Size, weight, proportion, material, comfort, construction, water resistance, features… aaahhh! If you’re in the market for a backpack, it’s easy to get your smalls in a total tangle with the options available out there. But calm the farm, as there are a few key tick boxes you can confidently mark that will have you on the right track to finding the perfect fit.

Firstly, let’s clarify what backpacking is. It sounds a little anal, but there is actually a difference between a backpacking adventure and an expedition, and the pack needed can be markedly different. Backpacking generally means you’re intending to travel to more than one spot in a given time, staying in places like hostels and flitting around on public transport.

Expeditions involve carrying your own gear on a trek through a remote environment, sleeping in a hammock (or similar) and washing in the local river. Got it? So, why is this important? Because (again, generally), expeditionists will go for a top loading pack. YOU DO NOT WANT ONE OF THESE, so don’t be fooled by the sales pitch!

The top loader – great for expeditions, but not for travelling around the world!

Top loaders don’t have a lot of zips so are difficult to secure with padlocks and it’s virtually impossible to see what you’ve actually packed unless you tip the whole thing out. Front loaders, by comparison, open up like a suitcase making your content reconnaissance a breeze. And ones with a U-zip that goes around the three sides of the pack are particularly sweet.

Size does matter

Why? Basically, if it’s too big or too small it will be unbalanced, cause back pain and/or make you topple over. You’ll also look a bit silly if it’s soaring way above your head. When choosing the right pack, you should also think about how long you’re travelling for, whether you’re a heavy or light packer and how much shopping you intend to do. Litres are the unit of measurement for backpack capacity and most long-term travellers generally aim for around 50-65L (35-40L for a carry on), however it depends on your size, weight and gender.

A weighty issue

So what’s up with the weight? The key thing when trying on a pack is that it should feel as though 70% of the weight is sitting on your hips with about 30% on your shoulders. Ask your friendly sales person to load you up with around 15kg and see how you handle it. If the weight feels disproportionate, get them to adjust the straps and see if that changes things. A good comfort gauge? If it feels comfy, take it off and lift it off the floor as a comparison. You’ll then know if the ratio is working for you or not.

It’s all about proportion

Your pack should also be proportional to your body and have a suitable ‘back system’, which is the adjustable system of interconnecting straps that can be tailored to a variety of heights and builds. A ‘ladies fit’ is generally suited to those with wider hips and a shorter torso, however the ripped females and height challenged men out there would view this as a definitively ‘sizeist’ attitude.

The nuts and bolts

You need an internal frame pack. Simple as that. External frames are a thing of a by-gone era and suitable only for prehistoric adventurers over 80. Often constructed of carbon fibre, internal frames are lightweight, durable and will be easier on your body parts.

Because your hips will be copping most of the weight, your pack should have a padded belt that will help distribute the weight evenly, and it should be adjustable for extra support. Your shoulder straps should also be padded (and thick), easing the pressure on your lower back and straps should be constructed of a single piece of material so they won’t split or thin out. A chest strap is also great for dodging shoulder chafing (so not fun after a few hours) and compression straps will help stop things rattling around when you’ve overdosed on local souvenirs.

And lastly, make sure it’s got contoured, padded lumbar support. Again, it helps with weight distribution, allows for a more natural back arch and creates a bit of a gap between your back and the pack meaning there’ll be a nice bit of breeze happening as you walk.

H20 resistant

You probably won’t need a pack that’s 100% waterproof, however semi-proof is a definite must have. Look for material that’s thick but lightweight and will dry quickly. There’s nothing more depressing than facing a pile of musty, damp clothes after an endlessly long day in transit. Travelling to a really wet spot? Consider packing a separate rain cover (or slum it with a plain old garbage bag).

Multiple compartments

Packs with separate storage areas are the go, as they not only make it a breeze to access stuff in a hurry, they keep skanky items (like your mud encrusted beach thongs) out of the way. Picture this nightmare sequence – you’re caught in a sudden, below-zero drizzle and you’ve had to stop, unload, and wade through innumerable unsavoury items because you’ve packed your warmest jacket down the bottom of your (don’t say it out loud) top loading backpack. So not cool.

Internal organisers are also great for prized possessions like your camera or tablet (or both if you’re flash). Aim for three to five compartments (no more, as you won’t be able to find anything), including one that’s lockable.

Speaking of safety stuff, packs with external double zippers that overlap and lock are the way to go and a lot of backpacks also feature a flap that folds over the straps at the front. This will offer a bit more peace of mind at airport check-ins  and stop your straps flapping about like all get-out in the process.

Many backpacks these days also come with a bonus daypack. Score! These will often zip onto your main pack and have attachments that will allow you to wear it front-wise as well (handy when you’re running mid-freak out to your connecting flight). But a note to virgin adventurers – detach the daypack when you’re travelling to (a) minimise shame and (b) stop you toppling over backwards like a stranded turtle.

Final tips

  • Get a decent warranty. And the longer the better as it’s a sure sign that you’re buying quality gear.
  • Don’t be a tight arse. Comfort is priceless and don’t forget what nanna always says, “You get what you pay for”.
  • Beware being bamboozled by extras. Work out what’s important and stick to your guns.
  • Get the size right. Only you can work this out and if in mortal doubt, go smaller.
  • Find a decent retailer. Outdoor stores are probably your best bet as their staff are trained well and no doubt experienced (because they’re probably on the payroll to earn coin for their next overseas jaunt).
  • Be cheeky and push for a discount. If it’s still outside your budget, get your Google on when you get home.
  • Sample as many as you can. And if you get home and find post-pack it’s just not right, don’t be afraid to return it.

Happy travels!