If you see the same thing over and over, day in and day out, you get an idea of what works and what doesn’t work.
When I was running the North Face Warranty & Repair department, I saw a lot of broken stuff. Old broken stuff, new broken stuff. Stuff slammed in car doors, eaten by airline luggage ramps, set on fire, mauled by mice and bitten by bears, sawed in half by jealous spouses; I saw it all.
Most of it was preventable, by simply constructing it the right way and using the right materials.
Failure to do that wouldn’t mean one or two bad packs or tents coming back, it would mean a whole truckload of bad tents or backpacks coming back!
A big truckload. On pallets. Enough to ruin your morning.
The designers and production folk there were (and most certainly still are) a responsible lot, and The North Face still produces quality stuff in general, which partly accounts for their steep pricing. Product failure usually occurred through one of their factories being sleazy and “forgetting” to manufacture the item to specifications, and it was often not until after the product was in production (or even worse, purchased by a consumer) that the mistake would be corrected.
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“Failure” was usually caused by some factory trying to save five cents on something, with disasterous results. Said factory would get in big trouble and lose the contract or pay dearly for their error. (I don’t mean to give you the wrong impression; product failure when I was there at TNF was, less than anyone else’s, and much less than 1%)
When a good product goes bad, normally one can return it. When a piece of travel gear goes bad, it will most certainly go bad in the most inconvenient place possible. Think Mali, Laos or Urfa. There is not much you can do other than to sew it up with dental floss and yell a lot of choice words.
The $50 you saved by buying that cheap pack named after the city in Nepal turned out not to be such a bargain, eh?
For a pack, any pack, to be worth taking along on your trip, it should have:
Bar tacks at stress points. A bar tack is a type of stitch done by a dedicated machine that keeps something (such as a shoulder strap) from being pulled out. Shoulder straps on packs pull out when the factory didn’t use bar tacks. For an example of a bar tack, look at the stitch that holds on your blue jean belt loops. Cheap packs don’t use bar tacks.
Bias-taped seams. This is the failure I see most often on other people’s packs. The nylon fabric (Cordura, Kodra, 500 D packcloth, whatever) will just keep unraveling unless you don’t let it. Bias tape keeps the edges from unraveling (which they will) until the panel of nylon pulls away from where it had been sewn. Cheap packs don’t use bias tape.
Brand-name, plated zipper sliders. Not no-name, painted zipper sliders. Coil zippers are pretty good, even the no-name ones from that large country in Asia. Zipper failure usually occurs when the zipper slider wears out from the inside out and cannot do its job anymore. Brand name sliders that are plated with nickel are about the best one can find on a pack nowadays, especially those nickel plated ones from YKK. Cheap packs use painted zipper slider with no name brand on them.
Quality Hipbelt foam. Unless you have X-ray specs, you can’t see it, so you can’t see that the cheap pack used foam that will crush down and fail within a month. Better packs use high quality foam, some use dual density foam with is rugged, yet comfortable.
Lots more too, but file this list away now for future reference.