Choosing a Backpack for Travel (and My Review of the REI Stoke 19)

REI Stoke 19A couple of months ago I visited the flagship REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc) in Seattle for the first time. It’s a great store that sells gear like backpacks, cycling accessories, and just anything you’d need to visit the great outdoors in style and comfort.

I was searching for the perfect backpack.

When I was a child, I curiously wondered what it would be like to travel urban and rural streets, or even venturing into nature with nothing but a backpack. I can’t tell you how many lazy afternoons I spent staring out from behind our screen door, hoping to take a journey but knowing that it was too risky to do so at a young age.

Enter REI and their vast selection of backpacks.

I was instantly sold on the idea of rekindling my childhood dreams of being that wandering person who lives each day with curiosity and novelty.

Choosing a Pack

A cool tip I learned when researching daypacks and backpacks–when choosing a sporting/outdoor backpack, the number that follows the name of the pack details how many liters the backpack holds.

Many of the really savvy ultralight backpackers (minimalists) have been using about 19 liter backpacks to carry all of their stuff. So when I got a backpack, I followed suit and opted for a light 19 liter pack–the recommened ‘daypack’ size (serving to carry everything you need for a quick few hour hike to potentially one day’s worth of stuff).

Other factors that might make you choose a larger pack (other than not being a minimalist) includes: if you’re planning to travel in a colder climate or colder season (you’ll want to bring warmer gear which tends to be heavier), or if you’re taking a prolonged trip.

The main reasons I wanted a backpack was to use it for side trips like our journey out to Spokane to visit my boyfriend’s parents, and to take on a quick day hike. Basically, I wanted a catch-all backpack that would serve many purposes.

The Specs

I decided on the REI Stoke 19 backpack, in olive green. What initially drew me to the backpack was the fact that it could expand to hold 19 liters worth of stuff, but compress with the help of adjustable straps so that it was never too loose or baggy. In other words, great for a short hike, but also large enough to accommodate a longer stay somewhere.

The Stoke 19 has comfortable shoulder straps and a hip belt with pockets for snacks/items that you may need to reach easily. I’ve found that wide straps with minimal padding was the most comfortable strap setup for me. Hip belts really help take the load off the shoulders and back as well.


After taking the backpack for a quick trip out to Spokane, WA (about 5 hours away from Seattle, where I currently reside), I found that the backpack didn’t quite fit my needs.

I used the backpack to bring all of the things I would need for a four day trip to Spokane. This was useful because the one backpack carried most of what I needed if I wore my bulkiest shoes and clothes.

The problem with the backpack surfaced when I had to unpack all of the things I needed. It was hard to get to the bottom of the pack, and there weren’t enough side pockets to place items that I needed quick access to.

I found that on side trips I didn’t reach for the pack. I didn’t want to use it because it was packed full (to the brim) of too many things. I would have to unload everything, put it somewhere, and re-pack everything I would need for a side trip.

I also couldn’t truly fit everything I had for the trip comfortably into the bag. I haven’t quite gotten to the level of purchasing premium minimalist travel gear that packs small and light. Things were bulging out and I was unable to easily grab things from deeper inside my backpack.

In summary, the backpack didn’t quite fit my needs.

It was a pain to carry the backpack around–not because it was too heavy…a 19 liter pack really helps you limit what you bring with you, which was one great aspect about the REI Stoke 19. I think where the pack failed me was that it wasn’t built well enough to hold a full 19 liters worth of stuff comfortably.

I still love the idea of traveling with a single backpack, and haven’t given up my search.

Next time, I will look for a pack that has many of the same features I loved about this pack–the small size, ability to compress, hydration pack capability, and comfortable shoulder and hip straps.

However, I’ll also be checking to see if the inner space of the pack is well utilized, and if there are enough outside pockets so that I can keep organized. I’ll also need to work on paring down the things that I bring with me on my trips. 🙂

How do you travel with your stuff? Have you had any luck with certain types of backpacks?


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3 Comments on “Choosing a Backpack for Travel (and My Review of the REI Stoke 19)

  1. I’ve always been messenger bag type of guy (blame the European influence on me) but I’ve been back in the backpack wagon since it’s much easier to carry stuff around (especially heavy stuff).

    I respect the minimalism since I adhere to that philosophy as much as possible too, but damn girl a backpack + carry-on makes life much easier than just traveling with a backpack! 🙂

  2. I and my wife have used 40 liter Vision backpacks for travel for many years. It’s small enough to qualify as a carryon and it’s large enough to handle 3 weeks in Europe, 2 weeks in Africa, 2 weeks in the Amazon, etc.

    • That’s so awesome, Mike! I’m planning to get a good pack soon as well, for I’ll be doing some international travel this year (Vietnam!). Would you ever consider going any smaller than 40 liters?