Heading out on a travel adventure and need a bag that's maneuverable, keep you light on your feet? We've got some great options for you! After looking at over 50+ travel backpacks, we purchased the 12 best for our side-by-side testing. Our expert testers took them on extended trips around the world, and also shorter weekend missions closer to home. Our hands-on testing gave us real-world feedback about their strengths and weaknesses. Did it fit in an overhead bin or were we forced to check it? Did it function equally well on the trail as it did in long lines through customs? Did we stick out like a sore thumb, or was it subtle enough to blend into any environment? We asked all these questions and more, and then came up with some great recommendations for various needs, whether that be a budget pick, something that packs down small, or a stylish option that doesn't look too out of place on a crowded subway.
The Best Travel Backpacks and Carry-On Alternatives
Getting psyched for your summer travels and adventures? We are, too! In preparation, we've updated our Travel Backpack review to make sure that we have the most recent models and information for you as you gear up for that trip to… (insert adventure destination here)! We have a new winner for general utility, the Osprey Transporter, an expedition-duffel-turned-travel-backpack. We also tested a new option from Timbuk2, but we still prefer The North Face Overhaul over all other models (see review below).
Best Overall Model
The North Face Overhaul 40
The North Face Overhaul combines a trip-enhancing feature set with excellent comfort and style, earning it the top honor in our review. This streamlined pack handled even the most awkward assortment of gear, taking away the headache of packing. Plus, we felt as comfortable carrying it through a busy airport terminal as we did while bringing it on the trail, thanks to a supportive suspension system and well-designed and accessible pockets.
It's not the sturdiest model in this review, and the waist belt is thin and doesn't provide much support with more than 30 pounds or so over long distances. If you plan to do a lot of backpacking with your "travel pack," then check out the Osprey Farpoint review below. In all other scenarios, the Overhaul crosses well between urban travel and rugged outdoor use, with plenty of durability for daily commutes and backcountry roaming. There's also a well-protected laptop sleeve, filling out its crossover potential. It's the perfect pack to handle almost anything you throw at it, or in it.
Read review: The North Face Overhaul
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey Porter 46
The Osprey Porter 46 was a favorite among reviewers. At first, the clamshell foam wings and boxy design was off-putting, but after using it, we found it to be durable, supportive for our electronics, easy to pack and unpack, and it seemed to gobble up gear more than contenders that claim to be larger. It is also a great value, at only $140 in a category that ranges all the way to $300, and it's lightweight for the volume.
The back panel is a little thin, so it's best not to pack any hard or awkwardly shaped items in the bottom (which ends up against your back). If we packed something soft instead, it was a lot more comfortable. While it does fall within the carry-on size limits, should you choose to check it in you can tuck the waistbelt and shoulder straps away so that they don't get shredded by an errant conveyor belt. We reached for the Porter for a broad range of travel and were consistently pleased and impressed. Osprey makes a Porter 30 and Porter 65 should you need more or less space for your travels.
Read review: Osprey Porter 46
Top Pick for Versatility
Osprey Farpoint 55
If you're a serious traveler and looking for a new bag — look no further. The Osprey Farpoint 55 was one of the best overall models in this review and an excellent choice for someone taking off on a long trip who needs (or wants) to take a considerable amount of gear with them. It's comfortable to carry even when loaded down, and it's easy to open up and access your gear. We loved the detachable daypack, and there are buckles on the front of the shoulder straps so that it can be worn "kangaroo-style" in front for added security and ease of access. It might look funny, but we'll tell you what's not funny — having your valuables stolen out of the back of your pack while you're walking in a busy place somewhere far from home.
The Farpoint 55 weighs just over 4 pounds, which makes it one of the heavier options in this review. However, it also has one of the largest capacities and a daypack, so its weight per volume ratio wasn't too bad. Unfortunately, the main pack is too large to carry-on an airplane, but if you're traveling with some camping gear or climbing gear, you'll most likely need to check your bag anyways. We loved that we could leave the daypack in a hostel locker and take off on a three-night wilderness trek with the main pack, and then leave that one in our room while we sight-seed with the daypack. Our Top Pick for Versatility is a great option, and it will only make your travels smoother. Should you want to go larger or smaller, the Farpoint comes in an 80L and a 40L option.
Read review: Osprey Farpoint 55
Top Pick for Utility
Osprey Transporter 40
The Osprey Transporter 40 is a highly versatile and very useful travel backpack. It converts seamlessly from "expedition duffel" (which is how Osprey markets it) to travel backpack, and even to an easy-access shoulder bag that carries almost as well as a messenger bag. It is highly durable, and surprisingly comfortable for a pack with no hip belt due to an ergonomic design. Osprey has a long history of making comfortable backpacks, and this duffel bag is, ironically, no exception.
Though very versatile, the Transporter is not optimized for airport travel or electronics. If you travel mostly for business or urban tourism, you might be more pleased with something like the Minaal Carry-on 2.0. And since the Transporter doesn't have a hip belt, it won't suit your backpacking or long distance walking needs; you might prefer Osprey's other packs, the Osprey Porter or the Osprey Farpoint.
Read review: Osprey Transporter 40
Top Pick Destination Daypack
REI Stuff Travel Daypack 22
Looking for the ultimate smaller option to count as your airline "personal item"? Want a great pack once you arrive at your destination for day adventures? The REI Stuff Travel is our favorite option both abroad and at home. It rolls into a tiny ball and takes up little room in your luggage but is still relatively comfortable to carry around if you pack it carefully. If compressed down enough, it counts as a personal item on most airlines (and not as your one carry-on).
There's little structure, so you do need to pack it carefully, or objects will jam into your back. A carefully folded extra layer usually does the trick. It's only 22L in volume, so it's not going to carry all of your gear, even on a weekend trip unless you pack super light. But it weighs only 10 ounces and costs only $30, making it an excellent option for those looking for a lightweight and inexpensive daypack.
Read review: REI Stuff Travel Daypack 22
Top Pick for the Goldilocks Award
Patagonia Headway MLC
Patagonia has a knack for finding its way to the top of the charts in most product categories. The Headway is not what you want if you're hiking a lot, but we had to give it a nod as a Top Pick because it was so easy to use as a general purpose travel backpack. It's a duffel bag with a few excellent features — most notably the laptop sleeve and backpack straps. The "MCL" stands for Maximum Legal Carry-on, and it fits right into the overhead bin on a plane with no problems. It quickly converts from a briefcase-style bag to a backpack and also to a messenger-style bag with a cross-body shoulder strap. If you like to mix up how you carry your bag, this is the one for you.
The straps are not very well-padded though, so if you plan on hiking with your pack, you should consider a different option. If you prefer flying with a soft-sided duffel or other alternatives to a more traditional carry-on, you can't go wrong here. It was easy to pack and just the right size for almost any weekend trip we could dream up. Not too big, not too small, the Headway MLC seemed to be just right.
Read review: Patagonia Headway MLC
Analysis and Test Results
After hours of research of the best the market has to offer, we purchased the 12 best and most popular models to put through the wringer. Our frequent-flyer testers took these models through many countries, airports, hostels, ferries, and taxis to assess their performance across several metrics. Along with our field experiences, we also weighed and measured the dimensions, thoroughly inspected each model for strengths and weaknesses, and designed tests to provide in-depth comparisons between all contenders. Each performance metric is described below with shout-outs to the top packs in each category. The overall score, as shown in the rating table above, is useful, yet we also recommend you focus on models that score highest in the performance areas most important to you and your travel style.
We are always price conscious here at OutdoorGearLab, even when recommending costly products. We like to give options for various budget levels and consider the overall value of a product an important thing to factor into your purchasing process. In the case of travel backpacks, there wasn't too much variability in price as all models ranged between $100 and $300, and there was also no correlation between price and performance. The most expensive models didn't impress us that much, and there were some great ones in the mid to upper $100s and also some not so fantastic options.
When looking at the value of each product, you can reference our Price vs. Performance graph below. Look for high scoring models on the right-hand side (higher overall score in our tests) that aren't too far up the graph (lower price). The Osprey Porter 46 ($140) got a great score, has a lower price point and is our Best Buy award winners.
One of our favorites, at only $110, was the Osprey Transporter. This one didn't dethrone any of our other award winners because it is not as streamlined as a strict travel backpack, but it was so useful, in a vast sense, that we felt it deserved a nod.
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, some of the most suitable contenders for backcountry travel, like our Top Pick winner, the Osprey Farpoint 55, were also the most comfortable. Packs with full suspension frames, well-padded hip belts, and load stabilizing straps are 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 an excellent reputation for carrying comfort. Osprey is so good at making their backpacks comfortable that they even made what they call an "expedition duffel," the Osprey Transporter in this review, one of the more comfortable models in this review. Impressive.
We also paid close attention to the breathability of the shoulder straps and the airflow behind the back. The Farpoint and the Kelty Redwing 44 have breathable mesh along the back and shoulder straps to help keep you cool, making them great options 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 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. We take the Farpoint on shorter backpacking trips, but for multi-night outings into the wild, consider the Kelty Redwing 44. It is very comfortable but more natural to pack for backcountry use due to a more cylindrical design and the option to load from the top. 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 models 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 transitions seamlessly with us, makes transportation smooth and facilitates a fun travel experience. Simple, right? In reality, this is complicated. Our experience 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 your perfect pack.
Many of the packs in this review have a way of stowing the suspension system 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, the Timbuk2 Wander, and expandable models such as The North Face Overhaul 40, we like a suspension system that tucks away into the back panel, as both of these packs do. It makes excellent 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. 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 in the Overhaul and 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, too (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, as in the Cotopaxi Nazca.
In summary, ask yourself this: if you're using a backpack strictly as a carry-on, do you need the zippered flap to completely cover your suspension system?
A pack's features determine versatility, and there is a broad range within this small category of mid-size models. Perhaps you want a 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.
Maybe you want one product that can do anything, like The North Face Overhaul 40, which crushed this category, earning a perfect 10 out of 10. It goes 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 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 may be perfect: everything you need, nothing you don't.
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.
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, and 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 forming puddles beside you.
You're racing and reach the long security line and, just before it's your turn, you realize that the 12 oz bottle of shampoo at the bottom of your bag is critically over the 4 oz limit and must be removed and discarded pronto 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 bags we could find.
Some panel-loading packs have panels that zip all the way down, like the Farpoint, to 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 more accessible and easy 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, almost 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 contenders 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 of items to the outside. This is not how you want to roll into airport security, lest they say you have too much stuff and must wear the wetsuit strapped on the outside of the pack to get through security. Yikes.
And for those who want to keep things smooth and organized while going through TSA security checkpoints, there are models with zippered panels that open flat to expose your electronics. This makes for a quick conveyor-belt transition and keeps your electronics protected in their padded sleeves while running through the X-Ray machine.
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 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 Cotopaxi Nazca had 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, the design has a significant influence on durability. In regular 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 does it hold up to regular use? And how does it 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 it protects 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 has zippers that turn right angles, a prominent spot to watch for any strain. Regardless, the Arc'teryx bag had a robust and smooth zipper which glided smoothly no matter how much we overstuffed the bag.
Similar to the Covert, the Osprey Transporter was an impressively durable travel backpack with a lean towards duffel bag. Or vice versa, depending on how you use it. The Transporter topped the charts in the durability department with its exceptionally durable materials and excellent manufacturing.
The Minaal Carry-On 2.0 got its best score in this category, with an impressive 9 out of 10, 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's 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 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.
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 analyzed 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 models 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 scored well, alongside the Cotopaxi Nazca 24, and the Kelty Redwing 44. These four have very different volumes, though it is important to note that the lightest bag overall was the 35-liter Eagle Creek, not the Nazca, though it was our smallest pack at only 24 liters.
Some of the packs save weight by keeping design simple. The Osprey Transporter is a good example of this. It is made of relatively heavy, durable materials, but the design is simple, which keeps it light and gives it above average marks in this category.
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 thirteen 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
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for tips.