- Why Use a Travel Backpack vs Traditional Luggage
- How are Travel Backpacks Different?
- Features to Look for In a Travel Backpack
- Top Vs Front Loading Packs
- Sizing Backpacks for Travel
- Best Travel Backpacks for Men
- Best Travel Backpacks for Women
- Best Carry On Travel Backpacks
- Backpacks for Travel - Video
- What to Look for in a Travel Backpack
- Finding the Perfect Travel Backpack for You
Backpacks for travellers, once the thing of legends, now available in all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re a newbie gearing up for your first trip overseas trip or a location independent digital nomad going through the inevitable “sell-all-my-stuff-and-put-it-in-a-backpack” phase, or somewhere in between, it’s crucial to find the best travel backpacks for your needs.
Recently I published an article about hybrid luggage—backpacks with wheels essentially—but following that post I was hit with a barrage of e-mail—obviously from the wheel adverse of you—asking me about what the best travel backpacks were.
It can be challenging when there are literally hundreds of different options, I know. Lucky for you I’ve owned, begged and borrowed my fair share and spent more time that I’m willing to admit finding the perfect travel backpack. In this guide I’ll navigate you through the wild world of backpacks, follow along!
Why a Backpack Vs. Rolling Luggage
I won’t lie…
I’ve long been a fan of rolling luggage. But there are simply things that rolling luggage doesn’t do well.
Backpacks offer a degree of mobility you just can’t match with a roller. This was never more clear than during my first trip to Southeast Asia. Leaving the buttery smooth surfaces of the airports I was often greeted with gravel roads, mud or potholes and left awkwardly trying to carry my bag down the street. Not exactly roller luggage territory, but for a backpack wielding traveler these hurdles are of no concern.
The ideal luggage for you depends entirely on your travel style and where you’re planning to visit.
I’m not an eat ramen every day, walk 10km vs paying the tuk-tuk, stretch my budget as far as it ‘ll go traveler any more. I’m also not a book into the closest 5 star hotel and arrange a luxury car transfer kind of guy. I visit far off, out of the way destinations as well as the metropolitan cities of the world and no one bag does both perfectly.
read more: Backpacks With Wheels – The Best Of Both Worlds??
For this guide we’ll be focusing on the best backpacks for travellers for a few reasons:
Backpacks for Travel are versatile!
Every piece of luggage has its pro’s and con’s. Backpacks are perfect for travel because of their versatility. They’re as at home on your back in the middle of the Colombian Jungle, mountains of Patagonia or Highlands of Iceland as they are in the trunk of your European rental car. Backpacks are the adaptable & versatile choice when it comes to luggage.
Travel Backpacks Are The Quiet Alternative
Nothing worse than the click clack click clack of rolling suitcases, It’s gotten so bad that cities in Italy—namely Venice—even tried to ban noisy suitcases a couple years back! It’s easy to avoid adding to the noise pollution when your bag’s on your back rather than bouncing around behind you.
The Pro’s Rock Travel Backpacks
If your friend jumped off a bridge would you too? Peer pressure doesn’t typically pass go with me around here. But this case is an exception. When you want to learn a new skill in this day and age you look to the experts in the field. If you wanted to create amazing photographs you’d study the masters. Right?
So if you want to be a good traveler why wouldn’t you check in with the top Digital Nomads? If they’re consistently doing something there’s no doubt a reason and a lot of experience behind it. These guys are experts. They log thousands of miles and constantly abuse their gear in real world situations.
Sure, there are a few “tier-1” bloggers and digital nomads sporting traditional suitcases. But the majority have learned that a backpack is much more versatile for their ever changing lifestyle. Learn from them, in the end backpacks for nomads are backpacks for travellers!
So What Makes a Travel Backpack?
Now that we know why we want a backpack for travel we can discuss what makes a backpack for travellers vs one for hiking etc. For ages there were no specific backpacks for travellers. Adventurers were stuck improvising with and adapting hiking packs for their travel needs. This can work in a pinch but in no way is it ideal!
Eventually manufacturers took note and started offering improved and adapted backpacks for travellers specifically.
These travel backpacks gradually worked in the most requested features and improved durability. Manufacturers learned over time that people were willing to pay more for a quality pack that would last them years of travel, but only if it was comfortable, light, feature rich AND durable. If they missed on any one of those points their product quickly failed.
These days, after years of trial and error, we have access to some of the best backpacks that have ever been offered!
Key Features to Look For in a Travel Backpack
Travellers ask a lot of their backpacks.
Chucked around, used and abused, we need durable fabrics and frames that won’t rip, tear or bend as we gallivant across the globe. We need comfortable suspension systems so we can carry everything we own for extended periods without wrecking ourselves. We need pockets on pockets to help keep our lives organized and we need all this at a price that doesn’t break the bank.
Too much to ask of a travel backpack?? Maybe not!
The best travel backpacks all have these major features in common and any bag you consider should have the following:
- A Great Suspension System – A good pack isn’t a good pack without a great suspension system. Your travel backpacks suspension should be your #1 concern after ensuring it will be big enough for the amount you plan to carry. A good suspension system will be comfortably padded but also fully adjustable and breathable
- Hideaway Straps – Hideaway straps are part of many of the best travel backpacks. They allow you to zip your suspension system into a compartment on the back to prevent them from being damaged during automated sorting at the airport. No more plastic bags for you!
- A Carry Strap – A Carry strap becomes a very handy feature when your travel bag has hideaway straps. Once your straps are zipped away it gets pretty difficult to handle your backpack without a carry strap. Lots of the best travel backpacks include a shoulder strap that clips on allowing you to carry your backpack like a duffel bag.
- Pockets on Pockets on Pockets – You might underestimate just how important pockets can be. Organization is one of the many keys to travelling stress free. The best travel backpacks include organization as one of their main features!
- Quality Lockable Zippers – Lockable zippers seem like such a small item. But, the peace of mind they give you while traveling an unknown place or visiting a less than secure hostel is no small thing!
- Water-resistant material – Look for packs with water resistant construction or at the very least an included rain cover. Nothing ruins our day like getting to your accommodation only to find your gear soaked…
The Front loading vs Top Loading Travel Backpack Dilemma
On of the biggest choices you’ll face when deciding on your perfect travel back pack is whether to go top or side loading. They’re very different but both options have their advantages.
Top loading travel backpacks—think: your old hiking backpack— have less parts to break and therefore usually more rugged. If I was travelling long term or planning to include a major trek like the Camino De Santiago on my trip I might lean towards a top loading travel back pack. On the other hand, front loading packs tend to have a zipper which allows them to open like a suitcase making packing, unpacking or accessing something you might need throughout the day a much easier task.
What you choose will depend on what you plan to do with the pack and how you plan to use it. There is no right or wrong, but it would take a lot to get me to consider buying a top loading travel backpack.
Travel Backpack Sizing Guide
Like everything else in life one size does not fit all. Backpacks for travellers come in a ton of different shapes and sizes! Volume and fit are important parts of a travel backpacks size. Choosing a backpack that is proportional to your body size will keep you comfortable and help ensure you don’t over-pack. When fitting a new backpack look to these key areas:
- Torso Length: Having a backpack that towers over your head or a waist belt cinching across your rear rather than your waist will only lead to discomfort. Find your torso length by measuring from your C7 vertebrae (the one that sticks out between your shoulder blades) and the top of your hips, make sure the bag you purchase is right for your torso length (many are adjustable)
- Hip Belt: A properly adjusted, well fitting hip belt should—you guessed it—sit on your hips! 90% of the time that’s alot higher than you’d think! poke and prod until you find the tops of your hips—some of us aren’t as thin as others—and adjust the belt. Ideally you’d like to see a 6-8″ gap between the padded sections of the belt when done up, some backpacks have multiple sizes of hip belts and can be completely tailored for your fit.
- Shoulder Straps: Straps are one of the biggest places people get hung up… See what I did there?! Honestly though, getting the perfect hip belt and torso fit is nothing if the shoulder straps don’t work for your build. Try multiple packs (preferably loaded) to see how the shoulder straps feel.
After Fit Comes Pack Volume.
Ideally you’re looking for a travel backpack that is only big enough to hold slightly more than you’re planning to take. A pack that fits everything you need, has a little extra room for souvenirs, and feels comfortable will be the perfect one for you!
As you’d guess, a 80L travel backpack isn’t going to work well as a carry on. Meanwhile a 30L pack probably isn’t the wise choice for a month abroad. What you choose will depend on how you like to travel but these basic rules should help:
- 15-30L Travel Backpack: These are your day pack sized backpacks. Small & lightweight these bags are good for those that pack aggressively lightly or short weekend jaunts. Definitely not enough room for the average person for more than a couple days.
- 40L Backpacks for Lightweight Travel: These mid-sized, carry-on packs are perfect for a week abroad as long as you’re willing to pack light or headed to a hot spot where you’ll only need a swimsuit and a smile! 40-45L is about the standard airline carry-on size.
- 50L & 60L Travel Backpacks: As the most common sized backpacks for travel these packs offer room for everything you need with room to spare for a few luxury items. You’ll give up a little bit of portability but you’ll gain a lot of packing space.
- 80L+ Backpacks for travel: When you’re headed to the arctic or literally have to pack everything you own these monstrous bags will swallow everything you throw at them! I’ve never needed a bag this big (but I haven’t tried to backpack to the arctic in winter yet either) these aren’t a great option for most travellers!
Best Travel Backpacks for Men
Picking the perfect men’s travel backpack isn’t as easy as picking out a suitcase. You don’t simply get to pick a size and color you like. Your choice has a lot riding on it. Comfort and function should always take top spot in the list of priorities!
Your backpack will become your best friend, your most trusted travel companion, honestly, it almost becomes part of you on the road. But only if its comfortable! Without comfort you risk wasting your vacation complaining about sore shoulders and back rather than experiencing the places you’ve decided to visit! That said:
Here are the best travel backpacks for Men available today:
Gregory Zulu 55
Gregory has long been a leader in the backpack world. It’s only recently though that they’ve started creating dedicated travel packs. This lightweight bag has ample storage, comfortable Straps, great airflow and cool colors.
Decked out with more gear loops and straps than I’d hope to see on a travel backpack its easy to be fooled into thinking this is a hiking bag. Until of course you find the U-shaped font access zipper. In my mind this is a hybrid bag, something perhaps more suited to trekking Nepal than busing around south east Asia.
The North Face Terra 50
The North Face Terra 50 is somewhat smaller in size compared to the other options I’ve looked at here, but not in features. Somewhat unremarkable, but not in a bad way. This light and slim pack sports with adequate ventilation and great pockets. At this relatively cheap price the Terra 50 is a great option for the would be traveler!
Osprey Farpoint 70L
Osprey is a tier 1 backpack brand that I never hesitate to recommend. Osprey proudly touts it’s “All Mighty Guarantee”, a fix anything, from any time period, for any reason warranty that they stand behind 100%. The Farpoint is a unique bag, half backpack, half duffel bag. It’s stowaway suspension system and hip belt allow for a sleek profile that wont get destroyed by indifferent baggage handlers across the world.
A zip-off day pack is a welcome feature that adds a few more liters of capacity and organization ideal for day trips or carry-on. The day pack can also be attached to the shoulder straps for a secure front carry that works amazingly as a small camera bag.
Osprey Sojourn 60/80L
One of my favorite backpacks for travellers recently has been the Osprey Packs Sojourn. Osprey is the de facto leader when you’re talking backpacks and the Sojourn comes in 45, 60 and 80L variants making something that will work for everyone. The Sojourn is a piece of hybrid luggage that works both as a travel backpack and a rolling backpack, its the best of both worlds!
While its a bit heavier—ok, a lot heavier—than the others—wheels and all—If you need to carry everything plus the kitchen sink then the Sojourn could be the one for you! Setup in rolling mode weight isn’t a worry!\
Best Travel Backpacks for Women
Women have it a little harder finding a good pack. A few extra considerations come to light when purchasing a travel backpack and I won’t pretend to know everything about it. However, my good friend and travel buddy Courtenay has a few words on what women should look for when buying a backpack for travel!
“Women’s specific backpacks are designed with a ladies body in mind. Knowing we typically have wider hips, shorter torsos and a narrower frame manufacturers have adjusted their best selling packs. As a woman there are a few special considerations you need to keep your eye out for while purchasing a travel backpack.
First, be sure to find a bag that fits your body type. Buying a narrow bag when you’re broad across the shoulders or vice versa is a recipe for a terrible fit.
Second, choose a women’s backpack. Not only will a woman’s backpack be sized properly is will include lady specific perks like straps that curve under the arm immediately after coming over our shoulders to make room for our chests and lady specific waist belts that fit our figures better than the men’s version ever could.”
Here are the best travel backpacks for Women available today:
Gregory Maven 45
Gregory’s stunning reputation is well founded. The Maven 45 is no exception. The Maven integrates female specific padding and ergonomic strap designs to help avoid the typical fitting pitfalls. A water bottle stash pocket and even a sunglass “quickstow” have the maven ready for whatever you can throw at it.
Lowe Alpine Kulu 50:60ND
The Kulu is the pack every female backpacker has been waiting for. Patented FlipBelt™ technology allows the belt to be stashed during travel. While its not as clean a system as the Osprey its a great way to keep your bag from getting damaged in transit. A nearly perfect back panel ventilation system and a whistle built into the sternum strap complete the package.
Osprey Fairview 55
Osprey’s smaller female specific version of the well reviewed Osprey Farpoint 70.
A large panel zip access, dual compression straps and lockable zippers help make the Fairview a fairly decent competitor. Completed with an integrated zip-off day pack this lightweight ladies pack is one of the best we’ve found! As with the Farpoint, a stowaway strap and belt system help keep the profile smooth when checking your bag for long flights.
Best Travel Backpack Carry On’s
If you’re looking for something a little bit smaller as an additional bag —or you travel really light — these carry on sized travel backpacks might be the perfect fit! Some of the best backpacks for travellers are generally no larger than 40-45L and qualify as carry on, make sure you check with your airline to be sure of their
Osprey Farpoint 40L
Another offering from the fine folks at Osprey the Farpoint 40 is one of the smallest travel style backpacks in their lineup. The Farpoint 40 is a smaller backpack that wont have you paying extra baggage fee’s (hello carry on) and hasn’t sacrificed on comfort or features yet is still available at a great price.
Convenient side and top luggage handles make simple work of moving the bag around when its not on your back and Osprey’s patented Stowaway strapping system helps to prevent damage during transit if you do check it. This bag is one of the favorites of everyone who’s seen it. I’d hazard to say its one of the best backpacks for travellers in 2018!
Thule Subterra 34L
It’s not news that Thule has been a force in the packing game for a long time. Thule’s Subterra is a tech geeks wet dream. The integrated cable management systems, padded laptop sleeve and audio/headphone pass through port all seem a perfect fit for the connected class of traveler. An uncommon dry bag style roll top closure system works well but makes access a bit of a pain.
AmazonBasics Carry-On Travel Backpack
Good ol’ Amazon… Swooping on on the end of this list with a budget banger that’ll knock your socks off!
Sure, You’ll need to manage your expectations. I mean after all, what can you expect for $50? It turns out, you can expect a fair amount. While the straps and padding are lackluster the materials are pretty good and the bag swallows up everything you throw at it. A laptop sleeve, multiple organizational compartments, disconnectable suspension system and a shoulder strap for carry when its not on you back round out this offering.
While I cant vouch for long term durability yet I can say that it seems to be a well built bag for the cost!
Selecting Backpacks for Travel – Video
Kristen & Siya of HopScotchTheGlobe put together a great video about their quest to finding the right backpacks. Short and informative its well worth a watch! Check it out:
Coming across the right travel backpack can be nearly as important as choosing the correct travel companion: you want to find both luggage and people to match your style, needs, and travel priorities.
After spending some quality time with these backpacks I hope our insight into these different backpacks has helped you on your search for the best travel backpacks. Thick and thin, big and small, all for one and one for all these backpacks for travellers should have you covered for any situation you can throw at them!
Did you find a travel backpack you think should be on this list? Drop a comment below, we’d love to know!
Last update on 2020-10-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Love that the top pick for the women’s was a 45L. Unless you’re carrying a tent, cookset, tarp, and alpine gear, I think everyone could get away with a 45L for travelling! Pack reviews are so tough because it’s so particular to each person’s body and preferences, but definitely covered the basics which is great. The pack I use and have loved is the North Face Terra 65 for camping/trekking – an affordable, pretty simple and unassuming looking, and so far totally durable pack!
Bigger isn’t always better! A 45L pack should get 95% of people through their vacations you’re right! And absolutely, like you, I encourage everyone to try these packs on in store since there is so much nuance when fitting a new pack! I’m glad to hear that you love your TNF Terra 65 backpack, We though they were a great option!
Interesting article! I still have a fantastic relationship with my 80L Lowa backpack, although by now it is 15 years old and slowly starts decaying inside… I love the fact of being able to throw indeed anything in it especially on those 3-month trips where you need both summer and warm gear for those mountain treks (even in Central America we froze our asses). Thanks though for this article as it helps me orientating for a new one and realising what’s on the market these days.
Travel backpacks have improved by leaps and bounds in 15 years Marcella! You’ll be amazed when you’re in the market for a new one! Glad you enjoyed the article!
Wow I have been a major Osprey SNOB, but there is so many options!!! I may need to look into a new 60L bag, and this is a great guide to do it! Thank you!!
I’ve been an Osprey Snob in the past too Tif! They make excellent backpacks backed by a top notch warranty but there are so many good options on the market now! Hope this helped!
Water-resistant material and pockets are a huge must for me. I especially like backpacks with water bottle pockets. Also, have anti-theft features in a bag are so important these days!
Anti-theft features are a great thing to be looking for when considering a backpack for travel! Good Call Candy!
This is a perfect post for me. I haven’t found the one yet. I love many pockets and also one that could fit my DSLR. Water-resistant material backpacks are also so important. I will save this post to later reference when I’m gonna buy backpacks. Thank you so much for sharing this 😀
I’m glad it helped Vibeke!
I have done wheelie bags, hybrid bags, full-size backpacks, and carry-on backpacks. My favourite piece of luggage these days is a carry-on backpack. I couple that with my packing light mantra and I get everywhere I need (for as long as I need) with less hassle and less back strain. The Osprey Farpoint 49L is worth looking into (I always check the various airline carry-on restrictions as some of them are a bit more restrictive.
Carrying a backpack makes sense for traveling long term. It is so important to find the right one. I always prefer the side zip for easier packing and your right adjusting the straps to suit you makes such a difference. I will refer back to this guide when I buy my next travel backpack, thanks a lot!
Side zip makes a ton of sense for travel! The fit of a pack is definitely #1 when shopping!
This is an excellent guide on choosing the right backpack, especially for long-term travel. I’ll be honest; I’m more of a flashpacker than backpacker, but I learned a lot from reading this post. I agree that pockets with pockets and pockets are a must! And waterproof material is so important too; especially in countries where the weather and terrain is unpredictable.
I am torn between TNF and Osprey. Usually I only travel for a few days 4 days is my max. I totally agree with having a good suspension to be a priority, so many bags out there with so many features but this something that needs to be checked out first, also don’t forget to get the right size for your torso.
Honestly I’m a fanboy of the Osprey Packs, thats the direction I’d go!