Are you traveling to a place where no rolling suitcases have gone before? We started by researching over 75 travel packs before purchasing the top 12. We then put them through a series of side-by-side tests to determine which model excels in specific metrics. Are you looking for something a little more nimble, to keep you light on your feet and maneuverable in your next travel adventure? A travel backpack might be the solution to your travel needs. If you plan on heading down rough roads and tight alleys, take a look at the collection of travel backpacks we have reviewed. There is a lot of variety in this seemingly small category; you'll find every blend on a spectrum that includes deluxe duffels, more traditional backpacking styles, school backpack designs, and some truly creative takes on streamlining your trip through the airport.
The Best Travel Backpacks and Carry-On Alternatives
|Price||$139.98 at Amazon|
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|$199.00 at REI||$144.00 at Amazon||$180.00 at REI|
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|Pros||Good suspension, lightweight, affordable, gobbles gear||Versatile, duffel-like ease of use, Goldilocks award for just the right balance of travel features||Versatile, durable, comfortable, intuitive||Easy to pack, comfortable, high capacity, detachable day pack||Sleek, comfortable, durable, thoughtful travel specific features|
|Cons||Square design protrudes from back, too big for some airlines checked baggage||Backpack straps not comfortable for long distances, gear sags in soft structure when not full||Small hip belt, not best for long distances with heavy loads||Frame makes main pack too big for a carry-on||Expensive, business travel specific|
|Bottom Line||The Porter 46 is a durable, easy to pack travel backpack, but may be bulky for some airlines or uses.||The Headway is another stellar product from Patagonia: thoughtfully designed, rugged, easy to use, and fortified by the Ironclad guarantee and cutting edge company ethics.||The Overhaul is an excellent, versatile, and intuitive travel backpack with well balanced features.||This is a great travel backpack with a lean toward outdoor-centered international trips.||If business travel is your gig, this is an excellent travel backpack.|
|Rating Categories||Osprey Porter 46||Headway MLC||Overhaul 40||Osprey Farpoint 55||Carry-on 2.0|
|Packing & Accessibility (20%)|
|Weight Per Volume (15%)|
|Specs||Osprey Porter 46||Headway MLC||Overhaul 40||Osprey Farpoint 55||Carry-on 2.0|
|Volume of Main Pack (liters)||46L||45L||41L||40L||Not stated|
|Measured Weight (pounds)||3.23 lbs||3.11 lbs||3.78 lbs||4.02 lbs||3.25 lbs|
|Dimensions (Inches)||21 x 14 x 12||22 x 16 x 9||21 x 12 x 7||25 x 13 x 12 (M/L)||21.7 x 13.8 x 7.9|
Some recent updates to the Osprey Porter 46 have launched it ahead of the competition! Check out our most recent round of travel backpack testing to see why The North Face Overhaul was dethroned, and what we like and dislike in the current lineup of travel backpacks.
Best Overall Model
Osprey Porter 46
The Osprey Porter 46 stole the show with its recent update. The changes were subtle but powerful. The main difference was that they put the laptop compartment next to the pack's back panel instead of in the exterior opening flap. This has dramatically improved the balance of the pack, making it carry better, and also making our electronics more secure and less likely to get jostled. As a bonus, this pack was also easier to pack (since this outer flap was now more supple without the laptop in it), which meant even the TSA security officer could quickly unpack and repack for us when we got flagged for inspection at the X-Ray checkpoint.
The only minor nuisance on this pack is that you have to deploy both the shoulder straps and the hip belt at the same time because the shoulder straps clip into the hip belt. This makes sense most of the time, as it is a slightly bigger travel backpack, but we do like the option of deploying only the shoulder straps and keeping the hip belt tucked away to minimize flappy-ness for a quick baggage claim pickup and dash to the taxi. The StraightJacket compression system is also not a favorite feature, but some testers really seem to like it. Overall the little improvements this year went a long way, and we thoroughly enjoyed testing the Porter 46. If you want a smaller version of this pack that will fit in the smaller overhead bins found on regional airlines, consider the Osprey Porter 30.
Read review: Osprey Porter 46
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 "MLC" 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
Top Pick for Business Travel
The North Face Overhaul 40
The North Face Overhaul 40 has been usurped from its previous Editor's Choice award, though it still earns a Top Pick for Business Travel. The main reason it got knocked down is due to some subtle but powerful updates from Osprey for their Porter 46. Additionally, this version of the Overhaul was just a touch heavier, which knocked it down a bit further. We like all of the thoughtful features, like the expansion zipper and fleece-lined electronics sleeves, but these things do add weight.
The Overhaul packs more like a traditional book bag which makes it more versatile for everyday use, but a bit more cumbersome when packing folded clothing. We loved the separate shoe or toiletries pocket. And we like the laptop sleeve that unzips to lay flat on the X-Ray conveyor belt. We like that we can stow the shoulder straps and hip belt if we end up having to check the bag. Lots of great travel features in the Overhaul, plus a sleek, subtle, and stylish look that would be pleasing for the casual business traveler.
Read review: The North Face Overhaul
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 four 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
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey Transporter 40
The Osprey Transporter 40 is a highly versatile and handy 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 22 liters 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
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. The Osprey Transporter ($110) got a great score, has a lower price point and is our Best Buy award winners. Another standout, the Osprey Porter 46 is a great value.
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 smaller, boxy and bulky, but still at the top of the comfort category due to excellent suspension and improved balance this year when they moved the laptop pocket to the back panel.
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 is one of the more comfortable models in this review, which is 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 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. 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, and is easy to get through airport security.
Maybe you want one product that can do anything, like The North Face Overhaul 40, versatile for the urban and business traveler. It goes just about anywhere with you—from school or work to the gym, on a long weekend getaway, and even dresses up enough to be suitable for the casual business traveler. 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 efficiently. 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 performed for use while backpacking, bike commuting, and 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 four 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. 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 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, has these, but we docked it for the floppy guts effect: when not packed full, soft items tended to slosh around inside the bag. The Porter 46 is slightly better with the structure provided by its foam StraightJacket compression padding system.
Further, we practiced packing each backpack with the same items 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, like The North Face Overhaul. 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 earned 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 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 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 the design simple. The Osprey Transporter is an excellent 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.
Keep in mind that smaller regional jets often have smaller overhead bins. Even if a bag in this review is rated as a carry-on size, it may not fit in these smaller overhead bins if the bag is fully stuffed.
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 leaned more toward urban use, some that functioned more like a deluxe duffel, and still others that wanted 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 ideal travel companion? There are other apps for that.
— Lyra Pierotti