There is one piece of travel gear that is perhaps more annoying, aggravating, and inconvenient to the traveler than almost any other: the top loading backpack. What is amazing is that this is still the most common style backpack being used for world travel. Top loading backpacks are perhaps good if you merely wish to cart [...]
There is one piece of travel gear that is perhaps more annoying, aggravating, and inconvenient to the traveler than almost any other: the top loading backpack. What is amazing is that this is still the most common style backpack being used for world travel. Top loading backpacks are perhaps good if you merely wish to cart a bunch of gear from point A to point B with the sole intention of dumping it all out upon arrival without accessing anything on the inside en route — but who can say they want to just do this? For a backpack to be good for travel it has to allow for easy and quick access to what is stored inside of it and be simple to pack and organize. Travel gear is meant to be used, not just hauled.
What is wrong with top loading backpacks?
Top loading backpacks demand that you pack your gear in layers, going from the bottom of the bag up to the top. This is the longest dimension of this piece of luggage, and creates the largest possible gear stack (the depth to which items can be buried). You also must stuff gear in through the top of a top loader without being able to see what you are doing, arranging items one on top of another until you have a tight stack of gear.
After you get one of these packs filled, in order to get anything out of it you must A) dump everything out, B) remove layers of gear until you get down to the item you’re after, or C) shove an arm down into the depth of the bag and feel around for what you want, and when you find it tug it up to the surface through the rest of your gear. Doing this multiple times per day, when hiking, in transit, or in public becomes a real hassle — believe me.
While it is true that some top loading backpacks have a second opening near the bottom of the pack which allows you to access gear that is packed deep, this really just means that you are able to fumble blindly in your bag and screw up an otherwise neat packing job from two sides rather than one. Any item removed from the bottom of a top loading backpack is also going to leave an empty cavity, which can make for awkward weight distribution when your gear finally settles into it again.
It is truly annoying to be fighting your backpack to free the rain jacket you stuffed into its depths in the middle of a surprise thunder shower. It sucks having to dump out an entire backpack of gear to just get out your sleeping bag when trying to inconspicuously camp on the sly. It is a constant annoyance to have to repack all of your gear because you needed to remove it from your backpack for the umpteenth time to get at something you packed deep. It is truly a sad state of affairs when you simply don’t access a piece of gear that you would otherwise want just because you don’t want to go through the hassle of digging it out of your pack. Or perhaps the worst thing about a top loading backpack is the arm spelunking you need to do each time you want to access a piece of gear, trying all the while to remember the internal coordinates of where it is positioned in the bag.
“I know I have a clean sock somewhere around the lower left quadrant of this backpack . . . Arrrggg!”
I want to be able to access every piece of travel gear that I have from my backpack in a matter of moments — I don’t want to be blindly stuffing my arms around in the crags of my bag as through I were noodling for catfish.
The case against top loading backpacks video
Watch how my wife must dig deep into her top loading backpack and remove multiple items in an attempt to get to something that has been buried. After I was caught making the video my wife continued her search for at least another five minutes — emptying everything out just to put it all back in again.
Suggested backpack style
I began traveling with a suitcase style backpack in 2006. It was a Kelty Redwing, and was the first backpack that I had used for travel that was not a top loader. It had a zipper opening that reached all the way around three sides like a suitcase. I was at first awed that I could open up the entire posterior panel and pack items neatly and tactically inside and access items that were placed anywhere in the bag — even the very bottom. I now use a Lowe Alpine TT Tour Travel backpack which has a similar “suitcase” style opening. Neither pack has failed yet.
Top loader backpack conclusion
When I first began traveling there were not any packs that were made exclusively for travel readily available on the market, and I found myself stuck using hiking backpacks — which are oddly often more adept at hauling gear than offering easy access to it. Now there are many models of backpack that are readily available for travelers which are not top loaders. Given this, I’m often left bewildered as to why so many backpackers choose to use top loading backpacks — which are perhaps the most inconvenient to use type of this luggage ever designed.
I must laugh every time I see a traveler noodling their arms repeatedly down into the depths of a top loading backpack, looking for something to no avail. I must make a joke when I see a backpacker playing tug of war in vain trying to remove a piece of gear from the abyss of a fully packed top loader. Invariably, I think to myself, “I’ve been there.”
For many years I traveled with a top loading backpack, too.
Recommended backpacks for travel
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
February 13, 2012, 1:26 am
I have a top loading backpack and can attest to its annoying qualities. but i have grown too attached to it now to get rid of it!
February 13, 2012, 3:43 pm
Thank you for this excellent review! I’m all but convinced to go with either this bag or the Osprey Porter 46. Any experience with that bag?
February 14, 2012, 12:01 am
I got big hands and I detest those top loading backpacks. I travel with family so we use two Jansport external frame packs. (yeah yeah yeah I know about how external frames are for traveling) I love how it not only has a way to get into from the top but also opens like a suitcase in the middle part. It’s also got lots of pockets and pouches to stick stuff in.
For short journeys, I use a day pack or my favorite old no name suitcase like backpack bought in 2005 in Thailand for like $8.
April 21, 2012, 5:13 am
I’m with you on this one, I originally started out with a top loading pack, ugh, got a Kelty Redwing 3100 now, so much nicer.
September 8, 2012, 11:29 pm
The single most important feature of a travel backpack is comfort. And I just haven’t found a comfortable panel – loading pack. Travelled with the Redwing and all I got was a sore back and neck (I do know how to adjust backpacks). For me, the comfort of my top – loader overshadows any inconvenience (and really, it’s minor) of digging to find gear. The best tip for easy access to gear in any type of pack is not to have it stuffed to the gills.
March 11, 2014, 3:01 am
When I started hiking & camping I was taught how to pack stuff. That is why it is called backpacking. A top loader is packed FILO: first in, last out. Thus it is important to be ORGANIZED. Disorganized packers always have problems. Now when I travel with my family — two toddlers in tow — my wife lets me pack.
I have panel-loading daypacks; my Jack Wolfskin Ridge Runner is great. But when I need to pack more than 35L I would go for a top loader. I would even prefer one with no sleeping bag access; it’s much simpler that way.
If you really need quick access like your life depends on it, buy a Mystery Ranch backpack, like the Komodo Dragon. It’s intended for tactical use.
May 22, 2019, 9:33 pm
May be inconvenient, but every pack I have ever used fails first at the zippers. I would much rather search for gear than have it come tumbling out, or be unable to secure it to begin with.
February 5, 2020, 5:00 pm
Hi there I totally agree about top load backpacks. I have an awesome 45 L karrimore sabre have you seen or do you know of any videos on how to convert these to a suitcase style?