What I’ve Learned From Reviewing Over a Dozen Backpacks

After a year and a half of one bag travel, I caught the backpack bug—big time. So much so that I started my own website, packhacker.com, where my team and I review backpacks and other gear with a focus on one bag urban travel.

Since starting Pack Hacker, I’ve reviewed a handful of backpacks with a bunch more in the works. I’ve learned a thing or two about backpacks, and although I’ve gotten my hands on the majority of one bag travel packs out there I have yet to find the “perfect pack.” In fact, I’m not sure it even exists…

With that said, here are a few of the biggest backpack takeaways I’ve found along the way.

Zippers Matter

If there’s one thing that has made an impression on me while testing all these backpacks, it’s the zippers. Zippers are the one area that will absolutely make or break a pack—a broken zipper is the worst thing that can happen to a bag when you’re out traveling. Just one broken zip can make your bag totally useless—and good luck getting that thing fixed when you’ve got a language barrier to deal with!

I love YKK zippers—they’re trusted and reliable—and I get particularly excited when I see a fat #10 YKK RC on a bag. Especially when it comes to clamshell packs, the bigger zipper the better—you do not want a broken zipper on that main clamshell compartment.

The Waterproofing Misnomer

Another big takeaway I’ve gotten from looking at product descriptions all over the web and testing out bags myself is this confusion around the whole “weatherproof” and “waterproof” verbiage. Just because a bag has waterproof materials does not mean it’s waterproof!

I’ve noticed a lot of manufacturers will tout their waterproof materials and use confusing language that leads people to believe their packs are waterproof. Outside of legitimate dry-bags made for boating, the vast majority of packs are not waterproof (AKA – submersible). If just one component is not completely waterproof, guess what? The bag isn’t waterproof.

Weatherproof or water-resistant is a much better term. Most bags that are “made of waterproof materials” will get you through a stroll in the rain with no problems. Throw a rain cover on and you’ll be able to get through just about anything. And if you’re snorkeling, don’t bring your backpack!

Organization is a Double-Edged Sword

I’ve lived the “digital nomad” lifestyle for a while now and found that internal organization can be a tricky subject. While I do like having pockets and compartments to organize all my cables and dongles, too much organization can really cut into pack capacity. Once you start throwing zippers and pockets into every nook and cranny, it can make the bag really inefficient.

Personally, I like a nice big clamshell pocket to hold the majority of my stuff and then a smaller pocket that offers some extra organization. Throw some packing cubes in the clamshell and you end up with the best of both worlds.

And along with organization, the actual shape of the pack is super important as well. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, a rectangular pack is generally going to offer more space than a rounded one.

What Does Liter Size Really Mean?

I’d love to get a bunch of backpack gurus in a room to hash out this liter debate. The fact of the matter is that liter size can vary from brand to brand due to the shape of the pack, internal padding, and configuration of internal pockets. I’ve tested out 30L packs that seemed roomier than 35L (or even 40L!) packs from other brands, and vice versa.

Unless you can get your hands on the pack itself, it’s hard to say how accurate the given capacity size is. This is one of the reasons why I started Pack Hacker! These little nuances can be super confusing when you’re just getting into this stuff, so we try to explain these things in simple terms with our reviews.

There’s No “Perfect Pack”

A lot of people ask me point-blank, “what’s the best backpack I can buy?” and I have to resist the urge to roll my eyes. But to be fair, when I first got into travel I was on a quest to find the perfect pack, too.

After all the packs I’ve looked at I am fairly confident there is no “perfect pack,” and there certainly isn’t a “one size fits all” pack. It all comes down to what you want to do with it and what your personal preferences are. If you’re a photographer, you’re going to want a lot of different features than what a digital nomad or an ultralight traveler is looking for. And even once you nail down what kind of travel you’re into, there are a ton of personal features that are entirely up to you.

This “perfect pack” question was actually the spark that got us to write our guide on How to Choose the Best Travel Backpack. If you’re going to do any long term one bag travel, it’s super important to find a bag that will be durable and functional—but you also need to find a bag that you actually like.

Aesthetics do matter, and you’re not going to be psyched about traveling the world with a pack that you can’t stand the look of. We really like clean minimalist packs over at Pack Hacker, but to each their own!

Backpacks Are Awesome

I guess it goes without saying, but I really do think one bag travel is the way to go. No checked bags, no roller luggage, no nonsense. There’s something so freeing about having all your belongings in one pack that you can throw on your back at a moment’s notice.

I didn’t really think about bags too much until I decided to live out of one. I’ve always been into design features from my work, but backpacks weren’t really on my radar. Then one day I decided to quit my job, get rid of almost all my belongings, and pack what was left of my NYC apartment into one bag (the GORUCK GR2, if you’re curious). I wasn’t sure if I could manage to live out of one bag, but I took the plunge and hit the airport.

About the Author

Tom Wahlin took his digital design and creative direction career on the road in May of 2015. He sold nearly all of his belongings, packing up his New York City life into a 40L backpack. As of October 2017, he’s been living a fully nomadic lifestyle traveling to a new country every couple of weeks.

The process of deciding what to pack became more laborious than the travel plans themselves. Tom became obsessed with figuring out what to pack for long-term travel and how to make it all fit in one piece of carry-on luggage. He shared his learnings in the Medium article, “Everything You Need to Travel The World in One Backpack” and found that he wasn’t alone. The article was a hit, and the idea for Pack Hacker was born.

Now, Tom leverages his design background from tech companies like Apple, The Infatuation, and space150 to find minimalist gear that will maximize your travel experience.