Whether I’m planning a short overnight or a two-week jaunt around Europe, I’ll go for a backpack every time. The only question that remains is: What size backpack would work best in this situation?

The answer varies, depending on factors such as the length of the trip, which activities I’ll be enjoying, and what methods of transportation I’ll be using. However, even with the growing list of options that are currently available, choosing the right backpack is easier than ever. Read on to learn more about what size backpacks are best for travelling, and why.

Backpack Sizes: A Primer

In general, backpacks range in size from 25-liter (or 55 pound) to 85-liter (187 pound) capacity. While this wide range might make choosing a size seem like a daunting task, fear not–it’s simple enough to narrow them down. Here are some basic guidelines, broken down by the most common size brackets:

  • 25L – Ideal for day hikes, short overnights, or weekend trips for light packers
  • 35L to 45L – A good size for carry-on luggage (see below for more information on carry-ons)
  • 65L – The best size for long hikes, as it can fit several days’ worth of clothing and gear
  • 65L to 85L – These packs are too large to be carried comfortably, and should be used only when checking bags for flights and on long trips of a week or more

What to Look for in a Backpack

Although size is an important factor, it’s not the only one that should be considered when choosing a pack. Here are some other things to look for when shopping:

Waterproof material

Few things will ruin a trip faster than wet clothing, sodden books, or a drenched cellular device. Don’t even consider purchasing a backpack that isn’t waterproof, particularly if it will be used primarily for hiking.

Multiple compartments

While these make packing easier, they also make unpacking an absolute snap. Keep items like cameras, books, and cell phones in the outer pockets, so they’ll be easier to access.

Lockable zippers

One complaint that many people have about backpacks is the inherent lack of security. With the advent of lockable zippers, this is no longer an issue.

Internal frame

Backpacks with this feature have the frame and support rods built in, so they’re not visible from the outside. It’s not only aesthetically pleasing, it makes the backpack less susceptible to getting stuck or caught on things.

Padded hip belt and shoulder straps

These will make the pack more comfortable, and much easier to carry–a must if I’m going to be spending a lot of time on foot.

The proper size

Try on the pack before leaving the store (most employees will be happy to help with this), to test its compatibility with your body size. If it’s possible, have the salesperson load the pack to roughly 30 pounds. Take a few laps around the store to see how the weight distributes, and to ensure that it can be worn comfortably.

As a rule, a backpack should be large enough to fit all of your stuff, with a little wiggle room left over. Consider what it will be used for, and buy accordingly.

For more on finding the right backpack, visit the Tortuga website. They have a great selection of packs, with details on which models are best suited to which activities.

Backpacks as Carry-Ons: Why This is the Best Choice

As backpacks can take a lot of punishment–and, as mentioned above, can also be easily maneuvred into cramped spaces–they’re perfect for use as carry-ons when flying. And when it comes to air travel, I carry on whenever possible. In fact, unless I’m planning to be gone for more than ten days, I never check my luggage.

There are several good reasons for this:

  • Packing is easier when there’s less space to fill. Less is more.
  • If I don’t check my luggage, the airline can’t lose it. At best, lost bags can result in an unnecessary waste of time. At worst, it’s a severe inconvenience.
  • It saves money. Most airlines now charge baggage fees for more than one or two checked items.
  • Ease of transport. If I’m moving from one spot to another, I don’t want to worry about dragging a suitcase or a duffel around.

Since carrying on is usually the best option, here’s what everyone should know about carry-on backpacks

First of all, in order to qualify as a carry-on, a backpack can’t exceed these dimensions: 22x14x9 inches. Even if the bag is marketed as a carry-on, be sure to measure it before purchase if this is a concern.

Also, don’t forget about the weight: Some budget airlines will charge an extra fee if the carry-on is packed in excess of 22 pounds. Check what the guidelines are before heading to the airport, and weigh the bag first if it seems to be approaching a problematic level.

As a final note, I’d like to add that when it comes to choosing what size backpack for travelling, I’d go with the smaller option every time. That’s not to say that I’d sacrifice the basic necessities–I need something to read on the plane, at the very least, and it’s always best to pack an extra pair of shoes, just in case. But packing light is often the key to a successful trip.

In the end, I won’t care that I was wearing the same sweatshirt in every photo, or that I had to wash my underwear in the sink at the hotel–these will just be a few of the memories in the mosaic that make up the trip.

Keep all these things in mind when selecting a backpack for that next getaway, and bon voyage!