Choosing the best women's backpack is part skill, part inspiration, and part plain hard work, especially if you plan to be living with your pack for months or more.
The Gregory backpack I used across Africa for three years was near perfect (like most good things, this model is no longer made).
So how do you choose? By asking the right questions.
How heavy should my backpack be?
Some backpacks are extremely light but the trade-offs are sturdiness and comfort. The lightests backpacks won't have much heavy padding, and they'll be light on straps and pockets. Still, when an airline limits you to 8Kg/17lb, and some do, you don't want half that weight going into the structure of a backpack.
Should it fit on board?
It should but won't always. That's because airline rules about what you can carry on board are becoming increasingly stringent. Still, if you can go small, do it. Backpacks can be cut easily and their content plundered, so I'd rather sacrifice a bit in size and make sure mine is within sight. Carry-on dimensions vary from one airline to another but whatever the size, it'll always be smaller than you'd like.
So what is the ideal size for a women's backpack?
It depends on the adventure. An expedition won't require the same gear as a city hop. Just don't make the beginner's mistake of carrying a huge pack - you'll regret it and not only because it doesn't fit on board. What ultimately decides the size of your backpack is, believe it or not, your body weight. If you're fit, your full backpack shouldn't weigh more than 1/3 of your weight. The rest of us should aim for 1/4 of our IDEAL body weight (those of us on the chubby side should use our ideal, not our real weight). Badly out of shape or have health problems? Aim for something even lighter. Weight is more important - your huge backpack stuffed full of fleece will be easier to carry than your small pack filled with books. Of course small and light would be a dream...
Should it load from the front, like a suitcase?
Traditional backpacks, especially those used for trekking, load from the top. When you need something from the bottom, everything has to come out. Front loading means you can fill it like a suitcase, with all your belongings at your fingertips. If you can't get a front-loading backpack, at least try to find one with plenty of outside pockets so you'll have the stuff you need the most close by without having to dig through everything you own.
What about comfort? Does that count?
I like wide, contoured, soft straps that divide up the weight across my back and don't cut my armpits in half: the cushier the better. In addition to wide and soft straps a good backpack for women should have a chest strap (sternum strap) to keep the shoulder straps together (located a bit higher than it would be for a man for obvious reasons). A hip strap to make sure your hips work harder than your shoulders to carry the weight is absolutely vital - don't forget that your hips take the majority of the weight, not your shoulders or back.
Wheels or not?
An interesting option is a backpack with wheels, which you can carry on your back but pull behind you as well. I haven't found any comfortable enough to carry long distances, although they're heaven when you need to dash through an airport at high speed - in other words, across a supremely smooth surface. If you're backpacking around Africa or South America, you won't have too many wheeling opportunities. And don't forget there's a weight penalty for wheels because they need a strong frame. But if you're staying in modern cities and big hotels with elevators, you might want to try these out.
Internal frame or external frame backpacks?
The external frame seems to be able to carry a lot of weight easily around your hips, although it won't work too well if you're using it for sport or very rough trails where you're scrambling because its center of gravity can tip you. In hot countries they tend to sit off your back though so they'll be cooler than the form-fitting more stable internal frame packs. This is a generalization of course but should be kept in mind. Kelty external frame backpacks are well-thought of, and I used to own a Karrimor external frame in my late teens - great if you actually need to carry more weight than you should.
An integrated daypack?
Many backpacks have travel daypacks attached to them (like my old Gregory backpack) and granted, if you fill both to the brim you'll be way over every airline weight and size limit. The idea is to detach the day pack and use that as your purse/briefcase/bag, while using the rest of the backpack as your carry-on luggage. Unfortunately there's a price to pay for this convenience and often the integrated daypack isn't half as good as a daypack you'd buy separately.
Lots of pockets!
That's a matter of personal choice and for me a women's backpack needs plenty of these - I love to stuff my backpack's little pockets full of things, while other backpackers would rather pack small bags and put them inside the backpack. Granted, it will be a lot harder to steal something from inside your pack than from pockets on the outside. But I like the convenience of reaching for something easily. Just not something valuable.
How do you slip on the darn thing?
The words 'slip on' may not quite apply to backpacks but if you can't get your pack onto your back relatively easily, you can hurt yourself and pull a muscle. My preferred method is to set my pack upright on a rock or ledge at about the height it'll be on my back, with the shoulder straps a bit loose. I then just slide my arms through the straps, clip on the hip strap snugly to keep the bulk of the weight on my hips, pull on the shoulder strap adjusters to tighten them and walk off.
A cover for shoulder straps
Many backpacks have a zippered cover into which you can tuck all the straps. You can then carry the pack around like a suitcase or if it's really light, like a shoulder bag. This is a great feature because it keeps straps from getting caught in loading ramps, forcing baggage handlers to rip or even cut them off. Your backpack wouldn't be of much use without straps!
Do I need a plain cover?
This isn't usually part of the backpack but you'll need it anyway - a waterproof cover (a waterproof backpack is even better but harder to find). Keep it handy because you never know when you'll be hit by a downpour. And speaking of waterproofing, place your delicate gear - laptops, phones and music - into a dryliner or waterproof pouch so even if the outside of your pack gets wet, your valuables won't. If you don't have a cover and it pours, you can always get a large garbage bag and snuggle that over your backpack in a pinch. The cover has another function - it helps protect your pack from thieves by keeping all those zippers and openings hidden.
Women's versus men's backpacks
Some women will prefer men's backpacks. If you're relatively flat-chested the men's sternum straps may not bother you but if you're busty, the strap on a woman's pack is placed higher - which makes it more comfortable. If you're getting a man's pack, make sure those chest straps are adjustable. And if you have slim hips and are taller than average, a man's pack may actually fit you better than a woman's version. A shorter framed woman would probably prefer a woman-specific backpack rather than a man's.
What color should my backpack be?
That's not an easy question to answer. I look for several things: a pack that doens't show dirt too much, but distinctive enough to see when the backpack goes flying off the top of the bus past my window (as it once did in the rural Philippines - I barely had time to scramble out to be reunited with it as the bus sped off into the distance). On the other hand if it's too bright and shiny it may look desirable and worth stealing so it's a delicate balance when it comes to backpack beauty.
Once you've decided whether a women's backpack is for you and you know what you're looking for, please run a few tests before you leave the shop:
Each of us is different and my perfect pack won't be yours. The best women's backpack ranges provide plenty of choices, but you may have to try a number of them before you decide. In addition to Gregory, the most popular searches include different models of the Kelty backpack, the Swiss Army backpack, High Sierra and the Northface backpack. There are plenty more.
Just don't skimp: along with your women's hiking boots and hiking sandals, this is the one piece of equipment you'll be wearing the most. Spend the extra hundred dollars if it means getting the perfect pack.