Purchasing A Travel Backpack
Luggage has come a long way from the hard-sided suitcase. It has also evolved, fortunately, well beyond the rolling suitcase. Travelers all over the world know that often the places most worth visiting do not have a smooth, paved, evenly-graded slope to put you perfectly at the door. What about centuries-old fortresses? Beaches? Cobblestone streets and narrow stairways? Hundreds of bridges over canals?
First, we will explore what a travel backpack even is—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 outdoors 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 packs can be less comfortable than traditional backpacking or climbing packs 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 would probably be wiser to purchase a backpacking pack like the Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 for men and the Osprey Aura AG 65 for women and a packable travel 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.
Once you've thought through your backpack priorities, hopefully, you'll have a better idea of whether a travel-specific backpack will best meet your needs or whether a backpacking or climbing pack is the ticket. If it's a travel pack you're after, read on as we discuss two of the most important aspects to consider when choosing your next travel pack.
If you think a backpacking pack would be better, here check out a side-by-side comparison of some of the top performers in this category. If you're looking for women's specific backpacks, check out the The Best Women's Backpacking Backpack Review.
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 styles, 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 less things.
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.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.Carry-on luggage Review.
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 travel 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. See our Daypack Review.
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. The Osprey Farpoint 55 is a great travel pack if you're looking for a large luggage replacement for off-road use.
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 possibly even more stylish. Streamlined simplicity certainly can improve the hectic travel experience, 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, Asia or anywhere in between, buying a dedicated travel backpack rather than a backcountry backpacking backpack makes a lot of sense. Backpacking backpacks typically aren't as easy to get into and don't come with the features that help streamline the hustle and bustle of traveling. The Cotopaxi Allpa has an excellent blend of features for all types of travel, from comfort to organization, durability, and even to style.
Quick Weekend Trips
Trips of just a few days are the testpiece for all packs in this review. A carry on bag should be able to 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.
Domestic Road Trips
Maybe you don't have plans to travel the globe but want to venture across the country. You don't need all the fancy features of packs designed for air travel, but you still want a pack that's pretty easy to get into and can hold a lot of stuff. This is where the Arc'teryx Covert CO shines. It's durable enough to toss into the back of the truck or cram in the back of a Camry. Travel packs like the Kelty Redwing 44 are also great for travels like this 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 simplicity, you might also dig a duffel, like the Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler.
A Daypack for All Occasions
When thinking about travel packs, it's also important to remember that you'll need something to carry valuables and such while you're out day tripping. Some travel packs 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. You might like the REI Stuff Travel or the Gonex 45L.
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.
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. If you're packing a couple of hair dryers or 4 pairs of shoes, you may need to supplement a carry-on sized bag with something bigger.
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, was 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. 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. This has motivated us to bring less (we are sure this was at least part of the intention of the airlines), to save money, but also to skip baggage claim. This is where the travel backpack really shines.
Accessories & Tips for Organization
If you are looking for a convenient place to carry your digital camera or other small electronic devices, check out the Osprey UL Camera Case and GrabBag. It attaches easily to the outside of your backpack, allowing you quick access to your camera whenever you need it.
Hopefully, you won't be stuck outside in bad weather with your travel backpack. But just in case, you might be interested in a rain cover. The Osprey Rain Cover and the Kelty Rain Cover will both fit well and keep your pack dry in the unexpected rain. 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 also work great (and costs a lot less). Trash compactor bags are much more durable than standard garbage bags.
If you're traveling abroad, you'll probably want to pick up a passport holder like the Eagle Creek Undercover Money Belt or the Lewis N. Clark Neck Stash. These both have space for your passport and extra money. Even if you keep your passport close at hand, we still recommend taking a photo of your passport or making two photocopies. Be sure that a friend or family member has one of these copies so they can get it to you in case of passport theft or loss.
Although we have a whole article on How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro, there are a few other packing accessories that can help make packing your travel pack a breeze.
Packing cubes like the Eagle Creek Pack-It Cube Set and the TravelWise Packing Cube System are designed to help keep your clothes neat, organized, and often wrinkle-free. When we travel, we like to think of these as the dresser drawers of our suitcase or backpack. Since these have structured walls, they are 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. For a durable option that will likely help you save a little more space consider the Samsonite Compression Bag Kit. Or for a less expensive alternative (and our preferred method of travel), a box of two-gallon Ziploc bags also works well. If you're more on the hunt for a bag to compress your sleeping bag, down coat, or other gear, be sure to check out the sleeping bag stuff sack review.
Mesh bags are perfect for holding all the travel junk that you're not quite sure what to do with (these are especially useful for extended trips). Headlamp you'll need for a trek next week? Junk bag. Extra set of headphones? Junk bag. Tylenol and IBUProfen? Junk bag. We recommend choosing mesh because it's just easier to find your items. Two options include the Eagle Creek Pack-It Sac Set and the Outdoor Research Mesh Ditty Sacks.
Finding a comfortable backpack is essential before going on a big trip, especially if you plan on using it for a mid-trip backpacking adventure or other similar activity. Even if you're only planning on traveling city-to-city, the chances are high that at some point you'll end up walking farther than planned to get to the nearest bus station or to track down your hostel--so having a comfortable pack is key. If you are carrying a particularly heavy load or planning to incorporate gear-intensive outdoor activities into your trip, you'll likely want to invest in a pack with a frame and hip belt.
One of the most important parts of a comfortable pack is finding one that fits. Start by trying on a variety of different packs, keeping in mind that packs with frames and hip belts will be easier to carry as your load gets heavier since they shift the weight onto your 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.
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. 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.
Finally, we think it's also important to consider the shape of the pack. While personal opinions certainly vary, we think that taller, slimmer packs promote better pack awareness. Pack awareness is especially important when navigating in crowded areas or even hiking through a wooded or rocky wilderness. Imagine weaving your way through a crowded bus station during rush hour while wearing a pack that sticks out 15 inches off your back. It's more difficult to turn around, see who's around you, and you could even unexpectedly take somebody out with a sudden movement!
Here's where knowing the purpose of your travel pack starts to come in handy. If you're mostly going to be using your travel backpack for business trips, you might prioritize finding a carry-on sized pack like the Minaal Carry On 2.0 and The North Face Overhaul, which are both sleek, professional-looking, frameless packs. If you know you won't be carrying heavy loads for long distances, and you're more concerned with having a professional appearance and a low profile, these are good ones to consider.
On the other hand, if you're going on an extended adventure trip, you may need space for more stuff, improved long-distance carrying comfort, and perhaps some external gear loops and compression straps for clipping and strapping on extra items like a sleeping pad. For extended travel, we highly recommend the Osprey Farpoint 55.
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 luggage like a pro). 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, check out our comparison chart for other size options.
Overhead Bin Rejection?
Most US airlines require a carry-on bag be no bigger than 22" x 14" x 9." If carry on size is critical, be sure to verify the dimensions in our comparison chart (we have included both the company's reported measurements and our measurements). 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 and let you have a couple of extra inches for each of the three dimensions (though this may be more stringent if you're traveling during the busy holiday season).
Keep in mind that some international airlines have weight restrictions of 15 to 22 pounds on carry-on bags. This can be very limiting, also making it very important to make sure your carry-on bag is lightweight in the first place. Most United States airlines don't have a carry-on weight restriction or have a limit of 40 to 70 pounds. Forty-plus pounds is hard to reach unless you're traveling with your weight-lifting plates.
No matter what kind of trip you're heading out on, having a daypack is usually extremely handy. We reviewed one pack with a detachable daypack and liked the idea of the built-in extra bag. Cotopaxi takes a different approach, including a super lightweight extra day pack in an extra package deal with their Allpa.
Alternatively, maybe you already have some luggage or a backpack that you love but need a small daypack for short adventures. Luckily, REI solved this conundrum by making a lightweight daypack that stuffs into its pouch, the REI Stuff Travel. This will allow you to save some cash on a whole new set-up and instead spend it on that hot air balloon ride over Angkor Wat that you've been telling yourself was way too expensive.
Stepping past marketing hype, nearly any backpack or bag will work to transport your items from one destination to another. That said, some neat travel-specific features will enhance your traveling 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 shoulder straps during travel or an included travel duffel.
On a more practical level, think about packing features. How easy would it be to fetch your water bottle out of the bottom of your bag while waiting in line at the bus station? Conversely, the difficulty of access might make your gear safer from theft. You may also want to consider the pack's weight; if the pack itself is heavy before you even begin to load it up, it may not be the best option for backcountry use.
Finally, you should check out the pack's durability by learning what it's made of. Generally speaking, the higher the denier or D rating, (i.e., 1680D ballistic nylon) the fabric is given, the burlier it is. You should also check out the pack's zippers and look into whether or not the company offers a full guarantee on the pack. Chronic strain on certain seams can degrade a pack's durability as well, so design counts often as much as denier.
Traveling should be the time of your life, if you're heading out on vacation—or if it's for business, you'll want it to be smooth and as enjoyable 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 this review will help you find the right match for your travel needs. See our full review: Best Travel Backpack.