The Best Travel Backpack Review
The staff at OutdoorGearLab is a diverse crowd. But in our colorful tapestry of adventurers, there is one common thread: a shared obsession with traveling. Naturally, that makes identifying the best travel backpack a high priority. If you seek adventure beyond the border, or if you regularly hopscotch across the country, these backpacks may have the special features you're looking for to facilitate, streamline, or even greatly improve your travel experience. For several months, we traveled, climbed, hiked, and businessed (yes, that's a verb) our way around the globe to properly assess each pack's comfort, features, ease of packing and accessibility, durability, capacity and weight. We gave awards to the best overall; the best buy, the most versatile, and the easiest to use.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
Purchasing a travel backpack can be super exciting, not only because you get a new piece of gear, but also because it probably means that you have a sweet trip in the near future! Before you begin your pack hunt, start by thinking through how you hope to use your new bag. Will it be primarily for business trips? Are you planning a mega, year-long, round-the-world adventure? Do you see yourself using this bag for hiking and other outdoor activities or solely for urban travel? Once you've determined how you want to use the pack, consider whether a travel-specific backpack is the best option for you. Keep in mind that a backpacking backpack can double really well as a backpack for traveling. Even though it may not have as many travel-specific features as a travel backpack, a backpacking pack will definitely hold and transport all your stuff, which is the point, right?
In many cases, backpacking packs will allow you to tote around heavier loads more comfortably; however, not all backpacking packs have the special features that make travel packs appealing, especially since their cylindrical design often makes them more difficult to pack and unpack. You may also want to look at our duffel bag review, since many of these pieces have backpack-style shoulder straps for easy carrying. Ultimately, our reviewers discovered that the travel packs in this review have many useful, well-designed features that help make travel even simpler.
Can you live without them? Absolutely. Is a travel backpack the best bag for your next trip? It could be. Some travelers have eliminated their need for two bags, usually a duffel and a laptop or messenger bag, by investing in a travel-specific backpack. But remember that just because you're traveling doesn't mean that you need a travel-specific pack. It may turn out that a backpacking pack would better suit your needs. Our goal was simple: test a collection of the best backpacks specific to traveling that are available on the market and find the best of the best. Read on as we talk about some of the awesome reasons you might want a travel backpack.
But First A Note on Traveling Light
Comfort is our number one metric in this review, and as such, it became a hot topic during our testing. Much debate ensued, followed by research, more debate, and eventually some acquisitions and admissions. Here is a distillation of our thoughts:
One way to make your travels more comfortable is just to carry less stuff. Technology today allows us to pick clothing, gear, luggage, etc. made of lightweight and very durable materials. Those are the items that often end up being award winners on this website. Choose your gear carefully, and the payoff can be huge: more expense up front often translates to gear with a longer lifespan, nice styles, more versatility, and less wear and tear on your body because you're not carrying so much weight on your back.
Being naturally critical gear reviewers, our active minds clicked into gear when researching the Tortuga pack. Much of the rhetoric praising the Tortuga, we noticed, was about how much more stuff you could comfortably carry, because the suspension is so good. Very true, absolutely. But that opens a whole can of worms for us as editors of an outdoor gear review website Let's talk a little about that "fast-and-light" concept.
Types of Travel Backpacks
This review focuses on a swath of contenders in the 30-45 liter range, with two outliers at 24 and 55 liters. To put these in context, here is a little background:
The Personal Item
Are you looking for something to hold your essentials beneath the seatback in front of you? Generally speaking, bags smaller than 9" x 10" x 17" fit into this category. These bags are usually smaller than 25 liters in volume. Personal item sized packs often have enough volume to hold a laptop, power supply, extra jacket, book, toiletry bag, and tablet. This bag makes an excellent "personal item." It can be pretty awesome to check your big duffel or roller bag and be free to sprint through the airport with only a tiny personal item to get through the long lines at security.
If you travel light and want to simplify your travel, carry-on sized backpacks are a terrific choice. For many airlines, these bags must be less than 22" x 14" x 9" or less than 45 cumulative inches (that means add all three measurements together). Typically these bags will be less than 45 liters in size. If you can pack light, you can easily travel for weeks in a bag this small. If you're packing a couple hair dryers or 4 pairs of shoes, you may need to supplement a carry-on sized bag with something bigger.
One of our main testers is a mountain guide who guides peaks all over the world. Due to the unpredictable nature of some countries' baggage claim systems, it is often wise to max out the amount of luggage allowed on board to ensure you have a few necessities when you arrive at your destination. One large personal item and a carry on stuffed to the maximum dimensions can be excellent security and peace of mind.
The Checked Bag
If you love carrying extras of everything, or you're traveling for long periods of time, you'll want a pack greater than 50 liters in size. The largest pack in this review is the Osprey Farpoint 55, which holds 55 liters of luggage, including the detachable day pack. Be sure to check the weight of your checked bags before you leave home. Bags that weigh over 50 lbs will likely be subject to oversized baggage fees.
Criteria for Evaluation
We verify the specifications of each pack to be sure the companies are reporting things like size and weight correctly. Similar to how journalism monitors politics and other current events for the benefit of society, we hope this gear review functions as a service to the consumer, ultimately ensuring that the public gets what is advertised.
Verifying the dimensions, none of the packs measured exactly as they were reported on the company websites. The only way to be absolutely sure your pack will make it as a carry on is to ensure that it fits inside the airline's specific sizing box. This is easier if your pack is full of soft things that can compress (or squash, smash, and cram, into that darn box). The take home point, for us, however, was that in the end, whether or not you get your backpack in the cabin with you really depends on four things:
The travel backpack replaces the cumbersome and clunky rollie bag, and it combines the laptop bag and duffel concept into one, so if your luggage fits, you no longer have to travel with two bags.
A travel-specific backpack that fits comfortably when weighed down with all your belongings is a sure-fire way to improve happiness and decrease frustration. Anyone who's traveled knows that travel days can be some of the most tiring of the trip. Maybe you're on a shoestring budget and your travel day requires going from hostel to boat dock to bus station to airport; or maybe you rented a charming Parisian apartment on the 7th floor, only to find that the elevator is broken, or doesn't exist. In either case, you'll be stoked that you took the time to find a comfortable backpack.
The Tortuga Travel backpack stole the show in the comfort department, as the only non-outdoorsy, travel-specific backpack to earn an impressive 9 out of 10 score. It distributed weight to our hips and minimized strain on our shoulders. We noticed how balanced on our feet we felt with this pack--it didn't pull us backwards or shift our center of gravity nearly as much as most of the other packs in the review.
Throughout our testing process, we found that that some of the most suitable travel backpackpacks for backcountry travel, like our Top Pick winner, the Osprey Farpoint 55, were also the most comfortable. Generally, packs with full suspension frames, well-padded hip belts, and load stabilizing straps will be most comfortable for the long haul. The Farpoint was equally comfortable stuffed with luggage and clothing as it was loaded down with climbing gear. Their other pack, the Osprey Porter 46 was much more minimal, but still at the top of the comfort category. Osprey is a company with a great reputation for carrying comfort.
We also paid close attention to the breathability of the shoulder straps and the air flow behind the back. The Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40, while a generally comfortable climbing specific travel backpack, lost some points here because it felt more like a bear hugging our backs than a breathable backpack. The Farpoint and the Kelty Redwing 44 have breathable mesh along the back and shoulder straps to help keep you cool, making them great backpacks for extended carries and backpacking trips.
Perhaps more importantly, consider how a pack fits your body and how it feels once you've packed it up and taken it for a spin. Have a professional help you size the pack, or teach you how to measure and fit one yourself.
Finally, keep in mind that comfort is even more paramount if you're taking your pack on a backcountry adventure in between some urban excursions. While we would take the Farpoint on shorter backpacking trips, if you're planning a longer multi-night excursion into the wild, you may want to consider the Kelty Redwing 44, which is very comfortable but easier to pack for backcountry use due to a more cylindrical design and the option to load it as a top loading backpack. Alternatively, you could pair a backpacking backpack with a lightweight daypack for a super versatile combo that we've used around the globe. Typically, backpacking backpacks will work better in the outdoors, so if you plan on embarking on spontaneous backcountry overnights, this combo could be your ideal setup.
The ideal travel backpack is one that will transition seamlessly with us, make transportation smooth and facilitate a fun travel experience. Simple, right? In reality, this can be quite complicated. Our experiences with our gear hinge on how well we have matched our choice to our use. In this category, we tried to lay out the best uses for each pack, and what features best enabled certain types of travel. In this way, you can read between the lines of the numerical ratings and award winners to find the pack that will best suit your needs.
Many of the packs in this review have a way of stowing the suspension system in case you have to check it in at the airport. We were of mixed feelings about the industry-wide enthusiasm for stowable suspension. After testing and thinking on it extensively, we developed this opinion: for carry on packs like the Osprey Porter 46, and including those which can expand beyond carry on dimensions with zippered expansion panels, such as The North Face Overhaul 40, we like a suspension system that simply tucks away into the back panel, as both of these packs do. It makes great sense, and eliminates the need for a separate flap of material to cover the suspension, which then must also have a pocket for you to stow the flap when using the pack in backpack mode.
We preferred the zippered panel for packs which were too large to be used as a carry on. The reason is that the zippered panel covering is faster and easier to deploy, so it makes more sense for packs which will be checked in at the airport more often. The tucking method of stowing the suspension, as in the Overhaul and Porter, is harder and more time consuming, so this made more sense on packs which would rarely be checked--but still a great feature for those times your flight is full and the airline is insisting on checking your carry on, too (which seems to be happening more and more these days), but also nice if you're carrying your bag as a briefcase or duffel style, slung over the shoulder with an accessory shoulder strap, as in the Cotopaxi Nazca.
In summary, ask yourself this: if you're using a backpack strictly as a carry on, do you really need the zippered flap to completely cover your suspension system?
A pack's features determine how versatile the pack will be, and there is a wide range within this small category of mid-size travel backpacks. Perhaps you want a true Pack-of-all-Trades, a category which Osprey virtually dominates with the Osprey Farpoint 55 and its removable day pack. Or the Osprey Porter 46 which gobbles up all types of gear, but still manages to be comfortable on hikes, and is easy to get through airport security. Or perhaps you're traveling to go rock climbing in Southeast Asia, so you might like the Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40 for its climbing features, even though it's not the most airport savvy pack in this review.
Maybe you want one pack that can do anything, like The North Face Overhaul 40, which crushed this category, earning a perfect 10 out of 10. It will go just about anywhere with you--from school or work to the gym, on a long weekend getaway, and on hiking trips. For a fully featured and well balanced travel backpack, the Patagonia Headway MLC is an enticing product. If business travel is your main gig, you'll want a pack truly streamlined to get you and your electronics and valuable documents through security without a bump or hitch. The airport-ready Minaal Carry On 2.0 and the Tortuga Travel Pack will likely fit your needs: everything you need, nothing you don't.
We assessed how well these bags would work for urban travel, but we also considered how well they would work for other purposes (backpacking, rock climbing, bike commuting, carrying books and office supplies, etc.). Some of the packs can fit as a carry-on, some can be personal items, and some only work as checked bags.
We looked at the whole package of features on each backpack, assessing them for how intuitive and easy to use they are, and how well balanced the backpacks were for general travel use.
Still scratching your head on how features should affect your travel pack choice? Our Buying Advice Guide offers some great tips to help you identify how you plan to use your pack and then choosing a bag that will meet your specific needs.
Packing & Accessibility
You can imagine that moment when you're standing at the bus stop on a dirt road in Costa Rica and it starts to downpour, and then you realize that your rain jacket is snugly packed away underneath all your dirty underwear at the very bottom of your pack. And then you realize you can't get your jacket out without unloading all the undies into the rapidly forming puddles beside you.
Or, that moment when you're racing against time and reach the long line at security and, just before its your turn, you realize that the 12 oz bottle of shampoo at the bottom of your bag is critically over the 3.4 oz limit and must be removed and discarded pronto in order to avoid extra scrutiny from overzealous TSA agents. We know the frantic and stressed feelings these types of travel situations produce and we dread them. Since we're often rushed and fall short of achieving genius status packing jobs, we decided to keep our eyes peeled for the easiest to pack and unpack travel packs we could find.
For tips on packing, check out our article on How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro
Some panel-loading packs have panels that zip all the way down, like the Farpoint, so you can quickly expose the entire contents of the pack and grab that rain jacket in a hurry. Others have more of a suitcase panel design, like the Patagonia Headway MLC, making it very easy to pack, unpack, find gear, etc. On some other packs, the zippers stop partway down the sides, like on the Kelty Redwing 44, allowing for ease of access with precision packing as backpackers appreciate in a traditional top-loading pack.
Additionally, we learned that bags with more structured walls, like the Osprey Porter 46 or Arc'teryx Covert CO are easier to pack. Within this category we also considered each bag's pockets and whether or not it had internal compression straps to keep contents in place. The Patagonia Headway MLC, while still a Top Pick winner, would have had a perfect score in this category, but we docked it one, giving it a 9 out of 10 for the floppy guts effect: when not packed full, soft items tended to slosh around inside the bag.
Further, we practiced packing each backpack with the same exact stuff to see which were easier to use and keep our clothes wrinkle free (or mostly). Some packs that are smaller by stated volume made up the difference by their ability to have stuff strapped on the sides, at the bottom, or on top. The Gregory Compass 30 is an excellent example of a smaller pack that was able to fit everything we needed by lashing a couple items to the outside of the pack. Obviously this is not how you would want to roll into airport security, lest they say you have too much stuff and you have to wear the wetsuit you had strapped on the outside of the pack in order to get through security. Yikes.
When you're investing in a pack, it's always good to know that it's going to last. This is especially true if you're prepping for a gap-year type of trip where you're going to be on the road for quite a while. We looked up the denier (or D) ratings for each of the bags in this review. The higher the denier rating, the more dense the fibers, which generally translates to stronger fabric. The only exception is when comparing denier ratings on different types of fabrics, for example 420D nylon is significantly stronger than a polyester fabric with the same rating. The Cotopaxi Nazca and the Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40 had two of the highest strength fabric ratings, but note that this comes at a cost in weight, as measured in ounces per liter capacity of the bag.
Beyond fabric quality, design has a big influence on durability. In normal use, are there any areas of the pack which are unnecessarily strained? We looked for bursting seams and straining zippers when we packed the bags to the max. How well will this pack hold up to regular use? And how well will the pack handle being tossed and rolled around the airport conveyor system if you do have to check it in? If the pack has stowable hip and shoulder straps, how well would it protect the bag from rowdy luggage handlers?
We also considered zipper durability and angles where repeated use may cause them to wear out sooner. The Arc'teryx Covert CO and the Tortuga Travel Backpack both had zippers that turned right angles, an obvious spot to watch for strain. The performances of the two were quite different, however. The Arc'teryx bag had a burly, smooth zipper which glided easily no matter how much we overstuffed the bag; the Tortuga'a smaller zipper teeth, however, often got caugh up as we tried to close the pack, even if it wasn't overstuffed.
The Minaal Carry-On 2.0 got its best score in this category, with an impressive 9 out of 10, in large part for the use of 600 and 1000 denier nylon. Wow! In addition to its high quality fabrics and components, the sleek design adds to its overall durability. It is sewn into a shape that is unlikely to get caught up on baggage carousels and retains strength under significant stress and strain.
Finally, we packed each pack to the brim and took them out into the field. We toted these packs around for weekend camping trips, week long road trips, and weeks long international trips. We hopped from bus to taxi to subway, then hit the trails, beaches, and towns, all the while looking for any signs of abnormal wear and tear on our decidedly normal travel adventures.
Weight & Volume
Pack weight is an important consideration when you're attempting to meet airline requirements, or simply looking at the inevitability of lugging your stuff around. The travel packs we reviewed range significantly in weight and volume. Because the packs we tested range in volume, we didn't think it was fair to compare the weights of each without accounting for their volume.
We compared each pack's weight-to-volume ratio and reported the weight (in ounces) of each pack per liter that it holds. This gave a boost to some of the smaller packs that lost points in other categories due to the inherent limits of smaller packs, and helped to balance out our metrics. A higher score in this category may correlate with a higher price point, as stronger, lighter materials are the Holy Grail of travel.
Our top scorers in this category were, thus, made of lighter materials, measured in ounces per liter of volume. The Gregory Compass 30 shared the highest score of 8 out of 10 with the Cotopaxi Nazca 24 and the Kelty Redwing 44. These three have very different volumes, though it is important to note that the lightest bag overall was the 30 liter Compass, not the Nazca, though it was our smallest pack at only 24 liters.
Finding the right travel backpack can be almost as important as finding the right travel companion: you want to find luggage, and people, to match your rhythm, needs, and priorities. We spent some quality time adventuring with eleven of the most popular and intriguing travel-specific backpacks out there, took lots of notes, and brought it all together for you here. We hope this review has helped you sort through your travel needs to find the gear that gets you where you want to go. Find the right match. Set yourself up for success. You'll form lasting friendships, collect adventures and stories, and perhaps most of all, avoid excess baggage.
— Lyra Pierotti
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