What Backpack Should I Get?

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Halifax, Nova Scotia

When I first started planning to head to Latin America the biggest question on my mind was what backpack should I get.

It is also one of the most frequently asked questions on travel forums and there are so many different opinions it can be very confusing.

But I am lucky enough to live in Canada, where we have Mountain Equipment Co-opΒ (MEC),Β Β a brand that signals a traveler is Canadian almost as much as the flag.

While you don’t have to be Canadian to shop there you do need to be a co-op member ($5) of the co-op and you can be assured you’ll be great quality at a fair price.

Over a year and a half ago I went there and a staff member helped me find one. There are always lots of staff in the backpack section because it’s such a big investment.

Turns out the one with the daypack that zips onto the bag wasn’t practical for someone so short and in the end I bought the Ibex 65.

It was a great bag. I didn’t need a rain cover and it held up through people throwing it on and off planes, on and off buses, on and around hostels.

The bag has grease all over it but after a year of hard travel it’s still ready to use.

But it is too big.

Everyone tells you to take the smallest bag possible. I thought 65L was a small bag. I have seen much bigger on the road.

But I have also seen people with much smaller ones. And after a few days of lugging it around on your back you start to lust for a smaller pack.

Especially the moments where you can’t find your hostel and your bag weighs so much that you sit down on the sidewalk to cry while locals walk by staring at the crazy white girl.

It happens.

Trust me you do not need 65L.

Talk to anyone who has used 65L for a while and they will tell you it just means they carry around things they don’t need.

I needed a new pack. It was time to pare down.

And when Mountain Equipment Co-op offered a replacement pack I was ecstatic. I would never think to buy anywhere else.

But what backpack should I get?

Once at MEC Andy, a staff member, and I talked about the need for a smaller pack and he agreed while the Ibex 65 was good, it was far too much for fall in Europe.

We looked at the MEC brand backpacks Cragalot 48, Alpinelite 45 and Brio 50.

The first look at the Cragalot wasn’t impressive. Mostly because of the colour, it was called amphibian green, although I thought it looked more like neon snot green.

I was wary of the pack until Andy found it in black.

I liked all three bags. I didn’t know what to choose but Andy said we first needed to try them on with weighted bags inside as it was the only way we could see which fit best when it was full.

trying on backpack

I highly recommend getting a backpack fitting. Sure it could feel right in the store or at home.

But it’s too late once you’re on the road and walking for an hour in the rain, crying, trying to find your hostel.

Seriously it happened to me many times, it will happen to you.

Andy helped fit the pack to my body and showed me where to adjust, which in some cases weren’t so apparent.

It was clear that he had fitted bags on many people because he showed me where things were fitting better on some bags that others.

I also learned that all MEC bags are fitted with a whistle, something Jodi from Legal Nomads swears by, and a feature I had never noticed on my Ibex.

He also told me things to look for on all the bags and reminded me that a side zipper on a top loading bag is essential.

He’s right, I used the one on my Ibex all the time but I had forgotten.

backpack

In the end I picked the Cragalot pack. Andy said it fit me the best, had a side zipper but also not to many openings so I could lock the top and feel safe no one would rifle through it.

Plus I liked the colour – yes that is important!

There are also some features that make hiking easier, like places for ice axe loops and crampons, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I hate hiking!

Note: I did promise Andy not to publish any unflattering photos of him, but to be fair he did make this face. I also like it because it showed his personality. I never once felt like I was taking up too much time agonizing over the perfect bag and he didn’t rush me. He was a great guy and if you are ever in the Halifax store I highly recommend asking for him.

Join the Conversation

  1. Love MEC!! and it is like a Canada flag being stitched on your pack. Being fitted is definitely uber important.

    Not everyone who uses a 65L says that we’re carrying around stuff we don’t need πŸ™‚

    I have to say that I love my 65L (and if I had to get a new one, I would get the same). Never in the 2 years have I once said I need less space as I use every litre it gives. Plus it gives me a little more flex when Dalene needs me to carry something for her.

    But obviously with backpacks it is all on what feels right with you and what you want to haul around the world.

    Best of luck with the 48L, hope Europe is treating you well πŸ™‚

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      That’s the point! When you have 65L you use 65L, but now that I only have 48L I don’t think I’m missing out on anything.

      You could do it Pete!

      1. I know I could, but I just don’t want to. The 65 serves its purpose perfect for me.

    2. I Also bought a Cragalot for my up coming trip to Peru next month. I got the standard which is 55L. I bought the amphibian green as I like bright colours. I was actually considering returning it and get the Ibex 65. I am 5’7″ and thought a bigger pack would be better, but now after reading this I might just keep my 55L Cragalot.

      1. Ayngelina Author says:

        Greg I’m actually considering going even smaller now. Don’t worry about not having everything you need, you can get almost everything in Peru. Have a look at my post about what I packed that I did not need – Pack this, not that.

  2. Christy @ Technosyncratic says:

    We bought our backpacks from REI in the U.S., which we highly recommend (the company sounds very similar to MEC). Mine is super tiny because I’m only 4’10”, and it’s wider than most backpacks (and not as tall). I call it my turtle shell. πŸ˜› Works like a charm, though!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      From what I have heard REI and MEC are very similar. I’m on 5′ so going lighter has been so much better.

    2. what backpack did you get? I’m 4’10” too and I’ve been looking for the perfect match for a 3 week trip in Europe

      1. Ayngelina Author says:

        For 3 weeks I’d get 35L or less, and make sure you get packing cubes.

  3. MEC is the new Canadian flag. While wandering through the deserted old city in Guayaquil in Ecuador, we could hear someone shouting “Canada” at us. We looked around and finally up to see a guy in a second floor window shouting down to us. Although he was on the phone, he paused to wave and greet us. He had spotted my MEC purse and since he had a cousin in Toronto knew what it meant. Funny, eh? (couldn’t resist throwing in the eh).

    As for the how big is too big, it’s sooo individual. Both Adrian and I needed 65L bags, but then again our clothes are much bigger because we’re much bigger.

    That’s all. Except hi Ayngelina.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Hmm Liz you do make a good point, but I still think 65L is pushing it for anyone. I believe NeverendingVoyage travels lighter than I do.

  4. I’m fascinated to read about backpacks, given that I wouldn’t be seen in one dead!!! Which doesn’t mean I don’t like to get an education, I love to read recipes too although I can hardly boil an egg. Flexibility and open mindedness are the key words here. Glad to see you found the right piece of luggage for yourself.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      If you get a good one you would never go back to rolling luggage on cobblestone roads again!

  5. Raymond @ Man On The Lam says:

    I love MEC too. I’ve been known to black out in there and walk out with 200 bucks lighter.

    I have the Osprey Waypoint 65 and I love the crap out of it. But you’re right, it is too big, and I am carrying stuff I don’t really need. I just dumped some clothes in Koh Phagnan, and could do with even more pruning…

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I was really surprised how easy it was to drop down to 48, you should think about it.

  6. Emily in Chile says:

    MEC sounds like REI (not sure if those exist in Canada). REI is also a co-op, the staff are all amazing and so knowledgeable, and based on your pictures they even look the same inside. I can understand how much you love MEC because I would never buy outdoor equipment anywhere but REI, and every time we’re home in California we make sure to stop by just to wander around.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      No REIs in Canada but I heard they are amazing too.

    2. Julie - The Fairy Trails says:

      MEC was actually inspired by REI. Adventurers from Vancouver that were tired of having to go cross border to purchase gear from REI. πŸ˜€

  7. Roy Marvelous | Cruisesurfingz says:

    I have lots of of MEC bags – a laptop bag, a day pack and another massive travel bag. But I think the best bag for short term travel is still a wheeled carry-on!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      what about cobblestone streets?

  8. I’ve been “trying” to find a backpack for YEARS. I give up 3 backpacks in. I guess I just need to go to an A-16 or REI to get help!!

    Do you fit your dslr in your backpack? how do you protect it?

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I don’t keep my dslr in my backpack, I have a small messenger bag I keep my electronics in so I don’t accidentally bang them around.

  9. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy says:

    I guess I will definitely have to upgrade from my $9.99 Target school backpack once I start doing long-term travel.

  10. Thanks for the shout out! Yes, definitely swear by that whistle and only posted some of the situations where it came in handy – it’s an easy, great thing to make sure you have.

    I actually tried the bag you chose recently myself- I use a 65L and it’s just too big. Given that we’re both so short, I was impressed with how well the Cragalot fit – looking forward to your from-the-road review!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      You would be surprised how easy it was to go to the 48. I honestly don’t notice much of a difference.

  11. Ryan Aldred says:

    Ah, the memories… just over a year ago that I did my own fitting at MEC for a daypack to take on our round-the-world trip. I ended up going for a Deuter Futura 28 – a great small pack. Otherwise, we just used wheelie suitcases. Perhaps neither as rugged or adventurous, but they did us well for everywhere except the Japanese subways – seemingly the only location in the world without escalators. Good article!

  12. My justification for my ridiculously large backpack (it was made in the 70s and I’m not sure what size it is but it’s a monster) is that I need to carry around a bunch of camping gear so I can take advantage of free accommodation opportunities. However, I’ve always wanted to trim down to one backpack that can be taken as a carry on.

    1. Francis Tapon says:

      I know a bit about backpacks because I’ve walked across America 4 times. πŸ™‚

      Mitchell: I agree with your travel style – I love having the camping gear with me to keep my options open while I travel. However, you don’t need to take much.

      For example, when I walked from Mexico to Canada and back along the Rocky Mountains, I only carried 3 kg (6 pounds) of gear. And I slept in the mountains the whole way.

      Ayngelina, you’re doing the right thing by encouraging people to downsize their backpacks. A small pack forces you to not carry too much crap. πŸ™‚

      1. Ayngelina Author says:

        You have walked, wow!

        I have no regrets with the 48L, I know I’ll be able to fit everything in it and am actually starting to wonder if I should have gone smaller.

      2. Francis: Wow, that is impressive. I’ll have to work on paring down my gear.
        When you say walked do you mean walk walked or hitch hiked?

    2. Ayngelina Author says:

      What kind of camping stuff do you take?

      1. I usually bring a tent, sleeping bag, a sleeping mat (sometimes), a mini burner, some pots and pans that fold together, and a plate, bowl, cutlery set (which I actually got from MEC). My pack has a bottom section and I’m able to fit the cooking stuff along with a few days worth of foodstuffs in it. I strap the tent and sleeping bag and mat on the outside. It definitely adds to my load but is totally worth the savings in food and accommodation costs. I probably do about 50% free camping and 50% hostels (so i can still meet people and party)

  13. I bought the exact same bag as you for when I moved to New Zealand, and like you, I found the 65L to be WAAAAY too big. I felt that it was too bulky, esp when going down train or bus aisles with it, and of course, all that space meant I could ram it full. For my next trip (Peru!) Im downsizing to a 40+ and cant wait to be (comparatively) lightweight!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Love it, clothes are very cheap in Peru and all the medication you could possibly want is there, same brands but much cheaper so you don’t need to stock up on much.

      Where are you headed in Peru?

  14. Andy should be warned that I may be visiting him soon…. some day I will have to give up my pull along luggage for a backpack πŸ™ sigh… hahaha

    oh and often times I have almost started crying and have wanted to scream at the top of my lungs because I couldn’t find my hostel or it started raining or it was just to hot out and I’ve cursed my luggage haha

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I cannot imagine rolling luggage around cobblestone streets. Or sometimes when there is a long line for an escalator I just take the stairs.

      You have to make the switch. And also I think Andy would make for a great video…

  15. Migrationology says:

    I recently started using just a small 30 L backpack to carry the things I need. I can’t carry too much excess and I love the smallness and portability of traveling with a small bag. MEC looks like it has some great equipment – hope your new backpack works awesome for you!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I had thought about going smaller but I don’t ‘turtle’ – no day bag just a messenger bag and I wanted it all to fit in one bag if need be.

      If I could give up my dependency on electronics I think I would fit into 30

  16. Shirlene from Idelish says:

    MEC sounds like the REI of Seattle πŸ™‚ We get almost all our gear from REI and love the personalized service they provide that MEC seems to provide as well!

    I got myself a 40L backpack and I agree that you DON’T need a 65L backpack unless you’re doing some serious serious hiking and camping πŸ˜‰ The backpack has been traveling with us on almost every trip now. Beats a drag-a-long luggage anyday except our clothes may be a tad wrinkly πŸ™‚

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Perhaps if you had to plan for winter and summer weather you may be more – however most warm destinations have cheap clothing so I would say just buy it on the road.

  17. “Especially the moments where you can’t find your hostel and your bag weighs so much that you sit down on the sidewalk to cry while locals walk by staring at the crazy white girl.”

    YES! I have done this at practically every place I’ve been to so far!

    I have a 45l with me at the moment, and have found it to be perfect, any bigger and I’d be toppling over every 5 minutes!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      When I had the 65L there was no way I could bend over to pick something up. If I did the weight shifted above my head and knocked me over.

      I can now laugh at the times I cried in front stranger but I am happy that it is less likely to happen now.

  18. So good you recommended to actually get a fitting for the backpack so that it matches your own physique Ayngelina. And you’re so right with advising to minimize the size as well. I am always packing tooo much and am cursing because of the weight afterwards ;-). And taking a smaller back right from the beginning would at least force me to select more carefully beforehand. Would be interesting to read about your packing list when you’re travelling to figure out what really is necessary to take with you and what you can leave out.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I know! I guess the key is to leave a bit of room in the bag because you always accumulate things on the road, that will be the tough thing to do.

  19. The Travel Chica says:

    I went with a 45L pack, and although I struggle to get everything packed back into it perfectly when it’s time to move on, I am so happy I am not loaded down.

    You will fill your pack to the brim no matter what size you get.

    As you know, I am really short too, and I cannot imagine carrying a pack any bigger than what I have now.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I remember seeing your pack and wishing mine was smaller!

  20. Thomas | JusGetaway says:

    This one I’m lost on. I know nothing about backpacks other than helping my son pick one out for school. I guess though its kind of the same. You pick the one that feels right for you.

  21. Mack Reynolds says:

    I don’t want to out myself as ignorant, but until I bought a camelbak [offbrand] I had no idea bags used liters as their measurement. Weird, I know. Glad you got a new bag that doesn’t weigh you down any longer.

  22. Jeremy Cohen says:

    Ayngelina, I had such a similar situation when I took my last month-long trip to Europe. Ultimately, I never found the perfect backpack, and neither did my travel partner. In fact, we were both so let down that we set out to create the perfect travel backpack.

    A few years later and our product, the Tortuga Backpack 45, is now on the market. We really feel as if we’ve designed the perfect backpack for travel. It has everything you need, is perfectly sized to be a cary on, and it doesn’t have any of the unnecessary extras that a hiking/camping bag might have.

    We’re also so confident you’ll love our bag that we have a 110% money-back guarantee, and we’ll replace your bag if anything ever goes wrong with it.

    For the rest of you who haven’t bought your bag yet, I really encourage you to check out the Tortuga Backpack.

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  24. Paring down is always good! Definitely easier to do when you have had the crying experience. We came very close to that in Venice. Over the bridge, lost again, over another bridge, lost again – took 3 hours of carrying our bags over bridge after bridge to find the hotel. Agh!

  25. Natalie T. says:

    I love MEC! But I never recall getting a whistle with my pack. That was over five years ago, however, so maybe they’ve changed it since then. You’re also right on the Cragalot green colour – not pretty. I like the black. Glad you found something that fit you! The guys there are really patient and know their stuff.

  26. love MEC – my mother in law lives in ottawa and I never miss an opp. to go there when visiting. But in N CA we have REI and that is where I bought my pack that I traveled throughout Europe with. enjoy yours, and MEC, Im sure, would be thrilled if you were their brand ambassador on future travels! πŸ™‚

  27. While we don’t have your awesome MEC, I am still in love with my Deuter 40L backpack. While I do have to make important decisions on what I need to keep, it is SUPER light.

  28. I love that you took photos in the store!

    I’m still using the same Gregory backpack I bought back in 1998. At the time, I purposefully bought one that felt very comfortable, even if it is more designed for climbing mountains and scaling ice walls than hanging out in hostels.

    I’ve never regretted the smaller size (2,700 cubic inches, or 44 liters) either. Despite all the airline regulation changes, I can still use it as carry-on if I want to leave the liquids and sharp objects behind.

    I travel light enough that unpacking everything isn’t a big deal (especially if you compartmentalizing using dry bags), so I haven’t felt the need to get a newer pack with the side loading.

  29. I agree that it’s more easier to find variety of bags in Canada then in new York City. It’s a great post for other people who are planning to get a backpack if they don’t have one.

  30. This is so true! I just came back from six weeks with a 45L in SE Asia, and everywhere I went people were jealous of my pack. Not once did I think I needed more room, in fact I can think of stuff I’d leave behind! I can maybe see the need for another 10L or so if you’re doing a year long trip and need to pack for multiple seasons, or carrying camping equipment. Other than that, no one NEEDS a 65L pack. I love my baby pack!

  31. I felt like I needed a bigger pack before we left, but I ended up getting a 45L Deuter pack and never had regretted it.

    It keeps my pack pretty light and small and stops me from buying too much crap!

    Your pack looks like a good choice though.

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  33. I remember having the same problem when I bought my first backpack. I was glad a very helpful staff assisted me. Good point about it looking good when you’re on the store but pretty bad when you’re already on the road. Fitting and throughly inspecting it are really important.

  34. What a great idea – getting fitted out for a back pack. We are yet to use one, but if I ever do (or our kids do) then I will be sure to find a store that takes us through the process of choosing the right size! And yep colour is so important πŸ™‚
    Cheers
    Lisa
    Ps – love your smile when you have finally chosen one!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Thanks Lisa. Getting fitted really makes a difference. While they all looked similar they felt quite different once I had the weight in.

  35. I have the same Ibex bag you have. I recently took it to Germany with my family (there were 4 of us – me, my wife my son and my mom). I used all 65L of that bag and wow was it ever heavy (I’m surprised I got it on the plane without penalty). I love MEC (my wife considered posting a “have you seen me” photo at the local store in case she couldn’t find me). I didn’t regret having the bag, but I did regret having the carry all that weight. Next time, I will try to go smaller. Thanks for the advice and the good read.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Brandon I was the same way. I find if you have the space you just use it. I am actually surprised how much better 48L is and wondered if I should have gone even smaller!

  36. its nice work you have done here

  37. Good goobly woobly! I can’t imagine toting something that could double as my toddler around like that. More power to you, Ayngelina…work those muscles! Great research..it is important to try before you buy.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Oh yes when I lament about not exercising I do remember that I carry 20 lbs on my back as I walk up stairs!

  38. You should know that bacon is a big deal at MEC. Great article!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Well then a match made in heaven πŸ™‚

  39. I’m still debating whether or not to replace my backpack.

    I bought it when I was 13 for going on a student exchange in France. I’ve only used it once since then and it was pretty awful carrying it around.

    I went into an outdoor activities shop recently and started looking at the backpacks. I was so overwhelmed and didn’t have a clue which one to choose. The guy at the counter mumbled some response that they were all good and I knew then and there not to shop there because he clearly didn’t have any proper advice to give me.

    Wish I had a store like the one you went to nearby.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Oh no if you already hate your backpack get rid of it now. I know you are in the UK and I also really like Deuter backpacks, they have really quality gear and you should be able to get it there.

  40. RON & MONETTE | fliptravels.com says:

    we’re excited for your next adventure!
    i hope to see you here in asia soon!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I’m working on it, it’s so expensive to fly over there!

  41. Its funny how when you think you’ve got everything right, only to find out everything was wrong. After weeks of researching the specs and prices online, I thought I had found three perfect choices for my RTW backpack. But turns out, with every post, I didn’t get it right at all. I never considered my height to be factor, since I’m not very tall either. I guess this means no attached day pack for me. More importantly, you got the right idea – actually going to the store and trying out some choices is important. The REI flagship store is not that far from my home, so I am headed there and thankful that I looked up ideas before I made a final purchase online. Really appreciate the solid backpack advice.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I never considered height to be a problem either until the guide at MEC told me. The people who work at MEC use, fit and see the bags every day. They know the little tips and tricks. I would have never realized one fit me better than another iwthout help.

  42. Cornelius Aesop says:

    I need to start looking at a bag for when I start my adventures. I found my sister-in-laws old one which is likely the right size for me but will have to find a mini one for my wife. This is the one thing we can’t really purchase once we are on the road but I will take note that if 65L is too big for you it will surely be too big for my wife. Thanks for the tip

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Believe me you don’t need 65L either πŸ™‚

  43. I completely agree. The bigger the pack, the more crap you pack and break your back. It’s always stuff you don’t need and you end up tossing it anyway. Save your back and get the smaller one. REI has really awesome and knowledgeable staff, but then go online to purchase. It’s cheaper.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I’m in Canada but the good news is the MEC staff is knowledgable and the online stuff is the same price perhaps because it’s a co-op. My mother has a membership but there isn’t a store in her town so whenever I need something she can just order it online.

  44. 65l is too big. You won’t nee that large. It will break your back.

  45. Backpacks are hard. You may think you have the best one until you really use it. I love my packsafe. It keeps things safe and it’s easy to lock up. The best thing to do is try tons out, fill them up so you know how they fit filled. Travel on!

  46. One advantage of having a good trip is light backpacking. I always have a lightweight backpack. Also, the stuff which are brought along are important also. They should be all must-have items.

    Annually, I travel with my beloved daughter. We all fancy fashionable backpacks in pink. Any suggestion on this?

    Thank for your info and please keep it up.

  47. I love my 48L Osprey. It is not too large and I am also able to use it as a carry on item when flying.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Yeah I love the option to just carry on.

  48. Great write up on the investment of a decent backpack. Have given us many ideas and tips that we hadn’t even thought of. Thank you very much.

  49. Thomas Madinson says:

    Great post. These posts are indeed precious indeed. One benefit of having a great trip is light backpacking. I always have a lightweight backpack. Also, the material which is brought along is essential too. They should be all must-have items.

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