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In search of the best travel backpack? Our experts have tested over 45 unique packs in the last decade, with the top 14 in this review. Our collective love for research and travel has given us ample opportunity to experience each bag to the fullest. This test suite has accompanied us on long plane rides, weekend road trips, and even some snowy mountain hikes. We tested the commuter-style options on city objectives to coffee dates, work, and the gym. Whether you're in the market for a minimalistic weekend bag, the perfect airplane companion or you want one specifically for your photography gear, our review will help guide you to the right tool for the job.
Measured Weight: 3.35 lbs | Volume of Main Pack: 45 liters
REASONS TO BUY
Easy to use
Balanced travel features
Upgraded harness system is more comfortable
REASONS TO AVOID
Soft body sags when not stuffed
No water bottle pocket
No external pockets
Not carry-on compliant when overstuffed
Patagonia is known for its 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 and is now coated with TPU laminate. Not only is this bag 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, clamshell-style, and mesh dividers allow for ultimate stuffing potential. The lighter interior and mesh dividers provide full visibility into each compartment when the bag is open, ensuring a more streamlined packing and unpacking experience. The previous version of the MLC lacked a hip belt, but Patagonia has remedied this comfort issue with a convertible hip-shoulder strap. This is a massive improvement, as the previous pack was uncomfortable for long hauls.
The MLC is a soft pack, although much stiffer and more supportive than its predecessor, so it is important to pack with intention. Placing your clunky, heavy shoes at the base of the bag and ensuring that nothing irregularly shaped, sharp, or hard is placed close to the back panel will set you up for success. The way you pack the MLC has a significant effect on comfort. There is no water bottle holder or external, easy-grab pockets, though there are daisy chains on the exterior to attach items to with a carabiner. The outside easy-grab pockets are nice, but they are also not very safe against theft. These minor things aside, this bag is our top choice for most adventures.
Measured Weight: 2.0 lbs | Volume of Main Pack: 40 liters
REASONS TO BUY
Tapered shape for easy loading
Comfortable yet breathable back panel
REASONS TO AVOID
Harness flap difficult to deploy
Shallow water bottle pockets
If you often find yourself traveling with heavy outdoor gear, 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, creating an uneven weight distribution, and causing discomfort or lack of balance. This travel backpack 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 found that some of the smaller pockets inside this bag are 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 lasts a few uses and, once broken in, offers ample support.
Measured Weight: 2.1 lbs | Volume of Main Pack: 35 liters
REASONS TO BUY
Built-in camera cube
Sleek and versatile
REASONS TO AVOID
No hip belt
No water bottle pocket
Only one entrance to the main compartment
If you are looking for a travel bag that can do it all and won't cost you an arm and a leg, 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 gear. The top camera compartment doubles as an excellent spot for any smaller fragile items you may want to keep separate from the main compartment. The designated shoe pocket has two small vents, making it an ideal spot for a wet towel, stinky climbing shoes, or anything you'd like to keep separate from the rest of your stuff. 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 well-suited for traveling through busy city subways, sliding under an airplane seat, or even going for a hike.
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.
Measured Weight: 4.5 lbs | Volume of Main Pack: 45 liters
REASONS TO BUY
Syncs with accessories (sold separately)
Innovative yet simple design
Carry-on size compliant
REASONS TO AVOID
Weight per volume is not optimal
The Peak Design Travel 45 is a well-thought-out and simple design chock-full of functional features. This bag is an innovative marvel, from its detachable lash straps to its magnetic tuckaway harness system. 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 nothing hangs off the bag unnecessarily when not in use. The zippers and compression buttons help minimize the volume for shorter trips, although it fits just fine under the airplane seat when fully stuffed. Peak Design also makes accessories for camera gear, which sync flawlessly.
While this travel backpack 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 find that this pack lacks a little in the stuff factor. The bag itself is a little heavy for its size, and due to the rigid structure, you can only fit so much inside. All that extra padding protects your belongings, so if you plan to be packing items that do not require so much protection, like your wardrobe, there are better options in our test suite. 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.
Measured Weight: 4.6 lbs | Volume of Main Pack: 45L
REASONS TO BUY
Highly adjustable harness
Spacious main compartment
REASONS TO AVOID
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 travel 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. If you don't mind spending a few extra bucks for a high-volume, high-quality, and blissfully comfortable travel backpack, then the Outbreaker is a great choice.
Measured Weight: 3.65 lbs | Volume of Main Pack: 40L
REASONS TO BUY
Tall and slim
Stylish 70s vibe
REASONS TO AVOID
Not great for bulky items
Cumbersome security loop system
Whether you're headed to a remote cabin or a flashy hotel in Vegas, the stylish convertible Topo Designs Global Travel Bag is a fun option for an extended weekend getaway. This 40-liter pack is tall and slim, making it easy to slide through crowds without the worry of bumping into strangers. It is also positioned very close to the body, making heavy loads feel lighter. The harness is complete with load lifters, a sternum strap, and convertible hip and shoulder straps, which distribute weight across the entire upper body. The back panel is slightly padded, and the overall bag has some solid structure as well. The brightly colored interior and clamshell opening improve visibility, making it easy to find your belongings. The Global is also stacked with useful features. It has two water bottle pockets that fit a wide variety of bottle sizes, a false bottom in the large laptop sleeve to help protect your electronics, daisy chains for dirty climbing shoes, and PackFast clips to attach a daypack to the outside. 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 Global Travel Bag is that you cannot just toss irregularly shaped items in it. A big pair of chunky boots, if placed in the bag incorrectly, will likely jab you in the back or throw off the shape. The tall slim shape and light foam structure offer so many pros, but this con can be somewhat irritating if you do not put extra time and effort into planning how you pack. The main compartment is also lacking a clothing strap. This issue is easily remedied with a few packing cubes, however, this is one place where Topo could improve. Still, if you are looking for a simple weekend getaway bag and want to look stylish while on the move, this is one to consider.
We've taken these packs on all sorts of adventures over the years. In addition to visiting far-off lands, we've tested them for day-to-day use around town and on our work commutes. Metrics like comfort are slightly more subjective but also include more tangible attributes like material type and an assessment of harness systems. We fully research all the features, and then their usability is put to the test. We pack and unpack each bag tens of times and take note of how easy it is to access our quick-grab items, like phones, keys, and wallets. We weigh and measure every bag and treat them roughly to hone in on aspects of durability. This review encompasses a large selection of bags that you might use for a wide variety of adventures.
Our testing is divided into five key metrics:
Comfort (25% of overall score weighting)
Features (25% weighting)
Packing and Accessibility (25% weighting)
Volume to Weight Ratio (15% weighting)
Durability (10% weighting)
This review is brought to you by Hayley Thomas. Living in a van, it's no secret that travel is a big part of her life. She recently moved back to Denver, CO, and loves city life, but her passions are primarily outdoor-based. You can find Hayley climbing year-round, on the slopes in the winter, and taking long bike rides in the summer — almost always with a backpack in tow.
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 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, these bags have accompanied us in airplanes of all sizes, racing through airports, crashing at hostels, in taxis, and on ferries.
Not only do we test our lineup 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 and help you find your perfect fit.
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.
Our current lineup has two major standouts 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 will 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.
While Patagonia is not known for being an inexpensive brand, we can't deny that it produces valuable products. The Black Hole MLC is extremely versatile and can easily be used as your carry-on (as long as you don't overstuff it), making this the perfect travel backpack for the one-bag traveler. Now that it has an upgraded harness system for comfort, the value of the durable MLC is undeniable.
Have you ever traveled 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 surefire 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 schlepping your belongings 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 travel backpack.
A few features that make for a comfortable pack are ample yet breathable padding, thoughtful weight distribution, and 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 we suggest utilizing it to help take the weight off your shoulders if you're packing a heavy load.
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 an 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 packed and taken for a spin. If you can, have a professional help you size it or teach you how to measure and fit it 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 and the Patagonia MLC to be impressively comfortable. The Allpa is essentially a large, soft rectangle on your back. It features complete suspension and decent padding, making it one of the more comfortable models in this review. The MLC offers a much for comfortable and convertible harness system, giving it a leg up out of these two suitcase-style backpacks.
A couple more honorable mentions in the comfort department are the Mammut Seon and the Topo Global Travel Bag. Both are unique in that they are thin and tall. The Global has an adjustable padded harness system, making this 40-liter pack feel light no matter what you stuff inside. The shape encourages the weight to spread across the entire upper body while holding it close to the back.
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. We touch on the best uses for each pack in this category and highlight features that best enable certain travel types. Be sure to read between the lines of the numerical ratings and award winners to find your perfect pack.
The Patagonia MLC is the perfect example of a minimally featured bag riddled with intention. The hip belt doubles as a shoulder strap for carrying messenger-bag style. The shoulder straps all tuck away neatly, and you can 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. The REI Ruckpack gobbles up all types of gear and still manages to be comfortable. However, it 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 based on aesthetics, but if it's missing features you need or cluttered with features you don't, it will be more of a nuisance than a useful piece of equipment.
We appreciate the Topo Global 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, water bottle pockets, and attachments to secure another bag from the Topo Designs line to the exterior (sold separately).
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.
Another backpack worth mentioning is the Timbuk2 Impulse travel duffel. The sleek black-on-black design is a crowd-pleaser, and it rocks all the necessary features like a removable hip belt, amply padded grab handles, compression straps, strap keepers, and PALS (pouch attachment ladder system) webbing to hang your water bottle or climbing shoes from.
Packing and 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.
Since we're often rushed prior to our departures and fall short of achieving genius packing status, we decided to keep our eyes peeled for the easiest bags to pack and unpack. We pay special attention to details like water bottle pockets, easy access laptop sleeves, and designated spots for your phone, passport, keys, and wallets.
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 bags like the Ruckpack, 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, Topo Global Bag, Peak Design Travel Backpack, and the Mammut Seon Cargo 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 consider each bag's easy-access pockets, compression features, and dividers while testing for this metric. The foam StraightJacket compression padding system on the Porter 46 works wonders for minimizing the overall size of a fully packed bag. However, the restricted access makes it difficult to reach into any pockets aside from the one on top. 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 love 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 Topo Global Travel Bag is also easy to get in and out of and all the pockets are brightly colored, improving visibility.
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 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, Topo Global, 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 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
Weight and capacity are important considerations, whether you're attempting to meet airline requirements or simply looking at the inevitability of lugging your stuff around. The travel packs we reviewed range significantly in weight and volume. Because of this range, 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 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 boosts some smaller models (that lose points in other categories due to the inherent limits of being smaller) and helps to balance 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 impressive Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 55L only weighs 2.57 pounds despite its 55-liter capacity. We were especially taken aback by how light this pack is, considering how hefty and durable the material is.
The REI Ruckpack weighs in at just over two pounds with 40 liters of carrying capacity. The Osprey Fairview 55 follows closely. The fact that the Fairview 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 Matador SEG30 Segmented is one of the smallest options in our test suite, and this minimal floppy backpack is also one of the lightest. The Mammut Seon is another stellar lightweight option, and the Black Hole MLC is a standout with its lightweight-yet-burly material and extreme packability. The Timbuk2 Impulse also caught us by surprise here. The heavy-duty fabric remains lightweight, and the duffel-style bag is very stuffable.
When you're investing in a pack, it's always good to know that it will last. This is especially true when prepping for longer trips. We looked up the denier (or D) ratings for each bag in this review. The higher the denier rating, the denser the fibers, resulting in a stronger fabric. The only exception is when comparing denier ratings on different 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 and Cotopaxi Allpa 35L have 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. The Seon is also made with 600D polyester, which somehow remained completely unscratched even after carelessly tossing it on sharp rocks while rock climbing.
Other impressive contenders in this category are the Patagonia MLC and Patagonia Duffel with their expedition-ready Black Hole material. The excellently crafted Porter 46 is also noteworthy, with its protective and useful external compression system. The Peak Design pack is also a winner in this metric. This bag is built to last with 400D weatherproof nylon and a 900D weatherproof bottom liner and robust zippers. The Tortuga Outbreaker and Timbuk2 Impulse are also high performers. The Outbreaker sports 210D ripstop nylon and a PET waterproof membrane, and the Impulse utilizes polyethylene vinyl acetate on the outside with a ripstop pattern for added durability. Both use trusty YKK zippers and robust 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. We hope this review has helped match you with the best travel backpack for your specific set of uses.
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