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One of the biggest things you have to consider when buying a backpack is front loading vs top loading. Since this determines how you get things in and out of the backpack, it can have a big impact on how comfortable you are using the bag over time. They’re also made differently which can impact how well the backpack works for your particular situation and travel style.
Front loading, sometimes called panel loading, means the main compartment opens up similar to the way suitcases open, so you have a big opening to work with. Top loading means the backpack opens up at the top, usually giving you a smaller opening.
Panel Loading vs Top Loading Backpacks
Pros of Front Loading Backpacks
Easier to pack and unpack: Having a bigger opening means it’s easier to get things in and out of your backpack, so repacking on the road is faster and easier. This makes it easier to get to things at the bottom without having to unpack all the contents of your backpack. With a top loading backpack, you have to unpack every time you want something at that’s not right at the top.
Keeps your belongings more secure: Front loading backpacks have zipper closures, while most top loading backpacks have drawstrings. Zippers keep your belongings more secure, and you can usually lock the zippers together for a little peace of mind. You can’t lock a drawstring, and if your bag tips over, your stuff could potentially slip out if the drawstrings aren’t cinched tight enough.
Better shape: Front loading backpacks tend to be a little shorter from top to bottom and a little wider from side to side, while top loading backpacks tend to be narrower and taller. The weight is distributed a bit better with the front loading backpacks, especially for us shorter ladies, because of this shape difference.
Cons of Front Loading Backpacks
Weight: Top loading backpacks are usually made for hiking, so they are made with lighter weight material. If you’re counting ounces (or grams) to travel carry-on only, even a little extra weight from a front loading backpack could make a big difference to the overall weight of your bag.
Not as much structure: While it’s great that front loading backpacks have a bigger opening, sometimes this means it can actually be a little harder to pack. When the bag is opened all the way, there is less structure to hold everything in while you’re trying to get the next layer of clothing into the backpack.
Zippers may break more easily: Good backpacks will come with sturdy zippers, but regardless, a zipper may not hold up as well in the test of time versus a sturdy, solid fabric.
Should I Buy a Front Loading Backpack?
After going over the pros and cons of choosing front loading backpacks, it really comes down to your personal travel needs. The best option is to test one out in real life. It might be necessary to invest in a front panel loading backpack if you have a lot of belongings (it’s harder to dig to the item in the bottom of the bag if it’s top-loading), for example.
If you’re shopping in a store, like REI, there will usually be some weighted bags and filled compression sacks for you to see how the backpack feels when loaded. Pay attention to what it feels like to pack it up. It won’t be the same as your clothes, but it can give you a sense of what it’s like to pack things into a front loading or top loading bag.
Whether you buy a backpack at a store or online, check the return policy. Before you take any of the tags off, do a trial run by packing clothing, toiletry bags, and other things you typically take with you to see how it all packs up. Pay attention to how easy or difficult it is to access something packed towards the bottom.
Front Loading Backpack Examples
Osprey Porter 30
The Osprey Porter 30 is a smaller bag for those of you looking to travel even lighter. With 30 liters, it’s hard to over pack! The straps can be zipped away in case you do need to check it, the compression straps help keep everything cinched up, and there’s a separate laptop sleeve.
>> Check out the Osprey Porter 30 backpack on REI.
Kelty Redwing 32
Another backpack for minimalist packers, the Kelty Redwing 32 has cushioned straps for comfort and support. The waist strap will help distribute the weight, and there are lots of great external pockets.
>> Check out the Kelty Redwing 32 backpack on Amazon.
Tortuga Travel Backpack
This 44L backpack was built to be carry-on friendly with an emphasis on organization and convenience. The Tortuga comes with built-in laptop sleeve, internal and exterior compression straps, and a slew of other features that will make your travel life easier.
Front Loading Backpack Reviews on HPL
Here are reviews of front loading backpacks on Her Packing List. This list includes some backpacks that are technically both top and front loading backpacks because they can be opened more than one way.
Womens Backpacks Up to 29L
Womens Backpacks 30-45L
Womens Backpacks 46-55L
Womens Backpacks 56L+
Do you prefer top loading backpacks or front loading backpacks? Tell us why in the comments!
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