After journeying around Eastern Europe for two months, Dara Bramson returned with one obsession: backpacks. Yes, she did just return from traveling. And no, she doesn’t know when she’ll be backpacking again. But as any budget traveler knows, using the wrong bag can result in a miserable experience, so she embarked on a quest to find the right one.
For my two-month trip backpacking around Eastern Europe, I purchased a 25-inch Swiss Army Victorinox Trek Pack Plus. It’s a new model that combines a duffel-bag style with wheels and backpack straps, if needed. I figured I’d be happy to travel with a bag on my back and have the luxury of wheels from time to time.
At first, I was thrilled with it. Traveling with a group through Poland and the Czech Republic, it was easy to get on and off tour buses, effortless to repack and had convenient expandable features. I used the removable daypack for toiletries, journals and items I needed to access often.
Then week three began. And so did my love/hate relationship with this bag.
The group trip was over and I began my solo travels that would last for the next three weeks, visiting Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Hungary and Romania. Turned out, anything with wheels is not appropriate, or cool, for a “roughing it” backpacking trip.
Once I set foot on solo travel soil, I became the dorky high school kid with a rolling backpack.
Getting on and off trains was miserable and rolling over pedestrian’s feet in crowds was embarrassing. Fully packed, the bag topped 50 pounds (another newbie backpacker mistake), and lugging it around on my back was painful. The straps came in handy when a flight of stairs loomed ahead of me, but the prep time was a hassle.
Lesson learned: Evaluate your trip before you evaluate your bag. Here is a guide to few top-notch backpacks and in what situations they’re most appropriate.
Victorinox 25-inch Trek Pack Plus
Best for: Buses, long-term, trips that allow for maximum use of the rolling feature (i.e. not roughing it, hostels or unpaved roads)
The major appeal is the dual use of the bag as either a backpack or rolling suitcase with a casual duffel look rather than a structured box. It’s too big to carry on with most airlines, but works well for long-haul flights. There’s a swivel handle and 90mm inline skate wheels, which held up well under duress. I flew down many flights of stairs followed by my bag. (And little kids got a kick out of the clunk…clunk…clunk sound.)
One of my favorite parts was the TSA-approved cable lock system that locks together the entire bag and also allows you to lock it to an object if necessary (which was often, as it was too bulky to fit in most hostel lockers). It’s available in black, red and tan, the current retail price is $369.99 on SwissArmy.com.
The North Face DoubleTrack 28
Best for: Mostly wheeled use with a little more rugged feel
Similar to the Victorinox Trek Pack, the DoubleTrack 28 also features the dual wheeled/backpack feature, which travelers often favor for long-haul trips. Some standard, neat features include an adjustable hip-belt for the backpack feature, an ambidextrous retractable handle and a business card window for easily identifiable access.
Additional features include the similar rolling and backpack feature as well as a removable daypack. Available in black, this bag retails for $379.
Kelty Red Cloud 5600
Best for: Unfussy budget travelers who want a lightweight carry-on
If you’re on a budget but still need a sturdy sack, opt for the Kelty Red Cloud 5600. Most airlines will accept this bag as a carry-on, and you can’t go wrong with the lightweight feature: barely more than 5 pounds. The lifetime guarantee against defects makes it worth it, especially for the $179.99 price tag.
The North Face Terra 60 Pack
Best for: The average backpacker doing the average backpacking trip
This backpack is standard fare for backpackers and its hard not to love. I see this as a versatile trip bag to be used for years for hiking, backpacking, weekends and long or short-term trips. Big pluses are the high-volume capacity (30-50 pounds) and carry-on size, a sleeping bag compartment and plenty of pockets. Available in two blues, two greens and a simple black, this bag retails for $149. For those looking for the next size smaller, try to the Terra 40 Pack, which retails for $129.
Gregory Petit Dru
Best for: Women who want a heavy-duty bag that fits their body
It’s not easy to find a giant backpack that suits a woman’s body. But the Petit Dru, though not cheap, is the right pick for women who want space and capacity. A crafted, ventilated back allows for air circulation and contoured shoulder straps. Many backpackers will fill it with camping equipment or use it long-term in multiple climates. REI.com sells it for $479 and free shipping is available.
Lowe Alpine TFX SUMMIT ND 65+15
Best for: Another high-volume backpack that has a women’s fit, if needed
With a load capacity of up to 70 pounds, this bag is built with comfort in mind. A rain cover and four compression straps are included. It retails for $329.99 but check out EverestGear.com for a sale price of $224.77.
The verdict? My next purchase will be The North Face Terra 60 Pack. In green.
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By Dara Bramson for PeterGreenberg.com