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Going around the world is a great experience. You get to meet interesting people, visit amazing places, and see some sights that most people only get to experience via Google images. What’s not so great? Lugging your gear around with you from place to place. It’s a necessary evil, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it makes it any more fun. To make it easier on yourself, you’ll have to answer the question of “what size pack do I need?”

Having the right backpack for your trip can make all the difference in the world. Packing light, while still packing effectively, means bringing only the things you will need while saving your back in the process. If you’re wondering, “What size pack do I need?” look no further; this guide is here to help.

First, A Word About Suitcases

Suitcases are great. If you’re planning on holing up in a hotel for weeks on end and know that you can come back to the same place over and over again, then by all means, bring a suitcase.

However, if you know you’re going to be changing rooms every night or simply don’t want to hear the constant thudding of suitcase wheels, try to pack everything in a backpack. Chances are, you’ll have the opportunity to do a light load of laundry every so often, and as long as you pack the right clothes (i.e. sweat-resistant), you shouldn’t have a problem.

That is all.

Next, Understand Your Budget

Depending on where you buy your backpack, a good one can run you anywhere from $100-300; any more than that, and you’re most likely going to be paying for features you most likely won’t use. Typically, you can find a good quality backpack for around $200, so shoot for that number and go up and down as needed.

It can be hard to find a pure traveling backpack since many companies are choosing to focus on the camping or hiking niches. That’s fine, as long as you find a pack that holds your gear and isn’t too heavy on your back, the extra compartments are not going to matter much.

Resist the temptation to splurge on the upsells, too. Most packs come with plenty of features already built in, so adding an extra water bottle holder or key ring there is just going to add weight.

What Size Pack Do I Need?

This part is crucial: get a pack that is too big for you, and it’ll end up hurting your torso, but get one too small and you’ll have to leave necessary items behind. Personally, we like to keep our bags on the light side, but that’s just because we prefer an easier range of movement over added features.

A good rule of thumb is to not buy a backpack that is more than 20% of your body weight, so if you’re 180 pounds, look for a pack that will be less than 36 pounds when it’s fully loaded. That way, you won’t have any back or leg issues while you’re making your way around town.

What Different Kinds of Packs are There?

Generally speaking, there are three different types of backpacks for the average traveller, each one holding a different amount of weight.

Weekender Packs: These are usually reserved for the more efficient traveler who doesn’t rely as much on using older and heavier gear, or those only spending a few nights in transit. They weigh anywhere from 30-50 liters when fully loaded, which is enough for a few snacks, change of clothes and a camera. Here’s a video to help you determine how many liters a bag has.

Multiday Packs: Multiday packs are a good middle-of-the-road option for people who want to balance efficiency with weight. They’re ideal for people who are traveling in warmer weather for less than a weak, and can hold up to 80 liters of gear.

Extended Trip Packs: If you’re planning on traveling in winter, an extended pack may be your best option even if you’re only going for a few days, since they allow you to stow extra cold weather gear. They can accomodate at lest 70 liters and sometimes up to 100-110 liters of gear, and can hold tents, a sleeping bag, or gear for the children if you’re on the move with kids.

What kind of Features Should I Look For?

Certainly, all packs are not equal, so it’s a good idea to do some research on the different components of a backpack before ultimately deciding on one. Here’s a list of some of the most used features, as well as some variations inside to consider.

Access: While most hiking packs are considered top-loading, which means the only access point is through the top, others are opting for bags that offer access through a series of panels on the outside. These zippers open up to reveal the interior or on the side which can help you reach things at the bottom of the back without unloading all of your gear.

Pockets: A front pocket can hold less-bulky items for easier access, while other packs have pockets on the hipbelt to allow you to grab energy bars, smartphones, etc, while you’re on the go. Furthermore, elasticized pockets expand to hold a water bottle or tent poles, while a shovel pocket holds larger items such as maps and jackets.

Ventilation: If you haven’t travelled much before, you may be surprised how hot and sweaty your back can get after several hours of walking, so look for a pack that has a ventilation column in the back. If there’s not a dedicated space for ventilation, look for a pack where the mesh sits a few inches away from the pack itself and promotes airflow.

Frame: Most traveller’s backpack will have some kind of frame to hold the gear steady while you’re walking along uneven terrain or running through airports. External-frames are designed for ultra-heavy or irregular loads that can cause an imbalance, while internal-frame packs transfer all the weight to the hips. Alternatively, some backpacks are completely frameless, allowing the wearer to pack light and move quick, making them the ideal choice for travelers.

Accessories: In addition to all the variation listed above, you may also find a few items you can either buy aftermarket or with the pack itself, such as:

  • Hipbelts: Although most travelers packs come with a hipbelt, if you experience lower back pain or develop sore spots, opt for a cushier belt to wrap around your waist.
  • Removable Top: If you are able to leave your pack somewhere while on the road, look for a pack that has a detachable daypack that you can slip a few items in and take with you, which will save you from carrying your main pack everywhere.
  • Raincover: No matter whether you expect rain on your trip or not, a raincover is a great thing to own in case of emergencies.
  • Waterpack: Most packs have a sleeve on the inside where you can stick a water reservoir and trail a straw from to drink with. If so, get it; it’ll save you a ton of hassle from having to reach for your water bottle.

How Do I Pick the Right Size?

Having a backpack that fits tight against your body is not just a luxury, it’s a necessity, especially if you plan on walking longer distances. The process is not too hard, but in case you want a more visual demonstration, here’s a video that will walk you through it.

Finding your measurements aren’t hard, but you’ll need two things: a flexible measuring tape and a partner.

1. Find Your C7 Vertebrae: Put your hand on the back of your neck at the top of your spine, and trace your hands down until you find that first bony bump in your neck. That’s your C7 vertebrae, and will form the top line of your measurements.

2. Find Your Iliac Crest: Place your hands at the top of the bony bump at the top of your hips and then wrap your fingers around the back. Where they meet is the bottom line of your measurements.

3. Measure the Distance: The distance between your C7 vertebrae and your iliac crest is your torso length. Find a pack that meets the specifications of your torso length to make sure you keep the weight as evenly distributed as possible.

4. Measure Your Waist: Most of the weight on your pack will sit directly on your hips, so measure the distance around your hips and use that to find an appropriate belt for you. Most are adjustable but come in sizes from the mid-20 inches to the mid-40’s; any smaller or bigger than that, and you might have to have one custom made.

A note about women and youth sizes: Because women have smaller frames then men, it’s entirely possible to use a women’s pack for children, or vice versa, as do some smaller versions of men’s packs. It’s not vital that you find a pack that is necessarily made for men or women; the dimensions and overall fit are much more important, so feel free to mix and match as needed.

Any Other Considerations?

The two main necessities when trying to decide “what size pack do I need?” are fit and function. Once you have the purpose for your pack clearly spelled out in your mind, it’ll make the search for the ideal pack even easier. Then, once you’ve nailed it down from there, find the right size that fits your frame. After that, it’s purely about the journey. Where will you go next?