Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Travel Backpacks

Wednesday April 17, 2024
travel backpack - packing and unpacking our travel bags is a crucial part of our...
Packing and unpacking our travel bags is a crucial part of our testing regime.
Credit: Hayley Thomas

Our travels have taken us from Iceland to the South Pole, from the streets of Santiago to the cobblestone squares in Moscow, and through the artistic alleys of Denver. For this review, we assembled a collection of the industry's leading travel backpacks and put them through the rigors of our various domestic and international adventures. We assessed the packing volume, protection capabilities, quick access pockets of each bag, and tested our ability to live out of them for a long weekend. We evaluated comfort when carrying a week's worth of clothes while waiting in a TSA line and walking around foreign neighborhoods. We packed and unpacked these travel backpacks, carried them half-empty and overstuffed, tossed them in and out of multiple modes of transport, and used them as our mobile wardrobe for days on end. This review is a comprehensive summary of our notes and experiences out there in the urban, suburban, domestic, and international wilds.

travel backpack - travel bags aren't just for airplanes. in truth, we travel every...
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.
Credit: Hayley Thomas

Testing Metrics

Our testing criteria consist of four main categories. We create repeatable tests and scenarios for all of these categories to put each bag through a similarly rigorous journey. Our metrics are as follows:

Storage and Protection

This metric is assessed by spending A LOT of time packing and unpacking different-sized loads into each bag. Items of all manner of weights, shapes, sizes, and fragility were placed in our bags and hauled around, from delicate camera gear to heavy, durable climbing gear to a suit and tie and dress shoes. This metric makes up 30% of each bag's final score.

travel backpack - we compared the different compartment layouts and organization...
We compared the different compartment layouts and organization features by taking them on weekend trips.
Credit: Hale Milano

The testing of this metric is a mix of quantitative and qualitative measures. We count the number of zippers and asses the number and style of pockets available. We qualitatively discuss the anatomy of the bag's internal space and evaluate how useful all the pockets actually are. We pack each bag full and then compare how difficult or easy it is to do so. Whether or not filling up one compartment takes up room from another is also an important consideration. We gauge each bag's ability to protect its contents from bumps, spills, and the general rigors of travel. For our waterproof and weather testing, we fill each bag with towels, cushions, and paper towels, then drench them with a high-pressure hose. We thoroughly examine the hardware and padding around the bag, paying special attention to the areas near laptop pouches and electronic pockets.

travel backpack - some bags possess specialized protection features to guard from...
Some bags possess specialized protection features to guard from theft, the elements, or electronic attack.
Credit: Matthew Blake

Ease of Use

The ease of use metric made up 30% of each bag's total score as well. After all, if your carry on backpack isn't easy to use, you're likely to reach for a different bag when it comes time to start packing. One of our top priorities here is to ensure that we have quick and easy access to items on the go. We catalog external pockets, unzipping, packing, and rezipping each one over and over. We take notes on how easy it is to find our chapstick, in-flight entertainment, headphones, or wallet. This was done while wearing the bag slung over one shoulder and also with the bag on the ground in front of us. Next, we assessed the livability of each bag, i.e. can you use it as your portable dresser while traveling so that you never need to fully unpack to access specific items? We do this during holiday trips to our hometown, global expeditions for adventure, and long commutes for business trips. To get a bigger picture view, we continue the testing beyond travel and simply live out of each bag at home, packing each the night before with what we think we will use the next day.

travel backpack - quick access pockets can make or break your ability to find your id...
Quick access pockets can make or break your ability to find your ID or ticket without holding up the line.
Credit: Hale Milano

Many of the bags in our test have the option for different carry methods, and we test how easy it is to convert from backpack straps to duffel straps to grab handles on each backpack. One inevitable fact of travel is that bags tend to take some heavy abuse, and being able to tuck away and protect the more vulnerable parts of your bag can help extend its use. Many in our lineup of bags have grab handles as well as stowable backpack straps. We clip, cinch, shove, and zip straps away, making each bag as cargo-ready as possible. We can confidently say that not all stowable strap designs are created equal!

travel backpack - heavy-duty grab handles can help hoist bags into overhead bins.
Heavy-duty grab handles can help hoist bags into overhead bins.
Credit: Hale Milano

Comfort and Fit

One of the last (but definitely not least) metrics is comfort and fit, weighing in at 30% of each bag's overall score. To start out, we assess the anatomy of the straps, buckles, structures, and padding that are present. Then we carry each bag in as many ways as possible over months of testing to suss out exactly which were the most comfortable, which needed tweaking or breaking in, and which should maybe go back to the design room floor for a second iteration.

travel backpack - whether you're carrying one or more bags, comfortable straps help...
Whether you're carrying one or more bags, comfortable straps help ease the discomfort of running across airports to catch a connection.
Credit: Hale Milano

To perform a “stress test,” we pack each back to its max capacity, using a 15lb-minimum rule, and walk up and down staircases, escalators, and elevators to determine how comfortable it is to carry each bag in various travel scenarios. We take the bags along on planes, trains, and automobiles to see how they fare in each scenario. We also mobilize with a nearly empty bag to determine how the packs feel when they are only lightly packed; some feel floppy and awkward, while others retain structure and comfort without much inside. Padding is a key factor to assess in this category, so we scoped out the padding both internally and along the harness system and back panel. We comment on how the harness system and padding sit around the body and whether or not each design makes sense anatomically.

travel backpack - the rigid foam makes this pack super comfy to wear for long periods...
The rigid foam makes this pack super comfy to wear for long periods of time.
Credit: Hayley Thomas


Our final metric, versatility, makes up 10% of each product's score. Since you likely travel for more than one reason, sometimes business, sometimes pleasure, you should be able to use your luggage in all cases. We research different color options available for each bag and evaluate general style to determine if bags would work for in a variety of settings and dress codes. In addition to style, we also assess whether or not a bag's design enables it to serve multiple functional purposes — could you take it into the office and then use it as a daypack on a short hike? All in all, though these travel backpacks are specialized pieces of carry on luggage, we always appreciate a versatile design.

travel backpack - researching all the available features prior to testing is a big...
Researching all the available features prior to testing is a big part of our process, like how to remove and reattach this daypack.
Credit: Hayley Thomas


Everyone has their own quirks and preferences, but we aim to narrow our metrics down to only the most important factors and objectively evaluate these bags based on what matters most. We hope our months of testing these bags, both in our homes and abroad, will help you find your perfect travel backpack. After all, traveling is more fun with the right companion. Happy travels!