Choosing a Travel (Conversion) Pack
It's a rite of passage for many college students - 'Backpacking Around (insert continent).' And in the romantic mental image, you're smiling, leaning forward under an oversized and outdoorsy-looking pack, bandana over your grubby hair, smiling like a fool in some exotic locale. What you don't envision is standing at the station/airport/curb looking at a pack that the baggage handler dropped in a puddle of something, is missing half the hip belt, and is overflowing with hastily-packed clothes.
Adversity becomes adventure when you're telling the story later, but some adversity can be avoided without reducing the 'wow' factor of your trip. With a little forethought and the right pack, you can spend less time getting ready and more time doing.
Trail-intended internal frame packs are designed to carry your gear all day comfortably, with the expectation that when camp is set up, the bag is mostly empty. The suspension system (shoulder straps and hip belt) do not fold or pack away, the cargo area has at most one divider and loads from the top, and durability has been reduced for weight savings. Travel-specific conversion packs are luggage you can carry on your back. They will have a concealable suspension for checking in, a panel- or book-style opening for easy access to your stuff, and every strap and handle is designed to survive the trip.
When starting on any trip, you should have some concept of what your itinerary looks like and what type of traveler you are. This will affect your pack selection because winter requires more and heavier clothing, while third-world and 'off the grid' plans mean you will be carrying the pack far more than checking it. The main questions to answer are 'How many hours a day am I carrying this thing?' and 'How much stuff do I really need?'
The general rule of thumb for luggage is that when you add up the three dimension in inches, the result must be 45 or less to qualify as carry-on. The corollary is that any bag with a longest dimension over 22in won't fit in the overhead bin. Conversion packs in this size range can be as big as 45 liters but will tend to be very simple, foregoing real padding on the shoulder straps and lacking a hip belt. The benefit of a smaller bag is that you will bring less stuff, which means packing and unpacking are easier and the load is lighter.
The majority of conversion packs are not carry-on size, and offer 50 to 70 liters of capacity, with the very few over 75 liters (for people who like to shop or haven't figured out a rolling bag yet). Clothing is heavy for its volume; two weeks worth of outfits will weight almost seven pounds, so make sure to weigh your bag before you finalize your packing- it will probably be heavier than you think, and you will be carrying it.
No matter which travel pack you get, dig through all of them and note some of the most common, and important, elements:
Durability - Look for a tag identifying the use of Cordura nylon, widely recognized as the most durable fabric available. At the least you want the bottom of the bag to survive being dragged across a parking lot or two.
Water resistance - The body fabric should be shiny on the inside. This indicates a polyurethane coating that will keep water from penetrating the whole cloth. Unless all the seams are sealed, however, the bag is not waterproof. Remember that the panel covering the suspension may frequently be the 'bottom' - make sure it has very few seams to leak.
Longevity - Compare the size and weight of the straps and hardware. Wide, well-padded shoulder straps, big zippers, and reinforced stitching indicate a bag built to last. Lighter packs are frequently outfitted with less-substantial findings, and though the fabric might hold up, if the straps hurt your shoulders or the zipper brings out your 'adult' language, it's just not worth it.
Ease of Use - The first time you look at a travel pack, the parts might be a bit confusing , but just a few minutes perusal should help. Unzip and unbuckle everything, then try to put it back together in a hurry - do you end up trying to shove the thing under your arm to run for the train?
Size - It's easy to put just 40 liters of stuff in a 50L bag, but will you stop there? How much will it weigh when full? Do you really need that much bag? 'I've got room for that' might lead to a grumpy day.
Features - Travel packs are actually fairly predictable when it comes to features. The main differences will be how beefy the straps and buckles are, how much you can adjust something, or if there are colors beyond black. Some things to look for:
- Hip belts are intended to help with heavier loads, but only if you use it. Does the belt fit well? Is it comfortable? Can you adjust it quickly and easily?
- More padding on the suspension system means the load will be more comfortable, but the bulkier straps may be harder to stow quickly.
- A removable day pack that integrates easily and securely can help you stay organized, and take a smaller version of your stuff on side trips. However, if you aren't a 'day pack person' already, it's a change to your normal mode. If you have a bag you like better already, figure out how to integrate it into your gear.
- If you will be carrying this pack frequently and in all conditions, check to see if a raincover is included or available - if the pack stays dry, it will be lighter to carry, as well as keeping the contents safe.
- Fashion can be a real determining factor, but remember that black is a safe and easy color, even though eighty percent of the bags on the luggage carousel are black. If other colors are available, think about it.