The Best Travel Backpacks of 2020
Best Overall Travel Backpack
Peak Design Travel 45
The Peak Design Travel Backpack is a well thought out simple design chock-full of usable features. From its magnetic tuckaway harness system to its detachable lash straps, this bag is an innovative marvel. The high-density foam in the shoulder straps and hip belt make it so comfortable you barely realize you're wearing a pack, no matter how heavy you stuff it. Everything on this bag is highly customizable. The shoulder straps and hip belt are on a swivel and lock away neatly behind a magnetic flap to ensure that there is nothing unnecessarily hanging off the bag when not in use. The compression buttons and zippers help to minimize its volume for shorter trips, although it fit just fine under the airplane seat fully expanded. Peak Design also makes accessories for camera gear, which sync flawlessly with the bag.
While this bag is comfortable and feature-rich, we wouldn't be doing our jobs correctly if we didn't take the time to find something which could be improved upon. We found that it lacked a little in the stuff-factor. The bag itself is a little heavy for the size, and due to its rigid structure, we were only able to fit so much in there. If you are looking for a single pack to carry anything and everything you might need for a long trip, you may want to search elsewhere. This bag is also wildly expensive. However, for the right user, it is well worth it. This bag made us incredibly happy everywhere we took it and was far and away the worthy candidate for our Editors' Choice Award.
Read review: Peak Design Travel 45
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey Porter 46
The Osprey Porter 46 stole the show with its unique straightjacket compression straps and its approachable price tag. We were able to pack the main compartment, fill it to the brim, and still compress it enough to use as a standard carry on. The straightjacket covers all but one zipper on the exposed side of the bag. This makes it very secure, so pickpockets will have a hard time sneaking into it while it's on your back. It has a very supportive laptop sleeve, strategically placed on the back panel for added security. This pack would do wonders for someone traveling internationally with gear and a lot of clothing.
While the harness system tucks away neatly and with ease, it is an all or nothing system. Because the shoulder straps clip into the hip belt, you must deploy the hip belt in order to have functioning shoulder straps. While this makes sense most of the time, because this is a slightly larger travel backpack, we would prefer to have the option of deploying one without the other. The compression system is effective but can feel very bulky if the bag is not packed full, and while it provides some security, it also makes getting into any of the inner pockets unnecessarily involved. All in all, however, this is a very useful bag that's both affordable and good-looking.
Read review: Osprey Porter 46
Best for the Overpacker
Patagonia Black Hole MLC
Patagonia is known for its durable material, and their reputation precedes them with the Black Hole MLC. The fabric comes from their extremely durable line of expedition duffel bags — with which we are intimately familiar and infinitely impressed. Not only is this pack durable, but it is very well organized, and has enough features to be useful for a variety of travel adventures. The characteristic we are most impressed with was its stuffability. The clamshell-style and soft body allow for ultimate stuffing potential, and the mesh dividers allow for full visibility into each compartment when the bag is opened up.
If we had to pick a gripe about this pack (we are critics, after all), we would note that the shoulder straps are not the most comfortable for long-distance travel or a particularly heavy load. Due to its lack of structure, the bag has the propensity to feel bulky if not loaded intentionally. We found that this was a non-issue as long as you put your softer clothing on the strapped side of the bag to avoid anything protruding while using it as a backpack. Otherwise, there is little to complain about in regards to the MLC and it's excellent construction.
Read review: Patagonia Black Hole MLC
Best for Traveling with Gear
REI Co-op Ruckpack 40
If you find yourself traveling with heavy outdoor gear often, the tapered shape of the REI Ruckpack may be just what you're looking for. The top to bottom zippers allow for easy access and strategic packing while the tapered shape encourages all heavy gear to stay down at the base. This helps keep the pack from getting top-heavy, which creates an uneven distribution of weight, causing discomfort or lack of balance in the user. We found that this was the perfect airplane-to-crag bag for those trips where you are pressed for time or space. The comfortable harness system is completely stowable for long car trips or when checking your bag, and the organized and easily accessible side pockets are great for your travel essentials.
While we appreciate the organization of the side pocket, we did find that some of the smaller pockets inside the bag are a little too shallow to feasibly hold anything. The shallow pocket theme extends to the two water bottle pockets on the sides. Most bottle sizes will fit but are not particularly secure when the bag isn't held upright. We also found that the harder hip pads take a moment to get used to, so don't be surprised if you feel a little discomfort when you first put the pack on. This only lasted a few uses, and then we found the pack to be extremely supportive and very comfortable.
Read review: REI Ruckpack 40
Best for Light and Easy Travel
Cotopaxi Allpa 35L
The Cotopaxi Allpa materials are super durable, which is great for longevity, and also ensures the bag looks good through many adventures. This is important because strict practicality aside, what we enjoyed most about this bag were the fun colors and stylish look. We also love the thoughtful extras like a rain fly (included), and the bundles the company offers (for an upgraded price), which include things like a water bottle and day pack. Cotopaxi ensures that its consumers feel well cared for when using their products and passes that feeling on in its contributions to organizations trying to improve the global human condition. This backpack has a fun, casual look to it, and enough features to safely pack your electronics.
While we appreciate the simple organization scheme of the Allpa, at times it didn't feel fully intuitive. It makes an excellent pack for the travel generalist, but does not have a clear 'identity.' At times we struggled to know where to put our wallet and passport, crucial items to have safe yet accessible during travel. Our last complaint is that the solution Cotopaxi came up with to deter pickpocketing while traveling, while simple, mostly just deterred us from ever fully closing the zippers, unless we were not planning on getting into the bag any time soon. Overall, however, this didn't amount to much negativity, and we love using the bag for a variety of purposes and think you will too!
Read review: Cotopaxi Allpa
Best Weight to Volume
Osprey Fairview 55
The Osprey Fairview is highly versatile and offers the best weight-to-volume ratio in our review. Two bags nest together as one when you're on the go and offer a generous 55-liter capacity while weighing barely over three pounds. Once you get to your destination, just zip off the handy daypack and leave what you don't need behind! Organization is straightforward and simple; compression straps help reign in some of the bulk, though you may have trouble carrying this bad boy onboard unless you separate it out as your carry-on and personal item — when all together the Fairview is fairly large. But for durability, versatility, and decent comfort, this is a bag we quite enjoyed traveling with.
For taller folks, the hip belt on the Fairview sits rather high, and the way the bag distributes weight on the back is a bit odd — though if you take some time to fuss and finagle we're confident you can dial it in for your frame. We also wish there were a few more small pockets, especially secure ones for items like cash and a passport. And while we appreciate compression straps as much as the next traveler, they can get a bit unwieldy. There are certainly some areas for improvement on this pack, but overall we love the convertibility, and the excellent volume-to-weight ratio can't be denied.
Read review: Osprey Fairview 55
Why You Should Trust Us
This article is brought to you by Hayley Thomas and Lyra Pierotti. Hayley resides in Colorado and lives for traveling and nature. Her favorite reason to travel anywhere is rock climbing, but you'll also find her on the slopes in the winter and taking long bike rides in the summer — and almost always with a backpack in tow. Lyra spends an alarming amount of the year organizing her life and living out of duffel bags and backpacks. If you can find her at home, you can catch her coaching climbers, guiding various peaks in her beloved home range, the North Cascades of Washington, and running trails in minimalist shoes.
Travels with our team of testers have taken them from "the Ice" of Antarctica to the cobblestone streets of Moscow, and so many places in between — indeed, we've taken these packs on all sorts of adventures over the years. In addition to visiting far off lands, we've been able to test them for day-to-day use, carrying them to work and around town. This review encompasses a large selection of backpacks that you might use for a wide variety of travels.
Related: How We Tested Travel Backpacks
Analysis and Test Results
Since we couldn't possibly test every product ever made, even though we'd love to, we spend ample time on the front end reading up on and researching the industry's top-rated options. After countless hours we eventually settled on a collection we believe to be the best of the best. Once we narrowed our search and got our hands on the selection, we were sure to put each pack through some pretty rigorous testing under a very critical eye. These backpacks accompanied us to numerous international destinations, flying in airplanes of all sizes, racing through airports, crashing at hostels, hopping on ferries and on taxis, as well as walking and biking with them over our shoulders or on our backs.
Related: Buying Advice for Travel Backpacks
Not only do we test our suite out in the field, but we also take them back to the "lab" to confirm the metrics we determined during our research phase. We weighed and measured each bag, inspected the materials, design, and manufacturing quality, and then topped off our testing by packing and unpacking our Test Load to better compare across models.
We are always price conscious here at GearLab, even when recommending costly products. We like to give you options for various budget levels, and we understand that consideration of the overall value a product holds is an important part to factor into your purchasing process. Our chosen travel packs have a huge range in price. While there may be some correlation between price and performance as far as durability goes, we didn't find that the correlation was a particularly strong one. The biggest thing we noticed here was that lightweight, durable materials cost a little more than heavyweight, durable materials. No huge surprise there. That said, we liked some of the less expensive bags as much, if not more than, the very costly ones. So we recommend paying closer attention to the specific functionality you are seeking versus the stand-alone price.
In our latest update, there is one major standout, the Osprey Porter 46. It fit a boatload of stuff while compressing down small enough to use as a carry-on, and all for a very affordable price. Just what we look for in our Best Buy picks!
Have you ever been traveling through a foreign country with a terribly uncomfortable bag? There's not much worse than starting out on a trip just to realize that the thing you are going to remember most is the strap that kept digging into your dang shoulder. 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 the 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.
Throughout our testing process, the most comfortable contenders were the Peak Design Travel Pack and the REI Ruckpack. We found that packs with a stiffer or framed back panel, well-padded hip belts, and shapes that foster even load distribution were most comfortable for the long haul. Not only do we need padding to be plentiful, but no one wants to be sweating through their straps, so we also paid close attention to the breathability of the shoulder straps and the airflow behind the back. The Ruckpackhas breathable mesh along the back and shoulder straps to help keep you cool, making it a great option for extended carries and backpacking trips.
Perhaps most importantly, you should 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 it 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. Out of this particular test suite, we would probably take the REI Ruckpack on shorter backpacking trips, but for multi-night outings into the wild, consider something with a heftier frame for more support. Alternatively, you could pair a backpacking backpack with a lightweight daypack for a super versatile combo that works around the globe. Typically, backpacking models work better in the outdoors, so if you plan on embarking on spontaneous backcountry overnights, this combo could be your ideal setup.
If you want a more standard suitcase-style travel backpack, we found the Cotopaxi Allpa to be impressively comfortable for what is essentially a suitcase on your back. It features much more complete suspension and generous padding that makes it one of the more comfortable backpacks in this review. The Osprey Porter is another great option due to its stiffer suspension that carries weight brilliantly.
The ideal travel backpack transitions seamlessly with you, makes transportation smooth, and facilitates a fun travel experience. Seems simple enough, right? But in reality, checking all these boxes can be quite complicated. The experience we had with each pack hinged on how well we matched our choice to our specific needs. 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 your perfect pack.
Many of the packs in this review have a way of stowing the harness system to check it in at the airport. At first, we had 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 Porter 46, we like a suspension or harness system that tucks away into the back panel, as this one does. It makes excellent sense and eliminates the need for a separate flap of material to cover the straps (which then must also have a pocket for you to stow the flap when the straps are not in use).
We prefer a zippered panel for packs that are too large to be used as a carry-on. Zippered panel coverings are faster and easier to deploy. They make more sense for bags that are checked often. The tucking method of stowing the suspension, as on the Porter, is harder and more time-consuming. This makes more sense on rarely checked packs. It's a handy feature for those times your flight is full, and the airline is insisting on checking your carry-on (which seems to be happening more and more these days). It's also nice if you're carrying your bag as a briefcase or duffel style, slung over the shoulder with an accessory shoulder strap. On the Patagonia MLC, the shoulder straps stow in a zippered compartment, and then you can unzip another pocket to slide the whole pack over the handle of a rolling duffel — now that's clever.
Basically, ask yourself this: if you're using a backpack strictly as a carry-on, do you need the zippered flap to cover your suspension system completely?
A pack's features determine versatility, and there is a broad range within this small category of mid-size models. There is the Porter 46 which gobbles up all types of gear, but still manages to be comfortable, and is easy to get through airport security. We like the wonky design of the Osprey Ozone Duplex 60, a creative take on the hubbed backpack idea. This bag reverses the design of the Fairview, so the larger bag is actually more of a duffel that clips on to the smaller (but very comfortable with good suspension) day pack, kind of like a turtle shell on your back.
Maybe you are looking for something light, easy, and stylish like the Cotopaxi Allpa. Or, if you want a fully-featured and well-balanced travel backpack, the Patagonia MLC is an enticing product. If you are looking for something to carry your camera gear around in, then look no further than Peak Design.
We assessed these bags for urban travel, but we also considered how well they work for backpacking, bike commuting, carrying books, and office supplies. 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 models were for general travel use.
Related: Buying Advice for Travel Backpacks
Packing & Accessibility
Imagine that moment when you're standing at the bus stop on a dirt road in Costa Rica, and it starts to downpour. It's not long after that you realize 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 growing puddles beside you.
Or maybe you're racing through the airport towards security and just as you're reaching the front of the line you realize that the 12oz bottle of shampoo at the bottom of your bag is critically over the 4oz limit and must be removed pronto to avoid extra scrutiny from overzealous TSA agents. Since we're often rushed and fall short of achieving genius status packing jobs, we decided to keep our eyes peeled for the easiest bags to pack and unpack. We paid special attention to details like easy access laptop sleeves, water bottle pockets, and designated spots for your passport, phone, keys, and wallets.
Related: How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro
Some panel-loading packs have panels that zip all the way down to expose the entire contents of the pack and grab that rain jacket in a hurry like the Osprey Porter. Others have more of a suitcase panel design, or clamshell design, like the Patagonia MLC, making it very easy to pack, unpack, find gear, etc. On some other packs, the zippers stop partway down the sides, 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 Porter 46 or the Arc'teryx Covert, are more accessible and easy to pack. Even the TSA agent searching our Porter 46 could re-pack our luggage easily and quickly, which we appreciated that one time we almost missed our flight…
Within this category, we also considered each bag's easy access pockets, compression features, and dividers. The foam StraightJacket compression padding system on the Porter 46 works wonders for minimizing the overall size of a fully packed bag. However, this made it difficult to reach into any pockets besides the one on top, as access was restricted by the strap. So we had to make sure that anything we needed to access quickly was in the top pocket. The Cotopaxi Allpa has an internal compression strap system that helps keep everything in place without adding extra bulk, an attribute we like very much.
We found that the divider in the Peak Design pack was one of our favorites. The divider splits the bag in half longways and consists of two mesh pockets that are both accessible and visible from anywhere in the bag. That being said, if you do not want to utilize the wonderful divider, you don't have to leave it flopping around in the main compartment! There is a small pocket to tuck it away, leaving the main compartment as one big bucket. This bag is our Editors' Choice for a reason; Peak Design really did think of everything.
In regards to electronics, we found that laptop sleeves placed on the back panel are the easiest to access when removing items in the airport security line. The Porter, Allpa, and Peak Design packs all make removing electronics on the fly quick and simple without compromising security.
The REI Ruckpack is also a favorite of ours in this category. With the option to front or top-load and tons of useful organizational pockets, this pack is a pleasure to pack, unpack, and repack.
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 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 denser the fibers, which translates to a stronger fabric. The only exception is when comparing denier ratings on different types of materials; for example, 420D nylon is significantly stronger than a polyester fabric with the same rating. The standout in this detail is the Cotopaxi Allpa with 1000-denier fabric on the outside. Wow.
Beyond fabric quality, design has a significant influence on durability. While testing these bags, there were a few questions we kept circling back to. Are there any areas of the pack which are unnecessarily strained? Do the zippers or seams look as though they are unevenly tensioned? Do the strap flaps or pockets protect the harness system when tucked away? In general, how does the bag hold up to regular use?
We considered zipper durability and angles where repeated use may cause wear and tear. The Arc'teryx Covert C/O has zippers that turn right angles, a prominent spot to watch for any strain. Regardless, the Arc'teryx bag has a robust zipper that glides smoothly no matter how much the bag gets overstuffed. The Osprey Transporter 40 is also quite impressive here. The 840D double-coated nylon TPU can withstand anything you throw at it, the features are burly, and the seams are reinforced. You won't have to worry about a busted bag halfway through your trip with this puppy.
Other impressive contenders in this category are the Patagonia MLC with its expedition-ready Black Hole material, the excellently-crafted Porter 46 with it's protective and useful external compression system, and the simple-yet-effective Minaal 2.0. There is little to fail on the Minaal, and what is there is durable and rugged. Our Editors' Choice Peak Design pack is also, no surprise, a winner in this metric. From the 400D weatherproof nylon to the 900D weatherproof bottom liner and robust zippers, this bag is built to last.
Finally, we packed each bag 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 ordinary travel adventures.
Volume to Weight Ratio
Whether you're attempting to meet airline requirements, or simply looking at the inevitability of lugging your stuff around, pack weight and capacity are important considerations. The travel packs we reviewed ranged significantly in weight and volume. It is because of this range that we didn't think it was fair to compare the weights of each without accounting for their volume. We devised a simple equation of dividing the volume of each bag by its weight and compared this number across all our tested models. A larger number tells us that a bag offers more capacity per ounce on your back. And, while that, of course, means you may end up carrying more stuff (i.e., weight) on your back, you'll at least know it isn't the structure of the bag weighing you down.
Analyzing this ratio gave a boost to some of the smaller models that lost points in other categories due to the inherent limits of smaller packs and helped to balance out our metrics a bit. A higher score in this category may correlate with a higher price point, as stronger, lighter materials are the Holy Grail of travel.
The top scorer in this department is the Fairview 55 — it even won a Top Pick Award for how impressive this attribute is in its performance. And the fact that it splits into two bags means that you can leave weight behind that you don't need when you're just heading out for a day trip. Not too far behind is the Transporter 40 — this is the lightest bag in our entire review. Another notable performance comes from the Eagle Creek Wayfinder, and the MLC is also a standout with its lightweight-yet-burly material and its extreme packability.
Finding the right travel backpack can be almost as tricky as finding your ideal travel companion. This would seem like a relatively narrow niche of backpack styles; however, we found there to be quite a lot of variety on a complex and nuanced spectrum. We found some backpacks that lean more toward urban use, some that function more like a deluxe duffel, and still others that want to be a briefcase. Depending on your specific set of uses, we hope this review has been helpful in matching you with the best travel backpack for your needs and helping you minimize any excess baggage. As for the ideal travel companion? There are books for that.
— Hayley Thomas & Lyra Pierotti