Packs are something that you carry around town, through the wilderness, stow in several spots on a plane and allow you to arrive wherever you are headed with more than just the clothes on your back. As always, the features that will matter the most to you will depend on what you’re using it for.
GENERAL RULES AND GUIDELINES
Packs aren’t magical and there are always tradeoffs that you have to make. One is weight vs durability. Most of the very lightweight bags are trading grams for how much abuse the bag can take, and in some instances how well it can carry the weight.
If you’re backpacking through the wilderness or using it as a running bag, that might be a good trade to make. If everything else you’re carrying is also lightweight, it makes sense to carry a lightweight bag. If you’re carrying a heavy tent, stove, fuel, etc, you might prefer something with a beefier suspension system.
How can you tell if a bag is durable? Packs are likely made of nylon, and the weight of the fabric is measured in denier: the bigger the number, the more durable it is.
About 40-70 denier is used in very light bags and will save you more than a few grams, but don’t push the wear factor of these bags. Bags with deniers over 300 are good for moderate abrasion and the vast majority of uses people put them through. Over 600 is very tough and suitable for alpine pursuits and high-wear situations; 1,000 denier is what’s commonly referred to as “bomb-proof”.
A very common and effective way to increase the durability of a bag is to put a thicker denier in high wear areas (like the bottom of the bag). Wearing out most parts of a bag is tough to do, except in extreme situations… or in the hands of certain baggage handlers.
Zippers allow you access to many different parts of the bag but they’re the area most likely to fail. If you’re doing an alpine pursuit, you might consider a top-loading bag to increase its lifespan. Top-loading bags usually have a floating lid and collar; everything in the main compartment of the bag has to go in and out through the top of the bag.
Most travelling packs will likely have either a lot of zippers or at least one big zipper. No surprise, but big burly zippers will usually last longer than smaller ones. Try not to pack your bags so that there is a lot of pressure being put on one or two sections of the zipper over and over again. The top corners of the bag are usually the parts to be the most concerned about.
WHICH BAG TYPE IS FOR YOU?
It’s no surprise that the type of bag to choose will differ depending on how you intend to use it. There are three basic types of bags to consider; none are perfect for all situations.
Classic camping-oriented backpack
They are designed to carry heavier items such as food, water, tents, stoves and so on, so they typically carry weight well. Their suspension system usually has a stiffer hip belt and/or has better quality foam in the hip belt and shoulder straps. They are also usually quite durable due to the materials used, the streamline design and the lack of zippers.
The downsides are that they usually load from the top, making it tougher to access items at the bottom of your bag (even with side access zippers).
In addition, the suspension system can be messy, so you’ll have to put it in another bag when checking the pack in on a plane. This bag is best for outdoor pursuits if you value comfort over daily convenience, and is usually the best option if you want to use the same bag for both city travel and wilderness pursuits.
Carry-on travel backpack
The softer material offers great flexibility and combats strict airline carry-on rules compared to a rolling luggage – they are also typically much lighter (the wheels and frames of a rolling luggage add up in weight).
They may also come equipped with a detachable daypack for day trips, and have an extra handle or two.
The downside is that they don’t carry weight well so they’re not for wilderness pursuits, and you still might get a little sweaty with them on your back regardless of the ventilation.
The wheels make them easy to transport on smooth surfaces, but can become a burden when you’re faced with stairs, dirt roads, mud or cobblestone streets with large gaps.
Some packs combine backpacks with wheels, but these often compromise on comfort.