How to Choose a Bag

If you’re looking for the story of how we chose our bags, you’re looking for this page. We’ll have a separate post dealing with our daypacks soon! If you just want the backpack advice, read on! How you’ll use it The first thing to consider when you are looking at packs is how you’ll be...

If you’re looking for the story of how we chose our bags, you’re looking for this page. We’ll have a separate post dealing with our daypacks soon! If you just want the backpack advice, read on!

How you’ll use it

This bag meets nearly all carry-on size requirements. Actual-size human shown for scale.

The first thing to consider when you are looking at packs is how you’ll be traveling. Will you be flying? Do you want to carry on? Will you do a lot of walking? Trains? Buses? Tuk-tuks? Considering the overall size of your bag, probably the most critical of these modes of transportation is flying. Carry-on restrictions can be draconian on many of the budget airlines, and checking bags can double your fare if you aren’t careful. Beyond the carry-on question, it’s important to think about the portability and comfort of your bag. Wheelie bags are nice in principle, but if you get off of pavement they quickly become a bit of a nightmare, assuming you have nightmares about dragging an awkward, 20 pound box across the ground by a wobbly handle. Also you’re naked and trying to walk, but it feels like your feet are made of sand and everyone is staring at you. Just me on that one?

How big (outside dimensions)

For carry on, try to find a bag that fits within these dimensions: 22 inches high (55.8 cm), 13-14 inches wide (35.5 cm) and around 8-9 inches thick (20 cm). What we discovered is that this essentially limits you to 40-45 liters of useable space. So, if carrying on is important to you, then your bag’s maximum capacity is essentially decided.

Top vs. panel loading

I am sure that somewhere the debate between top-loading and panel-loading rages on, but in the Harrison-Kuehn household we are decided: panel-loading kicks the spit out of top-loading every day. It’s so much easier to get to your things, so much easier to fill in those little crannies of empty space, and so easy to lock your pack. Now, we may come to regret this, since in an infinite universe all things are possible (that’s right, I got existential about backpacks), and if we do, we’ll update this post to reflect our new insight. But until then, I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a top loading pack for the type of travel we’re attempting. If you’re searching for a panel-loading bag, it’s worth mentioning that a lot of stores categorize them under the “travel” section rather than the “backpack” section. Clicking the backpack tab is likely to get you a lot of trekking bags, which aren’t really what we’re talking about here.

How big (interior volume)

As I mentioned before, if you’re following this advice, you’re probably already looking at 40ish liter bags. If not, I feel it’s worth considering how much space you really need. I have a hard time believing that anyone needs more than 45 liters for any amount of time abroad. I have more things than I think I will need packed into my bag, and still have some empty space. Obviously, I had to make some hard (at the time) choices about what to bring, and packing cubes have become our best friends, but in the end I know I’ll be glad that I have a small, manageable, light bag that won’t drag me down every time I put it on my back.

[N.B. We aren’t bringing some things on this trip that others may consider essential, namely sleeping bags (though we both have sleep sacks), hiking gear, a tent, a camp stove, a pedal-powered microwave, etc. This allows us to use a much smaller pack than someone who is dragging all this extra baggage (both emotional and otherwise) along.]


Note the fit of the shoulder straps and the placement of the hip belt.

I realize that this may be the most important aspect to consider when choosing your bag, so we’ll just say my list is in no particular order. If the person helping you buy your bag is worth their salt, this is some of what they will tell you: make sure the straps lay flat on your shoulders. If there is air space where the strap curves over your shoulder and transitions into the pack, it’s either too big or not correctly adjusted. You should feel 80% of the pack’s weight on your hips, and relatively little on your shoulders. Really. Don’t pretend like it’s okay that the pack tugs at your shoulders, because it isn’t. Wear it around with 15-20 pounds in it for 15-20 minutes. If it gets uncomfortable at all, well, just imagine a year or more of that. Right. Do use the sternum strap, it really affects the comfort of your bag’s fit. And buckle and adjust the hip belt, which should sit on your hip bones, and buckle in front of your belly button. Obvious, I know, right? Don’t be afraid to get creative. Petite ladies, take note: Steph’s Osprey bag was for children, but it fit her like a dream. It was really adjustable, and was one of the few that fit her the way it should.


Good lockable zippers.

These are things like rain covers, lockable zippers, water resistant construction, strap covers, extra pockets (hip belt or otherwise), padding, and airflow across your back, to name a few. A detachable daypack isn’t the worst idea, but they’re a little scarce on the smaller packs, so I wouldn’t hang too much importance on this feature. Look for internal compression straps. These are a really nice feature and a few panel-loading bags have them.

Other considerations

Color – While I don’t know just how important this is, it’s probably worth thinking about. Our bags are black and gray and appropriately discreet. Flashy colors could draw attention to your pack, and consequently to you, which seems like something you wouldn’t want.

Guarantees – One of my favorite things about REI is their guarantee. If we don’t like something, or it breaks, or it looks at me funny or talks back, we can return it for a refund or store credit. Any time. As in: forever. Osprey offers a similar satisfaction guarantee, so if you can’t get to an REI, that’s worth thinking about. We had the luxury of being able to try a wide variety of packs and return those that didn’t suit us, and this freedom was invaluable.

Price – Expect to pay around $150.00 for a good pack. There are notable exceptions, but for the most part this seems to be the budget sweet spot.

Bags of note

REI Vagabond 40 – The bag we chose, twice over. Obviously this comes as highly recommended.

Osprey Ace 48 – A child’s bag, this highly adjustable top-loading bag fit Steph perfectly. Had there been any way to reliably lock any part of this bag, it would have been a clear winner.

Osprey Porter 46 – While this bag had most of the features we were looking for in a travel bag, the biggest fault was that the back panel lacked any sort of contouring, meaning sweat-city.

Deuter ActLite 40+10 – My initial choice. Pretty much exactly the same pros and cons as Steph’s Osprey (though NOT made for children), this one went back.

Kelty Redwing – I liked this bag in principle, but in practice the straps hurt my shoulders, so it was a no-go

Guerrilla Bags – We were interested in the airporter in particular. Ultimately, not being able to see these in person was the main stumbling point for us. They do look like a good value and encompass much of what we wanted in a bag. If you have experience with these bags, feel free to sound off and let us know if we missed out.

MEI Bags – The unicorn of the backpacking world, these seem to be some of the best panel loaders out there, assuming you can find one to buy, or any information on them at all. They are hand made to order, and you can expect to wait a month or more to get yours. We didn’t even bother, and if that makes us pariahs of the backpack world, so be it.

Eagle Creek Rincon – Again, another bag we liked in theory, but couldn’t find in person. Also, this one was more money than we wanted to spend.

MEC Supercontinent 45 – Still could be a contender, but since MEC is a Canadian company, we’ll be waiting until we’re in the frozen north to check this one out.

That’s about it for backpack advice from us. Tell us what you think in the comments, let us know if you have any tips we missed and if you vehemently disagree with anything we’ve said, let us know and we’ll play it cool and act like we totally know what you mean.

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11 comments Leave a comment

  1. This post would be invaluable to a friend that travels, and I will have to point her towards this post. Also, you are a really funny guy, Tony! I can see that you are taking no nonsense or talking back from your backpack, which is refreshing, and sets a good tone for the trip.

    May. 9 2012 @ 10:28 am
    1. zibilee

      I know, isn’t Tony a funny guy? I keep telling him to write more, but I’ve learned a man who doesn’t accept backtalk from his pack also doesn’t like to hear it from his wife… 😉

      Jul. 20 2012 @ 10:36 pm
  2. I think you guys have made the right decision. But, I’m sure there will be changes (there always is) eventually. I made the mistake of going 80L because it was cheap. At least I went front loading and dull colours.

    So your packs are carry-on size?

    May. 23 2012 @ 11:40 pm
    1. Ian [EagerExistence]

      We haven’t flown with these bags yet, but so long as we don’t overstuff them, we should be able to carry them on. I think most airlines say 22 inches long, and that’s about the length of our internal frame, so we think we’ll be ok. I think it also helps that our bags don’t look really big, so just eyeballing them, I can’t imagine someone telling us that we’ll have to check them… but of course we will report back!

      May. 28 2012 @ 11:26 am
    2. Ian [EagerExistence]

      If I had replied to this comment in a timely fashion (which I meant to… really I did!), I would have doubted that any changes would be made… But here we are 3 weeks before our departure with new bags! Time to update this post (or write a new one!)! 😉

      BUT, for the records, yes, the REI packs should theoretically work as carry-on as their dimensions pretty much match most standard airline guidelines. Our new packs also meet those requirements, despite having slightly larger capacities.

      Jul. 20 2012 @ 10:36 pm
  3. I found this article about backpacking today and thought of you, Steph. If the packs get too burdensome, you could always try the Siddhartha way!

    May. 29 2012 @ 8:07 am
    1. Alison

      Thanks for the link, Alison! It’s true that backpacking has really changed, especially in terms of what people consider “must bring” items. I admit, Tony and I are probably going to fit more into the “flashpacker” category than the traditional backpacker category, but if not for all our gadgets, we wouldn’t be able to blog from the road!

      May. 29 2012 @ 7:14 pm
  4. It almost looks like fun to carry…ok not quite, but I like it nonetheless – thanks for the tips!

    Jun. 13 2012 @ 2:19 pm
    1. Dave from A Couple Travelers

      I think one of the best things about the bags we chose is that they are only 40L, so it’s pretty difficult to overpack, meaning that when we have them on, they’re pretty light! When we tried them on at REI, we had 15 lb weights in them, but when we have them packed up at home, they feel nowhere near as heavy! I just hope we’ll feel the same after we’ve been toting our lives around in them for a year! 😉

      Jun. 23 2012 @ 7:19 pm
  5. Joel

    Hi guys! I really like the tone of Tony’s writing – a refreshing change from the several product reviews I’ve read. Re: REI Vagabond Tour 40 Travel Pack… did you have any issues with some airlines using this as a carry-on despite the length being 2.5″ over the limit? Thanks and happy traveling!

    Aug. 10 2013 @ 7:56 am
  6. andy

    hello there,

    how about the Osprey Farpoint 40.

    how to you rate it?


    Aug. 12 2013 @ 10:03 am

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