Ultimate Female Guide to Picking a Backpack

guide to picking a backpack
See also our list of best travel backpacks for women– all our reviews linked to from one place!

For travelers using a backpack, it’s the most important purchase you will make. It will determine how much you pack and how comfortable you are along the way. An incorrectly sized backpack can make your trip miserable. Keep in mind that this is a guide and you won’t know for sure which one suits you until you try it on with weight in it. We all have different needs from a backpack (and different body sizes/shapes, physical concerns, trip styles, etc.), so take this guide as advice, not the backpack gospel.

HPL Travel Backpack Recommendations Quick List

It’s a long and daunting process of choosing a backpack. While we can’t say for sure what will work for you, here are a few quick recommendations from our end to get you started.

  • We stand behind Osprey packs in terms of quality and comfort. A lot of women adore the Osprey Farpoint since it is one that packs like a suitcase but wears like a backpack. It also looks a little more discreet compared to hiking packs. It’s a great place to begin your backpack search.
  • Tom Bihn is a very popular, American-made bag company. They are pricey, but the quality is there. Many travelers love the Aeronaut for their non-hiking related travels.
  • Tortuga’s unisex carry-on sized backpacks have been made by travelers for travelers, and they are constantly improving the pack. The new version comes in 35L or 45L and has a weight-bearing hip belt.
Brooke in her Tom Bihn Smart Alec backpack before heading Australia to USA.
Brooke in her Tom Bihn Smart Alec backpack before heading Australia to USA.

What HPL Currently Uses:
Brooke currently travels with her Tom Bihn Smart Alec backpack. Coming in at 26L, it is pretty minimal, but she likes to travel ultralight when possible. However, she prefers to keep the bag around 7kg (15.4lbs), and definitely no more than 10kg (22lbs), since it has no proper hip belt. Although there is now an attachable hip belt, we haven’t had a chance to vet it yet.

Ali is a fan of REI packs and is currently traveling with her REI Trail 40, but she has done several shorter trips with her daypack, the Osprey Escapist 25. She loves the Trail’s size, rain cover, and multiple pockets and the Escapist’s comfortable straps.

Caroline loves her Outdoor Products Artemis 35L backpack. She has gone through a number of different backpacks, but this is a go-to carry on. It fits in nearly all overhead bins. It has an interior frame and ergonomic design. Waist belts and padded shoulder straps keep it comfortable for long walks from the bus station. It’s lightweight and folds flat when empty.

Now on for the longer process of picking a backpack!…

Before you go further, there are a couple of posts you should read so you can think more clearly about backpack size:

Step 1: Measure Your Torso

This step is often overlooked, but can make all the difference in finding a properly fitted and comfortable backpack. Some backpacks are made for people with a specific torso size; others are adjustable. Even if you are of an average height, it doesn’t mean that your actual torso is of average length – so take those measurements!

This step helps because sometimes backpacks have different sizes, like XS/S and M/L. Other bags are adjustable, and some are not. When you find a bag you think could work, look at the brand’s sizing guide to see if it will fit your body.

In addition to taking torso length, you should take your shoulder span and hip width (important for ladies who have narrow builds), as well as consider other health and physical concerns that might affect choosing the right backpack. For example, if you have had an injury in the past, then perhaps you should limit yourself to a smaller backpack size to ensure you don’t pack something too heavy down the road!

torso length
Tam finding her torso length.

Tam gives a really great breakdown of taking your measurements, and why that’s important, in her post on backpacks for slim and petite women.

Step 2: Assess Your Packing Goals

Carry-on only. Minimalist and ultralight. Or maybe you plan to haul a bit more. Your packing goals will ultimately determine your perfect backpack size.

For example, if you want to travel carry-on only, then you will need to make sure you choose a backpack that is small enough to do so on various airlines around the world. This is generally one up to 40L in size… generally. Always do your research.

But, if you need space for hauling all of your camping and outdoors equipment, then you might need to be shopping for a pack on the larger size, such as the 55L+ range, which you would then need to check when flying.

Every traveler has their own packing needs and goals. Maybe you’re traveling for a month, or maybe you’re studying abroad for a year. Maybe your body can only handle a max amount of weight (in which case smaller is better!). It’s important to take the time to recognize these needs BEFORE backpack shopping, because the wrong size backpack will make it difficult to reach those packing goals.

Step 3: Choose Your Backpack Size

Picking your backpack size can be the hardest part of shopping for one. But, if you’ve assessed your packing goals, that will help narrow it down. And, once you narrow down the size, it will quickly narrow down your shopping options.

If you go bigger than the 50 liter range, keep in mind that you probably 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 (which is a concept we can totally get behind here at Her Packing List). Also consider what else you will be carrying, like a purse or day pack, to factor in the full weight and size of your luggage.

Note: If you are tossing up between two backpack sizes, we almost ALWAYS recommend going for the smaller size! Even if you say you won’t pack the larger one full, trust us, you will most certainly fill it at some point for a larger, heavier piece of luggage!

choose your backpack size
Choose your backpack size: Minimalist, Carry-On, Checked. Left: Brooke with her 26L Smart Alec, Middle: Caroline with her 35L Outdoor Products Artemis, Right: Gigi with her 65L Osprey Aura.

Minimalist Size, Up to 29L

These small bags are for people who seriously want to travel ultralight, and hit carry-on under the toughest airline restrictions (like 7kg weight limits!). These backpacks will rely on pockets and organizational methods like packing cubes to make sure you fit as much as possible. However, minimalists will be trying to pack as little as possible in the first place. Here are a few of our favorites:

Carry-On Size, 30-50L

Many round-the-world backpackers have traveled only with daypacks, between 30-50 liters, to avoid baggage fees and to travel light. Keep in mind that bags above 40L will only be carry-on size if they aren’t full and if they have a small frame. You might still end up checking it, depending on the airline and their specific restrictions. Here are a few of our favorites:

>>Check out these 40L female travel backpacks.

Checked, 55L or Higher Size

The major advantage of having a larger backpack is that you can prepare for gaining more items, as you inevitably do, on the road. You’ll certainly need to check this type of bag, but it can come in handy for long trips, or outdoorsy trips where you have to haul special equipment. However, do keep in mind that those bags can get quite heavy, and we are all about less stress when you travel. Her Packing List generally recommends that most trips can be accomplished below the 55L backpack range.

Stephanie Yoder of Why Wait to See the World took a 60L backpack on 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.

Step 4: Research – Backpack Style, Backpack Gender, Additional Features, Backpack Brand, Price Range

You can easily jump to Step 5 on this choosing a backpack guide, but if you want to explore your options in more detail, this section has that extra info for you. These are simply more points to help guide you in the right direction when choosing a backpack.

hiking vs travel backpack
Hiking vs Travel backpack: Osprey Sirrus and the Minaal 2.0.

Backpack Style: Hiking vs. Travel

According to Backcountry.com, hiking backpacks are intended to bring gear in and out of the wilderness, namely tents, stoves, sleeping bags, and food. Their waist-belts and shoulder harnesses are more robust and intended to carry the heavy loads over longer distances that hiking demands. Popular brands for hiking include Osprey, Kelty, and Gregory.

Travel backpacks are built with city travelers in mind – typically people who want to be mobile with a backpack while not looking like a hiker. It’s assumed you won’t be carrying the bag for as long as a hiker (many do not have a proper hip belt). Construction tends to fit airline dimensions and with limited straps and attachments. Popular brands include Tortuga, Minaal, Eagle Creek, REI, and also Osprey, which are differentiated with the travel pack title.

A lot of people going on extended world travels will take hiking backpacks even if they don’t plan to do proper hiking, mainly because they can live up to rugged conditions and help a long-term traveler be more comfortable should they find themselves walking more with their backpacks on.

Backpack Gender

Women’s packs vary from men’s, but is a women’s pack right for you? If you have a wider frame or longer torso, we definitely recommend giving some mens backpacks a go. However, most choose female backpacks over other styles. As traveler Jess noticed after transitioning from a mens to a womens backpack: “The Osprey Waypoint sits right on my hips and fits my frame perfectly.”

Some backpacks aren’t marketed towards any particular gender. For example, Stephanie’s LL Bean Quickload pack, those from Rick Steves, and some Eagle Creek backpacks are created with unisex designs.

Backpacks for Petite Women

Your torso size and shoulder span are important when choosing a backpack, so small-framed and petite women have special needs. Ensure that your backpack of choice has well-made hip belts. The smaller and closer to your body you can keep your backpack, the better you’ll feel. Check out our guide to best backpacks for slim and petite women.

>> The Osprey Fairview has gone over well with smaller framed women.

Another option is looking at juniors backpacks. Buying a pack for children or young adults never occurred to me until I read Erica’s post about her Deuter Fox 40 liter. You can get the same features you want from adult backpacks, but usually at a lower price point.

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’.

Osprey Meridian backpack review
Megan and her Osprey Meridian rolling backpack.

Additional Backpack Features

Do any of the following features feel important to you? If so, make a tick-list to quickly and easily weed out unsuitable backpacks.

  • Duffel and/or rolling capability: If you’re prone to back pain, some bags give you the option of rolling, which is why Svenja carries an Osprey Ozone rolling backpack. You can also try a convertible pack with shoulder straps and carry handles, like the eBags Motherlode Convertible Weekender or the Tom Bihn Aeronaut.

    >>Check out these backpack alternatives for female travelers.
  • Add on daypacks: A zip-on/zip-off daypack attachment is nice because you can have it be a part of the backpack while traveling (and not have to do the thing where you wear the daypack on the front), but you can take it off and use as a daypack on arrival.
  • Front loading vs. top loading: When packing and unpacking often, it’s important to consider your backpack’s loading feature. Top-loading, found more in hiking style packs, provides one access point, meaning you have to annoyingly take everything out to find that one item at the bottom. Front loading and suitcase style packs, like the Minaal 2.0, are commonly travel backpacks. Check out our guide to panel-loading backpacks.
  • 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. Caroline’s Osprey Sirrus 36 has cords for hiking poles on the exterior.
  • 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 like the Timbuk2 Aviator.
  • External pockets: Having pockets for all the extra knickknacks can be helpful, whether they are on the back of the bag, or on the hip belt. These are great places to stash things like tissues and lip balm.
  • Camelback hookups: Many backpacks have a pouch to hold a Camelback bladder and a cord that you wrap the valve through, making it easy to stay hydrated while carrying your backpack.
Kit Whelan in a Tom Bihn Aeronaut backpack
Kit Whelan in a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45L backpack

Backpack Brand

This is a quick run-down of some of the popular backpack brands on the market with links to some of their reviews.

Osprey Backpacks

By far, Osprey is our most-reviewed brand of backpacks on Her Packing List. Caroline downsized to the Osprey Sirrus 36, which has external pockets and is top and front loading. Ali has a few models, including the Escapist 25. When fellow traveler Jess chose the Osprey Waypoint Women’s 65L, she only had 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.” Search for Osprey backpacks on HPL.

REI Backpacks

American outdoor store REI carries its own brand of backpacks, as well as all your other travel necessities. Their returns and replacement policy is also worth noting. Ali has a Trail 40, while Natalie opted for the Vagabond Tour, also in 40L. Search for REI backpacks on HPL.

Tom Bihn Backpacks

This company has a number of cleverly designed and American-made products, but their backpacks are favorites of minimalists and digital nomads. The ultralight and simplistic Smart Alec daypack is a favorite of Brooke’s for her main luggage, while the Aeronaut‘s many features have been praised by a number of travelers in the #HPLWorld community. Search for Tom Bihn backpacks on HPL.

Eagle Creek Backpacks

Eagle Creek is one of our favorite brands when it comes to travel gear like packing cubes, but they also make luggage, rolling duffels, and backpacks. We have older reviews of the Eagle Creek Explorer, which is no longer made, but you might want to check out the Global Companion backpack they currently have on offer. Search for Eagle Creek backpacks on HPL.

Deuter Backpacks

Deuter Backpacks is a German gear company that is especially popular in Europe and also makes quality sleeping bags. For light packers, check out the review for the Deuter Futura 24L. Search for Deuter backpacks on HPL.

Tortuga Backpacks

Another brand for ladies who like to keep things light, Tortuga is made for travelers, by travelers. Their bags are also carry-on friendly. Over the years, they have undergone several revamps of their backpacks, so our old reviews of the V2 model, the Tortuga Air backpack and the packable daypack are obsolete. New reviews coming soon!

Other Backpack Brands

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

Backpack Price Range

Simply put, you get what you pay for. If you go for a cheap backpack, you may end up replacing it because of broken zippers or ripped fabric. Full priced bags typically range from $150-250 USD, but you can find outliers on both ends. A good backpack might not be cheap, but that doesn’t mean you need to pay full price. See the Where to Buy section further on in this article for tips. Also find out if your chosen brand has a warranty policy, as many will replace or repair damages within a certain amount of time.

Step 5: Try Backpacks On

Ok, if you’ve made it this far, you probably have a few backpack options in mind. Before you buy, however, we highly, highly, highly recommend trying them on… with weight!

For this, you can head to a local sporting goods or outdoors shop that stocks backpacks. REI is a popular one in the US. Once there, a sales assistant should be able to help you fit a backpack, and even throw in some weight so you can feel what it will be like while traveling. WALK AROUND THE STORE. Give it a good little workout if you can.

If you can’t get to a store to have someone fit you properly, this guide from REI can help.

Another option is to order a few of your preferred backpacks from online retailers that offer returns. Then, try them all on side by side with weight so you can compare in the comfort of your own home.

The trying on part is really an essential step in finding the perfect backpack. Because remember: Every body is different! What works for one person may not work so well for you. And an ill-fitted backpack will leave you dreading ever putting it on… aka travel stress!

The wrong and right way to wear a backpack
The wrong and right ways to wear a backpack.

>> Check out these common mistakes of first time backpackers.

Step 6: Take it for a Test Run

At this point, you’ve probably bought yourself a backpack – congrats to you! However, before you commit to taking that backpack as your sole piece of luggage for a year-long round-the-world trip, or for an epic hiking adventure, we still recommend taking it for a more thorough test run. Try a weekend away or a full day hike to see how it really feels. If you’ve done your research, you’ll most likely LOVE your pack… but we want you to be certain!

Osprey Kyte 36 backpack review
Emma and her Osprey Kyte 36L backpack.

Where to Buy Womens Backpacks

FYI – Some of these links are affiliate links.

  • Amazon: Has all types of backpacks, including day packs.
  • Anaconda: Anaconda has the largest range of outdoor products in Australia sourcing great gear locally & internationally.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Final Tips

  • Shop around. Even once you’ve selected the backpack you want, you can often 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.
  • Take your measurements. Backpacks can vary in sizes for the torso and hip belts.
  • Pack to prevent back pain. Put the heaviest items between the shoulder blades, not at the bottom of your backpack.
  • Backpacks aren’t like t-shirts. 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. They are often cheap, lightweight, and take up for space in your backpack. While most backpacks are water resistant, they might need more assistance when confronted with heavy and long rain exposure.

If you want to know any more about the backpacks you’ve read about, check out the interviews with the travelers as well as our list of the best travel backpacks for women!

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guide to picking a backpack
how to choose a backpack for women

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase using them, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. It helps to keep this site running – thank you!

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Laurence 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 😀 Tired of lugging too much crap with me 😉 Here’s hoping it works out!

  2. Vicky 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.

    • Brooke 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. Steph of Big World Small Pockets 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.

  7. ixchelmala says

    Loving this site!
    Just updated my 15+ yrs old Eagle Creek with with a woman’s Deuter ACT Lite 45 + 10 Pack. SO MUCH BETTER! I’m currently prepping for a 14 day trip on the east coast with my 70 yr old Mom who is totally up for hosteling and bussing it from D.C. to Boston.
    Being a plus size woman, short, and ambitious this trip is going to be a challenge, but this website is helping me go along to stay on track and stay focused.

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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