A Tale of Two Backpacks

Welcome to our backpack resource. It’s safe to assume that you’re reading this post for one of a few select reasons: In any case, I’m going to outline what Steph and I were looking for in a pack, give a brief(ish) rundown of our trip down the travel gear rabbit hole and then move into...

Welcome to our backpack resource. It’s safe to assume that you’re reading this post for one of a few select reasons:

  1. You are going on some sort of trip and want advice on what kind of backpack to buy.
  2. You have your own ideas about what is right and wrong in the world of backpacks, and you want to see if our advice is good, or if we seem crazy.
  3. You have some sort of backpack advice fetish, which we won’t go into. You’re welcome.

In any case, I’m going to outline what Steph and I were looking for in a pack, give a brief(ish) rundown of our trip down the travel gear rabbit hole and then move into the actual advice. So, if you’re the type who thinks exposition is for suckers, skip to the actual advice and ignore my forthcoming blather.

Super boring (?) exposition part:

Tony’s first bag, the Deuter Actite 40+10.

Steph and I have been thinking about and planning our trip for a while now – it’s been about three years or so in the making. As we talked more about what we wanted to do, we dared to dream big and our itinerary kept ballooning, encompassing more and more countries as we explored the real potential of being at loose ends indefinitely. Turns out the world is a big place. We went from a six-week tramp through Europe to our now 500+ day odyssey and all along the way considered just how much crap we wanted to lug along.

Like most people (and the best boy scouts), our initial plans were to be overprepared, and consequently, overpacked. At first we imagined that 60-65 liters would be a good size for a trip of the nature we were considering. After all, if you’re living out of a bag on your back, you’d best make sure you have what you need. So, off we toddled to our local REI to get a sense for how big a 65 liter bag really is, and to see what the implications of carrying our lives on our backs would be. Fortunately, our better judgment intact, we used this excursion solely as a fact-finding mission and didn’t buy a bag on this trip. Really, it was mostly due to the fact that we had no hard departure date and were just dealing with a case of pack-fever. After wearing a few packs, filling them with weights and walking around trying to look both capable and casual at the same time, we decided to table the bag decision for a bit.

Fast forward a year or so. Hundreds of hours trolling other travel blogs later, we find ourselves at REI once more.

Steph’s first bag, the Osprey Ace 48.

After reading this post over at Globetrooper, the heavens parted and we knew one thing for sure: a 65L bag seemed absurdly large for our purposes. This may shock some of you over-packers (or over-packers in denial), but 65 liters is A LOT of bag. It’s also decidedly carry-on unfriendly. We’d spent months whittling down our potential packing list, and trying to be very realistic about what we would really need on an extended trip and now, finally, staring down the barrel (as it were) of a 65L bag felt like looking into an abyss of potentially excess space and guaranteed back pain. We wanted something we could carry on. We wanted something that would weigh less than 20 pounds. Something comfortable, that would breathe and do that magical weight transfer to your hips thing. With these essentials in mind, we bought two hard-core, top-loading, technical trekking bags. Steph got an Osprey and I got a Deuter. And we were thrilled! The bags were amazingly comfortable, stylish, and small (mine was 40+10L and hers was 48L). After taking one of the first big steps down the path of future travel, we left happy and euphoric.

Naturally, this lasted about a week. Never content to leave well enough alone, Steph defaulted into researcher mode and started raising some very valid points, including one crucial thing we had overlooked: prior to our shopping spree, Steph had long been an advocate for a panel-loading bag, or at the least a bag with more than just top access. The reasons for this were two-fold: 1) top-loading bags are kind of a pain, since anytime you want to get something at the bottom, you have to take EVERYTHING out in order to extract your toothbrush or whatever it is you thought wasn’t essential and foolishly placed down there; and 2) top-loading bags are largely impossible to lock. Our current bags featured zippers that couldn’t be locked and there was no realistic way to keep anyone out of the top portion of the bag. Since we intend to avail ourselves of a variety of boarding options on this trip, our bags won’t always be locked up nice and secure in a private room. Intuitively we knew that this must not be such a huge issue, since legions of people travel the globe with top-loading bags and manage not to have everything they own stolen by everyone around them. While we like to believe in the good intentions of our fellow man, there were enough stories of people’s bags being ransacked (not just in hostel dorms, but on overnight trains or buses) to make us wonder if a simple luggage lock might just be enough to spare us some grief.

Tony’s second Deuter pack. So Close.

You might be asking at this point, why had we abandoned panel-loading bags on our initial search? This is an easy question to answer: it’s because there just aren’t very many bags to pick from in the panel category. No one seems to make them, and if they do they don’t make many. Beyond that, hardly any panel-loaders are smaller than 60L. Never ones to back down from a challenge the hunt was on: try to find new panel-loading packs that were under 50L and also happened to be as comfy as the ones we had already purchased!

THE pack. The one. Really. Probably.

Deuter makes a VERY comfy pack, so I wanted to stick with them if I could. I wound up finding one on REI.com that was a 50L panel-loader, featuring lockable zippers, zip-away straps, the whole nine, so to speak. Steph picked up the REI brand Vagabond 40, which seemed to tick all the boxes. We assembled our things, packed them into our bags and compared notes. Steph was loath to get rid of her Osprey, but the REI pack was too good to deny; it just worked too well. It met carry-on specs, was comfy, had a little whistle built into the sternum strap, and it had a built-in rain cover that doubled as a duffel bag. I liked the Deuter, but it seemed big, especially compared to the REI pack. On a whim, I tried on Steph’s REI pack, but doubted it could possibly fit me as well as it did her. Somehow (and we still don’t really understand how, but we are attributing it to magic) the bag defied physics and fit us both correctly. How this is possible is a mystery, since I am over a foot taller than Steph and am essentially all torso. Off we went to REI once more (I think the staff there now recognize us on sight), returned two Deuters and an Osprey, and bought REI Vagabond number two.

In the end, after buying five bags and returning three of them, we decided that the REI Vagabond is the bag for us. Both of us. We’ll use colored luggage locks to keep them straight (anyone who knows Steph knows her locks are pink) and enjoy our small, capable, carry-on friendly bags all around the world. Of course, we’ll keep you up to date with some regular check-ins that deal with how our bags and other gear are holding up to the challenge of constant travel, but for now, it would seem we are satisfied.

If you’re looking for the actual advice, click here.

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22 comments Leave a comment

  1. I just bought a leather backpack because of an old injury flareup, and I needed to stop using a purse. These are very different backpacks than the one I chose, but I did a lot of shopping around and saw some of the packs in this post. It’s good to know that you guys thought this over and didn’t just shop willy-nilly 🙂

    May. 8 2012 @ 2:44 pm
    1. zibilee author

      Yeah, it seems like we never do anything halfway. Plus, I have always had a thing for a good backpack, so this was an enjoyable process. Just wait until we get to the posts about gear and packing… Oh my goodness.

      May. 8 2012 @ 4:24 pm
  2. Great post! I’m actually maybe here for #3…I have a thing for bags. While I’ve never backpacked, I am extremely particular about travel and camera bags. In fact, I’d love to have enough money to do a startup for camera bags. They’re either hideously ugly, $$$$$$$, or ineffective. I bought several and returned them and still haven’t found one I love.

    Gear is so important. Glad you found a great bag.

    May. 8 2012 @ 4:17 pm
    1. jenn aka the picky girl author

      Yeah, I am a #3 as well… In regards to your camera bag woes… I think I found a good one. We’ll deal with it when we talk about our daypacks, but it really fills the bill in regards to what I was looking for in a camera bag. I am pretty excited for its travel potential, and it really takes care of my gear. Plus it has a built-in rain fly… Here I go, getting excited, jumping the gun. You’ll just have to wait! But, if you want a sneak peak, it’s the black Lowe Pro bag in the middle at the top of our advice post here: https://www.20yearshence.com/how-to-choose-a-bag/

      May. 8 2012 @ 4:28 pm
  3. This is such an informative post, love all the research and trying-out you two did! I have a top loading 45+10L backpack that’s trekked through Peru, Honduras and Japan with me, and I’ll tell you what – saving $80 or so by buying a backpack at Canadian Tire was the worst idea ever! It doesn’t fit totally right and you hit the two major weaknesses – I can’t lock the top and I am a perpetual “shove all my crap into my backpack quickly and oh no, my toothbrush is on the bottom now” person, so this type of backpack doesn’t really fit my needs. I am going to look into the Vagabond bag you guys got, looks amazing!

    May. 8 2012 @ 5:06 pm
    1. EM author

      Oh Canadian Tire. Being married to a Canadian, I can actually say that I know what that even is, and I can only imagine what a backpack from that place would look like. I have to say, the Vagabond is kind of in a class all by itself, and I think we may need to do a review specific to that bag soon, for anyone who is curious. It still amazes me how few bags of that type there are out there, considering how nice they are to travel with.

      May. 8 2012 @ 9:28 pm
      1. Tony

        I do love Canadian Tire (it’s my patriotic duty to), but it is not the best place to buy a backpack like that. I recently got a MEC membership so I am going to check theirs out too, I think they have a lot of panel backpacks, but it’s a really expensive store. However if it’s going to be on your back all the time for months and months, it’s definitely worth it. Looking forward to seeing more about the Vagabond and how it’s working out for you guys!

        May. 9 2012 @ 5:43 pm
        1. EM author

          We liked the looks of the supercontinental (or something like that). We linked to it in our “How to chose a bag” post. It seems like a strong candidate. If you get to it before us, let us know what you think. We’ll certainly keep everyone posted on our thoughts regarding the pack.

          May. 9 2012 @ 5:54 pm
  4. I really agree with you on the size. I bought my first backpack for a long-term volunteering trip, and as I needed to take quite a lot of work clothes with me I bought a 65l backpack. Before I started my placement I did a bit of traveling though and 65l is really heavy and just spoils your travels. I could hardly lift the pack. For long-term traveling you really don’t want to take more than 50 l I think. I will check out your recommended panel loader. Thanks for the post, it was really useful!

    May. 10 2012 @ 8:57 pm
    1. TammyOnTheMove author

      You’re welcome, and glad to hear we got something right. I hope our recommended bag works for you!

      May. 14 2012 @ 1:00 pm
  5. Great Post! I just got my bag as well – and Osprey 45+10 and I’m hoping it works out… After a 65L trip, I think carry-on only is going to be a dream…
    Looking forward to hearing about Japan!

    May. 14 2012 @ 11:07 am
    1. Dana - Our Wanderlust author

      We are super excited about Japan, though it still seems so far away (and so soon), it will be weird once we start living it. I hope your Osprey works out, I know my wife likes them a lot! I have travelled a lot domestically, and I will not check a bag for any reason. I can’t imagine trying to navigate customs, language barriers and international carrier rules all while dealing with checked luggage.

      May. 14 2012 @ 1:03 pm
  6. I’m obsessed with bags! I have way too many backpacks. I definitely like the panel loading ones better than top loading, and I have a 40L from REI that’s panel loading, which is what I used for my recent RTW. You definitely don’t ever need as much as you think you will. You can wear the same clothes several times before doing laundry, but don’t skimp on the amount of underwear you bring. I think I had 12 pairs and it worked out pretty well so I didn’t have to do laundry too often. Good luck with your trip planning (um…don’t plan too much) and have fun packing!

    May. 14 2012 @ 3:40 pm
    1. Ali

      When I went backpacking around Europe between undergrad and grad school, I insisted on using a panel loader, which I definitely don’t regret. What I do regret, is that my bag was something like 65 L, which was just WAY to big in the long-run, I think. I didn’t know any better, but I don’t really have fond memories of that bag, comfort wise, so I think my back will greatly appreciate that I’m lightening my load this time!

      May. 20 2012 @ 12:18 pm
  7. Great post! It brings back fantastic memories of buying backpacks for our RTW in 2004. I hope you have a wonderful time on your travels. I look forward to following your updates.

    May. 15 2012 @ 4:55 am
    1. Spencer

      Every time we go to REI, we still stop by the pack section to make sure there isn’t something better out there. So far, we remain convinced we have the best packs for us, but backpack shopping is certainly addictive!

      May. 20 2012 @ 12:19 pm
  8. We have yet to purchase a backpack and haven’t even tried any one to see how they fit, but this post and the previous one are incredibly helpful and informative. I think we’re leaning towards one carry on bag and one larger bag and from everything I’ve read the general consensus seems to be to buy a smaller bag than you initially think you need.

    May. 24 2012 @ 11:34 am
    1. Vicky

      Good luck picking out a pack! When we picked out our REI packs, we actually convinced another couple there to go with smaller packs than they were originally planning on getting, so I guess we are fairly convincing! You’re right that most veterans seem to suggest that you take a smaller bag so that you are less inclined to overpack, and honestly, our 40L packs seem like more than enough for us. Maybe we would want more if we were planning on some heavy-duty hiking or camping, but for the type of travel we plan to do, these should more than suffice.

      May. 25 2012 @ 12:58 am
  9. I have a front loader which is 60L. It sounds like a lot and before I got on the road I thought it looked huge, but once I started packing everything I realised how wrong I had been! I’ve seen so many girls struggling with much bigger bags though, so I’m so glad I didn’t get anything bigger. Plus, when there are 2 of you, you can share space and weight, which makes it much easier 🙂

    May. 31 2012 @ 1:52 am
    1. Julia author

      Even 60L sounds big to me anymore, but ultimately it’s all about comfort and what you are able to carry without feeling miserable. The idea of nearly falling over every time I put my bag on isn’t very appealing. I’ll gladly take a few less changes of clothes in order to avoid being dragged down by a huge bag! It does help to have two of us, we can eliminate some overlap and distribute some of the things we both use between the both of us.

      Jun. 1 2012 @ 10:13 pm
  10. Very interesting story.
    I am a frequent flyer and I do travel a lot. Usually, I need a high capacity backpack for clothes and accessories.
    If it comes in pink and good design, it will be awesome. Do you have any good recommendation on this?
    Thanks for your tips and please keep it up.

    Jan. 12 2017 @ 4:50 am

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