What to look for in a travel bag

I’ve only owned a few different travel bags over the course of my adult life.  As my packing skills improved and I learned to travel with less, the size of my main travel luggage proportionally decreased in size.

Since models change and are discontinued on a regular basis, I’m not going to recommend any specific bags, but there are a few general things I look for when considering a backpack for my primary use.

  • Comfortable straps.  This has become more important the older I get.  My current backpack has nice padded shoulder straps that have a bit of a curved shape to conform to one’s upper body.  The less you carry, the less the straps make a difference, but it’s still nice to have for when you’re toting around a little extra mass.
  • A sturdy back.  Many cheaper backpacks are floppy and can be crumpled up into a ball.  I prefer a bag that can stand up on its own even when empty.  Some of the larger hiking backpacks have an internal metal frame that props up the back; I’m not talking about anything that extreme, but simply a sturdy cloth material that has some resistance to bending and keeps a good shape.
  • A few side pockets.  These are useful for keeping a bottle of water, napkins, shower poof, or other items that require easy access.
  • Multiple compartments.  I briefly owned a bag with just one large compartment to toss in all my stuff, but it ended up being too disorganized for me.  Even having two separate compartments – usually one big main one and a smaller one – makes a big difference in separating out my clothes from the rest of my things.
  • Sturdy zippers.  Cheapo bags tend to have cheapo zippers which get snagged, separated, or stuck.  All frustrating situations I don’t want to deal with when I’m out having fun.  The pricier backpacks tend to use good quality zippers that last.
  • And finally, a bag that is relatively small.  My current backpack is a Patagonia Refugio (pictured here) that holds 28 liters.  For most of my trips, this bag is too big and half of it ends up being empty, but that extra space comes in handy if I ever need to travel in the winter and require warmer clothes.

In traveling light, way more important than the specific bag is what you decide to put in it (and what you leave out).  But if you have the basics down and can afford to spend more, having a nicer bag can certainly make your travels a bit more pleasant.

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