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September 27, 2010

Tips: choosing a backpack

Now that we spend 4 hours in transit in Miami, it is a good time to start to fill up the blog with some practical tips as well. How to choose the right backpack for a year-long trip?

First of all, the ideal backpack for such a trip doesn't exist. If it would, it would be lightweight yet huge to hold all your stuff, would have wheels to roll it in the airports yet comfortable when wearing it on your shoulders. Since such magical pack doesn't exist, you will have to make some compromises. Most packs you can buy today are categorized in one of the following categories:

  • Daypacks are small packs designed to hold only your most necessary items for a day-long hike. Obviously these are out of the game.
  • Huge pack-unzippable daypack combo. These are offering usually great capacity but uncomfortable to wear. The shoulder and waist straps are usually lightly padded only, and while the unzippable daypack might sound practical in the beginning, you will end up packing it fully and attaching it to the main pack, thus further increasing the weight that is far from your spine. Stay away from these.
  • Technical hiking packs. These are professional packs, usually featuring an internal frame and high durability materials, but they are not designed for a longer duration. They often lack side-pockets in order to provide free movements for the arms.
  • Technical multi-day trekking packs. These are professional packs designed to hold stuff for a hike that spans multiple days. These are probably the closest match to that of a “year-pack”. Most of them have an internal frame and large padded straps both on the shoulders and the waist. Often they feature extra stuff like built-in water tube or rain-proof cover. These things you will most likely not need so you can look for one without them, or just get rid of them once you have the bag.

So once you know what kind of pack you look for, time to look for the features you want to have.

Probably the most important feature you will need is multiple access. Classic backpacks offer top-only access, newer ones have top and bottom access, but the feature you need is top-bottom-middle access. Such packs offer you the flexibility to access any of your stuff immediately without the need to mess up everything that is already inside. The middle access is normally a large zippable flap on the front side of the pack giving you a good overview of what is inside. The bottom access is often separated from the rest of the pack with a zippable internal separator.

Another good to have feature is security. Most packs come with a traditional click-strap on the top access, which makes it impossible to secure them with a padlock unless you buy some kind of steel-mesh. These meshes are super heavy and not worth to take them. Instead what you should look for is a separate compartment of your bag, for example the bottom access, which have two zip carriages that you can bind together with a padlock. Use a numeric padlock instead of a keyed one, this way you are not in trouble if you lose the tiny key.

Third thing you can look for is additional pockets and hidden compartments. The latter is ideal for storing all your documents that you don't need in a daily basis yet you have to carry with you. Side pockets are ideal to separate items that you might need quick access in certain occasions. They can also hold things that would otherwise soil your clothes if stored inside the main compartment.

Durable materials are also vital to help your pack withstand the tortures of airport handling personnel. Probably they are the biggest threat for your backpack and its content throughout your trip:)

Once you found the bag with all the features you need, you try it on and it is comfortable to wear, you might find yourself in a situation when you have to decide between two different sizes of the same bag. By experience the capacity you will need is around 70L. In my case, I had to decide between a bag of 65L and one of 75L. Some of the wise men say go with the smaller one as it will force you to pack more efficiently and you will end up carrying less weight. While it makes sense, I was settling with the bigger one and filling it up to 75%, knowing that I will fill up the rest of the space with stuff I obtain during the trip.

Apart from your main pack, you will need a daypack but not the zippable ones (see above). The daypack will be useful for sightseeing, short hikes and to store all your valuables that you don't want to check-in inside your main pack in the airport. While carrying, store it inside your main bag, or wear it on your chest.

Finally it is important to note that all trips are different. Maybe you are happy with a smaller backpack, maybe you don't need a backpack at all, but use a suitcase instead. That's all fine, what matters is to try to plan ahead and imagine what are the most important criteria for your bag that essentially will be your home for a year or so. And how to pack it? That is a subject of another article:) 

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