One of the most important things a backpacker can find is a great travel backpack. It holds all your gear, it’s with you almost all the time, and in some bizarre, anthropomorphic way, it’s your best friend. I still remember the feeling of coming back from my first solo backpacking trip, and walking around without a backpack. It felt wrong. Like something was missing.
Over the years, I’ve gone through packs like nobody’s business. I’ve never used the same pack for more than two trips, and no matter how many hours I spend either online or in the store, it seems like finding the right pack is always going to be a horrific ordeal.
Discomfort, poorly designed features, dangly straps, sizing issues, and all manner of nonsense have thwarted my path at every turn. It’s tough finding something that fits you properly, and I think, given the high user ratings of certain packs I hate, maybe I just have a bizarrely crooked spine and it’s not their fault.
But I refuse to let them get away with rant-free ease.
“Travel” packs barely exist
Part of the problem is that, up until very recently, the only options were top-loading hiking backpacks, or wheeled suitcases. Other options like duffel bags or school backpacks exist as well, but these are rarely suitable for round-the-world travel.
But since these were the only options, accepting their flaws was all I could do. And besides, high-quality hiking backpacks will stand up to most abuse, and they’ll be super comfortable if they fit you properly. But they’re not ideally suited for travel. Hiking packs work, but we’ve only been using them because nothing else was better.
The problem(s) with hiking backpacks:
Now don’t get me wrong; hiking backpacks are great, and I’ve used them on plenty of trips. Some designs have none of these flaws; it’s just that they usually do:
- Packing inconvenience: Hiking packs are usually top-loading, cavernous cylinders that swallow your gear and you have to dig everything out to find whatever’s at the bottom. You can mitigate this problem with packing cubes, but suitcase-style openings are so easy to manufacture that it’s insulting how rarely they’re implemented.
- Extraneous strap dangle: Hiking packs have all sorts of compression straps and attachment points. These are useful for walking around, but they’ll get scratched up when you throw them in the luggage compartment for a bus ride. And I’m including shoulder and hip straps here, too. If you ever have to check your bags for a flight, they’ll come out a little more damaged every time.
- No locking mechanism: Top loaders usually use a drawstring opening, which offers no security whatsoever against unscrupulous hostel bunkmates. This problem can be mostly solved with a laptop sleeve that can lock itself to a bed, but lockable zippers would be easier (though I’ve softened this requirement, as zippers can be easily bypassed, even when locked).
And in many cases, plenty of hiking packs have dumb design errors anyway, even if you’re just hiking.
The problem(s) with so-called “travel backpacks:”
Several companies design what they call “travel backpacks,” which have better features, solving some of the problems listed above, but they generally screw things up in the meantime as well:
- Size: They’ll make them so gigantic that you have to check them on a plane. Some of these “travel backpacks” go up to 80 liters. I’ve done RTW travel with 20. The carry-on max of 45 liters is plenty! Who the hell needs 80?!?!
- De-hydration pockets: They’ll skip the damn water bottle side pockets and then where the hell do they go?!?!?
- Filthy dirty lie “panel” loading: They’ll forget to make the suitcase-style opening go all the way around, thus defeating the purpose of the panel in the first place.
Which is why I’m so gleefully pleased that certain companies have been designing travel backpacks. Correctly, I might add.
I don’t know why the other people didn’t bother doing it before.
What the best travel backpacks get right
I’ve compiled a list of some of the best travel backpacks for carry-on use I can find. These packs are made for travelers, not hikers. They’ve got panel-loading convenience, not top-loading caverns; they’ve got lockable zippers, not drawstring uselessness; they’ve got carry-on dimensions, and minimal, hide-away straps, not monstrous bulges and streamers hanging from every angle. They can be carry-ons, or they can be checked luggage, without getting ruined.
Oh, and they’re not ugly. To me, that counts. Who the hell ever thought fluorescent orange was sexy? The 80s? Yeah, stay there.
I’ve organized this list by type. Let’s begin:
Full size and full-featured:
These packs have everything you could want; maximized dimensions, panel access, a laptop compartment, and lots of internal and external organizational pockets. There’s nothing missing.
1) Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack
Tortuga was started by a random team of people who found themselves complaining about how they couldn’t find a travel pack that didn’t suck.
The full-length panel-loading design allows plenty of easy access to everything inside, and a dedicated laptop compartment keeps your kitten-picture machine safe and sound. The inside has even more pockets than the outside, and several compartments feature locking zippers. It’s also highly weather resistant, with a waterproof fabric, and water-resistant zippers. It’s available in 35 and 45 liter capacities, to match the carry-on size requirements of European budget carriers, or North American airlines, respectively.
Tortuga is currently on the third version of this pack, and the new design has a height-adjustable suspension system, meaning it will fit people of all sizes. It also has a seriously padded hip belt, which is rare for these packs, along with a seriously cushioned back panel and shoulder straps. It’s probably the most heavy-duty suspension system of any travel pack out there, and although it’s significantly heavier as a result, it’s going to excel at carrying heavier loads. They’ve eliminated the ability to stow the shoulder straps and the suitcase handle, however, emphasizing its backpack features exclusively.
Update: I received a test sample of the 35 liter version of this pack, and put it to the test! Check it a detailed review here.
2) Rick Steves Convertible Carry-on
Long before anyone else got started in the carry-on travel backpack game, Rick Steves was galavanting around Europe with his own personal travel gear, designed exactly the way he liked it.
This pack has quite a few of the obvious features you’d expect, such as a fully opening panel that allows easy access to everything, and hidden backpack and waist straps, in addition to the suitcase-style handles. Exterior pockets are also quite generous.
But it has a few extra touches, such as a separate interior compartment for shoes or dirty clothes, and includes two mesh bags and a removable documents pouch, which you can remove and take with you instead of leaving it in a room. A separate laptop slot has been added to this newer version as well.
The pack is sized to accommodate carry-on dimensions, but can expand with a compression zipper in case you stock up too much on souvenirs. It’s also quite affordable compared to others, although they do recommend using packing cubes inside to create more structure along the back panel. It’s a good budget option, and it’s what Rick Steves himself has used for…quite a few trips.
Svelte and Slim:
At 35 liters each, these are for lighter travelers who don’t need to max out on the size, but still want all the convenience of easy packing and laptop compatibility. They’ve got all the important features you’d want, in a slimmed-down size.
3) Minaal Carry-on Backpack
This one is yet another creation in the long, adorable line of things that were invented because people got sick and tired of endlessly having to deal with things that sucked.
This Kickstarter-backed project came about when two long-time travelers decided to make the pack they would have wanted. They set out to create the perfect travel pack for digital nomads, and its design (and Kickstarter success) just goes to show how rarely some of the major players stop to think about the needs of backpackers.
In addition to the expected features, like the full-length, suitcase-style opening, a locking laptop compartment, several exterior pockets, no dangly things, and hide-away straps, it also has a rain cover. It also has a hip strap, though it’s not padded. That’s fine for smaller packs like this one, but you might want to take extra breaks if you’re hauling it around for a couple hours at a time.
Update: This bag is now in version 2.0, and is even better than before. They’ve sent me a test sample, and I’ve written about it in-depth here.
Get one here.
4) Gregory Border 35
The Border 35 is back! I thought it was discontinued, but it’s newly redesigned for 2016 and beyond.
So Gregory is primarily a hiking pack company, and not as widely known as some of the bigger names in the industry, but whose packs I think are designed better than many of its competitors.
Their Border series consists of urban/travel backpacks, and this 35 liter version has not only a full-length panel-loading main compartment, but also a full-length panel loading laptop compartment; this means you just unzip and unfold this compartment, and lay it down on the airport security scanner, rather than removing the laptop at all. It’s quick and easy, and makes airport life just a little more convenient.
It’s missing a couple useful features, however. There’s no hip belt, no side water bottle pocket, and you can’t stow the straps away to use it as a suitcase (although it does have side carry handles). Think of it as a budget version of the Minaal. The overall layout is similar, but it’s missing a few of the extra details.
Convertible shoulder bags:
These options transform from backpack to shoulder bag, so you can carry it whichever way you want.
5) Tom Bihn Aeronaut
Tom Bihn is known for exceptional attention to detail, tiny little organizational perks, and super tough materials. They tend to win over fans for life, and that’s how long their bags seem to last, too. Many of them end up collecting the whole set.
They also provide far more compartmentalization than most other options; if you want a million pockets instead of one gigantic cylinder, this is where to go.
Pictured is the Aeronaut, a convertible duffel bag with disappearing backpack straps that zip away when you don’t want to use them, along with an optional waist strap, and an optional shoulder strap for shoulder bag mode. The main compartment opens up with a U-shaped panel, allowing for far more convenient loading and unloading than a typical straight-zipper duffel would allow, and the spacious side compartments on either end allow for plenty of organizational access, even for large items, without having to open the main section.
Though it has plenty of compartments, it doesn’t have anywhere specifically intended for a laptop or a water bottle, though you could easily find homes for these somewhere in the setup. Also, keep in mind that the optional hip belt is just a strap, so it’s better for shorter walks.
I got a chance to test the smaller version of this bag (30 liters), but the features are identical, so if you want to see a ridiculously detailed review, take a look here.
6) Patagonia MLC
The MLC stands for “Maximum Legal Carry-on,” and thus it’ll give you plenty of room. It opens up all the way like a suitcase, and has lots of organization, inside and out.
It doesn’t have “official” locking zippers, but it has the metal pulls that can be locked anyway. It also doesn’t have a hip belt, which means you’ll want to avoid long walks, unless you’re super muscular.
It has carrying handles, a shoulder strap, and backpack straps, a laptop compartment, and Patagonia’s ironclad guarantee. It’s a solidly built carry-on that’ll last you for years.
From the outdoor world:
These last few options are from outdoorsy companies, whose travel-specific options are also pretty solid.
7) REI Vagabond 40 Pack
This pack has some serious shoulder and hip straps, good enough that you could go hiking in this thing. That’s not the case with some of the other options listed here, which have a basic strap (or no strap) across the hip.
Plus it has the travel-specific features you’d want in a carry-on bag, such as hide-away straps, multiple handles, and locking zippers.
No dedicated laptop sleeve, though; its length is also 2″ longer than carry-on requirements. You can probably get away with it (especially if you leave the top pocket empty), but don’t be surprised if this issue comes up at some point.
Details here. (Update! This pack has been replaced with a newer version. The layout is similar, with just a few minor changes. I’ll keep my eyes on the reviews and keep this page updated.)
8) Osprey Farpoint 40
So I’ve decided to add this to the list, as it’s a popular pack with a great reputation, and it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s just that it does a few things that annoy the hell out of me, as is the case with all Osprey packs, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, the good: It’s a carry-on sized backpack with a full-length panel loading design, a dedicated laptop compartment, and hide-away shoulder straps. And those are good shoulder straps, and the waist belt is great, too. They really didn’t skimp on this feature, and it’s also available in two different torso length sizes, so it’s definitely going to be comfortable. And by the way, it’s probably going to be significantly more comfortable than the Osprey Porter 46, which is incredibly similar, but comes in just one size, and with daintier straps.
And now, the bad: Osprey never ceases to amaze me with their insistence on using non-stretchy mesh water bottle pockets, with compression straps that go right over the pockets to make them a million times harder to use. I really don’t get it. I also find it to be something of a nuisance how the compression straps block access to the main zippered compartment, meaning it’ll be kind of a hassle getting into and out of the bag. The Farpoint has small external pockets, but the big ones are stuck behind the straps, in a way that annoys me a little more than some of the other packs listed here.
Also…two logos? That’s…weird. Although they’ve removed one of them.
Get it here. (You’ll notice the larger versions have a detachable backpack, but not the 40 liter version)
So what makes a good travel pack?
You’ll notice that these packs generally have a number of features in common, some of which I mentioned as necessities, and some of which are easier to see once you line them all up in a row. These are the features of a good carry on backpack ideally suited for travel:
- Carry-on size: 45 liters is plenty for lifelong, indefinite travel all over the world. I did it in 20. You can do it in 45. And if you still want the “extra” pack for quick day trips, consider a compressible one. By the way, keep in mind that certain regional European carriers have stricter limits; 35 liters will likely be fine for them.
- Hide-away straps: But if you do want to check a bag, you certainly can. The straps tuck away so they can’t get snagged or damaged, which is also useful for stuffing them into overhead bins or under a seat.
- Multiple carrying options: You’ll notice each of these packs has at least two handles, always in the same place; the top, and the side. This allows you to carry it like a briefcase, or pull it out of an overhead bin. Plus, the aforementioned backpack straps and occasional messenger bag straps let you carry them however you feel like it.
- Internal compression straps: You pack the bag while it’s flat, then turn it upright. The compression straps keep everything stuck the way you packed it.
- Minimal external compression straps: No dangly silliness to get stuck on whatever. They’re useful, sure, but dammit, why don’t the hiking companies have the dangly end hang on to something so it doesn’t dangle?
- Laptop compartment: Our lives exist in the digital ether. I’ll tell people to skip the laptop if they’re not going to use it, but digital nomads need it, and most people will want one anyway.
- Locking zippers: It’s just that easy to keep your bag protected. Other bags have steel mesh reinforcements throughout the bag, but…the cost/benefit ratio isn’t so ideal. Locking zippers are easy, and hugely helpful (though I’ve recently seen techniques to bypass the lock, so I’ve softened on this as a requirement).
- Flat packing: The whole thing lies down so you can pack it like a suitcase. This is incredibly useful. I don’t know why it’s so rare in the hiking world.
Potential areas for improvement
I do, however, have some problems with certain aspects of carry on backpack designs. Now remember, I’m a nitpicky bastard that can never be satisfied, but dammit, it’s because I’m right. But keep in mind these are issues worth thinking about, rather than deal-breaking problems.
- Minimal hip straps: Transferring the load to your hips makes a huge difference. It’s the difference between “I need a massage” and “let’s go party.” For large, muscular specimens of masculinity, this is probably not such a big deal. It’s also easy to manage if you go straight from the bus station to the hostel, but I’ve often found myself wandering around town with my pack, and it’ll probably happen to you sooner or later as well. It would be nice to see detachable hip straps as an add-on option, though as mentioned, a few of the above options (Tortuga and REI Vagabond) have more serious hip straps than the others, and a simple strap can go a long way in improving the comfort of smaller gear setups.
- Minimal ventilation: This is another problem that arises from longer walks. If it’s winter or you don’t sweat much or you’re going straight to the hostel, good for you. If you plan on walking around for an hour, it’s going to be an issue. I’d normally say the trampoline-style back panel is great, but it’s tough to recommend it for the problems these packs are trying to solve. These packs are supposed to go through luggage checks with no problems, and the trampoline back would need to be protected in order to accommodate that. However, a raised lumbar pad and raised shoulder blade pads would go a long way in diminishing the ventilation problem, without sticking out too much.
- “Water bottle pockets” that don’t fit a water bottle: I’ll start by pointing out that most of the options above are fine in regards to this problem, but I will never stop complaining about inadequate water bottle pockets, because goddammit where the hell do they go?!?!
But again, these are just potential problems. The hip strap issue is likely the most objectively serious, and it’s definitely something to think about if you expect to be walking far and wide on your worldly adventures.
But, all in all, I like these designs. I also like the existence of these designs. I expect carry-on, hybrid packs like these to become increasingly popular, because they’re so efficiently designed to accommodate the needs of lightweight travelers who still need backpack straps, and once you get one…you’ll never need anything else.