Backpack Features Checklist:
What to Look For, What to Avoid

Not really sure what to look for in a new travel backpack?

This handy checklist gives you a point-by-point overview of pretty much everything you need to know.

Just use the green 'Print Friendly' button towards the bottom of the page to print it out and take it shopping!


7 Key Features to a Perfect Pack

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    Proper Fit

    Above all else, you need to make sure your backpack:

    • fits well
    • rests snugly on your shoulders
    • sits comfortably on your back
    • buckles firmly around your hips

    This will depend partly on your height,
    build and posture, but it's knowing your torso length that is the most crucial factor when fitting a pack.

    Proper fit is so important that I've put together a special step-by-step guide
    to help you get it right.

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    Padding and Support

    Without proper padding and support in all the right places, the weight of your pack will put a lot of strain on your neck, shoulders and back. Flimsy straps and poorly-constructed belts can also pinch, chafe and bruise you.

    You don't want to be backpacking around the world in constant pain, so look for soft padding but firm support in these three areas:

    Shoulder Straps

    Shoulder straps need to be very well padded from top to bottom, especially where they wrap around the tops of your shoulders.

    Dual-density foam shoulder straps are the ones to get. They're made with softer foam on the underside and stiffer foam on the topside.

    Contoured shoulder straps are also worth looking at, especially if you're a woman. These straps are slightly s-shaped to fit the natural curves of your body and provide more comfortable support than the more common straight shoulder straps.

    Hip Belt (or Waist Belt)

    You'll be carrying almost all the weight of your pack on your hips most of the time, so your hip belt needs to be substantially cushioned with thick padding.

    As with shoulder straps, hip belts made of dual-density foam offer the best support and comfort.

    Most hip belts attach like wings to either side of the base of a backpack. But if you have the choice, a hip belt that goes all the way around the pack under the lumbar pad is a better option. It's generally more durable and can be angled to fit the shape of your body more easily.

    Lumbar Pad

    A lumbar pad sits right against the inward curve of your lower back and is usually part of the ventilation system on a backpack.

    The pad absorbs shock, protects your back from being jabbed by hard items inside your bag and gives extra support to your back muscles if you're carrying a heavy load.

    Make sure the lumbar pad is padded thickly enough and positioned in the right place to ease pressure off the base of your spine.

Here's where you'll find more detailed info on straps, belts and buckles. And if you're not sure where all these things are on a pack, there's even a labelled diagram there that shows you.

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    Quality Fabrics

    Your backpack should be made of densely-woven, heavy-duty (but not heavy) coated nylon fabric such as Cordura or Kodra. Ripstop nylon, which has a slightly raised checked pattern woven into the fabric, also offers excellent strength and durability.


backpack cordura ripstop fabric

    Don't be too quick to dismiss a lightweight fabric as that doesn't necessarily mean it's a cheap fabric. There are lots of bags out there now designed specifically for ultralight travel.

    With a top-end pack you should also be getting a well-padded ventilation system on the back panel, and probably even on the shoulder straps and hip belt. This is usually a combination of high-tech foam and mesh fabric that breathes to help keep you from sweating.

    You'll be thankful for it!

    No doubt you'll be plunking your pack down a lot on sand, gravel, soil, dirt, water, mud, grease and other fun things, so check that it's properly reinforced with a sturdy fabric at the bottom as well.

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    Strong Seams

    Seams are only second to zippers when it comes to wear and tear on your backpack, so they're one of the most important details to check.

    The last thing you need is for a seam to split just as you're running for that border ferry you've been hanging around all week for (good thing I had some safety pins)!

    Make sure that all the main seams are tightly and securely double-stitched, especially around the zippers, straps, handles, attachments and at other major stress points.

    Also, read the manufacturer's label to see that they've been sealed with waterproofing.

    Inside, the seams should be neatly finished. This means that the raw edges have been bound in some way (usually sewn down or covered in fabric) to stop them from fraying and falling apart.

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    Tough Zippers

    One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to buy a backpack with an inferior zipper.

    Zippers take a lot of abuse on the road so they need to be top quality. By far the best ones around are made by YKK. You'll know a YKK zip when you see one because it'll say YKK on the zipper pull. Doesn't get much easier!

    If possible, the main compartment of your pack should open and close with a hefty chain zipper. This is the type of zipper with the individual interlocking teeth. Coil zips (the ones that continously loop around) are better used on smaller, less important pockets because they separate and damage easier.

    That said, you're more likely to find large coil zips on packs because they run smoother and are more flexible.


backpack coil zipper chain zipper

    Look for a backpack with double zippers. You know, that open up at opposite ends and come together in the middle. They're your best insurance against zipper malfunctions. If one of the zips breaks, you just slide it to the end of the pack and continue to use the other zipper by itself.

    You should be able to lock together every zipper on every external compartment on your pack, so check that all the zipper pulls have large enough holes in them to slip a small combination lock through.

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    Extra Features

    When you're living out of a rucksack, it's the small things that make the big differences.

    Ideally, your backpack should have a separate bottom compartment and enough various external pockets to organise your gear. Some packs also have optional add-on pockets that you can buy individually. Great for expanding storage space on the road!

    At some point you might need to secure your bag to a luggage rack or attach gear to the outside of it. Cords, clasps, loops, rings and hooks come in very handy for this. Make sure they're solid and firmly attached.

    Compression straps, sometimes with compression wings, usually run around the sides of a backpack and are a real must-have. Pull them tight and they instantly make your pack more compact, stop your gear from bouncing around inside if there's any empty space left, and help balance a heavy load.

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    Colour and Design

    Anything that screams 'TOURIST WITH MONEY!' is a no-no.

    Try to choose a nondescript bag that doesn't look too cutting-edge or expensive, and stay away from any funky designs or bright colours that will make you stand out too much.

    Oh, and remember that dark colours will also help cover up the dirt stains you accumulate along the way!winking smiley

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