How to Identify a Cheap Backpack
Giv'atayim, Israel and the Palestinian Territories
There are three major elements of the backpack I purchased yesterday that simply screams, "I'm a cheap bag!" …and that's because it is.
If you haven't had experience dealing with a lot of backpacks outside of the schoolyard or campus, here are a few details to look for when quickly sizing up a potential pack:
A Cheap Harness
Harnesses are greatly overvalued and hyped by backpack salesmen. The vast majority of urban backpackers (that aren't looking to travel the continents by hitchhiking) will only have their pack on their backs for a handful of minutes each week—probably less than 30 minutes a month. Your money is best spent on a secure backpack, not the most comfortable.
Many urban backpackers never use their waist harness (it'll show just how fat you are, with a belly hanging over the tightened strap), and those that do tend to wear them improperly. Some travelers wear their waist harness loosely, just for the security (in the event someone drives past on a vehicle tries to nab their pack).
This pack has a cheap harness system. Clearly there's no waist harness, modestly padded straps with padding in places you certainly don't need it, and little effort put into wearability and comfort.
But this harness works well for me because I'm wearing it as a frontpack, and would've cut off the waist support anyway. The most important element that I tend to look at is how, and how well the shoulder straps are secured to the pack. In this case, the cheap harness on the has some nicely reinforced stitching—I don't see the straps ripping off the compartment anytime soon (unlike the pack purchased in Romania).
Cheap Plastic Zippers, Pulls and Buckles
This is easily the biggest failing on this backpack, and quite certainly to be the cause for it to be thrown away further down the line. Short and simple: The only thing worse than plastic on a backpack is cheap plastic.
The plastic zippers on this pack nearly kept me from purchasing it. They're practically a nightmare to use and maintain, even if you're careful. Zippers, and their pulls, need to be made of metal so that you can confidently use a small lock on your pack.
Plastic buckles are nearly unavoidable, but cheap plastic buckles don't have to be. These snaps are designed to be load bearing—straps that snap together and pulled tight to take the weight and pressure off the zipper. You should have confidence in your compression straps.
Cheap Single-Stitched Seams
Think about where the weight and stress is going to be on your pack, and examine the stitching. Single-stitched seams may be fine for non-critical pack components, but if the main compartment is being held together with just a single thread, you've got cause for concern.
Much of this pack is made out of a ripstop fabric, which is quite nice to have, though won't have much of an impact on a poorly assembled backpack. Mind your seams.
Ripstop is a woven, lightweight, nylon-threaded material that resists tearing and ripping. Ripstop fabric is made by weaving nylon threads throughout a base material in interlocking patterns, which stops a tear from spreading when they occur.