Best Travel Backpack of 2021
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|Pros||Tall and lean, security loops, foam structure, PackFast™️ Attachment Clips||Duffel to backpack carry, very roomy, shoe compartment, waterproof||Roll-top, heavily padded, multiple access points to main compartment and laptop sleeve, comes with a packing cube|
|Cons||No water bottle pocket, no padding on hip belt, not great for bulky items, clips flop around||No compression straps, no back panel padding, heavy and stiff material||Top-loading, lack of organization for larger items, packing cube is too big|
|Bottom Line||A stylish, slim, 30-liter, 3-way travel backpack with stellar internal organization and comfortable shoulder straps, perfect for a weekend getaway||This travel bag offers space and organization, and converts from a backpack to a duffel in seconds, making it the perfect option for those who travel for work||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|
|Rating Categories||Topo Designs Travel...||Nomatic 40L Travel Bag||Thule Subterra 34L|
|Packing & Accessibility (25%)|
|Volume To Weight Ratio (15%)|
|Specs||Topo Designs Travel...||Nomatic 40L Travel Bag||Thule Subterra 34L|
|Volume of Main Compartment||30L||40L||34L|
|Measured Weight||2.63 lbs||4.05 lbs||2.56 lbs|
|Volume to Weight Ratio (bigger is better)||11.41||9.88||13.28|
|Dimensions||12.5" x 20" x 7"||21" x 14" x 9"||9.1" x 12.2" x 20.5"|
|Carry-on Size Compatible? (22" x 14" x 9")||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Stuffed Dimensions||12.5" x 20" x 7"||21" x 14" x 9.5"||9.1" x 12.3" x 20.5"|
|Fabrics||1000D nylon, 400D nylon pack cloth, 210D nylon pack cloth liner||Tarpaulin||800D nylon|
|Frame Type||Foam padding||Foam padding||Foam padding|
|Access Type||Clamshell||Panel Loading||Top Loading (Rolltop)|
|Number of Pockets||1 main, 1 outer, 2 mesh zippered, 2 opaque non zipper, 1 opaque zippered||1 main, 2 small outside zippered, 1 waterproof, 1 shoe compartment||1 main, 1 laptop, 1 zippered front, 1 mesh in front, 2 small open top and 1 large open top, 1 zippered water bottle|
|Waist Belt Type||Removable||N/A||N/A|
|Different Sizes Available?||Yes||No||Yes|
|Volume Options||30L, 40L||40L||30L, 34L|
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 is well worth it for the right user. 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 two pounds, which is great because it is designed to carry 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 designed 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 zipper design allows 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 and creating an uneven weight distribution, causing discomfort or lack of balance for the user. This is the perfect airplane-to-trail 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. 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, once broken in, offers ample support.
Read review: REI Ruckpack 40
Best for High Volume Comfort
Tortuga Outbreaker 45L
The Tortuga Outbreaker 45L backpack is one of the most comfortable packs in our test suite. No matter how heavy you pack this bag, the even weight distribution, plentiful padding, and highly adjustable harness system will keep your body happy. While not above and beyond, the organization is suitable for the average traveler, and the padded laptop sleeve and plush tablet pocket offer just enough protection for all your electronics. This is not a budget-friendly option, but the high-quality materials ensure a durable, long-lasting backpack, making it a high-value purchase.
The Outbreaker is covered in half-inch-thick Ariaprene foam, which is very comfortable and surprisingly breathable, but it can make the pack feel bulky. It comes in just one color, black. Most of our testers find the black-on-black to have a sleek and timeless look, but some would prefer a more colorful option. Lastly, the high price tag can be a difficult pill to swallow, but considering the quality of the materials, this bag is built to last. Overall, if you are looking for a high volume, high quality, and blissfully comfortable travel bag, and don't mind spending a little extra cash, then the Outbreaker is a perfect choice.
Read review: Tortuga Outbreaker 45L
Best for the Overpacker
Patagonia Black Hole MLC
Patagonia is known for their durable material, and this is certainly the case 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 packability. 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 also tends to feel lumpy 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 regarding the MLC and its excellent construction.
Read review: Patagonia Black Hole MLC
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 offers a good amount of organization and helpful features like two quality stitched daisy chains. The entire bag is lightly padded, which offers some structure and 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 her passions are traveling and rock climbing. 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 begin by researching the industry's top-rated options. After countless hours we eventually narrow our search and settle on a selection that we believe to be the best of the best. Once we receive our test suite, the real fun begins. We put each pack through rigorous testing under a very critical eye. We walk, bike, and hike countless miles with these packs, take them on road trips, and even travel internationally with them in tow. Over the years, they've accompanied us in airplanes of all sizes, racing through airports, crashing at hostels, in taxis, and on 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 measure and weigh each bag and inspect 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 don't find that correlation to be particularly strong. The more glaring difference here is 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 regarding value: the Mammut Seon Cargo and REI Ruckpack 40. These impressive packs score 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 scores highly 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 exhausting 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 seventh 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.
A few features that make for a comfortable pack are ample yet breathable padding, thoughtful weight distribution, and last, but certainly not least, adjustability. The Tortuga Outbreaker 45L knocks all three of these must-haves out of the park. The firm Ariaprene foam padding on the back panel, hip belt, and shoulder straps is about a quarter to a half-inch thick. While this may sound like an excessive amount, it is perforated and covered in mesh for breathability. The back padding is also strategically placed for optimal airflow to the middle of the back, where most people gather sweat. The weight distribution is unlike anything we've experienced. The harness system on this 45-liter pack is comprised of a thick hip belt, shoulder straps, a sternum strap, and load lifters. While these four features are not unique, the way they work together is unmatched. The belt sits somewhat high on the hips, allowing your legs and glutes to take the brunt of the weight rather than your lower back. The pack sits closely to your back, and every part of the harness system is highly adjustable, including the placement of the shoulder straps. This makes the Outbreaker a great option for most body types. The hip belt is also easily removable, but if you're packing a heavy load, we suggest utilizing it to help take the weight off your shoulders.
Next up, we have the REI Ruckpackand Peak Design Travel Pack. The Ruckpack has a robust harness system with 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 Peak Design bag has ergonomic shoulder straps, a thickly padded adjustable hip belt that can be tucked away when not needed, and excellent overall structure. This bag isn't cheap, but it's clear that intention went into the design.
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 rectangle 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 offers seamless transitions from one leg of your trip to the next, facilitating a fun travel experience and helping transportation go smoothly. Seems simple enough, right? But in reality, checking all these boxes can be a tall order. Our experience with each pack hinges on how well we match our choice to our specific needs. In this category, we lay out the best uses for each pack and highlight features that best enable 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 extensive testing, 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.
While Tortuga Outbreaker does not offer any specialty pockets or daisy chains, it still performs highly in this department. Not only is the waist belt adjustable and removable, but the shoulder straps are too. At the top of the back panel, you will find an easy-to-use velcro strap that allows the wearer to modify the height of the shoulder straps. Its uniquely adjustable harness system makes this pack extremely versatile in its fit.
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.
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 12-ounce bottle of shampoo at the bottom of your bag is critically over the 3-ounce 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. The zippers stop partway down the sides on some other bags, 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 repack our luggage easily and quickly, which we appreciated that one time we almost missed our flight…
We also considered each bag's easy access pockets, compression features, and dividers within this category. The foam StraightJacket compression padding system on the Porter 46 works wonders for minimizing the overall size of a fully packed bag. However, this makes it difficult to reach into any pockets aside from the one on top, as the strap restricts access. So you have to make sure that anything you need to access quickly is 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, 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 is 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 does 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 gives a boost to some of the smaller models that lose 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 just over two 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 when 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. The Tortuga Outbreaker is another high performer, sporting 210D ripstop nylon, YKK sippers, a PET Waterproof Membrane, and hardy Duraflex Hardware.
Finding the right travel backpack can be almost as tricky as finding your ideal travel companion. Because people travel for a variety of purposes, there is a lot of variety in travel backpacks. The spectrum is complex and nuanced. Some backpacks lean more toward urban use, some function more like a deluxe duffel, and some operate more like 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
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