How to choose a backpack

Last updated on January 12, 2024

How to choose a backpack? Finding the right backpack is a challenge. If, like us, you’re going to be travelling with it for years, it needs to be comfortable. You’ll be thankful for it as you traipse around looking for accommodation in the pouring rain, or you trek up mountains.

Other things you need to think about are: if it locks, how it opens, how heavy it is and what extras it comes with. I ideally wanted one with a side zip for easy access, and one that could be locked. But most importantly, I wanted it to be comfortable and this is where my problems arose.

I wrote this several years ago and while the tips and recommendations are still relevant, for some reviews of all the current backpacks, I recommend having a look at this comprehensive backpack guide by Traveling Mel.

Our tips for how to choose a backpack

I thought I’d found the ideal backpack online, but when I went to try it on, it didn’t fit. I went to lots more shops and talked to lots of people, but kept coming up against problems with the bag – the gap between the waist and shoulder straps was too big or small, the straps dug into my neck or the bag was too tall and knocked against my head.

Try before you buy

Everyone is a different shape so it’s really important to test your bag, ideally with weight in it (most backpack shops have sandbags you can use). Sometimes the problems I mentioned can be remedied by changing the settings of your bag. There are generally three ways to adjust a bag: you can tighten the waist strap and shoulder straps; and bring the bag closer to your body with the top shoulder straps. I was told that the most important thing is to have the waist strap sit on your hips (the part of your hip that juts out the most should be in the middle of the strap), and for there to be no gap between the shoulder strap and your shoulder. Really, I think the most important thing is to have someone with you who knows what they a talking about, and that’s why I’d recommend going to a shop rather than buying online.

Eventually I found the perfect fit – the Osprey Kestrel 38 for women. The shop assistant and I sighed as though I’d found the perfect bridal gown and I bought it on the spot.

With this bag, I have had to compromise on two fronts: it doesn’t lock as it’s a drawstring, and you have to pack it from the top. This is okay as Steve’s bag does lock so I can put my valuables in there when necessary. I wanted a side zip as I thought that using a top loading bag would be messy. This has been remedied by my new love – packing cubes – which keep everything nicely ordered.

Know your priorities

I’m no diehard hiker so I didn’t pay much attention to the extras the bag provides but it does have some intriguing little hooks that I believe are for walking sticks. You can also add a water pack to it, and one thing I will make use of is the built-in rain cover.

We’ve only been gone three weeks but so far my bag has been brilliant. It’s comfortable, it’s light and I love it. If I could lock it, it’d be perfect by itself, and combined with Steve’s it is. I haven’t yet tried taking it as hand luggage on a plane but, in theory, I should be allowed so long as its not packed to the brim, which I think would make it too tall. This wasn’t a major consideration for me as we don’t fly too much and I don’t mind a little wait. I should also be able to take it on buses as it’s small enough to fit under a seat/ by my feet. I put my valuables in Steve’s small locked back in transit, just to be on the safe side. This bag might not be ideal for someone who is travelling alone with valuables. To find out what I can fit inside the bag, take a look at our how to pack a backpack for all seasons post.

Steve’s bag

Steve bought his bag last year so didn’t face the conundrum of how to choose a backpack this time round. His is also an Osprey Kestrel but has an extra 20 litres – the Osprey Kestrel 58 Backpack
He doesn’t normally pack it to the brim so it can pack down to a similar size to mine. He also, however, has a special bag for his camera equipment. This is how he chose it.


I’m travelling with a relatively silly amount of camera equipment for this kind of trip – my camera bag is actually heavier than my bag with everything else in it, which is slightly insane. I’m also travelling with a 17″ laptop, so I wanted a bag that could accommodate lots of camera equipment and a laptop, and be able to keep everything separate and organised. Initially, owing to the value of everything I’m taking, I considered some kind of Pacsafe bag with an integrated anti-thief mesh woven into the lining of the bag, but unfortunately none of them were appropriate. I settled on the ThinkTank Shapeshifter for two reasons: 1. the director of photography on my film recommended it (it’s what he uses, and he gave me a delightful tour of his bag), and 2. it’s built to do exactly what I want. It’s strong, has so many separate pockets I still keep discovering them (great for memory cards, batteries etc.), and it has separate pouch for my laptop. It’s perfect. I bloody love it.

Note: the Amazon links on this page are affiliate links so if you buy the product from Amazon we will get a tiny percentage. Other links are not.

5 thoughts on “How to choose a backpack”

  1. Interesting and very informative blog. Being honest I didn’t know the importance of backpacking before I read your blog. Thanks for letting us know about this.


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