From Moscow to Antarctica, we've tested 32 travel backpacks on world traversing trips for the last 7 years. The 12 in this side-by-side review are the best options available today. From across town bike commutes to cross-continent adventures, we're constantly slinging a pack on our backs. So we know a thing or two about what makes for a comfortable and well-balanced bag. To test capacity and organization, we have a standardized pack list to see how well each accommodates the essentials. Shoving these bags into tiny airplanes, grimy buses, and in the back of gear laden SUVs scuffs them up in a hurry. Armed with that knowledge and consumer reviews online, we weigh in on durability as well. Check out our findings to avoid the mistakes we've made on the way.
The Best Travel Backpacks
Best Overall Model
Osprey Porter 46
The Osprey Porter 46 stole the show with its recent update. With subtle but powerful differences, the laptop compartment is now next to the pack's back panel instead of in the exterior opening flap. This has dramatically improved the balance of the pack, making it carry better, and also making our electronics more secure and less likely to get jostled. As a bonus, this pack was also easier to pack (since this outer flap was now more supple without the laptop in it), which meant even the TSA security officer could quickly unpack and repack for us when we got flagged for inspection at the X-Ray checkpoint.
The only minor nuisance on this pack is that you have to deploy both the shoulder straps and the hip belt at the same time because the shoulder straps clip in to the hip belt. This makes sense most of the time, as it is a slightly bigger travel backpack, but we do like the option of deploying only the shoulder straps and keeping the hip belt tucked away to minimize flappy-ness for a quick baggage claim pickup and dash to the taxi. The StraightJacket compression system is also not a favorite feature, but some testers really seem to like it. Overall the little improvements this year went a really long way, and we really enjoyed testing the Porter 46.
Read review: Osprey Porter 46
Best Bang for the Buck
Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler 45L
The Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler is a mini duffel bag that quickly converts to a super useful backpack for short gear shuffles to basecamp, or for the walk home from the gym. We loved the simplicity of this small duffel, and found ourselves integrating it into our international travels as well as our local adventures. It is super lightweight yet durable, and surprisingly comfortable for a duffel back that converts to a backpack.
The Cargo Hauler is not optimized to carry electronics—in fact, it doesn't have many extra pockets or organizational features at all. This simplicity was often a strength, however, so long as you don't mind putting a little thought into how you pack. We thought this was one of the most versatile and useful travel backpacks in this review.
Read review: Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler
Best for the Goldilocks Award
Patagonia Black Hole MLC
This year, Patagonia managed to jump ahead of the critics by making their award winning MLC even more awesome by using their rugged Black Hole material to construct the new version. There had been whisperings about the old fabric lacking durability and showing wear-and-tear. The Black Hole fabric comes from their extremely durable line of expedition duffel bags—with which we are intimately familiar, and infinitely impressed. Otherwise, the bag is roughly the same. It is very well organized, and has enough features to be useful for a variety of travel adventures.
If we had to pick a gripe about this pack, and we are critics, after all, we would note that the shoulder straps are not the most comfortable if the pack is loaded down heavily, or if you're carrying it for a long distance. Additionally, the main clothing compartment can be problematic, especially for nicer clothing. There is no way to secure the clothing in the compartment, so if it is not completely full, the items tend to move around and get crumpled. Otherwise, there is little to complain about with the new MLC.
Read review: Patagonia Black Hole MLC
Best for Business Travel
The North Face Overhaul 40
The North Face Overhaul 40 has been usurped from its previous Editor's Choice award. It still earns a Top Pick for Business Travel, however. The main reason it got knocked down is due to some subtle but powerful updates from Osprey for their Porter 46. This version of the Overhaul was just a touch heavier, which knocked it down a bit further. We like all of the thoughtful features, like the expansion zipper and fleece-lined electronics sleeves, but these things do add weight.
The Overhaul packs more like a traditional book bag which makes it more versatile for everyday use, but a bit more cumbersome when packing folded clothing. We loved the separate shoe or toiletries pocket. And we like the laptop sleeve that unzips to lay flat on the X-Ray conveyor belt. We really like that we can stow the shoulder straps and hip belt if we end up having to check the bag. Lots of great travel features in the Overhaul, plus a sleek, subtle, and stylish look that would be pleasing for the casual business traveler.
Read review: The North Face Overhaul
Best for Light and Easy Travel
Cotopaxi Allpa 35L
The Cotopaxi Allpa stole our hearts. No matter how we loaded it, it was always super comfortable on our backs, which is always appreciated. The materials are super durable, which is great for longevity, and also ensures the bag looks good through many adventures. Strict practicality aside, what we really enjoyed were the fun colors, stylish look (even in the subtler colors), and the thoughtful extras like the included rain fly (or the thoughtful package deals where you get a small laundry bag or a day pack, or some collection of useful accessories). Cotopaxi ensures that its consumers feel well cared for when using their products and passes this feeling on in its contributions to organizations trying to improve the global human condition. This backpack has a fun, casual look to it, and enough features to safely pack your electronics.
While we appreciated the simple organization scheme in the Allpa, at times it didn't feel fully intuitive. The backpack makes an excellent pack for the travel generalist, but does not have an clear 'identity.' At times we struggled to know where to put our wallet and passport, crucial items to have safe yet accessible during our travels. Overall, this didn't amount to much negativity, as we loved using the bag for a variety of purposes.
Read review: Cotopaxi Allpa
Best for Destination Daypack
REI Co-Op Stuff Travel 20
The REI Stuff Travel 20 backpack has long been a favorite of our reviewers. It's a bit of a diversion from the rest of the packs in this review, but it fills an important niche so we believe it deserves a nod as a Top Pick award winner. This small backpack stuffs into its own zippered pocket, making it fit in the palm of your hand. It's easy to toss this in to your luggage and have a handy day pack to use at your destination. This new version is easier to dress up for urban use with its zipper closure and sleek outer sleeve pocket.
There is no structure to this bag—think of it as a reusable grocery bag in the form of a small backpack. The shape is also a little long, which makes it difficult to pack so it carries flush on your back. That said, it is also such a small bag that it is unlikely you'll be carrying heavier loads, so this lack of comfort may not be a real issue for your use. Overall this is a thoughtful and useful backpack for a great deal, so it might just be the pack to get you where you're going.
Read review: REI Stuff Travel 20
Why You Should Trust Us
Our lead tester and writer for this review spends several months of the year exploring remote mountain ranges, and taking a variety of transportation types to get there. Lyra Pierotti spends an alarming amount of the year organizing her life and living out duffel bags and backpacks. If you can find her at home, you can catch her coaching climbers (including herself), guiding various peaks in her beloved home range, the North Cascades of Washington, and running trails in minimalist shoes.
Travels with our team of testers have taken them from "the Ice" of Antarctica to the cobblestone streets of Moscow, and so many places in between—indeed, we've taken these packs on all sorts of adventures. In addition to visiting far off lands, we've been able to test them for day-to-day use, carrying them to work and around town. This review encompasses a wide variety of backpacks that you might use for a wide variety of travels.
Related: How We Tested Travel Backpacks
Analysis and Test Results
For this review, we spent hours researching the industry's best travel backpacks, eventually settling on a collection of the best we could find—at least online. Once we got our hands on them, we sent them out with our frequent flyer fleet of product testers for a critical review and some rigorous field testing. We took these backpacks to numerous international destinations, flying in airplanes of all sizes, racing through airports, crashing at hostels, hopping on ferries and on taxis, as well as walking and biking with them over our shoulders or on our backs.
Related: Buying Advice for Travel Backpacks
To round out our field testing, we took these to the "lab" for measurements. We weighed and measured them, inspected the materials, design, and manufacturing quality, and packed and unpacked them with our Test Load to better compare across models.
We are always price conscious here at OutdoorGearLab, even when recommending costly products. We like to give options for various budget levels and consider the overall value of a product an important thing to factor into your purchasing process. In the case of travel backpacks, there wasn't too much variability in price as all models ranged between $100 and $300, and there was also no correlation between price and performance. The most expensive models didn't impress us that much, and there were some great ones in the mid to upper $100s and also some not so fantastic options.
In this update, there is one major standout, the REI Stuff Travel 20 backpack. This is not a fully-featured travel backpack itself. Rather, we like to consider it an add-on or "feature" to your current luggage situation. If you're not yet ready to invest in a travel backpack or change up your luggage scene, this may help you get by—just toss this day pack in your luggage and pull it out for those day trips once you arrive at your destination.
A travel-specific backpack that fits comfortably 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 some of the most tiring of the trip. Maybe you're on a shoestring budget and your travel day requires going from hostel to boat dock to bus station to the airport; or maybe you rented a charming Parisian apartment on the 7th floor, only to find that the elevator is broken, or doesn't exist. In either case, you'll be stoked that you took the time to find a comfortable backpack.
Throughout our testing process, some of the most suitable contenders for backcountry travel, like the Osprey Farpoint 55, were also the most comfortable. Packs with full suspension frames, well-padded hip belts, and load stabilizing straps are most comfortable for the long haul. The Farpoint was equally comfortable stuffed with luggage and clothing as it was loaded down with climbing gear. Their other pack, the Osprey Porter 46 was smaller, boxy and bulky, but still at the top of the comfort category due to excellent suspension and improved balance this year when they moved the laptop pocket to the backpanel. Osprey is a company with an excellent reputation for carrying comfort.
We also paid close attention to the breathability of the shoulder straps and the airflow behind the back. The Farpoint has breathable mesh along the back and shoulder straps to help keep you cool, making it a great option for extended carries and backpacking trips.
Perhaps more importantly, consider how a pack fits your body and how it feels once you've packed it up and taken it for a spin. Have a professional help you size it or teach you how to measure and fit one yourself.
Finally, keep in mind that comfort is even more paramount if you're taking your pack on a backcountry adventure in between some urban excursions. We take the Farpoint on shorter backpacking trips, but for multi-night outings into the wild, consider something shaped a little differently that you can load from the top. Alternatively, you could pair a backpacking backpack with a lightweight daypack for a super versatile combo that we've used around the globe. Typically, backpacking models work better in the outdoors, so if you plan on embarking on spontaneous backcountry overnights, this combo could be your ideal setup.
If you want a more standard suitcase-style travel backpack, we found the Cotopaxi Allpa to be impressively comfortable for what is essentially a suitcase on your back. It features much more complete suspension and generous padding that makes it one of the more comfortable backpacks in the review.
The ideal travel backpack transitions seamlessly with us, makes transportation smooth and facilitates a fun travel experience. Simple, right? In reality, this is complicated. Our experience with our gear hinge on how well we have matched our choice to our use. In this category, we tried to lay out the best uses for each pack, and what features best enabled certain types of travel. In this way, you can 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 suspension system to check it in at the airport. We were of mixed feelings about the industry-wide enthusiasm for stowable suspension. After testing and thinking on it extensively, we developed this opinion: for carry-on packs like the Osprey Porter 46, the Timbuk2 Wander, and expandable models such as The North Face Overhaul 40, we like a suspension system that tucks away into the back panel, as both of these packs do. It makes excellent sense and eliminates the need for a separate flap of material to cover the suspension, which then must also have a pocket for you to stow the flap when using the pack in backpack mode.
We preferred the zippered panel for packs which were too large to be used as a carry-on. Zippered panel coverings are faster and easier to deploy. They make more sense for bags that are checked often. The tucking method of stowing the suspension, as in the Overhaul and Porter, is harder and more time-consuming. This 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, too (which seems to be happening more and more these days). It's also nice if you're carrying your bag as a briefcase or duffel style, slung over the shoulder with an accessory shoulder strap. In 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.
In summary, ask yourself this: if you're using a backpack strictly as a carry-on, do you need the zippered flap to cover your suspension system completely?
A pack's features determine versatility, and there is a broad range within this small category of mid-size models. There is the Osprey Porter 46 which gobbles up all types of gear, but still manages to be comfortable, and is easy to get through airport security. We liked the wonky design of the Osprey Ozone Duplex 60. This is a creative take on the hubbed backpack idea. They reversed the design of the Farpoint, so the larger bag is actually more of a duffel that clips on to the smaller (but very comfortable with good suspension) day pack, kind of like a turtle shell on your back. Clever design, a little fiddley, but fun and could be a design to watch in the future.
Maybe you want one product that can do anything, like The North Face Overhaul 40, versatile for the urban and business traveler. It goes just about anywhere with you—from school or work to the gym, on a long weekend getaway, and even dresses up enough to be suitable for the casual business traveler. For a fully featured and well-balanced travel backpack, the Patagonia MLC is an enticing product. If business travel is your main gig, you'll want a pack streamlined to get you and your electronics and valuable documents through security efficiently. The airport-ready Minaal Carry On 2.0 may be perfect: everything you need, nothing you don't.
We assessed these bags for urban travel, but we also considered how well they work for backpacking, bike commuting, carrying books, and office supplies. Some of the packs can fit as a carry-on; some can be personal items, and some only work as checked bags. We looked at the whole package of features on each backpack, assessing them for how intuitive and easy to use they are, and how well balanced the models were for general travel use.
Related: Buying Advice for Travel Backpacks
Packing & Accessibility
Imagine that moment when you're standing at the bus stop on a dirt road in Costa Rica, and it starts to downpour, and you realize your rain jacket is snugly packed away underneath all your dirty underwear at the very bottom of your pack. And then you realize you can't get your jacket out without unloading all the undies into the rapidly forming puddles beside you.
You're racing and reach the long security line and, just before it's your turn, you realize that the 12 oz bottle of shampoo at the bottom of your bag is critically over the 4 oz limit and must be removed and discarded pronto to avoid extra scrutiny from overzealous TSA agents. We know the frantic and stressed feelings these types of travel situations produce…and we dread them. Since we're often rushed and fall short of achieving genius status packing jobs, we decided to keep our eyes peeled for the easiest to pack and unpack travel bags we could find.
Related: How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro
Some panel-loading 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. Others have more of a suitcase panel design, like the Patagonia MLC, making it very easy to pack, unpack, find gear, etc. On some other packs, the zippers stop partway down the sides, allowing for ease of access with precision packing as backpackers appreciate in a traditional top-loading pack.
Additionally, we learned that bags with more structured walls, like the Osprey Porter 46 or Arc'teryx Covert CO are more accessible and easy to pack. Even the TSA agent searching our Porter 46 could re-pack our luggage easily and quickly, which we appreciated that one time we almost missed our flight…
Within this category, we also considered each bag's pockets and whether or not it had internal compression straps to keep contents in place. The Patagonia MLC, while still a Top Pick winner, has these, but we docked it for the floppy guts effect: when not packed full, soft items tended to slosh around inside the bag. The Porter 46 is slightly better with the structure provided by its foam StraightJacket compression padding system. And the Cotopaxi Allpa has an internal compression strap system that keeps everything in line.
Further, we practiced packing each backpack with the same exact stuff to see which were easier to use and keep our clothes wrinkle-free (or mostly). This gave us a good way to compare how much gear each bag can hold by using real loads.
And for those who want to keep things smooth and organized while going through TSA security checkpoints, there are models with zippered panels that open flat to expose your electronics, like The North Face Overhaul. This makes for a quick conveyor-belt transition and keeps your electronics protected in their padded sleeves while running through the X-Ray machine.
When you're investing in a pack, it's always good to know that it's going to last. This is especially true if you're prepping for a gap-year type of 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, the design has a significant influence on durability. In regular use, are there any areas of the pack which are unnecessarily strained? We looked for bursting seams and straining zippers when we packed the bags to the max. How does it hold up to regular use? And how does it handle being tossed and rolled around the airport conveyor system if you do have to check it in? If the pack has stowable hip and shoulder straps, how well it protects the bag from rowdy luggage handlers?
We also considered zipper durability and angles where repeated use may cause them to wear out sooner. The Arc'teryx Covert CO has zippers that turn right angles, a prominent spot to watch for any strain. Regardless, the Arc'teryx bag had a robust and smooth zipper which glided smoothly no matter how much we overstuffed the bag.
Similar to the Covert, the Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler was an impressively durable travel backpack with a lean towards duffel bag. Or vice versa, depending on how you use it. This bag was impressively lightweight for such a durable duffel.
The Minaal Carry-On 2.0 got its best score in this category, with an impressive 9 out of 10, for the use of 600 and 1000 denier nylon. Wow! In addition to its high-quality fabrics and components, the sleek design adds to its overall durability. It is sewn into a shape that is unlikely to get caught up on baggage carousels and retains strength under significant stress and strain.
Finally, we packed each bag to the brim and took them out into the field. We toted these packs around for weekend camping trips, week-long road trips, and weeks-long international trips. We hopped from bus to taxi to subway, then hit the trails, beaches, and towns, all the while looking for any signs of abnormal wear and tear on our decidedly ordinary travel adventures.
Weight per Volume
Pack weight is an important consideration when 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 the packs we tested range in volume, we didn't think it was fair to compare the weights of each without accounting for their volume.
We analyzed each pack's weight-to-volume ratio and reported the weight (in ounces) of each pack per liter that it holds. This gave a boost to some of the smaller models that lost points in other categories due to the inherent limits of smaller packs and helped to balance out our metrics. A higher score in this category may correlate with a higher price point, as stronger, lighter materials are the Holy Grail of travel.
Our top scorer in this category was the REI Stuff Travel 20 backpack. This is not a fully-featured travel backpack; rather, it is a day pack that stuffs into its own pocket and is designed to be easy to toss in your luggage and deploy once you arrive at your destination. It is so small and light that it is an easy solution to your luggage equation if you don't have a quick-trip or around-town bag. For the duffel equivalent, check out the light and simple Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler.
Finding the right travel backpack can be almost as tricky as finding your ideal travel companion. This would seem like a relatively narrow niche of backpack styles; however, we found there to be quite a lot of variety on a complex and nuanced spectrum. We found some backpacks that leaned more toward urban use, some that functioned more like a deluxe duffel, and still others that wanted to be a briefcase. Depending on your specific set of uses, we hope this review has been helpful in matching you with the best travel backpack for your needs and helping you minimize any excess baggage. As for the ideal travel companion? There are books for that.
— Lyra Pierotti