Best Travel Backpack of 2021
|Price||Check Price at Backcountry|
Compare at 2 sellers
|$179 List||$349 List|
|Pros||Roll-top, heavily padded, multiple access points to main compartment and laptop sleeve, comes with a packing cube||Very comfortable, sleek, made from recycled materials, clamshell opening||Comfortable, durable, thoughtful device storage|
|Cons||Top-loading, lack of organization for larger items, packing cube is too big||No secure easy access pockets, sub par volume to weight ratio||Expensive, not very versatile, small water bottle pocket, works best with packing cubes which are sold separately|
|Bottom Line||This versatile pack offers multiple access points to the main compartment, a solid amount of padding, and a roll-top in case you need a little extra space||With its heavily padded shoulder straps, back panel, and hip belt this pack is an extremely comfortable option for those with a shorter torso||This sleek and durable pack ensures that your laptop and tablets are safe, making it a perfect option for the digital nomad|
|Rating Categories||Thule Subterra 34L||Tortuga Setout 35L...||Minaal Carry-On 3.0|
|Packing & Accessibility (25%)|
|Volume To Weight Ratio (15%)|
|Specs||Thule Subterra 34L||Tortuga Setout 35L...||Minaal Carry-On 3.0|
|Volume of Main Compartment||34L||36L||35L|
|Measured Weight||2.56 lbs||3.6 lbs||3.12 lbs|
|Volume to Weight Ratio (bigger is better)||13.28||9.72||11.22|
|Dimensions (inches)||9.1 x 12.2 x 20.5||21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5||21.6 x 13.7 x 7.87|
|Carry-on Size? (22 x 14 x 9 in)||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Dimensions When Stuffed (inches)||9.1 x 12.3 x 20.5||21.5 x 14 x 8||21.6 x 14 x 8.5|
|Fabrics||800D nylon||900D polyester||600D Picton|
|Frame Type||Foam padding||Foam padding||Foam padding|
|Access Type||Top Loading (Rolltop)||Clamshell||Clamshell|
|Number of Pockets||1 main, 1 laptop, 1 zippered front, 1 mesh in front, 2 small open top and 1 large open top, 1 zippered water bottle||1 main, 1 zippered front, 2 open top, 1 zippered inside, 2 mesh zippered||2 main, 2 top zippered, 1 water bottle, 1 dimensional zippered mesh, 1 dimensional zippered opaque|
|Waist Belt Type||N/A||Padded||N/A|
|Volume Options||30L, 34L||35L, 45L||N/A|
Best Overall Travel Backpack
Peak Design Travel 45
The Peak Design Travel Backpack is a well-thought-out simple design chock-full of usable features. From its detachable lash straps to its magnetic tuckaway harness system, this bag is an innovative marvel. The high-density foam in the hip belt and shoulder straps make it so comfortable you barely realize you're wearing a pack, no matter how heavy you stuff it. Everything on this bag is highly customizable. The shoulder straps and hip belt are on a swivel and lock away neatly behind a magnetic flap to ensure that there is nothing unnecessarily hanging off the bag when not in use. The zippers and compression buttons help to minimize its volume for shorter trips, although it fits just fine under the airplane seat fully expanded. Peak Design also makes accessories for camera gear, which sync flawlessly with this bag.
While this bag is feature-rich and comfortable, we wouldn't be doing our jobs correctly if we didn't take the time to scrutinize even the smallest details. We found that this pack lacks a little in the stuff-factor. The bag itself is a little heavy for the size, and due to its rigid structure, we were only able to fit so much inside. If you are looking for a single pack to carry anything and everything you might need for a long trip, you may want to search elsewhere. This bag is also very expensive, though it's highly durable and, for the right user, is well worth it. The Peak Design Travel Backpack made us incredibly happy everywhere we took it and thus earned our top accolades.
Read review: Peak Design Travel 45
The All-in-One on a Budget
Mammut Seon Cargo 35L
If you are looking for a travel bag that can do it all, and won't cost you an arm and a leg, then look no further than the Mammut Seon Cargo. This 35-liter pack weighs in at a minimal 2 pounds, which is great because it was built to carry some heavy items. The top camera compartment doubles as a great spot for any smaller fragile items you may want to keep separate from the main compartment. The designated shoe pocket has two small vents, which makes it a great spot for a wet towel, stinky climbing shoes, or, again, anything you'd like to keep separate from the main compartment. The safely padded laptop sleeve easily fits a 15" computer and comes with a separate tablet sleeve that doubles nicely as a notebook pocket. The straps are comfortable and the general slimness of this pack makes it a great option for traveling through busy city subways, sliding under an airplane seat, or even climbing a mountain.
The option for a hip belt would make this pack easier to carry in the outdoors, but it is still very comfortable, even when packed full. This sleek travel bag offers a nice, but not overwhelming, amount of organization. However, it is notably missing a water bottle pocket. You'd think that a travel pack that is meant to take you from the airport to the mountains would consider hydration, but you can't win them all. While this is disappointing, it is by no means a deal-breaker. The only other potentially negative characteristic worth mentioning is that the main compartments can only be accessed from the back panel when the bag is face down on the ground. This can affect accessibility but helps keep your belongings safe. The nomadic outdoor enthusiast with a knack for photography will fall head over heels for this travel bag, but it works equally as well as a gym or work bag too.
Read review: Mammut Seon Cargo 35
Best for Traveling with Gear
REI Co-op Ruckpack 40
If you find yourself traveling with heavy outdoor gear often, the tapered shape of the REI Ruckpack may be just what you're looking for. The top to bottom zippers allow for easy access and strategic packing while the tapered shape encourages all heavy gear to stay down at the base. This helps keep the pack from getting top-heavy, which can create an uneven distribution of weight and cause discomfort or lack of balance for the user. We found this was the perfect airplane-to-crag bag for those trips when you are pressed for time or space. The comfortable harness system is completely stowable for long car trips or when checking your bag, and the easily accessible and organized side pockets are great for your travel essentials.
While we appreciate the side pocket organization, we did find that some of the smaller pockets inside the bag are a little too shallow to feasibly hold anything. The shallow pocket theme extends to the two water bottle pockets on the sides, although these have improved since the last model. Most bottle sizes will fit but are not particularly secure when the bag isn't upright. We also found that the harder hip pads take a moment to get used to, so don't be surprised if you feel a little discomfort when you first put the pack on. The discomfort only lasted a few uses, and as we broke this pack in, we found it to be extremely supportive.
Read review: REI Ruckpack 40
Best for the Overpacker
Patagonia Black Hole MLC
Patagonia is known for their durable material, and their reputation precedes them with the Black Hole MLC. The fabric comes from their extremely durable line of expedition duffel bags — with which we are intimately familiar and infinitely impressed. Not only is this pack durable, but it is well organized and has enough features to be useful for a variety of travel adventures. The characteristic we are most impressed with is its stuffability. The soft body and clamshell style allow for ultimate stuffing potential, and the mesh dividers provide full visibility into each compartment when the bag is open.
If we have to get nit-picky, we would note that the shoulder straps are not the most comfortable for a particularly heavy load or long-distance travel. Due to its lack of structure, the bag has the propensity to feel bulky if not loaded intentionally. We found that this was a non-issue as long as you put your softer clothing closer to the back panel to avoid anything protruding while using it as a backpack. Otherwise, there is little to complain about in regards to the MLC and its excellent construction.
Read review: Patagonia Black Hole MLC
The Traveling Professional
Nomatic 40L Travel Bag
This sleek black travel bag converts from a backpack to a duffel in seconds making it a great option for the business traveler. No one is going to bat an eye if you pop into a meeting straight from the airport with the Nomatic because of its professional appearance. With features like a laundry bag, padded laptop sleeve, lined waterproof compartment, and shoe compartment, this pack will keep your business linens perfectly fresh. It is best suited for a 3-7 day trip and the 100% waterproof tarpaulin material will ensure that all your belongings are safe, rain or shine.
While this pack passes the short-wear comfort test, it is not built for long carries. The tarpaulin material, while durable, is also not very breathable. It has a carrying capacity of 40 liters which can get pretty heavy, depending on what you're carrying, so the lack of back panel and shoulder strap padding gets uncomfortable. It is advertised as a great option for a 3-7 day trip but does not offer compression straps for when it's less packed which can cause it to sag. Additionally, the laptop sleeve in the Nomatic is located in the main compartment and, unfortunately, to access it you must open the main compartment flap, leaving your belongings exposed to the masses. Because of this, you'll want to make sure you tuck your undies or anything you'd rather the TSA not see closer to the back panel. Overall, however, this professional-looking duffel-to-backpack convertible travel bag is a great option for the business traveler.
Read review: Nomatic 40L Travel Bag
For the Weekend Getaway
Topo Designs Travel Bag
Whether you're headed to a remote cabin or a flashy hotel in Vegas, this stylish convertible travel bag is a fun option for any weekend getaway. It is tall and slim making it easy to slide through crowded places without worrying about bumping into strangers. The bright interior and clamshell opening improve visibility and the thick foam plus load lifters provide an even distribution of weight across the shoulders. While it is a minimal pack, it does offer a good amount of organization as well as helpful features like two quality stitched daisy chains. The entire bag is lightly padded which offers some structure as well as cushioning and aesthetically this bag hits it out of the park.
Our biggest problem with the Topo Travel Bag is that it lacks in the comfort department. Overall the harness system is subpar. While it distributes weight across the shoulder nicely it tends to feel rather heavy when packed full. It does come with a removable hip belt, but the belt has zero padding. It keeps the bag close to the wearer's body, but the flat webbing of the belt tends to dig into the hip bones. We opted to wear the pack sans hip belt. Still, if you are looking for a simple weekend getaway bag and you want to look stylish while wearing it, this is one to consider that we really like.
Read review: Topo Designs Travel Bag
Why You Should Trust Us
This article is brought to you by Hayley Thomas. Living in a van, it's no secret that travel is a big part of Hayley's life. She is based out of Denver, CO, and loves city life but traveling and rock climbing are her passions. You can also find her on the slopes in the winter and taking long bike rides in the summer — almost always with a backpack in tow.
We've taken these packs on all sorts of adventures over the years. Our testers have traveled with them from faraway cobblestone streets to the desert southwest, and many places in between. In addition to visiting far-off lands, we've been able to test them for day-to-day use around town and on our work commutes. This review encompasses a large selection of backpacks that you might use for a wide variety of adventures.
Related: How We Tested Travel Backpacks
Analysis and Test Results
Since we couldn't possibly test every product ever made (even though we may love to) we spend ample time on the front end researching the industry's top-rated options. After countless hours we eventually narrowed our search and settled on a selection that we believe to be the best of the best. Once we got our hands on the selection, we were sure to put each pack through rigorous testing under a very critical eye. We walked and biked with these packs on our backs or over our shoulders, and took them with us to numerous international destinations. Over the years, they've accompanied us in airplanes of all sizes and while racing through airports, crashing at hostels, and hopping on taxis and ferries.
Related: Buying Advice for Travel Backpacks
Not only do we test our suite out in the field, but we also take them back to the "lab" to confirm the metrics we determined during our research phase. We measured and weighed each bag and inspected the design, manufacturing quality, and materials. Then, we top off our testing by packing and unpacking a curated "test load" to better compare across models.
We are always price conscious here at GearLab, even when recommending expensive products. We like to give you options for various budget levels. We understand that considering the overall value a product holds is an important part of the purchasing process. Our chosen travel packs have a large range of prices. While there may be some correlation between price and performance as far as durability goes, we didn't find that the correlation was particularly strong. The biggest thing we noticed here was that durable, lightweight materials cost a little more than durable, heavyweight materials. No huge surprise there. That said, we liked some of the less expensive bags as much as the very costly ones, so we recommend paying closer attention to the specific functionality you are seeking versus the stand-alone price.
There are two major standouts in our current lineup in regards to value: the Mammut Seon Cargo and REI Ruckpack 40. These impressive packs scored highly across all our metrics at a price you just can't beat. The Seon Cargo stands out for its versatility; whether you're taking it to the gym, the office, or beyond, this travel bag is sure to get you from A to B in style without emptying your wallet. Similarly, if you like to travel with outdoorsy gear and you don't want to spend a ton, the Ruckpack is an excellent choice and scored excellently in our review.
Have you ever been traveling through a foreign country with an extremely uncomfortable bag? There isn't anything worse than starting a trip with the realization that what you will remember most is how the backpack strap kept digging into your dang shoulder. A travel-specific backpack that comfortably fits 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 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 either broken or doesn't exist. In either case, you'll be grateful that you took the time to buy a comfortable backpack.
The most comfortable contenders are the Tortuga Setout, REI Ruckpack, and Peak Design Travel Pack. We found that packs with well-padded hip belts, a stiffer or framed back panel, and shapes that foster even load distribution are most comfortable for the long haul. We need padding to be plentiful but don't want to be sweating through the straps, so we also paid close attention to the breathability of the shoulder straps and the airflow behind the back. The Ruckpack has breathable mesh along the back and shoulder straps to help keep you cool, making it a great option for backpack trips and extended carries. The Tortuga Setout is great due its robust harness system.
Perhaps most importantly, you should consider how a pack fits your body and how it will feel once it's packed and taken for a spin. If you can, have a professional help you size it or teach you how to measure and fit one yourself. Keep in mind that comfort is even more paramount if you plan to take your pack on backcountry adventures in between urban excursions. Out of this particular test suite, we would most likely take the REI Ruckpack on shorter backpacking trips, but for multi-night outings into the wild, we would consider something with a heftier frame for more support.
If you want a more standard suitcase-style travel backpack, we found the Cotopaxi Allpa to be impressively comfortable for what is essentially a suitcase on your back. It features complete suspension and generous padding, making it one of the more comfortable models in this review.
The ideal travel backpack transitions seamlessly, facilitates a fun travel experience, and helps transportation go smoothly. Seems simple enough, right? But in reality, checking all these boxes can be a tall order. The experience we had with each pack hinged on how well we matched our choice to our specific needs. In this category, we laid out the best uses for each pack and what features best enabled certain travel types. You should 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 harness system to check it in at the airport. At first, we had 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, we like a suspension or harness system that tucks away into the back panel, as this one does. It makes perfect sense and eliminates the need for a separate flap of material to cover the straps (which must also have a pocket for you to stow the flap when the straps are not in use).
We prefer a zippered panel for packs that are too large to be used as a carry-on. Zippered panel coverings are easier and fast to deploy. They make more sense for bags that get checked often. The tucking method of stowing the suspension is harder and more time-consuming and 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 (which seems to be happening more and more these days). It's also nice if you're carrying your bag in a duffel style or as a briefcase, slung over the shoulder with an accessory shoulder strap. On the Patagonia MLC, the shoulder straps stow in a zippered compartment, and then you can unzip another pocket to slide the whole pack over the handle of a rolling duffel — now that's clever.
A pack's features determine versatility, and there is a broad range within this small category of mid-size models. There is the REI Ruckpack which gobbles up all types of gear and still manages to be comfortable, but can be difficult to get through airport security. Then we have packs like the sleek Mammut Seon which is perfectly carry-on compliant but will only hold so much gear. Again, it's important to really think about your needs and use-cases. It's sometimes easy to pick a bag just based on aesthetics, but if it's missing features you need or cluttered with features you don't, it will end up being more of a nuisance than a useful piece of equipment.
We appreciate the Topo Travel Bag for both its features and its aesthetics. This bag can be carried three ways and is easy to organize thanks to well-laid-out pockets, external daisy chains, and attachments to secure another bag from the Topo line to the exterior (sold separately). We also like the Nomatic which converts from a backpack carry to a duffel and comes with some nice touches for the business professional, like a laundry bag, a removable waist belt, and good organization for electronics.
Maybe you are looking for something light, easy, and stylish like the Cotopaxi Allpa. It offers a good clamshell layout with helpful pockets, burly material, and comes with a rain cover. And look no further than Peak Design if you are looking for something to carry your camera gear around with you. Peak Design sells an assortment of packing cubes for everything from camera gear to shoes to toiletries so you can really customize your bag. We love it.
We assessed these bags for urban travel, but we also considered how well they work for bike commuting, backpacking, and carrying books and office supplies. "Travel" doesn't always have to mean an international flight to a distant locale — it can mean anything from a road trip to the walk down to your local coffee shop.
Related: Buying Advice for Travel Backpacks
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. Not long after, you realize your rain jacket is packed at the very bottom of your pack underneath all your dirty underwear. And then you realize you can't get your jacket out without unloading all the undies into the rapidly growing puddles beside you.
Or maybe you're racing through the airport towards security, and right as you're reaching the front of the line, you realize that the 12oz bottle of shampoo at the bottom of your bag is critically over the 3oz limit and must be removed pronto to avoid extra scrutiny from overzealous TSA agents. Since we're often rushed and fall short of achieving genius status packing jobs, we decided to keep our eyes peeled for the easiest bags to pack and unpack. We paid special attention to details like water bottle pockets, easy access laptop sleeves, and designated spots for your phone, passport, keys, and wallets.
Related: How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro
Some packs have panels that zip all the way down to expose the entire contents of the pack and grab that rain jacket in a hurry like the REI Ruckpack. Others have more of a suitcase shape, or clamshell design, like the Patagonia MLC, making it very easy to pack, unpack, find gear, etc. On some other bags, the zippers stop partway down the sides, allowing for ease of access with precision packing as backpackers appreciate in a traditional top-loading pack.
Bags with more structured walls, like the Porter 46 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 easy access pockets, compression features, and dividers. The foam StraightJacket compression padding system on the Porter 46 works wonders for minimizing the overall size of a fully packed bag. However, this made it difficult to reach into any pockets beside the one on top, as access was restricted by the strap. So we had to make sure that anything we needed to access quickly was in the top pocket. The Cotopaxi Allpa has an internal compression strap system that helps keep everything in place without adding extra bulk, an attribute we like very much. Another packing feature we can't seem to get over is a vented shoe compartment like on the Mammut Seon. It is perfect for stinky climbing shoes or a wet towel — anything you'd prefer to keep separate from the rest of your belongings. The Nomatic, which is geared towards the travel-for-work type, has a waterproof pocket that is perfect for toiletries and comes with a laundry bag to help keep those items quarantined.
We found that the divider in the Peak Design pack was one of our favorites. The divider splits the bag in half longways and consists of two mesh pockets that are both accessible and visible from anywhere in the bag. If you don't want to utilize the wonderful divider, you don't have to leave it flopping around in the main compartment — there is a small pocket to tuck it away, leaving the main compartment as one big bucket. This bag scores highly for a reason; Peak Design really did think of everything.
The REI Ruckpack is also a favorite of ours in this category. With the option to front or top-load and tons of useful organizational pockets, this pack is a pleasure to pack, unpack, and repack.
In regards to electronics, we found that laptop sleeves placed on the back panel are the easiest to access when removing items in the airport security line. The Porter, Allpa, Seon Cargo and Peak Design packs all make removing electronics on the fly quick and simple without compromising security.
Speaking of electronics, it's always a good idea to pay attention to the specifics of how your tech-focused gear will fit in a bag. From location to padding to organization, consider what devices you like to have with you and how organized and accessible they will be when you're on the move. A notable layout that we liked is the PowerPocket on the Thule Subterra. This area has a slit for your charging cables to feed through with well-conceived interior organization, ideal for smaller electronics.
Volume to Weight Ratio
Whether you're attempting to meet airline requirements or simply looking at the inevitability of lugging your stuff around, pack weight and capacity are important considerations. The travel packs we reviewed ranged significantly in weight and volume. It is because of this range that we didn't think it was fair to compare the weights of each without accounting for their volume. We devised a simple equation of dividing the volume of each bag by its weight and compared this number across all our tested models. A larger number tells us that a bag offers more capacity per ounce on your back. And, while that, of course, means you may end up carrying more stuff (i.e., weight) on your back, you'll at least know it isn't the structure of the bag weighing you down.
Analyzing this ratio gave a boost to some of the smaller models that lost points in other categories due to the inherent limits of being smaller and helped to balance out our metrics a bit. A higher score in this category may correlate with a higher price point, as stronger, lighter materials are the Holy Grail of travel.
The top scorer in this department is the REI Ruckpack. Its newest version weighs in at 2 pounds with 40 liters of carrying capacity. The Osprey Fairview 55 is a close second. The fact that it splits into two bags via the detachable daypack means that you can leave weight behind that you don't need when you're just heading out for a day trip. The Mammut Seon is also another stellar lightweight option, and the Black Hole MLC is a standout with its lightweight-yet-burly material and extreme packability.
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 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 standout in this detail is the Cotopaxi Allpa with 1000-denier fabric on the outside. Wow.
Beyond fabric quality, design has a significant influence on durability. While testing these bags, there were a few questions we kept circling back to. Are there any unnecessarily strained areas of the pack? Do the zippers or seams look as though they are unevenly tensioned? Do the strap flaps or pockets protect the harness system when tucked away? In general, how does the bag hold up to regular use?
We considered zipper durability and angles where repeated use may cause wear and tear. The Mammut Seon has zippers that turn right angles, a prominent spot to watch for any strain. Regardless, the Seon sports robust YKK zippers that glide smoothly no matter how much the bag gets overstuffed, so we never had any issues. Another standout performer is the Aer Travel Pack 2. Most of the body is made of 1680D Cordura ballistic nylon with Duraflex clips and YKK zippers. Durability and weather resistance was top-notch throughout our tests.
Other impressive contenders in this category are the Patagonia MLC with its expedition-ready Black Hole material, the excellently crafted Porter 46 with its protective and useful external compression system, and the Minaal Carry-On 3.0. There is little to fail on the Minaal, and what is there is durable and rugged. The Peak Design pack is also, no surprise, a winner in this metric. From the 400D weatherproof nylon to the 900D weatherproof bottom liner and robust zippers, this bag is built to last. The Mammut Seon is made with 600D polyester, which somehow remained completely unscratched even after carelessly tossing it on sharp rocks while rock climbing.
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 lean more toward urban use, some that function more like a deluxe duffel, and still others that want to be a briefcase. Depending on your specific set of uses, we hope this review has helped match you with the best travel backpack for your needs.
— Hayley Thomas