In this post: An unbiased guide on how to overcome option overwhelm and choose a backpack you will be happy with for years to come.
Nine years ago, I walked over to Multiplaza Mall in Panama City, Panama, popped into the Patagonia store, and bought this Fuego backpack for my upcoming six-month pretirement tour:
If comparison sites, YouTube reviews, and Reddit existed back then, I didn't use them to guide my purchase decision.
I simply saw the bag and bought it because it had the features I wanted—water bottle pockets, various other pockets for knickknacks, and carry-on size. Plus, I'd just read the founder's book, Let My People Go Surfing, and felt like trying one of his products.
Was it the "perfect" backpack?
The color was ugly. And I'd have preferred it were waterproof. But I never second-guessed my decision nor thought of replacing it.
Like Old Yeller, my faithful backpack has had my back through untold adventures. It's been with me for longer than I've known my wife, Kim.
Sadly, the wear and tear of time caught up with it. I took it to Patagonia to see if they could repair it (something they offer for free!), and they told me no.
So it was time for something I'd been dreading: To start looking for a replacement backpack.
Backpack Buying Step 1:
Step away from the internet.
Backpacks aren't dogs, so I could theoretically replace my Fuego with a brand-new clone. Except Patagonia long-ago discontinued the model.
I wanted to try something new, anyway.
Maybe backpacks are more like wives in this way?
With the old bag on its way out, I was keen to get my hands on a more modern model.
So, when my trusty old Fuego wasn't looking, I quickly googled "best 30l backpacks" to see what hot new backpacks were on the market…
Backpacks have evolved.
Like booby birds in the Galapagos, I saw a flock of options for every conceivable niche. And there are just as many backpack biologists promising to help you find the perfect specimen with their comparison sites, discussion threads, and reviews.
But as much as I respect sites like Gear-hacker/patrol/junkie/moose.com, as a fellow "content creator," I know how the lure of affiliate commissions can twist your truth. So I trust the opinions of Reddit users like StickItInMyFannyPack more—but not by much, since I don't know who's behind those usernames. And they don't know me.
Also, I had zero desire to learn the difference between YKK and some other zipper brand. Nor do I want to become an amateur material scientist. I just needed a new backpack to carry my laptop, volleyball, workout gear, minimalist packing list, or groceries.
So I avoided the internet whirlpool that a deep dive into "best backpacks" would suck me down.
Backpack Buying Step 2:
Stick to the fundamentals.
Steering away from the internet's vortex of backpack buying advice, I took my shopping back to the basics by asking myself three simple questions:
- What do I need to have?
- What do I need to avoid?
- What do I want to have?
I kept those questions stewing on my mental back-burner as I went about my days, paying extra attention to what I currently use my backpack for.
1. What do I need to have?
- Enough volume for the purposes I've mentioned above (~32L).
- Two water bottle pockets (which I also like to put my phone into for no-look reach around grabs).
- Easy-access smaller front pockets and pouches for my cards, pens, hard drives, chargers, toothbrushes, etc.
- A chest buckle.
- Laptop sleeve.
2. What do I need to avoid?
- Having to buy another backpack for at least another nine years.
- Excess straps, strings, buckles, and bulk.
- Finicky zippers.
- Having to clean it more than twice a year.
3. What do I want to have?
- Water proof-ness.
- Simple black color.
- Easy laptop access like Kim's Lululemon backpack has.
- Some sort of ventilation or back sweat-minimizing design.
- Cool new designs/features that my old bag doesn't have.
Backpack Buying Step 3:
Shop around in the real world.
Learn from strangers.
I started paying attention to what backpacks other people were using. I must have looked like a sketchy pick-pocketer-to-be with how closely I inspected people's bags around Vancouver's beaches, trails, sidewalks, and buses.
One fast-walker blew past me on 4th Avenue and I couldn't help but notice his well-worn (so probably well-loved!) bag that looked to meet my criteria. But by the time I worked up the courage to blurt out, "Excuse me," he'd sped too far ahead. Luckily, he stopped at a bus stop down the block, so I had him cornered.
"Hey," I smiled at him, feeling awkward.
He frowned and started shaking his head as if to indicate, "I don't want whatever you're selling or have coins to give you."
"Nice backpack! I'm looking to get something like it. What brand is it?"
He smiled. Who wouldn't?
- I'd just complimented him on his taste.
- I'd given him the chance to do a good deed.
(Side note: This is an example of how your world is a better place if you ask for help more, and better.)
Mr. Speed Walker told me it was a Timbuk2 Especial Medio. And he added that he bought at the Mountain Equipment Co-Op across town.
I decided to follow it.
Go to physical stores.
Going to MEC was as good an excuse as any to take my 15-month-old son somewhere different than the beach or parks near our apartment.
Zac had a blast speed-toddling around the aisles, pulling multicolored gear off the racks. And I didn't mind it either:
Checking out physical backpacks was negative infinity times more enjoyable than online comparison shopping.
It also helped me hone in on what I'm looking for and find a few promising candidates.
Ask people you know.
Next, I asked my brother and sister while on a camping trip.
My sister's thrifty and outdoorsy, so she had practical suggestions. And my brother probably owned fifteen backpacks over the years I'd had my one, so he offered perspective on the pros and cons of different features. Most importantly, they knew me and my tastes well enough to provide custom recommendations.
So, when back in civilization, I had a few more leads to follow on urban scouting adventures with Zac.
It was a fun diversion. Plus, my old faithful Fuego was still holding on by a few threads, so I felt no hurry to trade it in. And Who knows? I figured maybe something else would come up in the interim.
Which is kind of what happened.
Backpack Buying Step 4:
Don't put too much trust in the universe.
After volleyball a week later, I bumped into an old friend I hadn't seen in three years.
Lo and behold, he was rocking one of the backpacks I was thinking of buying! A Timbuk2 Spire. I asked him what he thought of it, and he said, "This bag is probably the best purchase I've made in the past five years."
I don't usually believe in signs from the universe, but this one seemed impossible to ignore. So I stopped ogling other people's backsides (…at least the backpacks they're carrying) and started dreaming of life with a shiny new Spire.
The bag wasn't as voluminous as I was looking for, only 26L. It also didn't have as many pockets as I'd like. But, hey, it looked cool.
I checked the price on Timbuk2's website. Then I snagged a 15 percent discount by giving them my email and letting the bag sit in the shopping cart for a couple days.
Then I made the order.
Backpack Buying Step 5:
Go back to Step 2.
My backpack arrived just in time for a weekend trip to Bellingham, Washington with my brother and cousins. Perfect!
I ripped open the plastic bag it was shipped in, started stuffing my new Timbuk2 with everything from my go-to packing list…
…and got blindsided by a 2×4 plank of regret.
The bag didn't have the pockets or capacity I needed, as per Step 2.1.
Dejected, I emptied the backpack, put it back in its packaging, and stuffed all my things into my trusty old Patagonia Fuego.
Making matters worse, Timbuk2 didn't offer free returns. It was going to cost me $35 to ship it back. That was 28% of what I paid!
So I sold my mistake on Facebook Marketplace for a $25 loss instead.
Backpack Buying Step 6:
Give in and use the internet.
Feeling stupid, I gave in and read a few of the online buying guides at Gear–whatever.com. But those only made me feel worse. Too many options. Too complicated. Too much BS.
This got me second-guessing my desire for a new, different, and sexier bag.
What's wrong with replacing my trusty old Patagonia Fuego with a newer, identical twin?
I googled around and eventually ended up back on Facebook Marketplace. Nobody in Vancouver had the same model, but there were a couple of promising potential matches. They had all the same features and were made by similarly good brands, North Face and Osprey.
The North Face owner must have fallen off the face of the planet because he never responded. But the Osprey guy did. And he accepted my $60 offer!
As a bonus, I got to take Zac on another adventure, riding the SkyTrain into the suburbs for the first time in his life to go pick it up.
Backpack Buying Step 7:
Live happily ever after.
I'm now the proud, happy owner of an Osprey Nebula. That's not an affiliate link, either, so you can trust my opinion is 100 percent unbiased by my desire to make money off you.
But am I biased by self-justification?
So what? I'm happy being deludedly enamored with my new backpack. Just like my old bag, it's not perfect, but it's got a couple of fancy new features and is in great shape.
Most importantly, I don't have to shop around for backpacks anymore. So hopefully I won't have to write another post like this for another nine years.
All the best,