Picking a Pack
October 6, 2010 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a great travel backpack - your reviews?

I'm going to do some archaeology in Italy next summer, and that provides me a great excuse to get a nice, all-around travel backpack. I've been looking at eBags but have a hard time really trusting the reviews or knowing exactly what I'm looking for. My criteria are below:

1. It should not be totally ugly. I dislike the dark, muddy colors you find on a lot of outdoor gear. All black is OK but colors would be nice.
2. It should be able to hold all gear for a 2-week trip by a light packer who can wash clothes frequently and won't be carrying food.
3. I'm 5'6" and female - for those reasons I tend to like hip suspension packs, but would not be opposed to shoulder support only if it were comfortable.
4. The ones that can open like a suitcase are kind of awesome.
5. I like the idea of a detachable daypack, but did you find you really used it? Is it one of those add-ons that really doesn't deliver value, or was it a fantastic solution that let you leave a purse or the like at home?
6. This does not need to be a backcountry hiking and camping pack. I would look for other criteria in that. This is really something to help plane and train travel be an easy, one-piece proposition, and to let me walk easily with hands free, not rolling a bag or struggling with a duffel.
7. What else should I be thinking of?

Thanks in advance for your road-tested recommendations...looking forward to my travels!
posted by Miko to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want to be able to carry it on to the plane, or is it OK if it must be checked? I got one from REI four years ago that meets carry-on standards but has a zipper gusset that expands if I need more room. I really like that feature a lot. (I then traveled around Asia for 2.5 months, only doing carry-on, and it held everything I needed just fine.) It doesn't appear that REI carries that particular model or I would link to it, but if you are near an REI they can be a great resource for getting fitted properly.
posted by ambrosia at 10:43 AM on October 6, 2010

I went through a very similar agonizing series of choices buying a backpack a few years back. I had a small bookbag type backpack and it was just a little too small. I wanted something that was, like you, basically a duffel I wore on my back. I did some reasearch and mostly looked at

- interior sizes, largest one that would fit on a small frame
- whether it had a small compartment area for a laptop
- maximum opening area [i.e. no rucksack-style]
- some pouches on the side and/or straps to tie stuff on to.
- handle on top
- no wheels
- not too heavy (when empty)

I wound up going with a Kelty Redwing and I got it from the Kittery Trading Post. The one they sell now is redesigned so I'm not sure if it's exactly like mine but it's large but fits on my frame, has a removable waist strap, comes in colors [but mine is grey/green] and is mostly one large compartment. It's actually a little TOO big for me for a three day trip but perfect for a week/ten day trip. I read the reviews to make sure people like me can fit into them, and I note they also have women's models but this one works fro me and I have small shoulders. I really liked being able to try them on.
posted by jessamyn at 10:48 AM on October 6, 2010

I used a granite gear meridian vapor for a 2 month backpacking trip, and it was pretty fantastic for that. I did 2 weeks in egypt with a $20 REI daypack, though, and it was entirely sufficient. If I was going to do it again, though, I'd buy the Kelty Redwing 3100 though.

The Meridian Vapor was great and I love it, but most of the body is ripstop nylon and it just felt flimsy. I didn't have any problems with it, but I did have a twinge every time I tossed it in the bottom of a bus or was grubbing around a city with it. It also ended up being bigger than I needed, and a bit too flashy for where I was. The Redwing basically just looks like a big daypack, but its more than big enough for 2 weeks and I would have felt more comfortable with it in cities than my granite gear pack.
posted by devilsbrigade at 10:49 AM on October 6, 2010

I just bought an ebags motherload backpack/weekender style bag after shopping somewhat obsessively and reading a lot on onebag.com. I thought I wanted a patagonia MLC but didn't feel all warm and fuzzy when I evaluated one in the store. Instead I went with the motherload and am pretty happy with it so far after doing my packing for a 10 day or so trip. The various compartments seems well though out and the bag is lightweight but comfortable (so far) to carry on my back.

That being said, my first trip with this bag is tomorrow so uh, will see how it really does on the road. I tend to pack lightly and this bag is about 40% capacity with 10 days of gear/clothes which may speak more to my extreme minimalism while packing or the man it holds a lot capacity of the bag. Likely the former.

I did also buy an etech weekender from ebags as I was undecided between the two. The etech might be a fine bag but the motherload seemed a little more in line with my thinking. Plus the motherload comes in some very fine colors and I am a big believer in having distinctive looking luggage as I hate the sea of black bags at the luggage carousel.

I bought the motherload with the intention of using it as a travel bag and a carry-on -- not as a substitute for my EMS trail pack.

Generally speaking, while researching this bag business -- there are more options than I expected and much higher price points than I'd anticipated. While I do expect my luggage to last & rely on it during a trip, there is a dollar amount that seems reasonable to pay for a bag. The Air Boss & the Patagonia are, in my opinion, way expensive (though possibly way awesome). The ebags options seem like a reasonable price point to experiment with the one bag packing style and I may consider an upgrade to a "premium" never buy another bag again option later... but I'd much rather spend my money actually in the act and art of travel and not just packing.
posted by countrymod at 10:49 AM on October 6, 2010

Redoxx makes very nice luggage. Lifetime warranty, super rugged, and stylish. I have an Air Boss model and love it.
posted by rabbitsnake at 10:51 AM on October 6, 2010

3rding the Redwing. I used to have one, it was awesome, and I was super sad when I lost it.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:53 AM on October 6, 2010

I have an MEI Voyageur, and I love it. Solidly made, converts from a very comfortable (I'm 5' 6" and female, too) to carry backpack with waist straps to a conservative looking suitcase (great for going through customs), is the largest size you can carry on in the US. It comes in nice colours. I have a small day pack that crushes down that I carry in it for when I want to carry a smaller subset of stuff (and this is handy for around town).

It may be a little on the expensive side, but I suspect it'll last forever. The company that makes them sometimes gets a bit behind, so this usually isn't a bag you can get overnight.

I've gone to Iceland twice (for 5 and 11 days) with it, used it for work travel up to 7 days as well as personal travel around the US and Canada. Holds much more than it looks like it might.

Really, I just adore this bag, and carry it even when it is a bit larger than I need, just because it is so easy.

ebags makes a knock off version that is just cheap and flimsy feeling next to the Voyageur, like it'll only last 2 or maybe 3 trips.
posted by QIbHom at 10:56 AM on October 6, 2010

I'm very happy with my MEI Voyageur travel pack. It's recommended by the fabulous One Bag site and it's served me well through 18 months of backpacking in India, Asia, and New Zealand. MEI bags are now independently produced in California, and I got great customer service when I phone ordered the bag to Canada.

The MEI Voyageur comes in a few different colours (I have navy blue), and it's small enough to carry on the plane when not overstuffed. I'm a 5'-1" female and find it manageably sized to carry for general travel purposes. It has sturdy shoulder and hip straps that can be zipped inside for conversion to a duffel type bag. It doesn't have a million pockets and add-ons, so it's flexible in how you use the inside space. It's very easy to lock the two zippers on this bag with little padlocks.

I've previously had a similarly sized bag with a detachable daypack (travelling through Italy for 6 weeks). It was difficult to zip on when the main pack was overstuffed, and the weight balance of both bags together was awkward. I strongly prefer choosing my own daypack or handbag as a separate item.

Happy travels!
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 11:02 AM on October 6, 2010

I'm really fond of my Kelty Redwing. I've had it for a decade and it's held up very well. The ratio of big main bag to smaller side pockets is pretty much perfect for me. I also like how it hangs and fits when it's not stuffed full of things: I use it partially filled for overnight trips, and even as a book bag, and it doesn't feel like overkill on my back.
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 11:38 AM on October 6, 2010

I've had great luck with the MEC Walkabout Travel Pack.

1) It is all black.
2) The main pack size is 46L and the daypack is 18L. That should be more than enough for a two-week trip.
3) It is an internal frame pack with hip straps.
4) It has a zipper all around the outside except for the the sleeping bag compartment.
5) I love the detachable day-pack. It acted as my carry-on during the flight was invaluable as a day-pack and got plenty of subsequent use when I got home as my bike commuting backpack. It is hard to zip on when the bag is full but you can simply use the attached straps instead.
6) This pack is definitely designed for travel.
7) No matter what pack you get I found that having an attached zip cover that contained all of the straps and buckles was a great feature. It allowed me to put the pack on the plane without being worried about it getting all tangled or having the airline agents make me put it in a big plastic bag.

Have fun on your trip!
posted by talkingmuffin at 11:39 AM on October 6, 2010

I have and like an MEI Voyageur as well — despite being (last I checked) a bit pricey and quite hard to order via the Internet, it's definitely the Internet's favorite travel backpack. A few possible sticking points (with the MEI or, I think, any other bag of this kind) that I wish I'd thought about ahead of time, though: tucking away the shoulder and hip straps is a bit fussy and lumpy and takes a minute or two to do, making it hard to carry the bag as a backpack but board an airplane and stow it without the straps dangling all over the place. And despite being nominally within the carry-on size restrictions and having some compression straps, the MEI can still easily get overstuffed to the point that it's hard to stow quickly. A shoulder-bag style of luggage might work better with overhead compartments.
posted by RogerB at 11:50 AM on October 6, 2010

I used a The North Face Backtrack 50 when traveling around Europe for a couple weeks. It isn't cheap, but TNF has a lifetime warranty and it's products have always served me really well.

I used it as a carry on, which was nice and I did find the detachable daypack quite useful for my laptop and other necessities.
posted by Cogito at 12:12 PM on October 6, 2010

RogerB, I find if I tuck the straps in before I get on the plane, it works better. The more I fiddle with the straps, the faster I get at converting the Voyageur. It is a bit of a pain the first few times, for sure.
posted by QIbHom at 1:17 PM on October 6, 2010

5. I like the idea of a detachable daypack, but did you find you really used it?

I think the main appeal is that it's attachable. So when you are going place to place, you don't need to carry two packs. That's the main issue I have with my current setup of a Patagonia MLC + a REI daypack.
posted by smackfu at 1:41 PM on October 6, 2010

MEI Voyager owner here as well. I use it both for business and leisure travel and would not go back to another set-up. It is comfortable to carry even for a period of.time. I would suggest zipping up straps before you get on a plane or at the beginning of the check-in queue though as it does take little while to do.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:00 PM on October 6, 2010

I also take a cloth shoulder bag when travelling, this is quite deep and has a strap that is long enough to carry it both over the shoulder and across the body. The can be folded really small, is big enough chore water, lunch, camera, book etc but does not look massive when fairly empty due to the material...that's my daypack alternative
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:06 PM on October 6, 2010

Caveat: I have not read any of the previous responses. I have a North Face Recon backpack that I purchased in 2004. I have carried it with me around the world: Italy, Japan, India. It has survived two years of graduate school and daily use as my all-around bag when I'm biking or busing to work. The outer pocket zipper finally broke a few months ago, and my dog (may he rest in peace) chewed up one of the outer bungee cords, but other than that it's in fantastic shape.
posted by malaprohibita at 2:20 PM on October 6, 2010

I bought an Osprey Porter 46 to take on a month-long trip this past summer and I loved it. It has a hip strap but isn't an enormous internal frame backpack and you can also tuck the straps away. It's designed to be carry-on size and it's mostly but not all black. No daybag--I just used a regular messenger bag, which seemed both more practical and slightly more stylish than the daybags I saw, and I could wear it with my pack pretty comfortably when I had to.
posted by zizania at 3:52 PM on October 6, 2010

nthing the Kelty Redwing. I have a Redwing 3100, and I've been able to take it as a carry on, and it worked well for me on a 10-day trip with one laundry day. Another plus is that it's not setup like one of those tall hiking backpacks, so I can put luggage locks on it to deter casual tampering.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 4:46 PM on October 6, 2010

interior sizes, largest one that would fit on a small frame

I very strongly disagree with this M.O. for choosing a backpack.

Do not, whatever you do, start with the idea that you are looking for the biggest backpack you can comfortably carry on your frame.

You want a backpack that fits the quantity of stuff you are going to be carrying, not a gigantic backpack that you will be tempted to fill with crap you don't need and won't use.

Re some specific models already mentioned here:

I used to have the MEI Voyageur. I miss it horribly and frankly resent the fact that I'm going to need to find a replacement sooner than later. If you have the time and money, get that.

Last spring, when I was first looking to replace the Voyageur, I had settled on the Osprey Porter 46. However, I found it extremely difficult to track down. I'm not sure they're being made anymore - it's certainly not something you can dash out to your nearest sporting goods or luggage store and pick up. (Unless they've come out with a new crop in the meantime - I don't know much about how luggage retail/inventory works.)

Because I couldn't find the Porter 46 and couldn't settle on anything else, I ended up going very unorthodox for my recent trip to South America - I whittled down the pile until it fit into an ordinary school book-bag and a day pack. I don't regret packing that light, or carrying such a simple pack, for a second. Archaeology is a whole different deal (I'd assume there's a list of kit you'll be required to bring along), but if you can fit your stuff into a smaller or less technical form of luggage, I'd totally recommend it.

All of that said - in a few months when I finally replace my pack, I'm probably going to go with the Kelty Redwing.

Re the detachable daypack - in Italy this won't be an issue, but I vote against these because they always look flashy and techie and tourist-tastic. Which in less developed parts of the world is basically a giant "Rob Me" sign. For a daypack, I'd recommend using the same sort of bag you carry at home.
posted by Sara C. at 8:58 PM on October 6, 2010

Thanks so much to everyone - this was really helpful, and it's also telling that there are so many repeat nominations. Since I live near Kittery Trading Post, it looks like I should head up there to try on the Kelty Redwing. I have looked at the MEI Voyager, and even though the rave reviews should really sell me, I'm just kind of reluctant to get one because of ...how awkward it looks. The handy-ness of being able to carry it like a suitcase or a backpack is appealing, as is the size and apparent quality, but it just looks odd to me. I wonder about its comfort, since it doesn't look designed to contour to your back or carry at teh hips. Maybe I could get over that in light of the enthusiastic support others give it, but I guess it'll depend on how the Kelty feels.

I've appreciated the other travel tips, too. Thanks very very much. There's nothing as valuable as real, considered responses from people who have some experience and whose opinions I trust. I'll come back to let you know which way I go, packwise!
posted by Miko at 9:03 PM on October 6, 2010

Probably too late, but I'll chime in anyway. I have the Osprey Porter 46, and I love it (and I think it must not be universally hard to track down; they had 'em at REI the last time I was there). The size is perfect (for me, anyway) for the kind of travel that it sounds like you're talking about, and the way the compression straps work, it ends up looking very neat and tidy regardless of how full or not full it is (this is an advantage over the MEI Voyageur, which looks a little rumpled if it's not very full). It's pretty comfortable, though the hip straps are unpadded, which is kind of a bummer on long/heavy hauls, and I appreciated the (fairly minimal) organizational pockets that it features.

I had a bag in the past that had a detachable daypack, and I actually kind of hated the design because the daypack was attached in a way that made it impossible to keep its weight above my hips (so even if it wasn't especially heavy, it made my bag feel much heavier than it was and messed with my balance).
posted by Vibrissa at 9:32 PM on October 6, 2010

I bought a Lowe Alpine 45L pack this spring and it held up through a few months of traveling. I'd had a smaller schoolbag that—but for the fact I lost all confidence in the main zipper—would've been adequate, but I opted to get this new one.

It's got one (45L) compartment with a drawstring and flap that closes over the top, two small zip pockets on the outside, and two roomy mesh side pockets. What I liked the most when buying it were the zip-out rain fly (which I haven't yet used) and the mesh/frame system that lifts the back of the pack off of my back to let some air flow through (I never got a gross sweaty back from wearing it, but I was also in france and scandanavia from april-june).

What I actually like(d) the most is how it can expand and contract. It's not a huge pack. But when I have lots of stuff to put in it expands graciously. Now that I'm back home I pack my laptop and a change of clothes to bike in to work. When I pull it tight and close the top flap it isn't much bigger than any other backpack.

I never use it but there is a hip belt. I'm not one for fashion and prefer nondescript all black, there's also a nice-looking blue. For plane travel it checks well and carries on. I was with a friend for a few weeks who had that Kelty Redwing mentioned earlier, and I felt my bag was better. But sometimes I'm just a snob like that.

For another idea, this Deuter Futura Pro is the pack I initially set out to find for my replacement. I couldn't and so I went with the Lowe.

And for a completely different take: "no baggage." Good luck!
posted by kjell at 8:15 AM on October 7, 2010

Hi everybody! Just back from my trip. An update:

I ended up choosing the Osprey Porter 46, which I mail-ordered online, no problem. It is a terrific bag and I'm very, very happy with it. The design is simple but very practical: one central open well that zips wide open on 3 sides like a suitcase, with a single net pouch along one side inside, and 2 more zipper pouches on the inside and outside of the cover. There's also a third one on back and a small pouch on the top. The front and back pouches are relatively non-obvious so they were a good place to tuck travel documents and passport for storage. It looks small but holds a ton. I used packing cubes to compress clothing first, and then stacked the cubes inside and compressed the pack again with the outside straps. It does look very neat and tidy and suitcase-like when all compressed with straps folded in, but transitions to backpack very quickly. It wouldn't be the ideal backpack to use, say, on a long hike, but for a lengthy city walk to your hotel or train, it's very much OK, padded along the back and shoulder straps. All in all: I'm glad I asked here, investigated all my options, and I'm very happy with the final choice. The 46 is all you would need for a trip of a few weeks' length, well built, durable, good looking, and smartly organized!
posted by Miko at 6:27 AM on July 20, 2011

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