Traveling through Thailand, and indeed South East Asia, means one thing – choosing a backpack that isn’t going to hinder your journey and make life uncomfortable on the road.
Whether taking the train to Chiang Mai, trekking across Luang Prabang or travelling from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat, a travel backpack can make or break you.
It’s the defining line between cool and comfortable and hot and heavy. It's arguably the most important decision you'll make next to booking your ticket out of mundane, everyday life.
As a seasoned traveller of ten years, I'm going to help you choose a backpack by giving you my top tips on the most important features to look out for:
Step 1. Choosing How Many Liters of Space You Need
Some people travel super-light. I have a mate who turns up for a 60-day stint with a basic Jansport rucksack. Two changes of clothes, a laptop and a toothbrush and he's set. Not me.
I don't know why, but I always end up with more than I need. So I got for the biggest, lightest pack I can get. 60 liters is cool for me. Don't go bigger than that if you are under 5.7. Man, I've seen some people really struggling with 70+ liter backs on the BTS in Bangkok. Think of your poor body in the heat.
In my opinion though, it's better to have more space than you need.
Why? Because you will buy a few things; no matter what sort of budget you are on. Maybe you will collect some shells or stones on the beach, buy a couple of t-shirts or some handicrafts for the folks back home.
Don't leave with a pack stuffed to the brim. Leave some space for things you'll pick up along the way.
Step 2. Make Sure You Get the Convenience of a Suitcase With the Versatility of a Backpack
A good backpack opens like a suitcase from the side, but is also versatile enough to be opened from the top.
This is important when travelling because there are moments when you need to shove your hand inside quickly and access an item of importance; perhaps a document or some toiletries.
Having only one entry point usually means having to spill everything out onto the floor, which is not only frustrating, but also makes you a vulnerable target for thieves.
Older style packs have one main entry point and tie up with a drawstring at the top. This makes the pack fiddly to open and hard to access. Imagine you’re trekking and come across a great stream to cool off in. You’ve only got twenty minutes to make the most of it, yet it takes you ten minutes to free your swimwear from your overly well-organised packing system.
With a good backpack, you can lay it down, unzip it and extract what you need without disrupting the entire bag. Make sure your backpack has multiple entry points, big enough to access an item in any area of the bag (see above).
Step 3. Don't Forget Those Must-Have Top & Side Handles
If you’ve ever taken the bus across the friendship bridge into Laos, you’ll know you’ll need a backpack that can be picked up quickly to wing-it through immigration as you hurry from the minivan,.
You'll also need one that stands upright when you board the bus with barely an inch to move, otherwise you will be laying people out if you keep that pack on your back. Not to mention that having the luxury of carrying your bag sideways will give your back a much-needed occasional break.
In fact, there will be many a time on your epic adventure when you need your bag to behave itself, and having those top and side handles will become a blessing in disguise.
Paying that bit extra for a pack with soft cushioning on your spine shoulders is essential. The top handle must not protrude when it's pushed down, as you don't want to feel any metal/plastic on your back when travelling around.
Step 4. Consider Very Wisely Whether You'll Need a Detachable Day Bag
A day bag is essential for one key reason: you won’t want to lug your main pack everywhere all the time. Also consider flights or bus trips when you want your main bag stashed under the vehicle and a separate lighter bag to carry on.
Travelling can take its toll on your energy levels and your back, and although it can be tempting to just take the one big bag, you should take a smaller detachable bag to roll with on smaller journeys.
Perhaps you'll go off kayaking for a day, or spend a few nights on and island. With a day pack you can lock up your main pack, leave it at the hotel/hostel (take all valuables with you or put them in the hotel safe) and explore with your big pack’s lighter cousin.
Of course, you could use a standard rucksack as a day bag, but an integrated, detachable bag not only looks cooler, but is super efficient for bus, minivan, train and plane journeys.
It also keeps all your stuff together when checking into hostels and bungalows and getting on and off transport. It’s peace of mind to know your bags are locked together and can’t be separated without some serious effort.
Step 5. Weigh up the Pros of Wheeled vs. Non-Wheeled Backpacks
To have wheels or not to have wheels…that is the question. Personally, I like wheels, because when I fly into huge airports like Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi, I can wheel my bag and give my back a rest, not to mention making it first to the immigration queue.
However, if you’re travelling through the jungles of South America, you won’t be doing any wheeling, so you might argue it's not an essential feature for you.
But here’s my take on it: Modern backpacks, like the Osprey pictured, seamlessly incorporate wheels that you’ll barely notice until you’re whizzing along past all the other’s slow-boating on the way to the visa checkpoint. Wheels add no extra weight (none that you’d notice, anyway) to the pack and therefore they’re a feature well worth having.
Moreover, if you buy a top quality backpack, you’ll be using it on multiple trips, and at some point those wheels will come in handy. Wheels is one of those extras you'll regret not having; kind of like electric mirrors on a car: you don't wish you had them until some loon swipes one off when you're inside the store.
Step 6. Check Out My Brand Recommendations
For a super-duper travel backpack that will get you around Thailand and South East Asia and safely back home again without breaking, making you wish you hadn't gone backpacking to begin with, or breaking your back, check out my brand recommendations below.
In my experience, Amazon is usually the cheapest place to buy the top brands like Osprey, Northface, Kelty, and High Sierra. The reason for this is that multiple sellers are offering their stock in one marketplace, which naturally drives up competition.
If you visit an independent store, you are only seeing the one price. You can often save quite a bit if you buy last season's model too – because they drop the prices on old stock when the new models come in.
Next you'll need to get travel insurance. Don't worry, I've got you covered right here.