Front-Loading vs Top-Loading Backpacks
What's the difference between front-loading backpacks and top-loading backpacks?
Most backpacks, even large ones used for traveling, are top-loading. Very few backpacks are front-loading, or panel-loading (another name for the same style).
Does this mean that top-loading backpacks are better? No.
The Problem With Top-Loading Backpacks
Top-loading is fine for small student or commuter backpacks. If you're carrying a computer, or a few notebooks, you'll be able to find everything easily from the top opening.
Large backpacks do not work as well if they're top-loading. If they're larger than 25L, top-loading backpacks are difficult to organize. Finding a specific item is hard because you can't see everything all at once.
In a top-loading bag, everything is packed vertically. If you need a shirt 3/4 of the way down your bag, you have to unpack 3/4 of your stuff in your room or on a plane, then repack it after you find the shirt. What a mess!
Packing a top-loading backpack is like packing a garbage bag.
What Are Front-Loading Backpacks?
Front-loading backpacks work like suitcases. A panel, or the entire front of the bag, opens just like a suitcase does.
From here, you can see your entire packing space. You can pack, organize, and repack everything for maximum efficiency.
Need to take something out? Grab it without disturbing anything else. You can quickly pack and unpack anything you brought.
Unlike top-loading backpacks, panel-loading bags can have interior compression straps like a suitcase. These straps help keep everything in place and allow for a more ergonomic carry. By keeping your stuff condensed and close to your back (the "bottom" of the bag when it's lying down), you'll experience less back and shoulder strain.
Your bag should be packed high and tight (to your back) for maximum comfort.
The Bottom Line
Front-loading travel backpacks are superior to top-loading ones because they're easier to pack, to keep organized, and to carry comfortably.
When I went on my first backpacking trip, I used a large, top-loading bag because that's what I saw other backpackers carrying. We were both wrong.
Every time I needed to get dressed, I had to empty half of my bag to find clean clothes. Everything I unpacked was strewn around my hostel room or my train compartment.
After that trip, we saw the advantage of using a front-loading bag to pack a backpack like a suitcase. We couldn't find a bag designed this way, so we made one.
The Setout Backpack is a front-loading, carry-on-sized backpack designed for urban travel.
You can learn more about the advantages of a front panel and all the other travel-friendly features we built into the Setout at the link above.