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A Guide to Travel Backpacks

Choosing the right bag for your gap year is essential to avoiding discomfort during your trip and with a number of options on the travel market, you can easily find a pack that is suitable for your requirements.

But where do you start when it comes to selecting the travel backpack that will accompany you around the world for several months? Our guide to travel backpacks is here to give you a little more information on what you should look out for when you’re searching for the perfect travel bag, including styles of backpack available and handy features that will make your life easier on the road!

What is the Difference Between a Rucksack and Travel Backpack?

Many of you will be most familiar with the traditional rucksacks with a top loading design, these types of bag are still widely available and are commonly used for more active outdoor activities including hiking and treks.

On many rucksack models, you will find a range of features that are tailored to the needs of the more active traveller, including mitt friendly zip pullers, SOS panels and ice axe/walking pole holders. A rucksack would be the ideal option for you if you’re embarking on multi-day treks during your gap year. Some travellers do prefer rucksacks to travel backpacks, so you don’t have to be making your way to Machu Picchu to use one!

Travel backpacks are designed with a more accessible design compared to the conventional rucksacks you will be used to, these are designed with travel in mind and have 3 key features that set them apart from rucksacks…



1) Side opening design – Unlike rucksacks, travel backpacks come with a zip opening that allows you to access the main compartment as you would a suitcase, this makes getting you your clothes and other travel gear much easier and will prevent the need to rummage through your stuff to find what you’re looking for.

2) Detachable daypack – Carrying a bulky backpack around with you when you’re out exploring during the day just isn’t practical, so travel backpacks come with a daypack attached, usually by clips or zip. Simply unclip or unzip the daypack and it can be used for day to day use during your trip.

3) Concealable back system – Most travel backpacks on the market will come with an adjustable back system, this will usually come with a protective cover to protect the straps from damage in transit.

What is an Adjustable Back System?

freedom-back viewAdjustable back systems allow you to adjust the height of shoulder straps and waist belt to ensure that they fit you correctly.

An ill-fitting backpack can lead to back problems and injuries after months of carrying it around, so making sure that your backpack’s back system is adjusted to the most suitable fit for you is essential to avoiding these complications.

Adjustable back systems come in a range of styles and are usually relatively easy to adjust, some include a ladder style design with Velcro which allows you to easily move the back system up or down.

Others can be moved up or down when you’re actually wearing the pack, by pulling on an easy grab tab.

Many models now come with instructions on how you should fit your travel backpack correctly, Lowe Alpine offer a great guide to correctly fitting their packs, which can be found on their website.

Travel Backpack Sizes – Which Size is Best for Me?

Selecting the right size of travel backpack for your gap year can seem like a bit of a minefield, most backpacks will range from 60 to 100 litres in size, but don’t be fooled into taking the biggest size out there, this will more than likely be much too big and could put some serious strain on your back!

Here is a guide to give you more of an idea which size would be best suited to you and your trip…

60-70 litres:  3-6 months

70-80 litres: 6 – 18 months

90+: 18 months+ (generally not a wise size option for female travellers!)

These are purely guidelines on what size bag you should look to take, the key is to pack light and plan to take around half of what you would actually like to pack. Selecting a larger sized pack will only encourage you to pack more gear than you need.

TIP: Roll your clothes or buy compression bags to fit more clothes in your backpack!

 Types of Travel Backpack

 Wheeled Backpacks


Backpacks with wheels are great for travellers that will be spending a lot of time at airports, allowing you to easy glide your heavy pack to check-in or unzip the straps and carry it on your back! Many models come with a telescopic aluminium towing handle, this makes it easier to pull along but when you hit rougher terrain, you may find it easier to carry the backpack on your back.

It is worth noting that the wheels and towing handle add more weight to the pack and can sometimes weigh up to 4.5kg, compared to the standard 2.5 to 3.5kg you would expect from a backpack without wheels. The presence of a towing handle will normally mean that the back system would not be adjustable, but would still feature padding for comfort.

Women Specific Backpacks

Female specific travel backpacks are tailored to provide a more comfortable fit for women, with more shaped and contoured straps as well as a shorter back system to suit the shorter female torso.

If you are particularly petite, you will find that a women’s travel pack would be your best option as it would provide a more comfortable fit compared to standard backpacks.

As well as a more contoured shaped and shorter back length, women’s rucksacks will often come with additional padding on the hip belt, this will help to keep you comfortable, even when carrying heavier loads.

Useful Travel Backpack Features

Other useful features to look out for include internal pockets for better organisation of your gear, these often include mesh laundry pockets for storing dirty items of clothing separately from other clothes and accessories. Another handy feature would be internal compression straps, these are commonly found on a number of travel packs and help keep your clothes and travel gear in place as well as maximising the space inside your bag’s main compartment.

In terms of external features to look out for, you’ll find that some packs allow you to clip your daypack to the main harness, so that you can wear it on your front – this is a great security feature and will help prevent thieves from sneakily opening your daypack when you’re not looking. Another great security feature available on many packs are interlocking security zips, some packs have standard zips without special housing for padlocks, but these can be locked too.

If you’re not exactly one to travel light, you may find a travel backpack with an expanding panel is a great solution to your packing woes! These panels allow you to unzip them to give your backpack more packing space – great if you’ve stocked up on trinkets and keepsakes from your trip!

Give your Backpack some TLC – Accessories for your Pack

Caring for your backpack is essential to making it last for the duration of your trip and there are a range of handy accessories that can help prolong your backpack’s lifespan, as well as improving it’s performance!

raincoverRain Covers – No backpack is 100% waterproof, even if the manufacturer states that it has a water resistant coating, that’s where protective rain covers come in. Rain covers come in a variety of sizes to fit a wide range of backpack sizes, right up to 100 litres in size. These covers offer waterproof protection when you’re caught out by the rain or snow and often come with high visibility logos to improve visibility in poor weather conditions. Rain covers are quick and easy to attach to your backpack and have an elasticated band to keep them in place.


Transit Covers –  Transit covers are an absolute must for protecting your backpack in transit, whether it’s for a flight, boat or bus journey. Transit covers fully enclose your backpack and prevent any damage to the materials or straps when in transit. These covers feature a handle for easy carrying and some come with handy additional features such as contact panels for filling out your information and lockable points for added security.

Dry Bags/Rucksack Liners – Dry bags and rucksack liners are the perfect way to ensure that the contents of your pack stay dry, regardless of the weather conditions that you face. Dry bags are made from durable and waterproof materials and feature roll top closures to keep water out. Rucksack liners are also made from waterproof materials such as polythene and can be popped inside your backpack or rucksack to create a protective waterproof layer.