Updated September 2017
This fall, we added in a new award winner, the REI Stuff Travel. It serves a different purpose than the other bags in this review: it compresses into your main bag or carry-on and then becomes the ultimate day adventure bag. It's also very useful when at home for small hikes and trips to the market.
Best Overall Travel Pack
The North Face Overhaul 40
Thin hip belt
Not great for long hauls with heavy loads
combines a trip-enhancing feature set with impeccable comfort and style, earning it top honors. This streamlined pack handled even the most awkward assortment of gear, taking away the headache of packing. Plus, we felt as comfortable carrying it through a busy airport terminal as we did while bringing it on the trail, thanks to a supportive suspension system and well-designed and accessible pockets. The Overhaul also provides a unique crossover from urban travel to rugged outdoor use, with plenty of durability for daily commutes and backcountry roaming. This all-around has a well-protected laptop sleeve, filling out its crossover potential. It's the perfect pack to handle truly anything you throw at it, or in it.
Read full review: The North Face Overhaul
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey Porter 46
Less expensive than other packs
Fits an impressive amount of gear
The Osprey Porter 46
was a favorite among reviewers. At first, the clamshell foam wings and boxy design was off-putting, but through use, we found it to be durable, supportive for our electronics, easy to pack and unpack, and it seemed to gobble up gear more than contenders that claim to be larger. It is also a great value, at only $130 in a category that ranges all the way to $300. The Porter was comfortable if we packed something soft on the bottom of the bag (this is the back panel, and it's a little thin, so not best to pack hard or awkwardly shaped items in the bottom). The suspension also tucks away so you can use the Porter more like a duffel. We reached for the Porter for a broad range of travel types and were consistently pleased and impressed. Make sure to check out the two different sizes the Porter pack comes in; the Osprey Porter 30
and Osprey Porter 65
Read full review: Osprey Porter 46
Top Pick for Versatility
Osprey Farpoint 55
Simple to pack
Too large to be a carry-on
If you're a serious traveler, the Osprey Farpoint 55
stands above the rest and provides a fantastic set of features, along with good weight, durability, and comfort. This travel pack has numerous functional features and is comfortable to carry. The Farpoint's detachable daypack is convenient, and we liked how it strapped easily onto the back of the pack with a zipper. The main pack also has buckles on its front shoulder straps that allow you to clip the daypack onto the front of the main pack and carry it kangaroo-style for added security and ease of access. This pack's panel loading design also made it easy to pack and unpack. Finally, we loved that we could leave the daypack in the hostel locker and take off on a three-night wilderness trek with the main pack. The Osprey Farpoint was an obvious choice as a Top Pick' for this review. This great pack also comes in a wide capacity, ranging from the Osprey Farpoint 40
to the Osprey Farpoint 80
Read full review: Osprey Farpoint 55
Top Pick Destination Daypack
REI Stuff Travel Daypack 22
Takes up little space in your luggage
Must pack carefully to maintain comfort
No hip belt or sternum strap
Looking for the ultimate smaller option to count as your airline "personal item"? Want a great pack once you arrive at your destination for day adventures? The REI Stuff Travel
is our favorite option both abroad and at home. It rolls into a tiny ball to fit in your luggage but is still relatively comfortable if you pack it carefully. If compressed down enough, it counts as a personal item on most airlines (and not count as your one carry-on). With little structure, you do need to pack it carefully or objects jam into your back. A carefully folded extra layer usually does the trick. And the best part? It costs only $30, and you get a rebate if you're an REI member.
Read full review: REI Stuff Travel Daypack 22
Top Pick, or The Goldilocks Award
Patagonia Headway MLC
Easy to use
Goldilocks award for balancing travel features
Not suited for long distances
Tendency for gear to sag
Patagonia has a knack for finding its way to the top of the charts in most product categories. The Headway
is not what you want on a backpacking or climbing trip, but we had to give it a nod as a Top Pick because it was so easy to use as a general purpose travel backpack. It's a duffel bag with a few extra, excellent features--most notably the laptop sleeve and backpack straps. This model was our go-to travel pack for last minute adventures of all types and lengths: it was so intuitive to pack, and just the right size for almost anything we could dream up. Not too big, not too small, the Headway MLC seemed to be just right. For 2017, Patagonia has added more color options, so you can further tailor this pack to your style. If you need a smaller bag, check out the $175 Patagonia Headway Brief 22
Read full review: Patagonia Headway MLC
Analysis and Test Results
After hours of research of the best the market has to offer, we purchased the 11 best and most popular models to put through the wringer. Our frequent-flyer testers took these models through many countries, airports, hostels, and taxis to assess their performance across several metrics. Along with our field experiences, we also weighed and measured the dimensions, thoroughly inspected each model for strengths and weaknesses, and designed tests to provide in-depth comparisons between all contenders. Each performance metric is described below with shout outs to the top packs in each category. The overall score, as shown in the rating table above, is useful, yet we also recommend you focus models that score highest in the performance areas most important to you and your travel style.
On the road with an assortment of travel backpacks...
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 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.
The Tortuga Outbreaker stole the show in the comfort department
, as the only non-outdoorsy, travel-specific backpack to score an impressive 9 out of 10. It distributed weight to our hips and minimized strain on our shoulders. We noticed how balanced we felt with this pack--it didn't pull us backward or shift our center of gravity nearly as much as most of the other packs in the review.
The Tortuga Travel backpack has very comfortable suspension.
Throughout our testing process, some of the most suitable contenders for backcountry travel, like our Top Pick winner, 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 much more minimal, but still at the top of the comfort category. 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 air flow behind the back. The Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40
, while a comfortable climbing specific travel backpack, lost some points here because it felt more like a bear hugging our backs than a breathable backpack. The Farpoint and the Kelty Redwing 44 have breathable mesh along the back and shoulder straps to help keep you cool, making them great options 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 excursions into the wild, consider the Kelty Redwing 44
. It is very comfortable but easier to pack for backcountry use due to a more cylindrical design and the option to 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.
Adjusting the fit of the Kelty Redwing 44 travel backpack.
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 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 great 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 often checked packs. The tucking method of stowing the suspension, as in the Overhaul
, 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, as in the Cotopaxi Nazca
In summary, ask yourself this: if you're using a backpack strictly as a carry-on, do you need the zippered flap to completely cover your suspension system?
A pack's features determine versatility, and there is a broad range within this small category of mid-size models. Perhaps you want a Pack-of-all-Trades, a category which Osprey virtually dominates with the Osprey Farpoint 55
and its removable day pack. Or the Osprey Porter 46
which gobbles up all types of gear, but still manages to be comfortable on hikes, and is easy to get through airport security. Or perhaps you're traveling to go rock climbing in Southeast Asia, so you might like the Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40
for its climbing features, even though it's not the most airport savvy pack in this review.
Maybe you want one product that can do anything, like The North Face Overhaul 40, which crushed this category, earning a perfect 10 out of 10
. It goes just about anywhere with you--from school or work to the gym, on a long weekend getaway, and on hiking trips. For a fully featured and well-balanced travel backpack, the Patagonia Headway 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 without a bump or hitch. The airport-ready Minaal Carry On 2.0
and the Tortuga Outbreaker
may be perfect: everything you need, nothing you don't.
The North Face Overhaul travel backpack and its excellent laptop sleeve.
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.
The Osprey Farpoint 55 travel backpack works well for many activities.
Still scratching your head on how features affect your travel pack choice? Our Buying Advice Guide offers some great tips to help you identify how you plan to use your pack and then to choose a bag that meets your needs.
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 in order 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.
For tips on packing, check out our article on How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro
The Patagonia Headway MLC packed all of our "test luggage" with ease.
Some panel-loading packs have panels that zip all the way down, like the Farpoint
, 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 Headway MLC, making it very easy to pack, unpack, find gear, etc. On some other packs, the zippers stop partway down the sides, like on the Kelty Redwing 44, 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 easier to pack. 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 Headway MLC, while still a Top Pick winner, almost had a perfect score in this category, but we docked it one, giving it a 9 out of 10 for the floppy guts effect: when not packed full, soft items tended to slosh around inside the bag.
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). Some contenders that are smaller by stated volume made up the difference by their ability to have stuff strapped on the sides, at the bottom, or on top. The Gregory Compass 30 is an excellent example of a smaller pack that was able to fit everything we needed
by lashing a couple of items to the outside of the pack. This is not how you want to roll into airport security, lest they say you have too much stuff and must wear the wetsuit strapped on the outside of the pack to get through security. Yikes.
The excellent side straps allow you to attach things that won't fit in the relatively small 30 liter interior.
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 Cotopaxi Nazca and the Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40
had two of the highest strength fabric ratings, but note that this comes at a cost in weight, as measured in ounces per liter capacity of the bag.
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?
Testing the Mountain Hardwear Splitter 40 backpack on a climbing trip.
We also considered zipper durability and angles where repeated use may cause them to wear out sooner. The Arc'teryx Covert CO
and the Tortuga Outbreaker both had zippers that turned right angles, an obvious spot to watch for strain. The performances of the two were quite different, however. The Arc'teryx bag had a strong, smooth zipper which glided smoothly no matter how much we overstuffed the bag; the Tortuga's smaller zipper teeth, however, often got caught up as we tried to close the pack, even if it wasn't overstuffed.
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's 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.
The Covert is easy to pack with almost any type of gear or luggage because of the stiffer side walls and the suitcase style opening.
Weight & 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 scorers in this category were, thus, made of lighter materials, measured in ounces per liter of volume. The Gregory Compass 30
shared the highest score of 8 out of 10 with the Cotopaxi Nazca 24 and the Kelty Redwing 44
. These three have very different volumes, though it is important to note that the lightest bag overall was the 30-liter Compass, not the Nazca, though it was our smallest pack at only 24 liters.
A well-chosen travel backpack will be a reliable companion on your next adventure, wherever that may take you.
Finding the right travel backpack can be almost as important as finding the right travel companion: you want to find luggage, and people, to match your rhythm, needs, and priorities. We spent some quality time adventuring with eleven of the most popular and intriguing travel-specific backpacks out there, took lots of notes, and brought it all together for you here. We hope this review has helped you sort through your travel needs to find the gear that gets you where you want to go. Find the right match. Set yourself up for success. You'll form lasting friendships, collect adventures and stories, and perhaps most of all, avoid excess baggage.