Deciding between a top or front-loading backpack is one of the most important choices you can make when it comes to travel. Pick the wrong one and you'll find yourself trudging from hostel to hostel with an ill-fitting pack and a pack-induced backache. Believe me: I've been there.
The most important thing to remember is that you'll likely be carrying your backpack from place to place several times a week, so making sure it's comfortable and offers support for your back, shoulders, and waist is of utmost importance. You'll also find yourself unpacking and repacking your backpack at least once a day while you're staying in hostels, so you'll want to make sure it's quick and easy to do so.
Front-loading or top-loading? Over the past six years, I've traveled with both types of backpack and I've experienced the benefits and problems with both. Here's how to weigh-up which option is best for you.
Advantages of a Front-Loading Backpack
After two years spent traveling with a top-loading backpack, I switched to a front-loading one (the Osprey Farpoint 55l pack) and haven't looked back.
They're more secure: In general, front-loading backpacks offer more security than top-loading. While it's rare you'll ever be robbed on the road, if you're nervous about it happening, they offer greater peace of mind. Front-loading backpacks work more like a suitcase with straps, in that they're secured with a zip around the front. What this means is that you can easily add a padlock to in order prevent thieves who are looking to make a quick steal. Top-loading backpacks are often secured by a drawstring and plastic clasps, making them easy to get into.
There isn't really much you can do to secure them beyond buying a mesh protector for your backpack.
They're easier to pack: Front-loading backpacks are significantly easier to pack and unpack than top-loading ones. Simply unzip your backpack, and it'll function like a suitcase -- you'll be able to place everything exactly where you want it to go while avoiding the struggle of trying to shove everything through a tiny hole at the top. I can't tell you how many times I would have to unpack my top-loading backpack to find something that had worked its way to the bottom only to have to do it ten minutes later.
With my Farpoint backpack, I no longer feel as though I am packing and unpacking every day.
They're sturdier: The front-loading backpacks I've come across have been made of a much tougher material than their top-loading equivalents. This is typically because top-loading backpacks are designed for hiking and adventure activities, where weight matters. Having said that, my front-loading backpack was ripped apart in the cargo hold of a plane while my top-loading backpack remained in one piece while I travelled with it, so it doesn't mean your front-loading pack will be safe from harm.
They're less likely to have a frame: There are two schools of thought as to whether a framed backpack is a good or bad thing. It can help your pack keep its shape if it's not completely full, but it can also render your bag unusable if the frame breaks. As someone who experienced their backpack frame snapping in two, I place having a frame in the disadvantages column, giving a front-loading backpack another check.
Advantages of a Top-Loading Backpack
During my first two years on the road, I traveled with an Osprey Exos 46l backpack and loved it. It was lightweight, easy to carry, and perfect for my small size. Unfortunately, there were a few disadvantages (that I mentioned above), which eventually led to me switching over.
Here, though, are the advantages:
They're better for smaller people: Top-loading backpacks are thinner than front-loading ones, which makes them much easier to handle if you're walking through crowds or trying to make your way down the aisle of an overcrowded bus. If you're a smaller person, you'll find their thinner width fits better to the shape of your backpack, making it much easier to carry. This was a huge advantage of my top-loading backpack and I must confess I miss having a pack that was so slimline.
They offer better support: Top-loading backpacks are typically made for long-distance hiking, which means they're built to take the weight off your back and onto your hips. They're more comfortable for walking long distances -- my one was so comfortable, I would often leave it on my back when taking a break from walking. I could happily carry it for hours without getting tired, and I can't say the same of my front-loading pack. If you don't have much back strength and struggle to walk with a heavy load in your pack, a top-loading backpack will definitely be more manageable for you.
They're lightweight: Because they're usually hiking backpacks, they're made to be as lightweight as possible, which makes carrying your bag even easier. Trust me: after half an hour spent wandering around in circles looking for your hostel, you'll be grateful your bag isn't any heavier. I couldn't believe how my top-loading backpack would always feel lighter on my back than it did when lifting it up.
Which Do I Recommend?
Head to an outdoor store that specializes in backpacks, such as REI, and try on both front and top-loading backpacks. See which feels most comfortable and offers the best support. Make sure to fill the backpack with random things from the store to see how it feels once it has some weight to it. You may find that you prefer comfort for that time you find yourself wandering up and down the same few streets trying to find your guesthouse in 100 degree heat. Some of you may prefer the peace of mind that comes with being able to padlock your bag.
It depends on what your priorities are, and the best way to figure that out is by checking out the backpacks in person and seeing which ones work best for you.
When I bought my first backpack, I found that, because I'm 5'1'', the top-loading backpacks were far more comfortable to wear than front-loading ones. My Osprey backpack seemed to drastically decrease in weight the second I placed it on my back, selling it to me instantly.
There are definitely a few security issues that come with buying a top-loading backpack, though -- the top of my backpack was closed with a drawstring and clips, which couldn't be further secured with a padlock. If somebody decided to steal something out of my backpack it would have taken them all of about five seconds to get inside and pull some of my things out. Having said that, I travelled with the backpack for three years and didn't once had anything stolen from it.
When the frame of my top-loading backpack broke, I decided to splash out on a front-loading backpack instead. While I can't deny that being able to pack in 5 minutes instead of 55 is a huge bonus, I also can't deny I miss my old lightweight pack. Travel days are much harder with my larger, heavier backpack and I can't walk as far when wandering around trying to find my hostel. For me, though, the added security and ease of packing makes a front-loading backpack worth it. I can lock my backpack when I head out to explore and know my things are safe, and if I ever need to find something in my backpack, it takes twenty seconds rather than five minutes to locate it.
Oh, and if you're wondering why I've always gone with Osprey backpacks, it's because they have a lifetime guarantee -- if any of their backpacks break for any reason, they'll replace them with no questions asked, even if they're 20 years old! I've tested out their guarantee before and had no problems getting my backpack replaced, even while I was traveling and away from home.