How to Choose A Travel Backpack

Our award winning travel backpacks  The North Face Overhaul  Osprey Farpoint 55  Patagonia Headway MLC  and Osprey Porter 46  clockwise from top left.
Article By:
Lyra Pierotti
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Thursday

Purchasing A Travel Backpack: The English Translation


So, you're planning a trip?! And you loathe the attempt to buy an awkward rolling suitcase? We do, too. Fortunately there is a much more fashionable and convenient way to carry your luggage on your upcoming adventures: find the right travel backpack! We're here to help. Once you are done here, be sure to check out our full Travel Backpack Review where we line up some of the top products in rigorous side-by-side tests and choose the best.

First let's talk a little about what makes a travel backpack good for travel instead of, say a backpacking or climbing pack. Several outdoor and travel gear companies have carefully thought through everything that might help make life on the road a little easier, from suitcase-like panel loading features to detachable day packs, padded carry handles, lockable zippers, and covers that zip up to protect shoulder straps from hungry airport luggage escalators.

The Osprey Farpoint 55 with the larger  or "main" bag's straps all zipped up  stowed  and ready to be checked at the airport.
The Osprey Farpoint 55 with the larger, or "main" bag's straps all zipped up, stowed, and ready to be checked at the airport.

Travel packs can be less comfortable than traditional backpacking or climbing packs and generally aren't as well-suited to longer outdoor excursions. For example, if you're planning a 10-day backpacking trip in the Alps in the middle of a 3 week hostel-hopping European adventure, then it would probably be wiser to purchase a backpacking pack like the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 for men and the Osprey Aura AG 65 for women and a packable travel day pack like the Osprey Talon 22. Plus, if you're not that into special travel features, then a backpacking pack will not only get your stuff to locales around the globe, but will also serve you well on hikes at home, saving space in your closet--and in your budget. You will, however, find several backpacks in this review that we would also take hiking, climbing, or on other outdoor adventures (notably, the Osprey Farpoint 55, the Kelty Redwing 44, and Mountain Hardwear Splitter).

Once you've thought through your backpack priorities, hopefully you'll have a better idea of whether a travel-specific backpack will best meet your needs or whether a backpacking or climbing pack is the ticket. If it's a travel pack you're after, read on as we discuss two of the most important aspects to consider when choosing your next travel pack. If you think a backpacking pack would be better, journey on over here to check out a side-by-side comparison of some of the top performers in this category. If you're looking for women's specific backpacks, check out the The Best Women's Backpacking Backpack Review.

The Osprey Farpoint 55 travel backpack works well for many activities.
The Osprey Farpoint 55 travel backpack works well for many activities.

A Brief History of Fast-and-Light


The fast-and-light concept is not a new one. Some might argue it dates back to the Paleolithic. When hunter-gatherers picked up to move to a new location, that meant carrying all of their belongings--as well as the babies. Their kit had better be minimalist.

In more modern times, Ray Jardine, inventor of the "Friend" (the first spring loaded camming device used in rock climbing), stirred things up in the long distance backpacking world, challenging the status quo by slashing his backpack weight and hiking marathon mileages in a day. But what status quo, exactly, was he challenging? If we expand our historical references, Jardine might look something like a brightly-colored, nylon-clad hunter-gatherer.

If Jardine didn't get you on board with minimizing pack weights, perhaps the Swiss Machine is more convincing. Ueli Steck can be seen climbing some of the world's proudest alpine routes with incredibly minimal equipment. In photos and videos, you will often see, Steck has ditched the hip belt entirely. Talk about crushing the status quo. For more on going ultralight, check out this excellent blog post from PatitucciPhoto, and look at the image of Ueli Steck carrying a backpack.

Ueli Steck  sans hip belt.
Ueli Steck, sans hip belt.

To take this discussion even further, some cultures use tumplines (instead of hip belts) which suspend much of the weight from the top of your head instead of your hips (Patagonia even makes one). If done right, this can promote excellent posture. Heavily padded backpacks are a modern invention. Going ultralight, we dare say, is much more the norm for most of human history.

But we digress…

Our point in this tangent is that perhaps the best way to truly improve your travel experience is to minimize the amount of stuff you take in the first place. It is obviously true that as you add stuff, you need more volume, and this in turn requires more support and suspension, which in turn allows you to carry more stuff, and… But the converse is also true, and has been touted by ultralight backpackers for decades: take less stuff, lighten your bag, be free to enjoy the travel experience…

We know that our bodies evolved to move long distances on uneven ground. Today, technology is allowing us to get back to our physical roots: travel far and wide with minimal gear.

So, if minimal sounds more comfortable than over-padded and over-burdened, turn toward some of the simpler and smaller packs in this review. The Minaal Carry On 2.0 is a strong Tortuga competitor, with a surprisingly comfortable, hip-belt-free design. And the Cotopaxi Nazca takes minimalist travel further, at only 24 liters of volume.

Alternatives to Travel Backpacks


There are a few alternatives that we examine below: duffel bags, daypacks and laptop packs. If you are looking for a bigger pack to take into the backcountry then check out our reviews of The Best Backpacking Backpack and The Best Women's Backpacking Backpack.

Base Camp Duffel
Duffel Bags - A duffel bag like The North Face Base Camp Duffel is more tear and scuff resistant, and often more lightweight and compressible than a travel backpack. Duffel bags with side compression straps are very versatile and can be compressed to meet overhead bin requirements or expanded to make packing easier. Cost is another factor: most duffel bags are relatively inexpensive. That said, even duffle bags with the best carrying straps are not that comfortable for more than an hour on your back. Duffels are also the best choice for those going on expeditions, as wheelie bags quickly become cumbersome and awkward (not to mention the extra weight of the wheels) once you step out onto uneven ground. See our full Duffel Bag Review. If you climb Denali with a wheeled duffel in your sled, we want pics.

Opsrey Porter 46
Carry-on Bags - If you struggle to find backpacks that fit you and feel comfortable, it might be preferable to wheel your bags around. Few travel backpacks have wheels. It all depends on what your travel adventures will bring. Carry-on bags are generally much easier to organize, pack and secure with a lock. Few travel backpacks come with systems that incorporate hangers. See our complete Carry-on luggage Review.

Deuter Speed Lite 20
Daypacks - These are basically mini travel backpacks. You should really ask yourself when packing: how much do I truly need to carry? Usually the answer is much less than you think. In our Travel Checklist, we whittle it down to just the essentials and rarely carry more. One pair of really good shoes, one pair of jeans, etc etc. When you pack like that, you can use a daypack that fits under the airplane, bus or taxi seat. Focus on the travel, not on the luggage logistics. That's the ethic encouraged by the Cotopaxi Nazca 24. That said, for a really long trip or one that goes through very cold climates, you might NEED the extra space of a travel backpack. Or you just love to bring a lot of stuff. That's fair. See our Daypack Review.

OutdoorGearLab Top Pick award winner the Patagonia Arbor laptop backpack.
Laptop Backpacks - Our favorite replacement to the heavier and bigger luggage options. Basically the same as a daypack (described above) with more style and laptop protection. OGL Editor Chris Mac chose to travel with just the Patagonia Arbor on his mission to see The New 7 Wonders of The World in 13 days. The video of that adventure is below. See our complete Laptop Backpack Review.

Uses for Travel packs


The demands of traveling are as varied as the places you can go. Below we examine several uses for travel packs and give specific recommendations.

Replacement for Luggage


Travel packs can be a great alternative to traditional rolling luggage. The ability to carry all your stuff on your back means that you can stay hands free while navigating through tight crowds or use your hands to carry something else like a messenger bag or a guitar. Walking with a pack on your shoulders is also easier than toting a rolling bag behind you if you frequently head off the beaten track or use public transport. Its also much easier to steal luggage out of someone's hands than a pack on one's back. The Osprey Farpoint 55, a Top Pick winner, is the best travel pack if you're looking for a luggage replacement. It is super easy to pack and has internal compression straps to keep your clothing in place.

The Osprey Farpoint 55 travel backpack
The Osprey Farpoint 55 travel backpack

Until somewhat recently, climber types and outdoorsy people would stick out like sore thumbs in the airport: they figured out long ago that backpacks are more maneuverable and manageable in crowded airports. Or maybe it's just the only luggage they had. Either way, the idea is catching on, and people are ditching the rollie bags in favor of travel specific backpacks that meld the spaciousness of a duffel with the features of a laptop bag. Streamlined simplicity certainly can improve the hectic travel experience.

International Backpacking or Trekking


Backpacks have long been a favorite item of long term international adventurers. If you're planning a trip across South America, Europe, Asia or anywhere in between, buying a dedicated travel backpack rather than a backcountry backpacking backpack makes a lot of sense. Backpacking backpacks typically aren't as easy to get into and don't come with the features that help streamline the hustle and bustle of traveling. The Osprey Farpoint 55 our Top Pick for Versatility, is a great pack for international trekking because it has ample space for all your stuff, and has a daypack that clips to the outside.

Testing the Kelty Redwing 44 travel backpack on the trail.
Testing the Kelty Redwing 44 travel backpack on the trail.

Quick Weekend Trips


Trips of just a few days are the testpiece for all packs in this review. A carry on bag should be able to easily accommodate your luggage for a weekend out of town. The Patagonia Headway MLC is an excellent example of a travel backpack that maxes out the carry on volume, is easy to pack, and has multiple carrying options for whatever adventures and obstacles your quick trip might throw at you. Our laptop backpack and daypack reviews also include a number of backpacks that work well for traveling.

Patagonia Headway MLC
Patagonia Headway MLC

Domestic Road Trips


Maybe you don't have plans to travel the globe but want to venture across the country. You don't need all the fancy features of packs designed for air travel but you still want a pack that's pretty easy to get into and can hold a lot of stuff. This is where the Arc'teryx Covert CO shines. It's durable enough to toss into the back of the truck or cram in the back of a Camry. Travel packs like the Kelty Redwing 44 are great for travels like this because they are relatively easy to get into, work really well for hiking and backpacking, and they're much cheaper than packs with extra features that you don't need.

Testing the Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40 backpack on a climbing trip.
Testing the Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40 backpack on a climbing trip.

A Daypack for All Occasions


When thinking about travel packs, it's also important to remember that you'll need something to carry valuables and such while you're out daytripping. Some travel packs come with detachable daypacks, but another option is to purchase a compressible daypack that packs down into its own pocket. These packs are super nice because you can bring them along without a second thought. Perhaps you already have luggage or a larger travel backpack but want a small daypack that you can tuck away until you need it.

The Osprey Farpoint 55 travel backpack's daypack.
The Osprey Farpoint 55 travel backpack's daypack.

Accessories & Tips for Organization


If you are looking for a convenient place to carry your digital camera or other small electronic device, check out the Osprey UL Camera Case and GrabBag. It attaches easily to the outside of your backpack allowing you quick access to your camera whenever you need it.

Hopefully you won't be stuck outside in bad weather with your travel backpack. But just in case, you might be interested in a rain cover. The Osprey Rain Cover and the Kelty Rain Cover will both fit well and keep your pack dry in unexpected rain. Keep in mind, however, that some models come with a rain fly included.

If you're traveling abroad, you'll probably want to pick up a passport holder like the Eagle Creek Undercover Money Belt or the Lewis N. Clark Neck Stash. These both have space for your passport and extra money. Even if you keep your passport close at hand, we still recommend taking a photo of your passport or making two photocopies. Be sure that a friend or family member has one of these copies so they can get it to you in case of passport theft or loss.

Although we have a whole article on How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro, there are a few other packing accessories that can help make packing your travel pack a breeze.

Packing cubes like the Eagle Creek Pack-It Cube Set and the TravelWise Packing Cube System are designed to help keep your clothes neat, organized, and often wrinkle-free. When we travel, we like to think of these as the dresser drawers of our suitcase or backpack. Since these have structured walls, they are more ideal for front or panel-loading style packs like the Osprey Farpoint.

Compression bags can help you save space and stay organized; however, these will not often keep your items wrinkle free. That said, they're better suited than packing cubes to helping you stay organized in a top-loading or other hard-to-pack backpacks. For a durable option that will likely help you save a little more space consider the Samsonite Compression Bag Kit. Or for a less expensive option (and our preferred method of travel), a box of two-gallon Ziploc bags also works well. If you're more on the hunt for a bag to compress your sleeping bag, down coat, or other gear, be sure to check out the sleeping bag stuff sack review.

Mesh bags are perfect for holding all the travel junk that you're not quite sure what to do with (these are especially useful for extended trips). Headlamp you'll need for a trek next week? Junk bag. Extra set of headphones? Junk bag. Tylenol and IBUProfen? Junk bag. We recommend choosing mesh because it's simply easier to find your items. Two options include the Eagle Creek Pack-It Sac Set and the Outdoor Research Mesh Ditty Sack.

Comfort


Finding a backpack that is comfortable is essential before going on a big trip, especially if you plan on using it for a mid-trip backpacking adventure or other similar activity. Even if you're only planning on traveling city-to-city, the chances are high that at some point you'll end up walking farther than planned to get to the nearest bus station or to track down your hostel--so having a comfortable pack is key. If you are carrying a particularly heavy load or planning to incorporate gear-intensive outdoor activities into your trip, you'll likely want to invest in a pack with a frame and hip belt.

The Osprey Porter 46 travel backpack: nice hip belt!
The Osprey Porter 46 travel backpack: nice hip belt!

Fit


One of the most important parts of a comfortable pack is finding one that fits. Start by trying on a variety of different packs, keeping in mind that packs with frames and hip belts will be easier to carry as your load gets heavier, since they shift the weight onto your pelvis. With a framed backpack, it's even more important to make sure that the pack fits properly. It's extremely helpful to go into a local gear shop where experts can measure your torso and try fitting different packs to your body, especially if it's your first time purchasing a pack.

During this process, it's also important to adjust the hip belt properly, making sure that it will cinch down tightly across the belly button with the padded hip belt resting along the top of the pelvis (or on top of the iliac crest, which is the bony protrusion you probably refer to as your hip bones). Additionally, you should adjust the load stabilizing straps (on top of the shoulder straps) to ensure that you can pull the load closer in to your body for increased stability. Once you've made the manufacturers' suggested adjustments, walk around, bend over, and move your arms and head. The weight should sit primarily on the hips, not the shoulders, you should feel balanced (note what muscles in your legs are working, and if it feels normal to walk), and the hip belt should not be digging uncomfortably into the skin.

Adjusting the fit of the Kelty Redwing 44 travel backpack.
Adjusting the fit of the Kelty Redwing 44 travel backpack.

Pack Shape


Finally, we think it's also important to consider the shape of the pack. While personal opinions certainly vary, we think that taller, slimmer packs promote better pack awareness. Pack awareness is especially important when navigating in crowded areas or even hiking through a wooded or rocky wilderness. Imagine weaving your way through a crowded bus station during rush hour while wearing a pack that sticks out 15 inches off your back. It's more difficult to turn around, see who's around you, and you could even unexpectedly take somebody out with a sudden movement!

For even more information on fitting a backpacking backpack, click here.

Functionality


Here's where knowing the purpose of your travel pack really starts to come in handy. If you're mostly going to be using your travel backpack for business trips, you might prioritize finding a carry-on sized pack like the Minaal Carry On 2.0 and The North Face Overhaul, which are both sleek, professional-looking, frameless packs. If you know you won't be carrying heavy loads for long distances, and you're more concerned with having a professional appearance and a low profile, these are good ones to consider.

On the other hand, if you're going on a longer adventure trip, you may need space for more stuff, improved long-distance carrying comfort, and perhaps some external gear loops and compression straps for clipping and strapping on extra items like a sleeping pad. For extended travel, we highly recommend the Osprey Farpoint 55, which won a Top Pick Award in this review. And for rock climbing specific features, the Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40 is an obvious choice.

The Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40 backpack is most at home on a climbing trip.
The Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40 backpack is most at home on a climbing trip.

Last but certainly not least, we find that it's helpful to purchase a bag with a little extra space for souvenirs and messy packing (unless you always pack luggage like a pro). Most of the packs that we reviewed come in multiple different volumes, so if you like a pack in this review but it's not the right size, check out our comparison chart for other size options.

Overhead Bin Rejection?


Most US airlines require a carry-on bag be no bigger than 22" x 14" x 9." If carry on size is critical, be sure to verify the dimensions in our comparison chart (we have included both the company's reported measurements and our own measurements). However, most travel backpacks are also quite soft and compressible and can be made smaller using their own compression straps or additional compression straps bought separately. Most US airlines are fairly lenient about the dimensions and generally let you have a couple extra inches for each of the three dimensions (though this may be more stringent if you're traveling during the busy holiday season). Keep in mind that some international airlines have weight restrictions of 15 to 22 pounds on carry-on bags. This can be very limiting, also making it very important to make sure your carry-on bag is lightweight in the first place. Most United States airlines don't have a carry-on weight restriction or have a limit of 40 to 70 pounds. Forty-plus pounds is pretty hard to reach unless you're traveling with your weight-lifting plates.

This pack makes a nice carry on for your next Delta flight.
This pack makes a nice carry on for your next Delta flight.

Daypack Performance


No matter what kind of trip you're heading out on, having a daypack is usually extremely handy. We reviewed one pack with a detachable day pack and really liked the idea of the built-in extra bag--so much, in fact, that it won an award: the Osprey Farpoint 55. It seemed to streamline the packing process and ensured that you always had a small pack handy for day hikes or city exploration. Plus they strap easily onto the back or clip to the front for super easy carrying.

Alternatively, maybe you already have some luggage or a backpack that you love but need a small daypack for short adventures. Luckily, REI solved this conundrum by making a lightweight daypack that stuffs into its own pouch. This will allow you to save some cash on a whole new set-up and instead spend it on that hot air balloon ride over Angkor Wat that you've been telling yourself was way too expensive.

The Osprey Farpoint 55's excellent day pack.
The Osprey Farpoint 55's excellent day pack.

Travel-Specific Features


Stepping past marketing hype, nearly any backpack or bag will work to transport your items from one destination to another. That said, there are some really neat travel-specific features that will enhance your traveling experience. Consider whether or not you would benefit from features like lockable zippers, an easy-access laptop sleeve, hydration bladder compatibility, and whether or not a pack has a cover that will zip-up to protect shoulder straps during travel or an included travel duffel.

On a more practical level, think about packing features. How easy would it be to fetch your water bottle out of the bottom of your bag while waiting in line at the bus station? Conversely, difficulty of access might make your gear safer from theft. You may also want to consider the pack's weight; if the pack itself is heavy before you even begin to load it up, it may not be the best option for backcountry use.

The Covert is easy to pack with almost any type of gear or luggage because of the stiffer side walls and the suitcase style opening.
The Covert is easy to pack with almost any type of gear or luggage because of the stiffer side walls and the suitcase style opening.

Finally you should check out the pack's durability by learning what it's made of. Generally speaking, the higher the denier or D rating (i.e. 1680D ballistic nylon) the fabric is given, the burlier it is. You should also check out the pack's zippers and look into whether or not the company offers a full guarantee on the pack.

Traveling should be the time of your life. The best pack for you is the one that works so well that it integrates seamlessly into your travels and allows you to focus on the beautiful new world around you. We hope this review will help you find the right match for your travel needs. See our full review: Best Travel Backpack .

Our review of travel backpacks took us all over the world. In Santiago  Chile  the Porter 46 is equally at home on bus trips and beaches.
Our review of travel backpacks took us all over the world. In Santiago, Chile, the Porter 46 is equally at home on bus trips and beaches.

Lyra Pierotti
About the Author
Lyra Pierotti is a professional mountain guide based in the Puget Sound. Her annual migration patterns have taken her many places: From Alaska to Antarctica, and Moscow to Melbourne. At times, she has lugged too much gear; at others, not enough. Her proudest travel achievement is staying in her seat when a rough landing in the middle of West Antarctica broke a ski on the LC-130 airplane and sent her travel backpack flying across the cargo bay. She hopes these learning experiences will help you choose a travel backpack that is worth hanging on to.

 
 

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