Backpack Basics: How To Pick The Right Backpack for Travel

Picking a backpack can be a bit confusing and very overwhelming.  It took me a really long time to figure out which was the “best” backpack for my travel needs and I ended up choosing the Osprey Porter 46L. I love it!

What’s the “right” size?

First and foremost, backpacks are measured in liters.  I think this is the strangest concept but go with it because it’s common knowledge.  The size of your backpack will depend on how much you want to carry.  I’ve easily packed for months of travel (with varying climates) using only a carry on backpack.  To me, having a carry on sized backpack is crucial, however you may not agree.  The #1 reason I picked the Osprey Porter 46L was because of its size.



How to pick the right backpack for backpacking

Why Carry On Size?


The smaller the bag, the easier it is to travel with.  Also, you do not have to wait for the checked luggage to arrive and you can guarantee that your bag won’t get lost if its on the plane with you.


Checked baggage fees are usually between $25 – $50 USD each way.  Having a carry on bag saves a significant amount of money.  Just think, $25 to $50 will get you the best spa day in SE Asia 😉


You are going to be carrying the backpack around with you everywhere you go.  The lighter, the better.  Your back will thank you.


Are all carry on sizes the same?

No.  Carry on sizes vary by airline and type of plane (international, budget, etc.).  On average, the maximum size for a carry on bag is approximately 46 liters.  There are some flights where my measurements are off by an inch or two but I haven’t had a problem yet.  Check your flight to make sure your backpack meets the carry on (hand luggage) requirements.

International Flight Rules

Most international flights will allow you to bring one carry on (your big backpack) and one personal item (a purse or smaller backpack).  We call this smaller bag your “daypack” or “day bag.”  Most people opt for a 13L-25L daypack (if using a backpack) or a crossbody purse if carrying a handbag.  The personal item must be able to fit under the seat in front of you.

Note: I’ve only checked my bag once during all my travels and that was because I was headed home and didn’t care if it got lost or delayed.  Checking it was free and then I didn’t have to lug it around the airport with me.

Budget Airlines Rules

Budget airlines have strict rules and many restrictions.  If you think you will be taking a budget airline, check the carry on rules and checked baggage fees prior to booking.  Some carry on restrictions include smaller dimensions, very limited weight allowances, or only 1 carry on (no personal item allowed).

Travel Tip: If the overhead bins look like they will be full, flight attendants usually look for people with wheeling suitcases before backpacks.  Just a observation!


my IG stories are pretty entertaining: @maxpankow


What To Look For In A Backpack


Choose a backpack that meets your travel needs.  It is important to note that a carry on backpack saves money (checked bag fees), time (picking up your bag after the flight), and avoids the potential for your bag to get lost.  Check the dimensions and weight restrictions for each airline before assuming your bag will fit.  Some budget airlines have smaller dimensions and strict weight limits where a 46L backpack may be too big or too heavy.


Every ounce counts when its on your back and when there are weight restrictions for flights.  Pick a bag that weighs less than 3-5 lbs.


Choose a backpack that is recommended by travel bloggers, appears on top 10 lists, is highly rated on Amazon, and has great written reviews.


Choose a backpack that fits best with your travel style, however keep in mind that cobblestone driveways, stairs, and unpaved pathways make it nearly impossible to use the wheels.  Wheels also add inches to the dimensions of the bag and unnecessary weight.  I passed on this feature!

Waist Strap

This is not negotiable!  A waist strap is vital for any backpack.  The purpose of this strap is to put the weight on your hips and therefore remove it from the shoulder straps.  This relieves pressure from your shoulders and stress on your back.

Loading Style

There are two types of backpacks: front loading and top loading.  A front loading backpack means it opens up like a suitcase and it is easy to access all of your clothes at once.  A top loading backpack means it opens at the top and everything is piled on top of each other.  A front loading bag was a must for me!

Zippers & Compartments

Do not buy a backpack with too many zippers.  It’s easy to fall in love with all the compartments and pockets, but you cannot lock up all of those places.  You want a backpack with one big pocket that you can throw a lock on and not worry about someone being able to open anything.


Choose a bag that can withstand months/years of traveling, varying weather conditions, excessive packing and unpacking, rain, mud, etc.  Strong zippers and sturdy straps are a must.  Read reviews to find out how the backpack measures up.  Note: Amazon sells backpack covers for the rain or you can use a poncho, if necessary.  


Backpack prices vary greatly.  Expect to spend around $150-200 on your backpack.  Honestly I was going to pay whatever I needed in order to have the “right” bag and the Osprey Porter 46L was sale for around $100 when I was purchasing it.  Deal!  Note: Invest in this. It is carrying everything in “life” for the next few months/years. You want it to be well constructed and enjoyable to wear. 


How to pick the right backpack for backpacking

Packing Tips

Don’t pack more than you can carry.

The smaller the bag, the less stuff you can pack.  The less stuff you pack, the lighter your backpack weighs.  The weight of your backpack is crucial to your happiness.  You will constantly be wearing your backpack and having to pick it up (oftentimes over your head) to stow on trains, planes, and lockers.  My rule is, I must be able to lift the bag over my head in order to bring it.  If I can’t hold my own stuff, I’ve packed too much.

Try to leave home with space in your bag. 

You will accumulate stuff along the way and its best to have room in your bag for it.  I try really hard to leave enough space in my backpack to fit my purse just in case I need to consolidate my belongings.  I test this out at home by putting the contents of my purse into a packing cube (described here) and pack the backpack with this extra cube.  Don’t forget to bring the extra empty cube with you when you leave!

Bring a reusable grocery bag (or 5).  

It’s perfect for going to the grocery store as well as carrying my dirty clothes to the laundromat on laundry day.  When traveling, it makes repacking a lot easier if I can’t fit everything into my backpack or when I want to tote around snacks/food.

Invest in packing cubes.  

This is SO IMPORTANT that I’ve written an entire post to tell you why! → Are Packing Cubes Worth It?

Save space with the right day bag.

Choosing the right day bag can be tough if you don’t know what to look for.  Find out what I use here. Purse or Backpack: Do you need both?

Do you have any favorite backpack tips?  Share in the comments below.

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