Photo: A_B_C/Shutterstock

There Are Too Many Travel Backpacks. The Perfect Options Already Exist.

Technology + Gear Outdoor
by Tim Wenger Mar 11, 2024

As a gear and commerce editor, I’ve tested dozens of backpacks. Some are for travel, some for backpacking, and some are for more technical outings like backcountry skiing or mountaineering. My inbox gets hit at least once per week with a pitch for a new backpack review, and I’ve been writing and editing stories about gear at Matador for over six years — that’s a lot of new backpacks, especially considering the concept isn’t new. And frankly, there are already some incredible legacy brands that have been honing their products for longer than most of us have been alive.

The more backpacks I try, the more inclined I am to stick with those from established brands like Patagonia and The North Face, which have spent years developing and testing gear in the field.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate competition — it’s just that there are already way too many travel backpacks out there, and it’s getting difficult to justify trying a new pack that fails to stand out against the rest. In essence, we don’t need any more. So brands, maybe just stop.

I’m sick of testing bags that claim to be new, but aren’t

old backpack

Photo: artproem/Shutterstock

This realization came to me recently on a splitboard hut trip in Colorado. I took with me a new trekking pack I’d been pitched, one that promised to double as a camera bag and technical pack. The trip required a five-mile approach on skins to get to the hut at about 12,000 feet above sea level. Before the trip, I’d agreed to test this new backpack from a startup, as it claimed it was the “perfect” pack for adventuring, photography, and travel. I was excited.

By the time I’d finished packing, my mood had transitioned to perplexed. The pack had a rear zipper intended to hold an included camera and lens case, but when the case was inside the pack, it was incredibly difficult to fit the rest of the clothing and gear I needed for a technical, multi-day trip. The pack’s front zipper opened clamshell-style around three sides, which provided an aerial view of everything in the pack. But the big openings also made items fall out every time I jostled something else in the pack.

The pack purported to be great for outdoor adventures, but with only one compartment, I felt disorganized and cramped. My avalanche gear was sitting on top of the packing cube that held my underwear, and I had to dig around to find anything, as there wasn’t room for a smaller daypack inside the larger one.

At the trailhead, I hoisted the pack onto my back and buckled the straps. But within the first mile, one shoulder strap slid off my shoulder and the pack was bumping back and forth, smacking my butt with each step and causing intense strain on my shoulders and back. Since the pack is quite tall, and I’m an average height (5-foot, 7-inches), I reasoned that perhaps I hadn’t tightened the straps enough. However, when I stopped to double-check, I saw they’d been tightened nearly all the way. I skinned on, not wanting to get too far behind my crew, but increasingly upset that such a promising piece of gear had let me down within the first hour.

By the time we’d reached the hut three hours later, I’d already decided this would be the only trip this pack ever went on with me.

Creating good gear isn’t easy

backpacks on lawn

Photo: kabby/Shutterstock

By the second day, I’d identified the pack’s main problem: It couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and as a result, it wasn’t very good at anything. It appeared that its creators were so intent on fixing the supposed problems with existing packs that they’d gone back to the drawing board and created a prototype of something entirely new, instead of building off existing packs on the. market. After reading their pitch, I’d trusted that they’d tested it rigorously. And maybe they did – but any new piece of gear goes through multiple iterations before it becomes a good piece of gear.

The problem is that the market for outdoor gear is already rife with photography packs, trekking packs, and travel packs, so the brand wasn’t hitting any new target markets, and, seemingly, was trying to market its product as a “solution” to a problem older brands had already solved. Thinking back to previous backpacking trips and international jaunts, I realized I’d never once thought, “I wish this backpack could do something else.” There’s only so much room in a pack, and for technical expeditions such as a hut trip, it’s better to have a specialized pack that you know will excel at its specific purpose.

I’m a self-employed person who understands the importance of innovation and calculated risk-taking, and I respect the effort that any startup founder or product designer puts into creating something and sending it out into the world. I know that gear needs to evolve with the times. But much like how the world doesn’t need any more startup environmental non-profits despite its ongoing need for environmental activism, the outdoor community benefits more by having innovation take place collaboratively, rather than having everyone go build a new pack every time they encounter a problem.

The market is  oversaturated. And I’m confident that thanks to a robust established marketplace, and the history of innovation that’s already taken place travel backpacks, the best backpacks to come in the next 20 years will be built off already-existing models. Brands don’t need to reinvent the wheel when all it needs is a bit of oil and a few tweaks.

Discover Matador