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How to Choose A Travel Backpack

On the road with an assortment of travel backpacks...
Tuesday June 16, 2020
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Purchasing A Travel Backpack


What makes a bag that you travel with a travel backpack? There are so many niches in the pack market that it can get exhausting. And truth be told, sometimes we prefer to travel with something that crosses over for other uses, like a blend between a duffel and a travel backpack, or an airline friendly backpacking style pack. Several outdoor and travel gear companies have carefully thought through everything that might help make life on the road a little more relaxed, from suitcase-like panel-loading features to detachable daypacks, padded carry handles, lockable zippers, zip-open, and lay-flat electronics pockets, and covers that zip up to protect shoulder straps from hungry airport luggage escalators.

Travel bags aren't just for airplanes. In truth  we travel every day  even if that just means going to the store and back. And having the right bag as a companion can make all the difference.
Travel bags aren't just for airplanes. In truth, we travel every day, even if that just means going to the store and back. And having the right bag as a companion can make all the difference.

Travel packs can be less comfortable than traditional backpacking or crag bags and 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 three-week hostel-hopping European adventure, then it may be wiser to purchase a backpacking pack like the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 for men or the Osprey Aura AG 65 for women and a packable travel daypack like the Osprey Talon 22. Plus, if you're not that into specialized 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 by 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.

Some of our award winners -- Osprey Porter  Cotopaxi Allpa  REI Ruckpack  Patagonia Black Hole MLC (clockwise starting from top left)  and the one and only Peak Design Travel Backpack in the middle.
Some of our award winners -- Osprey Porter, Cotopaxi Allpa, REI Ruckpack, Patagonia Black Hole MLC (clockwise starting from top left), and the one and only Peak Design Travel Backpack in the middle.

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 crag bag is the ticket. If it's truly 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.

The tapered shape of the REI Ruckpack allows for heavy gear to fall to the bottom of the pack.
The tapered shape of the REI Ruckpack allows for heavy gear to fall to the bottom of the pack.

But First… A Note on Traveling Light


Comfort is a key aspect of a good pack, and it became a hot topic during our testing. Much debate ensued, followed by research, field testing, more debate — and eventually some acquisitions and admissions. Here is a distillation of our thoughts:

One way to make your travels more comfortable is to carry less stuff. Technology today allows us to pick clothing, gear, luggage, etc. made of lightweight and very durable materials. Those are the items that often end up being award winners on this website. Choose your gear carefully, and the payoff can be huge. More expense upfront often translates to gear with a longer lifespan, nice style, more versatility, and less wear and tear on your body because you're not carrying so much weight on your back. And if a whole new wardrobe of ultralight undies is not in your budget for this trip, remember the old-fashioned way of going ultralight: take fewer things and choose your features wisely so they work for you instead of against you.

The well thought out construction of this pack had us feeling giddy every time we had the pleasure of utilizing one of its flawlessly executed features.
The well thought out construction of this pack had us feeling giddy every time we had the pleasure of utilizing one of its flawlessly executed features.

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 puncture and abrasion-resistant, and some duffels are 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 duffel bags with the best carrying straps are not that comfortable for more than an hour on your back.

Duffels are the best option for expeditions where you're throwing your luggage in and out of vehicles, aircraft, and sometimes strapping it onto the backs of mules or yaks. Rigid frames and wheels quickly become awkward, cumbersome, useless, and add extra bulk and weight. If expeditions are your jam, check out our full Duffel Bag Review. And on that note, 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 much easier to organize, pack, and secure with a lock. See our complete Carry-on luggage Review if you think this might be a good fit for your needs.

Deuter Speed Lite 20
Daypacks - These are essentially mini travel backpacks. You should 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 extras. One pair of shoes, one pair of jeans, one jacket, etc. When you pack like this, you can use a daypack that fits under the seat on your airplane, bus, or taxi. Focus on the travel, not on luggage logistics. Then you save precious time by skipping the baggage claim, and you can get on with your adventures. That said, for a long trip or one that goes to colder climates, you might need the extra space provided by a travel backpack. Or maybe you just love to bring a lot of stuff. That's fair.

Patagonia Arbor
Laptop Backpacks - This is the go-to of many business travelers and tech enthusiasts. It might be anything from a casual and stylish messenger bag to a briefcase, or perhaps a useful and more ergonomic laptop backpack.

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 parting the waters in a crowded airport, towing a rolling suitcase behind you, especially if you frequently head off the beaten track or use public transport. We love the Peak Design Travel Backpack for its impeccable comfort and stellar travel features.

Peak Design's Travel Backpack won our Editors' Choice Award  and for good reason.
Peak Design's Travel Backpack won our Editors' Choice Award, and for good reason.

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 rolling bags in favor of travel-specific backpacks that meld the spaciousness of a duffel with the features of a laptop bag, all while keeping you light on your feet, and potentially more stylish. Streamlined simplicity certainly can improve your efficiency while traveling, and all the better if you look good in transit.

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, or Asia, buying a dedicated travel backpack rather than a backcountry backpacking backpack makes a lot of sense. Backpacking packs typically aren't as easy to get in and out of and don't come with the features that make for efficient air travel. The Cotopaxi Allpa has an excellent blend of features for all types of travel, from comfort to organization, durability, and even style.

If you're looking for something streamlined and simple then try out the Allpa 35!
If you're looking for something streamlined and simple then try out the Allpa 35!

Quick Weekend Trips


The weekend warriors' needs are different from those who are planning to travel internationally with nothing but the pack on their back. A carry on bag should be able to accommodate your luggage for a weekend out of town easily. The Patagonia MLC is an excellent example of a travel backpack that maxes out the carry-on volume, is nearly as easy to pack as a duffel, and has multiple carrying options for whatever adventures and obstacles your quick trip might throw at you. This bag is a backpack, shoulder bag, duffel, soft suitcase, and even has a discrete slot to mount it on the handle of a rolling suitcase, if you're taking one. Our laptop backpack and daypack reviews also include some backpacks that work well for traveling.

The flap on the outside of the pack offers ultimate organization and stellar visibility with mesh zipper compartments and the clamshell design allows for optimal stuffage.
The flap on the outside of the pack offers ultimate organization and stellar visibility with mesh zipper compartments and the clamshell design allows for optimal stuffage.

Domestic Road Trips


Maybe you don't have plans to travel the globe but want to venture across the country by way of car. 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 a bag like the Arc'teryx Covert C/O shines. It's durable enough to toss into the back of the truck or cram in the back of a Camry. Travel packs built like a typical backpack are also great because they are relatively easy to get into, work well for hiking and backpacking, and they're much cheaper than packs with extra features that you don't need. For streamlined simplicity, we love the Peak Design Travel Backpack

Simple  sleep and streamlined for domestic road trips.
Simple, sleep and streamlined for domestic road trips.

A Daypack for All Occasions


When packing for travel, you need to keep in mind those times when you're venturing out for the day and don't want to haul your excessive pack with you. Some travel backpacks come with detachable daypacks, but another option is to purchase a compressible daypack that packs down into its 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. There are packable backpacks — that is, backpacks that stuff into their own pocket and are easy to toss into your luggage to be deployed at your destination. Some packs come with zip on daypacks like the Osprey Fairview, while others offer lightweight daypacks sold separately like the Cotopaxi Allpa.

With its removable daypack  the Fairview is a great travel backpack for the adventure seeker!
With its removable daypack, the Fairview is a great travel backpack for the adventure seeker!

Types of Travel Backpacks


This review focuses on a range of travel backpacks, mostly in the 30-45 liter range, but some have dramatically different utilities or purposes. To put these in context, here is a little background.

The Personal Item


Are you looking for something to hold your essentials beneath the seat in front of you? Generally speaking, bags smaller than 9" x 10" x 17" fit into this category; these bags are usually smaller than 25 liters in volume. Personal item sized packs often have enough volume to hold a laptop, power supply, extra jacket, book, toiletry bag, and tablet. This bag makes an excellent "personal item." It can be pretty awesome to check your big duffel or roller bag and be free to sprint through the airport with only a tiny personal item to get through the long lines at security.

The Carry-On


If you travel light and want to simplify your trip, carry-on sized backpacks are a terrific choice. For many airlines, these bags must be less than 22" x 14" x 9" or less than 45 cumulative inches (that means you add all three measurements together). Typically these bags will be less than 45 liters in size. If you can pack light, you can easily travel for weeks in a bag this small. In the event that you're packing a hairdryer, 4 pairs of shoes, and 15 outfits, or a ton of climbing gear you may need to supplement a carry-on sized bag with something bigger.

One of our lead testers is a mountain guide who travels all over the world, mostly for work. Due to the unpredictable nature of some countries' baggage claim systems, she advises that it is often wise to max out the amount of luggage allowed onboard to ensure you have a few necessities when you arrive at your destination. One sizeable personal item and a carry on stuffed to the maximum dimensions can be excellent security and peace of mind, just in case your luggage is left behind at your last stopover.

In our lab tests, we verified the dimensions of each backpack when packed. None of the packs measured precisely as was reported on the companies' websites. The only way to be sure your pack will make it as a carry on is to ensure that it fits into the airline's specific sizing box. It is easier if your pack is full of soft things that can compress (or squash, smash, and cram into that darn box). The take-home point, for us, however, is that in the end, whether or not you get your backpack in the cabin with you depends on a few things:
  • How full your flight is
  • How conspicuous or bulky your bag looks
  • How conspicuous or bulky YOU look (i.e., do you have a maxed-out carry-on and a significant personal item you're trying to sneak onboard?)
  • How polite you are to the airline staff staring at your luggage during the busy holiday travel season

The Checked Bag


The old travel standby. If you're going away for a while, you'll probably want to bring what you want and not just what you need. You might choose any variety of luggage for this purpose. Be sure to know your airline's limits for size and weight of checked bags as there are oversize and overweight fees if you bring too much. Increasingly, airlines are charging for even one checked bag. Most travel backpacks have a stowable harness or suspension system, so keep an eye out for more easily tucked systems for an efficient airport experience.

Doesn't get much easier than a zip up flap!
Doesn't get much easier than a zip up flap!

Accessories & Tips for Organization


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. Many companies sell these in varying sizes, weights, and colors. Keep in mind, however, that some models come with a rain cover included, like the Cotopaxi Allpa. Also, a garbage bag, either lining the inside the bag or covering the outside, can work great (and it costs a lot less). Pro tip: trash compactor bags are much more durable than standard garbage bags!

The rainfly fit nicely over the pack and offers additional waterproofing.
The rainfly fit nicely over the pack and offers additional waterproofing.

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 your travel packing your a breeze.

Packing cubes 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 ideal for front or panel-loading style packs.

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. A budget way to approach this is to use 2-gallon Ziploc bags. If you're more on the hunt for a bag to compress your sleeping bag, down coat, or other gear, a sleeping bag stuff sack might be the way to go. If you think moisture might be an issue then a dry bag is a great option.

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.

Comfort


You're not going to have a very good time if you have shoes jabbing into your back or shoulder straps choking your armpits, so comfort is essential. 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 REI Ruckpack has a small plastic frame in the back panel  ample padding and a very comfortable hip belt.
The REI Ruckpack has a small plastic frame in the back panel, ample padding and a very comfortable 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 from your shoulders to your hips. With a framed backpack (think of a backpacking pack with burly suspension), it's even more important to make sure that the pack fits properly. It's beneficial to go into a local gear shop where experts can measure your torso (iliac crest, or top of the hip bone, to bony protrusion at the base of your neck) and try fitting different packs to your body — especially if it's your first time purchasing a travel or backpacking backpack. It is important to note that many companies still make men's and women's versions. Don't let the gender-specific backpack dictate which one you get. Just know that, in general, men's packs are for humans with a larger but straighter frame while the women's packs are made for those with smaller but curvier frames. Sometimes, however, women's specific packs will also have shoulder straps that are ergonomically shaped to curve around the breasts. When in doubt, try the pack on with some weight in it and listen to your body.

During this process, it's also essential to adjust the hip belt properly, making sure that it will cinch down tightly across the belly button. You'll want the padded hip belt to rest along the top of the pelvis (or on top of the iliac crest, which is the bony ledge you probably refer to as your hip bone). Additionally, you should adjust the load stabilizing straps (on top of the shoulder straps), if the pack has them, to ensure that you can pull the load closer to your body for increased stability and more efficiently distribute the weight through your body. Once you've made the manufacturer's suggested adjustments, walk around, bend over, squat down, 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 is key to finding optimal comfort.
Adjusting the fit is key to finding optimal comfort.

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. You don't want to be that person who turns around and knocks out a little kid!

Yep, even more information on fitting a backpacking backpack!

Functionality


It is important to sit down and think about the kind of travel you are going to be embarking on. 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 2.0 or the Peak Design Travel Backpack, 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 an extended adventure trip, you may need space for more stuff, a smaller pack for day trips, 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 or stinky climbing shoes. For extended travel, we highly recommend the Osprey Fairview 55.

The zip-off daypack and gear loops on the Osprey Fairview came in handy.
The zip-off daypack and gear loops on the Osprey Fairview came in handy.

Last but certainly not least, we find that it's helpful to purchase a bag with a bit of extra space for souvenirs and messy packing (unless you always pack perfectly, but who does that?) Most of the packs that we reviewed come in multiple different volumes, so if you like a model in this review, but it's not the right size, be sure to check if it does indeed come in another size.

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. However, most travel backpacks are also quite soft and compressible and can be made smaller using their compression straps or additional compression straps bought separately. Most US airlines are fairly lenient about the dimensions unless they are pressed for space, and let you have a couple of extra inches.

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 ensure 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.

The Straight Jacket compression system helps size the bag down a bit but you should check with your airline regarding acceptable carry-on sizes before traveling.
The Straight Jacket compression system helps size the bag down a bit but you should check with your airline regarding acceptable carry-on sizes before traveling.

Daypack Performance


No matter what kind of trip you're heading out on, having a daypack is usually extremely handy. Bags like the Osprey Fairview feature a detachable daypack, and that versatility can be exceedingly useful depending on the style of trip you're embarking upon.

Cotopaxi sells bundle deals for items like day packs  shoe bags and laundry bags.
Cotopaxi sells bundle deals for items like day packs, shoe bags and laundry bags.

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, travel-specific features will improve efficiency, enhancing your overall travel experience. Consider whether or not you would benefit from features like lockable zippers, an easy-access laptop sleeve, the zip-open and lay-flat TSA-friendly laptop sleeve, hydration bladder compatibility, and whether or not a pack has a cover that will zip-up to protect the harness system in the event that you need to check your luggage.

On a more practical level, think about packing features. How easy will it be to fetch your water bottle out of the bottom of your bag while waiting in line at the bus station? Conversely, the difficulty of access might make your on-the-go valuables, like your passport or wallet, 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 Osprey Fairview's excellent day pack.
The Osprey Fairview's excellent day pack.

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 the fabric is given (i.e., 1680D ballistic nylon), 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. Chronic strain on certain seams can degrade a pack's durability as well, so design often counts as much as denier.

If you're headed out on the vacation of a lifetime, travel should be part of the fun, and if you're frequently traveling for business, you want to be sure that things go as smoothly as possible so you can focus on work. 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 or the meetings and tasks at hand. We hope our review will help you find the right match for your travel needs. Happy adventuring!

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.

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