Ultimate Female Guide to Picking a Backpack

So you’ve decided you want to backpack, but have no idea where to begin shopping for one. We at Her Packing List have compiled the ultimate post on how to pick the right backpack for you, with plenty of input from our fellow female travelers.

Size

Picking what size backpack you want can be the hardest part of shopping for one. You have to have realistic expectations about how much you will want to pack and how long you will be gone. If you go bigger than 65 L, keep in mind that you won’t be able to carry it onto the plane. Some people swear by 30-35 liter backpacks because it prevents you from packing too much. Also consider what else you will be carrying, like a purse or day pack, to factor in the full weight.

Carry On Size, 30-55 L

Many round-the-world backpackers have traveled only with daypacks, between 30-55 liters, to avoid baggage fees and to travel light.

60 L or Higher Size

The major advantage of having a larger backpack is that you can prepare for room to gain more items, as you inevitably do on the road. Stephanie Yoder of Twenty-Something Travel‘s 60 L backpack suits her travel style and has held up throughout her round-the-world trip:

[Sixty liters] may seem like a lot but my old one was a 75L! I honestly don’t know how people with 40L packs pull it off. I like to have enough space so I’m not fighting with my pack every time I pack up and I like to have room for stuff I buy on the road.

For the best of both worlds, you can purchase a backpack, like Jess of Globetrotter Girls, which is 50 L with a zip off daypack that adds another 15 liters.

allison suter

Allison Suter in her pack

Brand

Some people are loyal to their brand of backpack just like they are for their brand of soda. But each brand has something different to offer.

Jodi getting sized for backpack

Jodi getting sized for a backpack

Both Laura Walker and Allison Suter swear by their Deva 60 backpacks from Gregory and have used them extensively in their last two years of traveling. Allison was even able to fit a sleeping bag and tent in hers! Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads found the perfect Gregory pack for her petite frame. “I’m quite short, so my preferred pack is Gregory- they’re the only company I’ve found that makes a women’s pack in an XS torso size, and it fits perfectly,” she said of her Jade 60 L.

My Kelty Arch 65 L suited me well for my travels, especially since I had heard good things about the brand in the past. I liked how much cushioning the hip belts and straps had on the women’s models. Lillie Marshall loves her discontinued Kelty Redwing 3100 day pack, which you can still find on sites like Amazon and BarronMall.

Deuter also has plenty to offer, as Erica Kuschel will tell you about her Fox 40.

Eagle Creek is a cheaper, reliable brand that also produces rolling duffels. Katie Aune previously had a 70 L Eagle Creek but downsized to her Truist Vita 55 L for her most recent jaunt to Russia. Val Bromann loves her Explorer LT model with a zip-off day pack.

In an effort to downsize, I recently got an Osprey Sirrus 36 L, which I have been very pleased with so far. It is much smaller than my Kelty backpack. It is front and top loading, has external pockets, great back support and can be used as a carry-on. Jess chose the Osprey Waypoint Women’s 65 L and has only good things to say about the brand: “From the moment I got the Osprey, I could tell that actual travelers had actually helped to design this pack.”

American outdoor store REI carries its own brand of backpacks, as well as all your other travel necessities. Stephanie loves her Women’s Tech Tour 60 L, especially for the brand’s replacement policy. “I’m a big fan of the REI brand backpacks. My old one lasted me for three years through Europe, Australia and Asia without a single malfunction. Plus I just love REI equipment in general and they have an extremely liberal return policy.”

Kate McCulley of Adventurous Kate used REI’s Venturi 40 L for her jaunt through Southeast Asia.

The Rick Steves backpacks, endorsed by the beloved PBS host, aren’t as well known, but Maiden Voyage‘s Emily Starbuck Gerson adores hers: “This backpack is Rick Steves’ brand. It’s the only travel backpack I’ve ever had–it’s lasted me many years and many countries! I’ve lent it to several friends for their own long trips, and it has stayed in tip-top shape.”

There are dozens of more brands not mentioned in this article, each with their own pros and cons. Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, High Sierra, Millet, Marmot, Black Diamond and Mountain Co-Op also make great backpacks.

Laura and her Gregory Deva 60

Laura in her backpack.

Gender

As we’ve discussed before, women’s packs vary from men’s. But is a women’s pack right for you?

Mens

Men’s packs aren’t all bad for women, but it just depends on your body type and specifications. Some men’s packs have better features.

Womens

However, as the interviews with these bloggers suggest, many choose female packs over other styles. As someone who had a men’s pack in the past, Jess found her women’s pack to suit her better: “The pack is made for women, and I notice a huge difference to my last pack – which was actually a man’s pack. The Osprey Waypoint sits right on my hips and fits my frame perfectly.”

Juniors

Buying a pack for children or young adults never occurred to me until I read Erica Kuschel‘s post about her Deuter Fox 40 liter. As a fellow petite lady, I should have considered it.

The thing that I was most concerned about was that I am a super small person. Towering at 5’3 3/4″ (my drivers license says 5’4″!) and with bad knees, I needed to make sure I was carrying something light and maneuverable. After trying many backpacks on, the moment this one was fitted, I knew it was ‘the one’.

Unisex

Some backpacks can work for either gender, like Emily’s Rick Steves pack: “My sister and I both used one of these on a trip together, and my brother just borrowed mine for his own month-long trip in Europe. It’s dark blue, so it can work for either.”

caroline in a Kelty backpack

Features

Deciding what features are important to you will help you select the perfect backpack. Think about what capacity you will be using it in and how often you will be carrying it.

Duffel capability: If you’re prone to back pain, some bags give you the option of rolling instead of carrying, which is why Jenny Leonard of Where is Jenny? chose the Osprey Sojourn 60 L Wheeled Convertible for the “giant wheels that will roll over pretty much everything.” Emily’s Rick Steves Convertible Carry On pack can be used as a duffel bag or a backpack.

Add on daypacks: Val Bromann’s Eagle Creek Explorer LT has a zip off day pack that she found appealing: “I also liked that it had a detachable daypack. I’ve used it in the past but this time left it behind because I was trying to pare down what I bought and already had a separate camera bag.” Jess’s Osprey Waypoint also has the zip-off daypack feature.

Front loading vs. side loading: If you will be packing and unpacking often, it’s important to know the loading features of your backpack. One access point means you have to take everything out to find that one item at the bottom. Katie Aune mentioned that it was the most important feature to her was front and side loading panels: “A backpack that is front and side loading was most important – I can’t imagine using a top-loading pack – I would never find anything!” And Erica Kuschel’s backpack has a bottom zipper panel for even more convenience.

Cords for sleeping bags and tents: Backpackers who will be camping may prefer to have cords to attach their sleeping bags and tents to their packs.

Camera and laptop protection: Serious flashpackers have to worry about their tech gear staying safe through all the bumps in the road. Some backpacks have padded pockets for laptops.

External pockets: Having pockets for all the extra knick knacks can be helpful. Laura said her Deva’s side pockets are useful to “put all those small things like Advil, padlock, pens, etc.”

Camelback hookups: A hookup for your Camelback bladder is a nice touch, if not completely essential. Many backpacks have a pouch to hold the bladder and a cord that you wrap the valve through, making it easy to stay hydrated while carrying your backpack.

girl in a backpack

Price Range

When it comes to backpack prices, you get what you pay for. If you decide to go cheap, you might end up having to replace it because of broken zippers or ripped fabric.

The Gregory Deva is on the higher end of the price range, at $200, but I haven’t heard a single complaint about the model. If you want to spend less than $150, the Rick Steves and REI brand backpacks are in that price range.

Where to Buy

  • REI: Stores and website throughout the US with exclusive deals for members, including replacement for wear and tear.
  • Steep and Cheap: Has one daily deal, which ranges in types of gear, but if you watch it you can find a deal.
  • The Clymb: Is a free members-only deal site for all outdoor gear, but often sells backpacks.
  • Amazon: Has all types of backpacks, including day packs.
  • Kathmandu: Australia’s top outdoors store.
  • Mountain Co-op: Canada’s top outdoors store.
  • Backcountry.com: Has great sales on packs from the The North Face, Gregory and Osprey.
  • Moosejaw: Sells backpacks with reviews by their loyal customers.
  • Cabela’s: Has backpacks primarily for hiking, but most are suitable for travel as well.
  • Sierra Trading Post: Offers backpacks for 35-70% off retail.
Heather's carryon

Heather's carry-on backpack

Final Tips

Shop around. Even once you’ve selected the backpack you want, you can find it for cheaper on some websites, like the ones I’ve listed above.

Check for any tears or even slight damage to your backpack before taking it on a trip. The smallest rip can ruin a backpack once you put your belongings in it.

Get it sized and fitted by a professional. Even if you didn’t buy your backpack from a store, you can still get it fitted there. REI and MEC both size backpacks.

Backpacks like the Deva can vary in sizes for torso sizes and hip belts. When packing, put the heaviest items between the shoulder blades, not at the bottom of your backpack. This should prevent back pain.

Backpacks aren’t like shoes. You can’t just buy the size you think you are and make it work. If it’s too big or too small, you will hate carrying it around.

Take it for a trial run. Bring your backpack on a short weekend trip or for a long walk to make sure you’re comfortable.

Invest in a rain cover. Allison Suter found one for cheap, which stopped wear and tear on the straps as well as protecting your gear from the getting wet.

If you want to know any more about the backpacks you’ve read about, check out the interviews with the travelers!

Photo credit: girl in Florence

20 COMMENTS

  1. says

    A really useful post! I’ve just spent ages trying to find the perfect pack for me (as a guy), and finally settled on the Osprey Atmos 35L (the Aura is the women’s version). I really wanted something I could use as carry on, even on budget airlines, that wasn’t going to let me overpack :D Tired of lugging too much crap with me ;) Here’s hoping it works out!

  2. says

    Great post. I am looking into backpacks right now and it’s so difficult to pick just one! I’ve never had a hiking/backpacking backpack before so have no personal experience to go on but will have to check out the backpacks linked in this post.

  3. Lennie says

    I travel to Indonesia (from Australia), to do volunteer work with children. I stay for 1 month and I take an 11 ltr BlackWolf Joey backpack. I am a female who has the art of packing down pat. My back pack contains all my clothes, some toileteries, first aid kit and towel/s. I am travelling to India later this year (2 weeks) and then on to Indonesia. I have upgraded to a 20lt backpack, only because I wish to mke some purchases in India.

    • says

      That is super small! Do you bring any electronics? Extra shoes? I would love to see what you put in your backpack if you ever care to write up a guest post.

  4. Kate says

    As a former outdoor retailer, the single best piece of advice I can give on this is TRY IT WITH WEIGHT! When I was shopping for my first backpack I thought I knew which one I wanted from online reviews, features, etc. But I tried a few others just to say I did, and I immediately changed my mind when one model made it feel like I was carrying half the weight. Outdoor retail stores like REI should have weights to put in the packs for trials.

    • Lizzie says

      Kate, which was the backpack that made you feel as though you were carrying half the weight? (I’m trying to buy a backpack for a 3-week trip to Ethiopia, but have had backpain recently, probably mainly brought on by travelling with appalling backpacks over the past few years, and am trying to work out how to avoid it for the future!)

  5. Lena says

    I am currently trying to decide which backpack to use for my next trip, and the strangest thing is that I seem to be able to fit more or less the same amount of stuff into my 30l backpack (a Bach Leap 30) and my 55l backpack (a cheap generic brand). So either my 30l backpack is misnamed and is actually bigger than it says on the tag, or the shape of it matters more than you’d think. Either way, I think I am going to go with the 30l one.

  6. says

    Nice article, with some very handy hints. I always go for a 45l max when i travel, even if I’m heading off for 6months or more. You’ll be so grateful for a lighter pack ladies when you’re having to get on and off buses quickly. It’s also good to remember that no matter what size pack you take, you’ll always fill it! So why not give your back a rest and ditch the unnecessary extras by limiting yourself with a smaller bag.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Choosing a backpack can be an overwhelming task in itself, but once you’ve decided on the brand and size, the next job will be packing it well. Proper weight distribution in your backpack is what could make the difference between comfort and serious back pain. The most important thing to remember is that just because your backpack can hold a certain amount of liters doesn’t mean you should pack it full. […]

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