Gear Review: What Kind of Backpack to Buy? Top Loader vs Side Loader

BackpacksIf you’re thinking of quitting your job and hitting the road in hopes of a more fulfilling life, then the first thing you’ll need is a good backpack to transport all your crap around the world.  As you start shopping for packs you’ll eventually notice that there are a variety of sizes, colors and brands…each with a unique combination of pockets, zippers and attachments.  However if you break it down, there are two basic types; the Top Loader and the Side Loader.

I often get asked from new backpackers what type of backpack they should get and although I can’t necessarily recommend a specific brand over another, I can breakdown the differences between the two major styles.  Keep in mind, the backpacks discussed here are for backpacking, so they do not include roller-wheel luggage or smaller day-use bags.  Here’s what to consider…


The biggest benefit to the top loading backpack is that it’s light.  It typically consists of a simple metal frame and a thin material around it.  On top of that it’s compressible and expandable, so you can vary the size of your pack based on what you are carrying.  No large packs with empty space!  Most have a bottom compartment and a smaller flip compartment on the top.

The downside of the top loading backpack is that since its a top loader all your gear is compressed on top of itself.  So finding things in the bag can be a challenge.  Its not uncommon to see backpackers emptying out their entire bag to find a lost pair of socks.


The biggest highlight of the side loading backpack is that your gear is easily accesible and always organized.  The side loader had a large zipper on the front side of the backpack to give you side access to the stuff inside.  With this feature you can reach anything inside easily and nothing is ever (usually) lost.

The main drawback of the side loading backpack is that it tends to be heavier…not always, but most of the time.  Also, due to the way it is packed (on the side), the contents of the bag will shift downward as you move around creating a bulge in the bottom of the bag and empty space at the top.  These types of bags are often non-compressible.


That’s it for the backpack style breakdown.  Over the years Ive used both styles of backpacks and have done well with each one.  However these days I have to admit that the top loader is a better fit for me simply because it’s light and can be compressed when Im not carrying a lot of gear.  For me, this is important because I try to travel as light as I can.  Basically I gave up bag organization for a light pack.  BUT the choice is yours!

Daniel Royse Written by:

Daniel Royse is the founder and editor in chief of the online travel publication, This Boundless World. He has written numerous articles on travel, business and politics and has recently completed his first full-length novel titled The Watermelon King. Daniel is an obsessive writer and explorer who has backpacked to over 50 countries, spanning five continents. To the disbelief of many, he still enjoys long, hot bus rides through chaotic places. More information about The Watermelon King can be found at Contact: danroyse(to)