Travel Backpacks: 17 Essential Features to Look For


travel backpack

I bought my first travel backpack after researching for about a month. And I still got it wrong! On the second attempt, I got most of the things right, but there was still something missing. I got it right on my third attempt. Since then, I have used many travel backpacks of various shapes and sizes. 

After decades of using travel backpacks, I realized that everyone has his or her own preferences. Rather than selecting the ‘wrong’ backpack and regretting later, it always helps to know beforehand what features you should look for in a travel backpack. I have compiled a list of 17 features that covers everything that you should be aware of before buying a travel backpack.

1. Size and Weight of the Backpack

Do not make this mistake. Many people have done this while choosing a travel backpack and suffered a lot during their travel. How? Either they were forced to check the backpack during air travel, or they were not able to pack everything they wanted to take with them. Again, some were not able to carry their backpack on their back at all even for 15 minutes.

All those people did the same mistake. They bought the wrong size.

Your one bag travel can be a success or failure depending on what size you choose.

The bigger the backpack, the heavier it will be when you fill it up. Too small, and you won’t be able to fit even the bare essentials. 

The first and foremost requirement of travelling with a backpack is that you should be a minimalist traveller. Just carry the essentials, nothing extra.

Apart from this, you just have to take care of the following while deciding on the size:

big backpack
How big is too big?
  • How much load you can carry on your back comfortably: This depends on your built, age, whether you have back problems or other ailments, etc.
  • Size and weight restrictions imposed by the airlines: Each airline has its own restrictions on luggage size and weight for both checked luggage and cabin luggage. Since travel backpacks are usually meant for carrying along with you during air travel, the overall dimensions become very important here.

For the first point, only you can be the judge and make an informed decision. For the second point, carryonbagsizes.com has compiled a quite comprehensive list.

To know more about the ideal size for a backpack meant for traveling also read: The Ideal Size of a Carry-On Backpack

2. Fabric of the Backpack

The fabric that the backpack is made up of is important as it provides durability as well as longevity. Backpacks usually get a lot of rough use. They get pulled on or off your back frequently, get thrown into the conveyor belts, squeezed into the overhead bins in planes, on the overhead compartment in buses.

A slight nick here and there by any sharp object or even from any other luggage can tear the material of your backpack. Do you want to be caught in the middle of the road with a torn backpack? Believe me, it is one of the worst situations you can be.

There are two things you need to know about while looking at the material of the backpack. The first is the thickness, usually measured in Denier. So 1000D is five times thicker than 200D. The other thing is the type of the material.

Nowadays, most backpacks are made of some variety of nylon. You will hear a lot of fancy names for the material used in backpacks. There is Ripstop Nylon, Ballistic Nylon, Cordura Nylon, and then there is Sailcloth.

Ripstop nylon is thin and lightweight. However, the fabric is woven in such a way that it stops rips from happening. So even if it gets torn at any place, the weave stops the tear from expanding.

Ballistic nylon has the maximum durability and good abrasion resistance but is much heavier. The ballistic weave is very tight and dense maximizing durability and tear-resistance.

Cordura nylon is something in-between Ripstop and Ballistic nylon in terms of weight and durability. It has better abrasion resistance than Ballistic and is probably the most popular material used in travel backpacks nowadays.

Ripstop nylon
RipStop Nylon
cordura nylon
Cordura Nylon

Sailcloth, as the name suggests is primarily used in ship’s sails. It is thin, light, durable, and the most water resistant of all the different types of fabrics discussed above. Sailcloth is less abrasion resistant compared to Ballistic or Cordura, and very few manufacturers use this material.

Ripstop nylon is usually good for smaller backpacks meant to carry a lighter load. Cordura usually provides a good balance between weight and durability. If you are going with a 40-litre sized travel backpack, I think any of the above materials apart from Ripstop will be a good option. Do remember that high durability comes with higher weight. 

3. Robust and Lockable Zippers

Some say the quality of a backpack can be gauged by the quality of zippers used. This is because zippers are the most common cause of failures in most cheap backpacks.

The largest compartment in a backpack should have a heavy-duty large gauge zipper. Make sure it is of good quality and opens and closes smoothly. You do not want this zipper to fail, leaving you stranded in the middle of the road.

Have you noticed that most backpacks nowadays have a curved design with less rectangular corners? Apart from aesthetics, one important reason is to prevent stress points on the zipper around those edges and corners. More pointy corners usually make the zipper teeth come off during opening or closing when the backpack is fully packed.

YKK is the most well-known zipper brand and almost all backpack manufacturers use YKK zippers.

Of course, there are other good brands too (like SBS), but if you are not sure just go with a travel backpack the uses YKK zippers. It is easy to find out, the YKK logo will be engraved on the zipper itself.

backpack YKK zippers
YKK zippers are the industry standard!

What about the inside zippers? 

The inside zippers in a backpack are usually small compared to the outside zippers. You do not need very heavy duty zippers here. However, good quality inside zippers will make sure that they last long without the need to fix or replace them due to wear and tear.

The other thing you need to look for is whether the outside zippers are lockable or not. This goes a long way in securing your travel backpack. Locked zippers will keep most opportunist thieves and pickpockets away.

4. Backpack Shoulder Straps

The main reason for using a travel backpack is the comfort of carrying the backpack with you everywhere. This makes the backpack shoulder straps one of the most important factors while choosing a backpack.

 If you plan to carry your backpack on your back while running to catch your flight or train, or simply walking around in pebbled streets while shopping or looking for your hotel, you need comfortable backpack straps. Believe me, you will be wearing your backpack a lot.

At a bare minimum, the shoulder straps should be well-padded and ergonomic. Apart from these, the straps should have:

Load Lifters

Many do not give much importance to load lifters attached to the backpack shoulder straps. But they make a significant difference while carrying a heavy load.  These are adjustable straps that connect the top of the shoulder straps to the  upper end of the backpack. You can tighten these straps to ‘lift’ off and adjust the weight of the backpack on your shoulders.

Sternum Strap

Also known as chest strap, this strap sits on your chest connecting the two shoulder straps. Adjusting the  level of this strap and cinching it provides additional stability. It also allows your arms to move more freely as the shoulder straps are held more closer together by the chest strap.

backpack shoulder straps
Padded shoulder straps
backpack load lifters
Load lifters
backpack sternum strap
Sternum strap

5. Padded Hip Belt

Your hip is stronger and can carry more weight than your back. And you can take advantage of this by having a backpack with well-padded hip belts. The weight should sit primarily on your hips with your shoulders acting as added support.

You can transfer 60% of the weight of the backpack to your hips with a proper hip belt. Just try it out once if you haven’t done so already. You will feel the difference.

The only requirement is that the hip belt should be wide and well padded so that it does not dig into your skin, and it should cinch down tightly around your hips.

backpack padded hip belts
Well-padded ergonomic hip belts will make the backpack feel lighter on your shoulders!

I learned the importance of hip belts in a hard way. My first backpack had a capacity of more than 40 litres without any hip belt. I almost broke my back carrying it around in airports and train stations. Every 10 minutes or so, I had to remove it off my back and put it on the ground to give my shoulders some relief from the pain.

I have long stopped using that backpack. Pity, it was one of the most well designed backpacks I have used. Only if it had good hip belts, I would still be using it today.

Then why do we still have travel backpacks in the market without any hip belts or very thin hip belts? I am not sure. Maybe those backpacks are not meant for carrying heavy loads. For backpacks of lower capacity, say around 20-25litres, it is not necessary. But something around 40 litres or more, it is one of the most important features to have in a travel backpack.

6. Front Loading or Clamshell Design

A backpack with front opening design is much easier to organise and pack. It also gives you much better access to everything packed inside when your backpack opens like a suitcase. This is in contrast to the top loading design which has a opening at the top of the backpack.

To be honest, top-loading backpacks usually have better built quality. As there is no zipper going around the entire length of the backpack, the chances of failure are minimized. That is the reason why all hiking backpacks are top loaders.

But when it comes to travel backpacks, convenience is of equal or more priority than robustness. Packing and unpacking a backpack quickly and easily, or looking for something inside your backpack while travelling in a bus or train is not very uncommon. 

front loading backpack
Backpack that opens like a suitcase!

These are almost impossible with a top-loading backpack. With a top loader, you will have to take out everything from the top one by one to get to something buried at the bottom of the pack. With a front loader, you can open the main zipper and lay the backpack open with everything inside in front of your view and easily accessible.

7. Internal Frame

An internal frame gives rigidity and stability to a backpack. With some sort of structure in place, the weight distribution while you are wearing the backpack is much better. It also helps  to keep the backpack sitting tight against your body.

Smaller backpacks do not need any internal frame. But travel backpacks are actually meant for carrying heavy loads. A frame and somewhat rigid structure will keep the centre of gravity of the load aligned to your body. It also keeps the content of the backpack more secure.

There are usually two types of internal frames found in travel backpacks. In some backpacks, you will see a hard plastic sheet built into the back of the bag. In more sophisticated backpacks, you will see a frame, or poles, attached to the inside layer of the fabric.

The frames are usually made of metal or hard plastic. The metal frame can be contoured to give a more ergonomic structure to the backpack.

backpack internal frame
Internal frame hidden under the material!

It is always better to have a backpack with an internal frame than without one, especially if you are planning to carry a considerable load on your back. While buying a backpack, it is not difficult to know whether it has an internal frame by inspecting the back of the backpack from the inside and also the corners and edges carefully. 

8. Ergonomic and well-ventilated Back Panel

If you plan to carry your backpack on your back for long durations, the back panel should have an ergonomic design and should be well ventilated. A padded contoured back does two things:

  • Distributes the weight more evenly on your back
  • Facilitates airflow to prevent your back from sweating

After hip belts, load lifters, and internal frame, an ergonomic back panel is the most important factor for even weight distribution.

A back panel made of ventilated foam and breathable material creates small air pockets between the pack and your back. This helps in airflow and keeps your back cool.

backpack ergonomic and padded back-panel
Padded back panel

This may not seem very important initially. But as you carry your backpack on your back for more than 20 minutes, it becomes more and more obvious.

9. Organization

There are two ways to organize the contents of a backpack effectively. One is to use packing cubes, and the other if the backpack itself has multiple compartments.

I became aware of the importance of proper organisation only after my first trip. A well organised backpack can pack more in less space, is easier to pack and unpack, and can keep important items safe inside the backpack, as well as easily accessible.

For example, if you always carry a laptop with you, make sure that your backpack has a dedicated laptop compartment. A well-padded laptop compartment can keep a laptop safe even if you accidentally drop the backpack. 

A laptop being a heavy object, it is preferable to have the laptop compartment against the back of the laptop, so that the weight is along the centre of gravity of your body. A laptop compartment on the front of the back may pull the backpack outwards making it feel more heavy.

backpack laptop compartment
A separate laptop compartment to keep your laptop secure!

Some backpacks even have separate compartments for a tablet, a Kindle, and other electronic accessories.

A travel organiser compartment integrated into the backpack can keep smaller items like pens, passport, credit cards, and other travel documents organised and easily accessible.

It is always better to have separate pockets for water bottles outside the backpack. If you keep the water bottle inside, it runs the risk of spilling the water and damaging the contents of your backpack.

The main compartment of the backpack should be large enough to fit bigger items, like shoes. To further aid compartmentalization, You can use packing cubes to organise and separate your items inside the bigger main compartment.

A large main compartment will be able to hold several packing cubes of different shapes and sizes.

organizing with packing cubes
Organising with packing cubes!

In fact, a front-loading backpack with several compartments inbuilt, along with a set of packing cubes of different sizes can give you the best options for organisation. Each and every item in your backpack can be packed neatly and securely in its proper designated place. Packing or unpacking the backpack or accessing something from the backpack can’t get easier than this.

10. External Compression Straps

There are two types of compression straps usually found in travel backpacks, internal and external. Internal compression straps are meant to compression down your clothes and items and keep them from moving around inside the backpack. This is similar to what you see in many suitcases.

The external compression straps that you see outside the backpack, however, have two significant uses:

Reduce the Size of the Backpack

You can use these straps to cinch down your backpack and reduce its size considerably. This is pretty effective when your backpack is not full. Even a backpack when packed full can me made to look smaller by cinching it down tightly with external compression straps.

This comes in handy especially when you want to take a considerably large backpack as a cabin luggage during air travel. The airport staff might just allow you to do so since the backpack will look much smaller than it actually is.

Use as Lash Points

The external compression straps can be used as lash points to attach gears to the outside of the backpack. This usage is more common in hiking and trekking backpacks where people attach or hang shoes, ski sticks, sleeping bags and all sorts items to be carried externally with the backpack.

You can use the same idea with a travel backpack by attaching a wet towel, raincoat, or jacket to the external straps. This will allow your raincoat or jacket to be dried in the sun while keeping it separate from your other items, and at the same time allowing you easy access whenever you need it again.

backpack external compression straps
Cinch down with the external compression straps!

11. Expansion Capability

For one bag travel, the expansion capability of a travel backpack is a very useful feature. During your travel in new destinations, you are bound to buy a few things here and there along the way. Though traveling with a backpack is synonymous with minimalist travel, for some of us, it is difficult to stay extremely minimalist throughout the journey.

So how do you fit in all your new items in your one and only backpack which is already full?

There are two ways you can handle this situation. One is to buy another small bag where you can fit in all these extra items. However, this will inevitably defeat the idea of one bag travel. You may also be forced to check in one of your bags during your return journey. A better option is to have a backpack with expansion capability.

Nowadays, many backpacks come with an expansion zipper. This expansion capability can increase the volume of the backpack by 10-20%. This should be enough to pack all the extra shopping you did during your travel.

However, while starting your journey, make sure not to use this expansion capability and pack the backpack without expanding it. 

backpack expansion zipper
The expansion zipper when opened increases the capacity of the backpack considerably!

Expansion capability and external compression straps (discussed before) are two features that can help you adjust the size and volume of your backpack as per your requirement to a great extent.

12. Stowable Straps

The backpack shoulder straps and hip belts are some of the most important features of any travel backpack. But these are also the most prone to damage by conveyor belts, other luggage, or simply by mishandling by the airport stuff. Straps, belts, and buckles if left hanging outside the bag might get caught in something and just snap off.

Solution? Just put them away so that they are out of the way and out of sight. Most travel backpacks usually have this feature. You can either tuck the shoulder straps and hip belt inside a pocket at the back of the backpack, or cover the entire harness system with a zippered flap

Once the straps are tucked away, the backpack can be carried around like a suitcase. This is extremely helpful while boarding a flight with your travel backpack as cabin luggage.

It is easier to move through the narrow aisles inside a plane full of people with a bag in hand, rather than attached to your back. In this suitcase mode with no straps hanging outside, It is also easier to put the backpack in the overhead bin or under the seat.

backpack stowable shoulder straps
Backpack straps hidden behind a flap

You should not check in your travel backpack during air travel to protect it from mishandling by the airport staff. However, in case your backpack is too big to be carried along as cabin luggage and you have no option but to check in your backpack, make sure to tuck in all the external straps.

But what if your backpack do not have this feature? 

In that case you can cover your backpack with a rain cover or a large plastic bag before check in. This will protect the backpack straps and also save the backpack from wear and tear. It is easier to replace a damaged rain cover than to fix a damaged backpack.

13. Comfortable Grab Handles

Backpacks are meant to be carried on your back. But there are occasions when you may have to carry it like a suitcase. This is especially useful during transit when you are just transferring your backpack quickly from one place to another.

For short distances, you may not like to put on your backpack and just want to carry it with the grab handles. These also come in handy when collecting the backpack from conveyor belts, baggage carousels, or from the luggage compartments and overhead bins in flights, trains and buses.

Most backpacks will have one or more grab handles. Make sure that the backpack has at least two grab handles so that it is easier to grab it from multiple directions and also easier to lift it to be put in the overhead bins.

The handles should also be well padded and comfortable to hold on to. I recently found that thin grab handles with less padding are extremely uncomfortable to use as the handle just digs into the palm of the hand. The backpack also appears a lot heavier if the grab handle is not padded well enough.

padded grab handle of backpack
Well placed and adequately padded grab handle makes the backpack feel lighter than it usually is!

If you happen to have a backpack with thinly padded grab handles, you may try to put on some extra padding on the handles. I recently tried this on one of my backpacks by attaching a thick sponge with velcro straps to the grab handles. Now they feel a lot more comfortable.

14. Water Resistance

It is difficult to make a waterproof backpack, especially when it has a lot of pockets and zippers. To be honest, no travel backpack is fully waterproof. But there are some that are extremely water-resistant.

How do manufacturers make water resistant backpacks? They do so by taking care of two things, the fabric of the backpack, and the zippers.

Some fabrics (like sailcloth) are inherently waterproof. For others, they apply a water resistant coating. Zippers have big holes in them that let water in. A splash guard or water resistant fabric is usually used to cover the zippers. Again, some manufacturers use water resistant zippers.

If you anticipate to encounter a lot of rainy days, then a water resistant travel backpack would be a good choice. You can safely walk in the rain with a backpack that is extremely water resistant.

I have realized that having a backpack rain cover with me gives me more peace of mind than a water-resistant backpack. I have walked for hours in a heavy downpour with a travel backpack covered with a rain cover. It kept everything inside the backpack dry.

Backpack rain covers are cheap. Just make sure that you get the proper size so that it actually covers the entire backpack. Some rain covers can be clipped on the inside so that they do not get blown off by strong winds. 

Backpack raincover
A rain cover provides better protection than water resistant fabrics!

15. Travel Backpack Security

I firmly believe that the security of your travel backpack depends a lot on you. If you can provide just the minimum deterrence to thieves and pickpockets, then they will ignore your backpack and go after the next easy target.

The best way to secure your backpack is to keep it always with you. Apart from that, keeping your backpack zippers locked is probably the biggest deterrence to any opportunist thief.

There are many other ways of protecting your backpack, like locking it down with a steel cable during travel or keeping it in the locker in hotels. 

lockable zippers
Always keep the zippers locked while traveling!

If you are paranoid about security, then you can, of course, get one of those so-called anti-theft backpacks. Packsafe is a well-known brand in this category.

These kind of travel backpacks have a lot of security features built-in. However, these are costly and also much heavier than normal backpacks.

I have found that by following some basic security guidelines, you can make your travel backpack as secure as it can be.

16. Backpack Aesthetics

Travel backpacks come in many shapes and colors. Some are boxy and almost looks like a suitcase, where some have rounded corners. Some look crumpled on your back unless they are packed full. Again some backpacks maintain their shape and structure even when half-full.

Most of us want to look a certain way while carrying a backpack and are conscious of how we are perceived. The aesthetics of the backpack naturally plays a big role in that. The good thing is that there are a lot of options available in the market nowadays.

So if you want a professional look and would like to carry your backpack like a suitcase frequently, then go for one with a neutral color that has good grab handles and the backpack straps are stowable. Again, if you would like to travel the wilderness with your backpack, you might like bright colors.

17. Backpack Warranty

Good travel backpacks are costly, so make sure that it is accompanied with a good warranty.  Almost all well-known brands provide good warranties on their backpacks. This is because they already know that their backpacks are built to last.

In fact, by looking at the warranty, you can have a fair idea of how good the built quality of the backpack is.

Some companies provide lifetime limited warranties on their backpacks against any defect or damage. Some will repair any kind of wear and tear on your backpack free of charge or replace it altogether within the warranty period. I would happily spend a little more on a backpack if it has an awesome warranty.

Wrapping Up

That’s it! I have covered almost everything that you may need to know when hunting for a travel backpack. However, keep in mind that the best travel backpack for everyone doesn’t exist. But the best travel backpack for you certainly does. A travel backpack might not tick all the criteria mentioned above, but you can surely find one that has all the features that are important to you.

One piece of advice that has worked for many while selecting a travel backpack is to get some hands-on experience with it. So once you have chosen one, try filling it up, putting it on, and walking around for some time. This will give you a fair idea about how comfortable you will be carrying it on your back during your travel.

I hope that you get the backpack of your dreams that will accompany you in many of your future journeys. Always remember that the best backpack is not the one that has the most features, but it is the one that integrates seamlessly into your traveling lifestyle.

Happy traveling!

Deb

Deb is passionate about pocket tools, bags, and accessories, especially any type of everyday-use gear (or not so everyday-use gear) that makes life efficient, comfortable and more enjoyable.

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