Best Backpack for Thailand | How to Pick a Backpack for Thailand

best backpack for Thailand

How do you pick the best backpack for Thailand? A travel backpack is essential for traveling in Thailand, but what features should it have? What size should it be? 

When I backpacked along the Banana Pancake Trail years ago, I used a small shoulder bag.  It was definitely more practical than a roller suitcase for moving along the sometimes sandy and usually potholed roads. Unfortunately,  it was incredibly cumbersome to lug around on motorbikes and I’d pray it wouldn’t fall out from between the drivers legs as we ripped through the chaotic traffic. Even worse, it left me counting my steps as it pulled my entire body to one side.  If you travel with a backpack you’ll breeze over the potholed or dirt roads, jump on and off motorbikes, and do it all without killing your back!  

What features should you be looking for in the best travel backpack for Thailand?  What are the deal breakers and what could be considered optional ? Our Khmer Explorer Travel Set was built to be the best backpack for Thailand or epic adventures across the Banana Pancake Trail. That said, this post will help you make an informed decision in choosing the best backpack for your trip to Thailand. So let’s dive in! 

How big of a backpack do you need for Thailand?

Most people backpacking Thailand seem to like traveling with backpacks 35L – 70L in size. There’s a large minimalist mob out there that seems intent on convincing the world that if it’s not a carry-on (typically under 40L) you’re doing something wrong. In my opinion, that’s completely false. Yes, it’s nice to avoid picking up a bag at the luggage carousel, but it’s really annoying having to be forced to be hyper aware of accidentally exceeding your liquid quota, accidentally packing your favorite swiss-army knife, or meeting the strict weight restriction  issues you inevitably run into with checking a carry-on backpack. Additionally, I didn’t even mention the annoyance of fighting with everyone on the plane for an overhead bin spot!

Perhaps most importantly, everyone values items on their packing lists differently! For some, it may be worth it to pack a couple nice clothes and a fancier pair shoes for a night out at Skybar in Bangkok, or have the space to bring their own scuba mask, or room for their camera case for their mirrorless camera and a couple lenses. 

I’ve traveled with both a 30L pack and a 60L pack in Thailand, both worked great. Ultimately, traveling with this 60L pack,  allowed me not to won’t worry about having space for that extra Chang Beer tank top 😉 and I was under no obligation to fill it to the brim. I also find it much more enjoyable to have an emptier pack then one that is bursting at the seams. 

What features should a travel backpack for Thailand have?

There are a couple key features to look for when choosing the best backpack for traveling in Thailand. 

organization inside the best backpack for thailand travel

Impeccable organization

This should be your number one priority when choosing a travel backpack for Thailand!  In fact it was this reason that led us to start this company and build the best front-loading backpack. When traveling in Thailand, you’ll consistently see disheveled looking backpackers on street corners or at bus stations frantically unloading their lives belonging from a top-loading hiking backpack. Your life doesn’t have to be like this! The right travel backpack should open like a suitcase, have tons of pockets and provide you with complete access to everything inside. It should provide a spot for keeping dirty gear or shoes separate, and packing cubes are always a plus! We even put a secret pocket into our backpack for those times that you need to stash a small valuable like your bank card or passport. Take it from me, there is nothing worse than scrambling to pack for an early morning bus after a late night out with too many Chang! Make this process as easy as possible with a pack that focuses on organization.

Weatherproof

If you get stuck in a tropical downpour in Thailand it will leave you drenched. If you pick the right backpack your stuff doesn’t have to join you. Any good travel backpack should be weatherproof and utilize a coated fabric to help water bead off and keep your stuff dry. It’s not waterproof, meaning you can’t drop it off the party boat and expect your stuff to stay dry, but it will keep everything dry even in a monsoon downpour. Ensure the backpack has a PU coated fabric or something similar. 

travel backpack with locking zippers for thailand

Theft resistant

Thailand is a safe country to travel in and you can feel incredibly relaxed here. Unfortunately, minor theft and pickpocketing can be common. Ensure you pick a travel backpack that offers lockable zippers and put your locks on when you leave your room or during any transit days to keep unwanted hands out. 

Ergonomic and height adjustable

If you’re sitting on the back of a motorbike or walking for a kilometer or two in the equatorial heat, comfort and adjustability go a long way. Plus, not everyone is the same height or shape making it absolutely critical you can adjust a backpack to your height and torso size. Hiking backpacks get used so often because they’re comfortable to carry. Fortunately a good travel backpack can do the same thing, without forcing you to carry your gear in an organization-less potato sack. 

I actually field tested our Khmer Explorer Travel Set as a hiking backpack on a 75 km journey on Canada’s rugged West Coast Trail. It was comfortable even with 60 lbs in it, proving the point that a good travel backpack can be the best of both worlds. 

Stowable hip belt

A robust hip belt takes the majority of the weight off your shoulders and back, making your pack more comfortable to carry. I know, you don’t see runway models wearing backpacks with hip belts, but they’re incredible to have for the times your shoulders and back get a bit sore. Plus, some travel backpacks provide a small hip belt pocket for phone storage and let you stow the hipbelt away and completely out of sight when you wish! 

Optional features to consider in a backpack for Thailand

Depending on your personal preferences these features may also be worth considering

laptop bag

Laptop storage

If you plan on traveling with a laptop and only using one bag this may be a feature that you consider.   Personally, I often prefer to use a small daypack for my laptop or use a laptop sleeve with a shoulder strap

Water bottle holder

Generally, I don’t find it essential to have my bottle instantly accessible at all times, but if you do this may be a feature you look for in a travel pack. Another option would be to consider a multi-functional approach – using a detachable bottle holder that can also act as bottle sling like our Bottle Sling Bundle

That sums it up! Hopefully this was helpful in narrowing down your search for the best backpack for your trip to Thailand. Drop me a line in the comments below if you have any questions about choosing the perfect backpack! 

Happy travels! 

Best Front Loading Backpack for Travel | How We Built It

Banana Backpacks

A front loading backpack makes travel infinitely easier! Packing becomes a breeze and you avoid the dreaded situation of having to unpack your entire backpack to retrieve something you forgot at the bottom. If you’ve ever been forced to dump your entire bag on a street corner or at a bus/train station you know the anxiety this brings. Couldn’t there be an easier way to travel with a backpack? 

This is what motivated us to design our own 60 liter front loading backpack, the Khmer Explorer Travel Set. It was a long and onerous process to build it from the ground up, but when you travel with the Explorer, I think you’ll agree it was worth the effort! 

Here is the full story of how we built the best 60 liter front loading backpack for travel. 

My first 10 years of travelling were spent living out of a 35L front loading backpack the size of a couple of milk jugs. I used to laugh when I saw massive hiking bags cumbersomely loaded into tuk-tuks and squished into taxis. I’d think to myself, “what do they possibly have in there?”. Then one day that all changed.

My experience with a hiking backpack in Peru

Peru was a 3-week flashpacking escape from the corporate cubicle doldrums of my life at the time. The trip would include 2 multi-day (guided) hiking excursions through the Andes (Inca Trail and Santa Cruz Trek) as well as your standard dose of sightseeing, adrenaline seeking, and getting reacquainted with my inner flaneur at cafes and restaurants. All these activities would occur through various climate zones and temperatures, necessitating more equipment (sleeping bag, hiking clothes, and hiking boots) than my beloved 35L front loading backpack was capable of carrying. Without thinking twice I gravitated to a 60L Arc’teryx bag, believing it to be a wise choice for travel. The Ferrari of the backpack garage.

Nope.

Ok. This bag, like others of its breed, is amazing for multi-day self-sustained hikes where ergonomics and weight are paramount, but it simply doesn’t work properly for long-term travel. Anyone who has ever tried to find something in a top loading backpack knows how ill suited this type of bag is for a life of moving hostel to hostel and through crowded marketplaces.

It took traveling to Peru to make me realize this common travel plight. Tragically, I almost forgot about this struggle after returning home from my adventure. Almost.

The moment I decided to build a travel backpack

During an early morning bus ride to go skiing in Whistler, I was woken up with the nagging thought of the awful travel backpack once again. At that moment I made a commitment to myself to see what else was available on the market. That night, I began combing through the internet for a better 60L travel backpack. I found plenty of carry-on sized backpacks and a few full sized front loading backpacks. Unfortunately, none were exactly what I was looking for. The carry-on sized bags looked great, but lacked the size required for those longer trips through multiple climate zones.  Plus, I had my concerns that even if I crammed everything in, I’d be overweight and forced to check the pack regardless. The larger backpacks, by outdoor bag manufacturers like Deuter and Osprey functioned properly, but were styled in the fashion of the hiking bags I was trying to get away from.

Feeling it was my responsibility to build a travel backpack that looked great and functioned better, I set out on a mission with really no idea of where to start…

Now that I had committed to taking the ring to Mordor without knowing the way, I figured attempting to sketch would be a good place to start. As you can see from the photo below, the whole drawing thing didn’t go so well…. (at least it was a front loading pack).

Our first front loading backpack conceptualization
Didn't go to art school.....

Realizing this sketching wasn’t going anywhere, I moved on to computer design and finally had a vague idea of what my kind of front loading backpack might look like. The bag would have lay flat capability (to pack like a suitcase), be built of durable, but fashion forward materials (and colours), and have sufficient room for all of the gear needed for those epic, once in a lifetime journeys.

Our first front loading backpack digital conceptualization
ok that looks like a backpack at least.....

The design above shows one of the first conceptualizations of this idea. I superimposed it on this very organized work station so you don’t have to see my own messy desk! 

Great! I had successfully made a virtual travel pack. I could envision myself opening the bag, effortlessly arranging all my travel articles, and watching the envious stares of fellow travellers. The virtual bliss was surreal. Now I had to create a prototype.

Enter the front loading backpack prototyping phase

My limited sewing experience (excluding Grade 7 home economics) and lack of a sewing machine (not that I’d know where to start) forced me to get creative. I ventured down to a local sewing supply store and picked up the following key ingredients for my backpack prototype stew:

(1). Plain Black Fabric;

(2). Sewing Pins;

(3). Safety Pins; and

(4). Cardboard (sourced from cut-up cardboard boxes).

From here I broke our design down panel by panel, (somewhat) meticulously wrapping the fabric around a cardboard frame and securing it with the pins. After poking myself countless times (pins are not the smartest fastening idea), I eventually had something that resembled a travel backpack (albeit not the most comfortable or practical travel companion).

prototype
painful to wear.....

A tip for any of you aspiring backpack builders out there: staples provide an excellent and safe alternative to pins should you wish to embark on your own prototype construction at home.

Ok, so I had a working backpack prototype. Correction: a prototype. What next?

Sure, I wanted a travel backpack that would help me travel more efficiently and improve life on the road. But I also wanted travel gear that meant something more. Just like impossible to pack, top loading backpacks that didn’t resonate with me, companies working solely for the motive of profit also failed to resonate. In my opinion, the greatest companies are measured by what they do to leave the world a better place. I’d been inspired by companies like Toms Shoes and Patagonia and felt if I were to build a business selling travel backpacks made of pins and cardboard, at the very least I could make it a socially responsible pin bag company that made the world better.

Finding a backpack business partner and building a mission driven business

Growing up 3 years apart, my sister, Anika and I were privileged enough to travel the world together with our globe-trotting parents since we were diaper-clad tots (yes that’s us below). Naturally, when she finished her Master’s in Human Rights it was only logical that my chronically risk averse sibling would jump on the opportunity to partner with me on the presently unnamed big travel backpack project…

banana backpacks team
me right, my sister Anika left. We're a little older now...

Surprisingly, convincing her was not as difficult as I foresaw. When Anika and I discussed our desire to do something that made a difference in the world she instantly gravitated towards the idea of supporting basic human rights (like education and clean water) and encouraging awareness of social and environmental issues impacting countries throughout the world.

Tragically, we live in a world where the number of issues appears to be countless. With so many issues, where would we start?

We both answered that question with one resounding answer: Cambodia.

Cambodia had a profound impact on Anika. After travelling through the country and learning about the 1970s genocide that occurred there, Anika was overwhelmed by the power of travel to change your perspective and provide you with insight into the world that you would’ve never known otherwise. This fateful trip had such an impact on her that she went on to later volunteer in the country, working with a local organization dedicated to providing ethical and sustainable employment opportunities for local artisans. Ultimately, she wrote her Master’s thesis on the impact of fair trade on economic and social rights advancement in Cambodia. While my experiences were not as profound as Anika’s, the kindness and generosity I experienced while backpacking through the country, left me feeling that this was unquestionably the right place to start.

So we had an idea of helping to support basic human rights, and a country we wanted to start in. We had to get more granular. We wanted to do something truly special that would have a long term impact. We wanted to provide a hand up to people in need, not a hand out.

So we chose education. Anika and I have both been very blessed to have witnessed the value of education both through experience (such as travel) and formal education through primary and post-secondary schooling. We felt that we wanted our backpacks to positively impact education in Cambodia. We loved what Tom Shoes and Warby Parker had done with one-for-one models, but we wanted the impact to be more tangible. Sure it’s amazing to know your purchase has helped, but wouldn’t it be even better if the product incorporated your amazing contribution into its design to somehow make each product unique?

After a lot of brainstorming, we conceptualized the idea of helping a child go to school for a year with every backpack we sold. Every bag would bear the name of the child whose schooling was supported. We would embroider this name somewhere onto the backpack. Making each bag effectively unique.

Logically we felt like the left strap of the backpack would be a good spot, conveniently located right above the heart.

So after all of this brainstorming where were we?

We had an amazing idea to help support education in Cambodia and a bag made of cardboard and pins. Pretty much launch ready I think?! Queue up the investors.

I could envision our pitch to Shark Tank…“Hey Mr. Wonderful, I’ve created a 60L front loading backpack prototype made of pins and we’re gonna give at least 10% of our revenue away to help support human rights. Are you in?!”

Not quite. We had an idea of what we wanted to create and the impact we wanted to make. Now we needed two partners. A manufacturer capable of making our 60L travel backpack and a non-governmental organization (NGO) working on the ground to improve education in Cambodia.

The search for partners

Searching for a manufacturing partner

We set out to find a manufacturing partner with expertise, ethics, and enthusiasm (to work with a couple of fresh arrivals to the travel gear scene). To do so, we spent hours combing through import records to determine who reputable companies were using to manufacture their goods and then searched (often fruitlessly) for the contact information of manufacturers we were interested in speaking with. Many days of head scratching and frustration led to the conclusion that Vietnam was a mecca for backpack manufacturing. Believing that the best way to be taken seriously was to go in person, I booked a ticket to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam with a few names, numbers, and a big dream.

Searching for an NGO partner

To impact education in Cambodia, we required a partner organization working on the ground in Cambodia that we could team up with. A non-governmental organization (NGO) that believed in our cause as much, if not more than we did, and had the expertise and knowledge required to make the biggest impact possible. Like manufacturing, we had stringent criteria. We were looking for a partner with transparency, local employment and knowledge, holistic programs, and proven impact. A number of amazing people connected us to experts in the field, who directed us to the most impactful organizations. We perused their annual reports and eventually conducted Skype interviews with several organizations to get all of the required details. Interviewing allowed us to narrow the field down to two organizations that I would meet with in person, adding a trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia to my Vietnam adventure.

Deciding on a manufacturing partner

Before my trip to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), I’d sent out a series of emails to the bag manufacturers we’d managed to locate. This effort resulted in one confirmed meeting and a lot of silence. I was able to arrange several more meetings by calling on manufacturers directly after arriving in Vietnam and I toured many factories during my first week in the country. Many were eager to meet/work with us and and others insinuated we should ”take a hike” unless we could place a first order in excess of $100, 000.  After a whirlwind week of introductions, we found the perfect manufacturer to bring our project to life. We were incredibly fortunate to find a partner that was not only excited about our backpack design and the concept of the business, but was also Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) certified, and had established many long tenured relationships with major reputable brands. I eagerly handed over my designs (excluding the pin bag photos) to their research and development team and began the anxious process of waiting for our first real prototype of our 60L travel backpack.

Caring for Cambodia's Food for Thought program

Deciding on an NGO partner

This wait provided the perfect time window to journey to Cambodia and meet with the two 5 star organizations Anika had pre-vetted.

The experience was overwhelming as the magnitude of the challenges that so many Cambodian children face to get an education was reaffirmed. A few of these challenges include:

(1). A lack of clean drinking water at schools;

(2). Economic pressure to drop out of school to work and help generate income for their families;

(3). Walks as long as 20 km to school;

(4).  A lack of simple school supplies like books and pencils; and

(5). A lack of food.

Despite these challenges, the two incredible organizations we interviewed were doing amazing work to change the fortune of Cambodia’s children and youth.  After another difficult decision process, Anika and I decided to partner with Caring for Cambodia and support their Food for Thought program. This amazing program provides a student with two meals per day at school for a year. 

Why is this a big deal?

In the areas surrounding the schools, most people survive on less than $1 USD/day and many families cannot afford to feed every one of their children. This program encourages families to send their children to school by relieving them of one of their key financial costs. This leads to higher attendance and lower dropout rates, which are some of the most significant education issues in Cambodia. This program was the perfect fit for our backpacks and would allow each backpack to help change the life of a child. That impact would be incorporated into the design of the backpack itself: something we would do by embroidering the Khmer name of each child supported onto the left strap of each bag.

backpack prototype
Note old logo....

The first "real" prototype and beyond

After visiting Siem Reap, Cambodia and finalizing our partnership with Caring for Cambodia, I returned to HCMC for the big reveal. Our first real front loading backpack prototype was ready at last. The first prototype was a massive work in progress a as you can see from the photos below, but it was a foundation upon which we’d build.

backpack prototype
its a backpack at least...

From prototype to the ultimate 60L travel backpack

This foundation and the feedback of numerous travellers, friends, family, and complete strangers would lead us to create three more prototypes over the span of five months to get to the 60L Khmer Explorer Travel Set that you see today. Patience pays off and despite numerous delays and setbacks we couldn’t be more proud of our first travel backpack, the Khmer Explorer Travel Set.

How to Choose the Perfect Travel Backpack for Any Type of Trip

Banana Backpacks

You’re setting off on a life-changing trip. You’ve been poring over travel blogs and guidebooks for months, you know what you’re supposed to wear and not to wear, you have your renewed passport at the ready, you may even have a human travel buddy committed… but you’re still missing your number one companion: a travel backpack. Maybe you’ve already visited the outdoor havens of MEC (if you’re Canadian) or REI (if you’re American), but staring at the rows upon rows of bags left you more flustered than before you started. Alternatively, you’ve opted for a less public shopping experience and ventured online. But the various blog posts out there and countless online companies (not to mention all of the Kickstarter backpacks) left you just as confused as the rows of bags at MEC or REI would have.

Whichever shopping route you choose, this can be a daunting experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first backpack or you’re looking to replace your first one that really didn’t work for you. We’ve certainly been there. That’s why we wanted to simplify the process of finding the best pack for you! And what better way to narrow down the hunt than by matching the type of adventure you’re going on with the type of backpack you should choose?

We’ve done just that in this article. Below you’ll find our backpack compatibility test questions and a corresponding breakdown of the best options depending on the type of trip(s) you plan to go on. While we have some wisdom (or something resembling wisdom) to share from our own travels, we’ve also nicely interrogated some of the most seasoned travel experts out there to get their thoughts and advice. We’re candid about the benefits and shortcomings of each of these backpacks (including our own!), so if you’ve been struggling with your own search, we hope this helps you find your backpack soulmate.

travel backpack on floor

Why a travel backpack and not a suitcase?

While the classic example of the suitcase’s ultimate character flaw is trying to haul it down a cobblestone street, its shortcomings when travelling are far more troublesome than this. Trying to pay someone or check maps without taking your hands off of your suitcase is close to impossible. Bringing your suitcase onto packed buses in India is a panic-inducing experience. Traversing muddy roads during the wet season in Indonesia will have that wheeled suitcase irreparably damaged.

Enter the travel backpack! Hands free but still attached to you (so no one runs off with your goodies), easy to stuff or store anywhere (from hostel lockers to overcrowded buses in India), and built to be resilient in changing weather conditions (bring on the muddy roads and monsoons), backpacks are a traveller’s best friend on the road. If you’re still not convinced, check out this entertaining Adventure.com article on the transition of one backpack lover to a suitcase and back again.

suitcase blowing up

Finding the best travel backpack for your trip: A compatibility test

Now that you know you need a backpack, you have to decide which one. Not all travel packs are created the same, so how do you choose your best companion? Like finding any good friend, it’s first important that you have the same priorities and interests. Let’s start off by narrowing it down to the type of companion you’re after – do you need it to be on top form for a trekking/hiking trip, a work or week-long trip, or a long adventure?
love your pack

Your Travel Backpack Compatibility Test

Are you planning to go backcountry hiking and camping on your trip? Are you headed on a trekking trip where you’ll be staying in backcountry huts or tea houses but still need to carry your own sleeping bag?

If you answered yes, your best match is a Technical Backpack. Click here to jump to this section.

Are you a digital nomad, working from different locations across the world? Are you travelling to one climate for a one or two week long trip?

If you answered yes, your best match is a Carry-on Backpack. Click here to jump to this section.

Are you travelling to multiple different climates on one trip? Are you looking for a bag that is a mix between a technical backpack and a carry-on backpack?

If you answered yes, your best match is a Hybrid Backpack. Click here to jump to this section.

Are you an ultra minimalist traveller?

Your best choice is a personal item sized pack (if you’re carrying anything at). Click here to jump to this section.

Best backpacks for hiking oriented travel: technical backpacks

Backpack Profile:

Rugged, dependable, tough.

Travel with this backpack type for:

Rugged, dependable, tough.

Osprey Backpack

When you hear “travel backpack”, the image of a technical bag is probably the one that comes to mind. Designed for backcountry hiking and camping trips, these backpacks are big enough to comfortably carry your tent and cooking equipment, have enough straps to attach your sleeping bag (plus your hiking poles and probably even your house plant!), and durable enough to get you through even the snowiest of days on the trail. It makes sense that these bags have become the most commonly used type given the wide selection on the market. Some of the big names making these backpacks are the outdoor specialists Arc’teryxGregory, and North Face. These are the types of backpacks a lot of people travel with and they certainly have some huge benefits, but because they weren’t designed specifically for travelling, they also have their shortcomings.

Technical backpacks brag-worthy traits:

Fit

Technical backpacks are designed to carry extremely heavy loads comfortably (those camping stoves weigh a lot!), and as a result they often have the best ergonomic designs. When properly fitted, these backpacks will transfer 80% of their load to your hips and lower body, avoiding excessive weight on your shoulders. There are also a number of fit choices. If you’re a female with a really small frame, you can find women’s specific packs (see two recommended choices below for amazing women’s technical packs). Alternatively, a number of them, like Arc’teryx, offer adjustable torso height technology. You can check out this article from REI on how to measure your hip size and torso length to know the size you will need to adjust the backpack to. Given the number of outdoor brands out there and their offering of multiple backpack models, these packs offer the widest range of fit choices.

Carrying capacity 

If you’re looking for a big backpack, your hunt is over! There are countless 70-80 liter options in this category. Before I go on, however, I should point out that determining a pack’s capacity based on liters can be a bit misleading, as there is no industry standardization for this measurement. How your belongings fit is more important than the actual number of liters. With that caveat in mind, these packs are perfect for storing a sleeping bag, clunky hiking boots, and all of your fleece layers even if you’re not carrying food and a tent. They also have multiple straps on the outside of the pack to attach anything that doesn’t quite fit inside.

Hiking backpack traits that you complain to your friends about:

Organization

These bags have driven countless frustrated travellers to create their own backpacks because of this very issue. Technical bags are typically top-loading, which basically means you stuff all of your belongings through a big hole in the top of the bag. This is an awesome feature for fitting a crazy amount of supplies into your bag, but when you need to retrieve anything again, it usually means dumping all of the contents out to find what you’re looking for. This isn’t exactly easy (nor smart) to do when you’re in the middle of a train station looking for a pair of socks in the bottom of your bag. When there is a side zipper incorporated into the design, it makes it slightly easier to pull things out but doesn’t help the organization issue.

"We travel / live abroad full time and love having a backpack that opens all the way - like a suitcase. Top loaders are great for trekking or backpacking in the wilderness, but you can't see anything in the bag!”

Style

While there is certainly something to be said for the rugged look, technical backpacks don’t usually give you many style points. Straps hanging in every direction is a great feature for attaching sleeping bags and trekking poles, but not so great for aesthetics. These flying straps also tend to get caught when you’re trying to navigate tight spaces, which can be a serious struggle especially if you’re trying to get off of transportation quickly.

The size of these backpacks also tends to hinder their appearance. It’s hard to look sleek when a backpack is 80 liters and nearly the same size as you. Besides appearance, while 80 liter packs may be necessary for a week-long backcountry camping trip, this size is fairly excessive for a trip to Southeast Asia where you’ll end up filling its contents with unnecessary items (4 books anyone?) and then being frustrated by how heavy your bag is throughout your trip. As Tina Dahmen shares on Take a Trip with Tina, she often ends up wearing only 40% of the clothes she brings travelling.

Recommended choices

If you’ve decided the technical backpack may be the travel companion for you, here are some recommendations to get you going:

Recommended technical pack for women A: Gregory Jade 53

Having travelled with the older version of this bag for a large portion of the ’10’s, I have great things to say about it. It’s specifically designed to fit women and for someone who deals with back pain on the regular, this was a dream to carry. I found the customized hipbelt angles were especially helpful for carrying heavy loads and the thick lower back lumbar padding prevented the pack from slipping down when I walked. The pack comes in multiple sizes (28, 33, 38, 53 and 63 liters) and it’s upped its game since my 2010 version by offering a separate sleeping bag compartment and divider, among other features that are really useful if you’re doing a lot of backcountry adventuring.

The only complaints I have with this beautifully fitted pack are that it doesn’t have the most stylish design and the top loading system was a disaster for finding any of my gear when I travelled (this led to my infamous “nest” of clothing on the floor of guesthouse rooms across Asia). Gregory has added a front access zip to the Jade 53 since my version, but the backpack is still limited in what you can access or organize through here. Overall, for hiking trips it was a dream, but for travelling it left something to be desired in terms of organization.

Recommended technical backpack for women B: Osprey Kyte 66

Another highly recommended backpack for hiking, Osprey’s Kyte 66 is made specifically for women on the move.

“For the past three years, I have been using the Osprey Kyte 66 ladies backpack and together we travelled to some amazing places, like the Himalayas in Nepal, beaches in Indonesia, and forests in Scandinavia. It is the first backpack I ever bought, but still use it every time no matter if I travel internationally or domestically. The best features are the number of compartments (five), the fact that you can access the main compartment easily from above, but also with a side zipper, the built-in rain cover, the comfortable hip belt, the hydration reservoir space, the external straps to attach your sleeping bag, and simply the design, which is amazing! I almost didn’t experience any negative features of this backpack, but I can name some little things; when hiking for a few hours, I still get the sweaty-back syndrome even though there is a special ventilation back panel, the pockets on the hip belt are too small, and not every department has two zippers, so you can lock them together. Overall, I am very satisfied with the Osprey Kyte 66 ladies backpack and hope to use it for many more years and exciting trips!”​
Osprey Kyte

Recommended unisex technical backpacks: Mystery Ranch’s Hiking Backpacks

If you’re looking for the technical ability of an hiking backpack but still craving something that isn’t only top-loading, Mystery Ranch may have a solution for you.

“For the past several years, we’ve been using backpacks from Mystery Ranch, a small Montana-based company that makes gear for the military, as well as for outdoor recreation and travel. [M]any of Mystery Ranch’s backpacks have a Y-shaped zipper that goes all the way down the front of the bag, allowing you to completely unzip it. That way, you can actually see what’s inside and where things are packed, and you’re able to easily pull out what you need. Traveling with these packs has made it so much easier for us to find things and stay organized, which definitely helps you stay sane on long-term trips.”

Best carry-on packs / small backpacks for week-long or work trips

Backpack Profile:

 Organized, tech-savvy, ambitious.

Travel with this backpack type for:

A two week European getaway or a move to Bali, Indonesia to enjoy the sun while you work on your digital business.

minimalist backpack

There has been a real push to small minimalist bags that are carry-on sized. Crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo have exploded with small backpacks for travel the past several years. This push has largely been fuelled by the growing global community of digital nomads. These are the wanderlusters choosing to use technology to work remotely across the world. Their professions require them to have travel backpacks offering a place for all of their digital devices to be conveniently located and organized, small enough to carry on the plane (way too many valuables to check this baggage!), and discreet enough to bring to a boardroom or beach on the same day. Speaking more technically, these backpacks are typically 30-40 liters in size and don’t usually have compression straps or an internal frame as they are small enough to carry a load without them.

Brag-worthy traits of carry-on backpacks:

Carry-on size

This is the number one benefit – they can be taken as carry-on luggage on many airlines (this article gives you a breakdown of carry-on restrictions across airlines). No hassle of airlines losing your bag when it’s checked, plus you’re keeping all of your expensive digital equipment right there with you. Having a carry-on sized pack is also awesome for making sure you’re just bringing the essentials, nothing else. This keeps your load lighter and encourages minimalism. Environmental win for the small backpack!

“When trying to decide on how big your bag should be, we always recommend people to aim small. Whether it's a 40 liter or 70 liter pack, you will always fill it full with stuff. We now own 40 liter bags because it forces us to only pack the essentials and we can use them as carry-ons during flights!”​

Organization and style

There is no doubt that a number of these packs were designed by digital nomads, for digital nomads. They often offer integrated packing cubes that help you organize everything you need for a trip. A number of them have optimized their design so that it takes you the least amount of time possible to whip out your laptop for airport security checks. As a bonus, they’re usually designed with tactical openings for charging all of your tech devices. Pretty awesome stuff when you’re working on the road.

When you have a smaller load on your back it’s also a lot easier to retain your style. These bags tend to have fewer unruly straps and are more minimalistic in their designs. While some of these minimalist travel bags can look a bit boxy, there are a number of them that are really awesome looking packs.

Packing for travel

Carry-on backpack traits you'll complain to your friends about:

Size

“How is your backpack so tiny?!”

I can’t count the number of travellers that said this to me over the years I journeyed with my aforementioned 53 liter pack. This is not a tiny pack, I promise you! But the majority of travellers I met were carrying 60-80 liter travel packs so I can see how a 50 liter one looked impossibly tiny to them. Now imagine the heart attacks I may have given my fellow adventurers if I was travelling with a carry-on 35-40 liter pack. The lighter you can pack, the better (for your back, for the environment, and for convenience!), but there are some justifiable reasons why some people still choose to travel with a larger variety of pack. If you’re travelling to multiple different climates and engaging in different types of activities, you often need versatility that is difficult for these smaller backpacks to facilitate. With my 53 liter pack I was able to pack everything I needed to go straight from the beaches of Malaysia to weeks of trekking in Nepal where I needed to carry a sleeping bag, all of my fleece layers, and hiking boots. A 35 liter pack wouldn’t have fit the gear I needed for my trip through multiple climates (maybe just my sleeping bag!).

Weight issues with carry-on

 You’ve finally gotten all of your belongings snuggly fit into your new carry on pack and you’re feeling pretty excited not to have the hassle of checking that bag. But then you get the dreaded request from an airline attendant to weigh your bag. It’s undoubtedly too heavy so you end up having to check your bag anyways and scramble to rearrange things. This is even a struggle for a number of digital nomads:

“Here's my dilemma. I travel full time as a digital nomad and I visit somewhere between 15-25 countries each year. Because I'm a writer and photographer, I must carry a good deal of equipment that weighs quite a lot (laptop, cameras, lenses, and accessories). This is stuff that cannot be placed in checked baggage [...] That means I have to put it all in carry-ons, and there are are strict limits on the size and weight of carry-ons. Most airlines allow economy passengers 7 kilos (15.4 pounds), occasionally I fly with one that allows 8 kilos (17.6 pounds).”​

Recommended choices for carry-on backpacks:

If you’ve decided the carry-on backpack may be the travel companion for you, here are some recommendations to get you going:

Recommended carry-on backpack A: The North Face Overhaul 40

This 40 liter backpack comes highly recommended, especially when you’re carrying a number of high-tech devices with you. The bag has a separate laptop compartment and tons of fleece-lined pockets for every gadget you bring with you. It has the ability to morph into a briefcase-style bag by unclipping the shoulder straps and tucking them into the back slots, while still offering some slightly more technical features including load lifters and sternum straps.

“Form and function are super important for me when picking a travel backpack. I usually carry my DSLR, laptop, and other gear when traveling. I look for bags that are able to pack a lot in, without weighing me down because I have such a small frame. It's also great when a bag has lots of smaller compartments that you can put cords and accessories in. I'm a big fan of North Face's Overhaul bag for that reason. It has the laptop sleeve, it's sleek, and it's comfortable to carry.”​

Recommended carry-on backpack B: The Minaal Carry-on 2.0

The creators of Minaal are two guys from New Zealand who built a loyal following after a super successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2013. This bag is my favourite of the carry-ons for style (no boxy look here!). The backpack’s straps can be concealed and carried as a briefcase like the North Face Overhaul. Its laptop compartment has velcro straps to keep your laptop in place, so even if the bag is dropped, your laptop isn’t likely to suffer any damage. It’s also easy to pull out your laptop when you go through airport security. It has all of the compartments you could need and these are really well thought out. Hip pads and a shoulder strap (if you want to carry it messenger bag style) are sold as add-ons. This is a pretty small bag, so be prepared you’re not going to be able to fit those hiking boots in here. Common consensus is that this bag is awesome for shorter trips.

Recommended carry-on backpack C: The Cabin Max Malmo

Not feeling ready to give up on the rolling abilities of a suitcase yet? In that case, the Malmo may be the choice for you! This hybrid between a backpack and a suitcase is both adaptable and affordable.

"My favorite backpack to travel with is the Cabin Max Malmo. Cabin Max is not one of the big names out there and at GBP£ 35, approximately $50, this might be the cheapest bag you can find... but the quality is incredible! This is a 44 liter backpack with wheels, so I can either wear it when the terrain is rough or smoothly wheel it around in the cities, and it's expandable, which is a good thing since I love shopping and always end up coming back home with way more stuff! The dimensions make it so you can use it as carry-on, but I always use it for long-term travel (2+ months) together with a smaller backpack where I keep my electronics, and the quantity of things I can actually fit in there is incredible. Think 3 pairs of shoes and heaps of clothing.... I'm an Instagrammer after all! I can't praise enough the good value of this backpack."​

Best travel backpacks for epic trips: hybrid backpacks

Backpack Profile:

Adaptable, unassuming, helpful.

Travel with this backpack type for:

 A trip that includes a little bit of everything. Maybe to South America involving trekking in Peru combined with beaching in Colombia.

hybrid travel backpacks

Here, we introduce you to the hybrid backpack. This style of backpack aims to balance the functional mastery of technical, top-loading backpacks with the organization capability of the small, digital nomad designed backpacks. Usually offering full-zip clamshell openings like a suitcase and the ability to tuck away straps, these bags still focus on giving you a comfortable fit for carrying the big loads you may have when travelling to multiple different climates. There are fewer of these around compared to the previous two types of bags, but the ones that are on the market have found a loyal following in the travel community.

Brag-worthy traits of hybrid backpacks

Hybrid of size and organization

These travel packs offer the space of technical backpacks for when you need to bring lots of gear (including those heavy hiking boots), plus they don’t force you to compromise on your organization needs. Instead they allow you to say farewell to the frustration of top loading your gear and having to dump it all back out to find anything. Their clamshell openings give you the ability to organize your belongings like you would in a suitcase and lock up the zippers when your bag is in transit for added security. This can save you a lot of hassle on the road.

“When we relied solely on large backpacks, we generally preferred the open zipper style, rather than the top only opening. Sure, you can't stuff as much into the pack, and it's not as secure, but we loved the easy access to all our things. Having to pull everything out just to reach that sweater on the bottom was always a huge pain with conventional top loaders.”

Hybrid of fit and style

Inspired by the ergonomics of technical backpacks, these hybrid backpacks don’t skimp on their features. They have sturdy hip belts to carry heavy loads along with comfortable shoulder straps, load adjusting straps, and sternum straps. Padding and an internal frame make carrying a big load easy as they once again transfer the weight away from your shoulders to your lower body. While having these important fit features, they also tend to look a little bit less offensive than the large technical packs do. Designers of these bags understand that the excessive straps useful on hiking trips can be a liability when you’re travelling if you aren’t able to tuck them away.

Hybrid travel backpack traits you'll complain about

Not a carry-on backpack

Hybrids tend to be larger in size, which means you may be hard pressed to pass many of these ones off as carry-on size. It can be frustrating not to have the option of carry-on if you want to keep all of your belongings close by. In addition, this can lead to packing excessive gear or lugging around a bag bigger than what’s needed if you’re on a shorter trip. In terms of design, they don’t tend to come with the same kinds of digital nomad-friendly features that carry-on packs do. So if you’re looking for specific pockets for different kinds of technical devices and optimized accessibility to them, these packs may not be the right fit.

Not a technical backpack

 These travel backpacks also aren’t technical bags. This means that although they have many of the technical features outdoor backpacks do and you can comfortably carry a heavier load, they aren’t designed specifically for all of your backcountry needs. Like their lack of digital nomad-friendly features, these travel backpacks tend to be missing their backcountry-friendly features. You won’t find specific places to attach your trekking poles on these packs and their clamshell openings, while great for organizing your clothes, are not optimal for carrying your camping gear.

Recommended choices for hybrid travel backpacks

If you’ve decided the hybrid backpack may be the travel companion for you, here are some recommendations to get you going:

Recommended hybrid A: The Osprey Farpoint

 This has been a traveller favourite for some time, and for good reason. Available in 40, 55, 70, and 80 liter versions, the Farpoint is an option for every size of frame and type of trip. While it may still look like a technical backpack, its durability and practicality has won it only the best reviews from a number of travellers we’ve spoken with.

“I'm a huge fan of my Osprey Farpoint Travel Backpack. While it's not so great for hiking or camping, this backpack is perfect for traveling around Europe, South America or Asia. While this pack has a hip belt, it's a bit smaller than your average hiking pack and can be zipped into the back of the backpack so that nothing gets caught on a conveyor belt when you check a bag. It also zips around the edges like a regular backpack, so I can easily access all of my things. Finally, it has a detachable daypack that I can clip into the front straps, which is great for avoiding pickpockets when I have valuables inside!”​
“For my one-year trip around the world I used the Osprey Farpoint 70. What I like most about it is that it's a front-loading bag. I wouldn't go for a top-loading backpack because you have to remove most of your stuff if you wanna take something out. It's really annoying, especially if you're moving from one place to the next quite frequently. I also like that the attached day-pack has a separate laptop compartment. It keeps my laptop safe and easy to access. I think these two are the most important features for me.”​

Recommended hybrid B: Banana Backpacks Khmer Explorer

I couldn’t leave our bag out of this article, so here it is with full disclosure that in spite of my best attempts to be as objective as possible, there is inherent bias here!  We designed the 60L Khmer Explorer with the goal of bringing style and organization to a sizeable travel backpack. To meet the needs of long-term travellers visiting multiple climates, this travel set has durable, weather resistant fabric and torso height adjustability options on par with technical backpacks. To achieve style and organization that technical packs lack, the Explorer’s hip belt and shoulder straps can be fully concealed to protect them during airline travel, two large clamshell compartments open fully, and there are plenty of pockets and packing cubes to organize your gear.

Every one of Banana Backpack is individualized with an embroidered patch on the heart (left) strap. This is the name of a Cambodian student whose education is supported for a year through the purchase of your specific bag. Like the Osprey Farpoint, this pack may not serve you the best for camping or hiking, but it’s a great companion for travel to multiple different places and climates.

The MEC Travel Backpack Supercontinent Family: An Honourable Mention

The stalwart companion of Canadian travellers for years, MEC’s supercontinent deserve an honourable mention under the hybrid travel pack section. The Supercontinent is available in 3 sizes a 40L, a 60L, and  a massive 75L version. Like the Osprey Farpoint, the MEC Travel Backpack inherits it’s style from it’s technical pack cousins, that said, the Supercontinent been well reviewed for it’s durability and prices in slightly less than the Farpoint and our Khmer Explorer.

Best travel backpacks for ultra minimalist travel: personal item sized packs

Backpack Profile:

tiny and ultra low profile

Travel with this backpack type for:

trips around south east Asia with constant laundry service and hot climates requiring limited clothing.

If you’re looking to travel as light as possible and avoid even the smallest chance of baggage fees travelling with a personal item or a bag typically 20L or less is the only way to go. This is a challenge not for the faint of heart and only accomplishable by the most ruthless packers. 

Brag worthy traits of travelling with a personal item

Unmatched freedom

The expression less in more definitely applies here. By travelling with a personal item packing and re-packing becomes a struggle of the past. You’ll move through crowds effortlessly drawing little attention to what you’re carrying on your back. To the ignorant on looker your personal item looks more like a day bag than your travel pack. Your back will thank you as well! 

Bragging rights

To pack a trips worth of gear into 20L or less is ambitious. If you can pull it off you’ll receive the constant admiration and awe-struck looks of everyone you meet along the way. 

Personal item backpack traits you'll complain about

The dreaded "I wish I had my" moments

Packing a personal item requires an immense amount of discipline. Unfortunately, this means that many of the nice to haves get left behind. Whether its jeans or your favourite pair of kicks there is likely to be a couple items you’ll wish you had along the way that there was simply no room for. 

kiri backpack by bananabackpacks

Recommended personal item backpack for travel

Banana Backpacks Kiri Collection

Our customizable Kiri collection is the ultimate pack for choosing to travel with a personal item only. Kiri uses a series of interchangeable kits that are magnetically attachable and removable. For travel, grab Kiri plus the Leavin’ the Shire weekend kit including compression packing straps and a removable dopp(toiletries kit). If you need a little extra space, the majority of the Kiri kits are also compatible with a shoulder strap for independent carry. 

Here’s what to look for in every travel backpack, according to the experts:

Comfort

“At the end of the day, no matter if you're choosing a 60 liter expedition pack or a 20 liter day pack, the most important thing about them is fit. The bottom line is, if you're planning to carry that pack all day, it has to be comfortable and has to have decent support or you won't want to carry it anywhere.”
“When traveling long term, you will want to invest into a good quality backpack that feels good carrying it even after an hour on your shoulders.”

Pockets/compartments

“Our favorite backpacks are ones with lots of pockets. This helps you organize your gear in your bag, so everything is not deep down in the big pouch. You could have a compartment for extra shoes, frequently accessed items in the top zipper and toiletries in a side pouch.”
“Tons of pockets are also a must so we can easily grab our chargers or pull out our DSLR camera with a moments notice.”

Good Zippers

“Make sure the zippers are good quality too. In our experience, zippers are what fail first when a bag is getting old and durable zippers can prevent all your stuff from spilling out.”
“I want heavy duty metal zippers that cannot be punctured with a pen and two metal pull tabs with holes that can be drawn together and secured with a padlock - on every main pouch!”
'It's also important to have lockable zippers.”

The most important consideration for picking a travel backpack

Even with all of these guidelines as a starting point, the most important consideration is that your travel backpack represents and fits you and the type of traveller you are, so you need to find the bag and brand that speaks to you. Like any matchmaking mission, there is no recipe for this final and ultimate compatibility test.

On that note, I’ll leave you with some of the wisest words I’ve heard about picking travel backpacks: 

“A good backpack, whether it has fancy zippers, a ton of pockets, straps coming out the wazoo and is waterproof to a depth of 50 meters, isn't worth a thing if you hate wearing it. If it doesn't feel like a natural extension of your body, then keep looking for one that does. When you travel for a extended time, that backpack will contain everything you own in that city and maybe even that continent so make sure it takes as good care of you as you do of it.”​