Updated Nov 30, 2019
BEST TRAVEL BACKPACK
How to choose the best travel backpack for you.
You've decided that a travel backpack is right for you, but how do you choose the right one?
The truth is that this is a very personal decision, because both travel and daily lifestyle choices are so unique to your interests and how you will use your gear.
Where are you travelling to?
What look and feel is a fit for your personal style?
There's no such thing as the best travel backpack for everyone — but there is a perfect backpack for you.
This guide will help ensure you've considered the right things when choosing from an ever-growing landscape of options.
Choose an international-sized travel backpack to save on baggage fees.
Travel backpacks are designed to carry everything you need for extended trips, but they're still small enough to meet carry-on standards and the demands of everyday life without looking out of place.
If you limit yourself to primarily domestic travel, you might get away with a bag that only meets the somewhat generous US carry-on standards.
However, in the bloody battle for overhead space and with carry-on backpack restrictions tightening all the time, you're better off choosing an international-sized travel backpack.
Bags in the international carry-on size range — slightly smaller than the typical US-size range — will fit more stringent foreign carry-on regulations, making these backpacks the best choice for Europe, Asia and Africa and the best choice for budget airline carriers.
In addition, an international-sized backpack won't feel unwieldily on a commute, during a day at the office (or co-working space), or even at the gym. A trimmer bag can make you look and feel a bit more like the locals while you're on the road, and you can use it wherever you call home as a frequent or daily companion.
You'll save money, too. With a bag that's sized to fit comfortably in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you, you won't be slapped with a $50 fee to check your oversized carry-on when you get to the airport.
Stay organized, protected and lighweight.
A travel backpack should be made for the rigorous demands of one bag travel. It should also be lightweight, so balancing those two competing demands comes down to materials and design choices.
A great travel backpack should borrow the best design cues, rugged materials, and luxury features from more traditionally styled bags and blend them into a luggage piece focused on fitting seamlessly into all of the activities you're likely to encounter on the road.
Whether it's a walk through a new city, a day at the office, or a hike on the trail; when you're away from home with just one bag, it needs to perform.
It should be made to take a fall while protecting your laptop.
It should gracefully handle getting tossed around on a night bus without looking scuffed up.
That durability can come at the cost of heavier materials, so search for a bag that balances bomb-proof construction, storage space, and the right amount of organization to maximize your carry while still meeting those baggage regulations we mentioned above.
Be careful of bags that are overbuilt. Heavy-duty materials and chunky metal components often appear on bags with an overly rugged aesthetic, but they're not always practical. In addition, organizational design features, which also contribute to weight and varying levels of usefulness, vary widely across backpack brands.
The more your backpack itself weighs, the less you get to bring with you without risking pushback from airline gatekeepers. If you like the look, you just have to ask yourself for what belonging that extra molle webbing or 1000D cordura is worth leaving at home.
Weather happens, so be prepared.
You never know what weather you'll encounter from destination to destination, season to season. That's true whether you travel all the time or infrequently.
Your gear should be water-resistant out of the box so that you'll have peace of mind when you get caught in the rain, or when you're out on the streets during the Songkran festival. Be absolutely sure your clothes, gear and expensive tech will be well-protected inside.
Many of the best travel backpacks come with a rain fly for long-lasting protection that can stand up to more than an ordinary shower, spilled drink, or splash. A purpose-built rain fly will keep your stuff dry in every situation from cycling to the office to a tropical downpour without the excess weight of heavy waterproof materials like TPU.
Search for a detachable rain-fly — that way it can be left in the mudroom or lobby to dry out while you carry your bag inside. If you're counting grams or planning on a day hike in clear weather, a detachable rain fly can be left behind to save on weight.
Get a backpack that looks right everywhere.
Personal style is unique to everyone, so when you've found a few backpacks that you find visually appealing, consider the context in which you'll be using your gear.
While bright bold colors make you easy to pick out from a crowd, this can also mark you as a tourist on the streets of a foreign city. This can make you a target for thieves. They also might not be the right fit for an office or professional setting.
Sleek, understated designs can be more versatile. Whether you're headed to the office, the gym, or up a mountain in Sri Lanka, your backpack should be get you there reliably and have a look that fits the setting.
Some travel backpacks look like hiking packs. Some look modern, and others look more like traditional travel luggage. Choose a bag that's suited to your lifestyle, not just the next trip you'll take.
The right backpack for you should feel right in all the places you'll find yourself over time — big cross-border trips, short weekend journeys, and even your everyday commute!
Comfort comes first.
Since they're often built with long-term all-day-everyday use in mind and made to haul everything you need on longer trips, great travel backpacks need to be designed with your comfort in mind.
Look for a pack that uses high-quality materials in their shoulder straps to ensure a soft, sturdy and lightweight carrying experience.
Equally useful are features that allow you to tailor your fit like a fully adjustable chest strap and load lifters, a technology borrowed from mountaineering gear that draws the weight of your bag over your center of gravity. This allows for customization for an individual's body type. Dialing in the perfect fit makes carrying a heavy load much more comfortable while you're on the move.
If you've ever traveled a long distance with a heavy weight on your back, you know that hip pads can ease the strain on your neck and shoulders enormously. Most travel backpacks are only half the size of their wilderness hiking cousins so hip pads aren't necessary for ordinary use — but depending on your body frame and how much you've squeezed into your bag, they can be a big help when you need them.
Look for a backpack with a hip/waist technology that matches the way you plan to use it. If you're planning to do lots of hiking under heavy weight, you may appreciate a robust hip belt. If you wouldn't use it regularly, a thick and padded belt with extra pockets will just add weight and get in your way.
If you plan on using your backpack in lot of different contexts, modular hip pads are a great solution to maximize versatility. Because they detach from your bag, they're there when you need them and disappear when you don't. Modular hip pads also tend to be a bit smaller than their permanent counterparts, so you get the support you need when you need it, but can pack them away easily without sacrificing a lot of space or weight.
Find travel backpacks designed by people who use them.
Travel backpacks are built with long-term travelers in mind. When you're the kind of person that thinks of your bag as 'your apartment' because it's literally what you live out of every day, the details matter immensely.
The best travel backpacks are built by teams that have lived out of them for months and years at a time.
While clever design touches like clam-shell opening and stow-away straps are bound to filter down to mass market manufacturers at some point, the most thoughtful development is being done by teams who live on the road, constantly testing and improving their gear day in and day out.
If a bag can hold up to the rigors of life on the road, it'll be able to take whatever you throw at it.
Look for gear built by people who have lived out of their own products, effectively road-testing it over a few generations of design improvements. That's the best way to ensure that you find the highest quality gear and empathetic customer service to match.
These makers care about the gear they build because they use it every day. They'll bend over backwards to help you out of a jam if you have an issue no matter where you are in the world — as chances are they've been in your situation!
Why a travel backpack is the best choice for you
There's no such thing as the best backpack for every situation. But if you're looking for the most versatile single backpack out there rather than a quiver of specialized options, a travel backpack is far and away the best choice.
Why choose a travel backpack?
Choose an international-sized travel backpack to save on baggage fees
Travel backpacks are designed to carry everything you need for extended trips, but they're still small enough to meet carry-on standards and the demands of everyday life without looking out of place. If you limit yourself to primarily domestic travel, you might get away with a bag that only meets the generous US standards. However, in the bloody battle for overhead space and with carry-on backpack restrictions tightening all the time, you're better off choosing an international-sized travel backpack.
Bags in this size range will fit more stringent international carry-on regulations, making them the best choice for Europe, Asia and Africa and for budget air carriers. A smaller international-sized travel backpack won't feel unwieldy on your commute, a day at the office, or a trip to the gym.
As an added bonus — with a bag that's sized to fit comfortably in the overhead bin, or under the seat in front of you — you'll never be slapped with a $50 fee to check your oversized carry-on when you get to the airport.
Find a bag that's built to last, but lightweight
Travel backpacks are made for the rigorous demands of one bag travel. They borrow the best design elements, rugged features, and luxury touches from traditional backpack styles and blend them into a single bag that fits seamlessly into all the activities you're likely to encounter on the road.
Whether it's a walk through the city, a day at the office, or a hike on the trail — when you're away from home with just one bag, your backpack has to perform. It should be able to protect your laptop when you drop it, or your bag gets tossed around on the night bus without looking scuffed up. Search for a bag that balances bomb-proof construction, storage space, minimal weight and the right amount of organization to maximize your carry while still meeting those baggage regulations we mentioned above.
Be careful of bags that are 'overbuilt' if you plan to do a lot of flying. Heavy-duty materials and chunky metal components fit a certain aesthetic, but they're not always practical.
It’s usually worth getting an “international-sized” backpack, rather than a larger one sized specifically for U.S. airlines. It gives you extra flexibility when you travel, and doesn’t necessarily mean you have to carry less. With a little practice, it's easy to pack an international travel-sized backpack over the weight limit specified by airlines. The more your backpack itself weighs, the less you get to bring on your trip. Even if you like the look, you might find that it's worth skipping that extra molle webbing or 1000D cordura.
Go with gear that's ready for the weather
With a bag that's designed to last, you never know what weather you'll encounter from destination to destination, season to season. You'll need a backpack that can stand up to daily use in all kinds of conditions. It should be water-resistant out of the box so that you'll have peace of mind when you get caught in the rain, or out on the streets during the Songkran festival. You want to be sure your clothes, gear and expensive tech will be well-protected inside.
Many of the best travel backpacks come with a rain fly for long-lasting protection that can stand up to more than an ordinary shower, spilled drink, or splash. A purpose-built rain fly will keep your stuff dry in every situation — from cycling to your office, to a tropical downpour — without the excess weight of heavy waterproof materials like TPU. Search for a one that's detachable if possible. That way it can be left in the mudroom or lobby to dry out while you carry your bag into the office.
If you're counting grams or planning on a day hike in clear weather, a detachable rain fly can also be left behind to save on weight.
Look for a design that's at home everywhere
Think about the context in which you'll be using your gear. While bright bold colors make you easy to pick out from a crowd, they'll also mark you as a tourist on the streets of a foreign city, and they might not be the right fit for the office.
Sleek, minimalist design looks great, and it's also versatile. Whether you're headed to the gym, the office, or up a mountain in Sri Lanka, a travel backpack can be relied on to get you there and help you look good doing it. Choose a bag that: (a) is suited to your everyday commute; (b) looks professional at the office; (c) keeps you comfortable at the airport; and (d) continues to perform on the trail.
Comfort should come first
Because they're built with long-term, all-day-everyday use in mind — and because they're made to haul everything you need on longer trips — most travel backpacks are designed with comfort in mind. Look for a bag that uses high-quality materials in its shoulder straps to make sure they're soft, sturdy and lightweight. Thoughtful features that allow you to tailor your fit — like a fully adjustable chest strap and load lifters — can make a big difference in getting the fit right for your body type. Both of those technologies are borrowed from mountaineering gear, and they help draw the weight of the pack over your center of gravity. Achieving the perfect fit makes carrying a heavy load inside your travel backpack much more comfortable and easy to manage while you're on the move.
If you've ever traveled a long distance with a heavy weight on your back, you'll know that hip pads can ease the strain on your neck and shoulders enormously. Most travel backpacks are only half the size of their wilderness hiking cousins, so hip pads aren't necessary for ordinary use. But — depending on your frame and how much you've squeezed into your bag — they can be a big help when you need them.
Look for a backpack with a hip belt that matches the way you plan to use it. If you're planning to do lots of hiking under heavy weight, you'll appreciate a hip belt that's more robust. However, if you don't use it regularly, a heavily padded hip belt with extra pockets just adds weight and gets in the way. Aesthetically, a chunky hip belt may not be the look you're going for during strolls around the city or meetings at the office. Tucking the plastic buckle away behind your back to 'stow' it can also get uncomfortable quickly.
If you plan on using your backpack in lot of different contexts, modular hip pads are a great solution to maximize versatility. Because they detach, they're there when you need them and disappear when you don't. Modular hip pads tend to be a bit smaller. They're lightweight, provide the support you need for a travel-sized backpack, and still pack away easily.
Search for bags designed by people who use them
Travel backpacks are built with long-term travelers in mind. When you're the kind of person that thinks of your bag as 'your apartment' because it's literally what you live out of every day, details matter. The best travel backpacks are built by teams that have lived out of them for months and years at a time.
While clever design touches like clam-shell opening and stow-away straps are bound to filter down to mass market manufacturers at some point, the most thoughtful development is done by teams who live on the road, constantly testing and improving their gear day in and day out. If a bag can hold up to the rigors of life on the road, it'll be able to handle whatever you throw at (or into) it.
Look for gear built by people who have lived out of it for years. That's the best way to ensure that you find the highest quality gear — with service to match. These makers care about the gear they build and are stoked to consider as friends the community of people who use it. They'll bend over backwards to help you out of a jam, if you have a gear issue (or just need to pick up a few new accessories) no matter where you are in the world.
Nylon is considered to be one of the best fabrics for rugged use. Its strength, versatility and water-resistance have made it a go-to fabric for outdoor applications and all-weather performance. It's commonly found in a broad range of outdoor gear, activewear, casual clothing, footwear and more technical applications including toothbrush bristles, rope, parachutes and even highly-durable car parts.
Nylon is the name for a whole family of closely-related synthetic polyamides – plastics made up of chemical chains of long, heavy molecules that are bonded together. Dubbed 'synthetic silk' by creator DuPont, nylon was used in women's stockings in the 1930s before it was repurposed for combat duty during World War II.
The ballistic nylon used in gear today is a single layer of the heavy-duty basket weave nylon once used in Vietnam War-era body armor. Stacked in multiple layers and laminated together, the ballistic nylon in those anti-fragmentation or flak jackets provided some protection from low-velocity projectiles and debris. It's far heavier and far more abrasion resistant than rip-stop due to its thickness.
However, ballistic nylon was technically more bombproof than bullet proof – and even then, it only worked if you were far enough away from the blast. It wasn't until KevlarⓇ body armor incorporating ceramic plates came into use that body armor could stop actual rifle bullets from penetrating armor.
These days, the term ballistic nylon is applied to any basket weave nylon and it’s found in gear that's designed to sound, look, and feel 'heavy duty'.
Rip-stop nylon replaced silk parachutes during the war because it was extremely strong and highly resistant to fabric's natural enemies — sunlight, weathering, mold, insects, etc. — making the durable polymer extra combat ready. As a synthetic, nylon could also be mass-produced, whereas natural silk production struggled to meet demand.
Rip-stop nylon incorporates a reinforced square or diamond weave throughout that limits the spread of a puncture or tear. That means, private, that a bullet hole in your chute won't spread to rip it clean in half before you're on the ground.
Jumping out of airplanes aside, rip-stop nylon is ultra-lightweight and highly packable — making it the perfect choice for packing cubes.
Cordura sources material from a variety of production mills, ensures that they meet their highly regarded quality standards and weaves that approved yarn into a wide range of fabrics in different weights, constructions, and aesthetics. These include cotton and polyester blends, as well as their well-known Cordura Classic. Cordura Classic is a plain-weave nylon fabric with a Cordura badge, made using air-textured Nylon 6.6, a strong high-quality nylon polymer that has been used by the military and in outdoor gear for many years. Yarn that’s air-textured has a more organic appearance like natural fibers, cotton and linen, and is less shiny than nylon that hasn’t been treated in this way.
Kodra, based in South Korea, applies a very similar vetting process to Cordura, producing equally high-quality nylon and other fabrics under the Kodra brand.
Other Nylon Blends
On its own, nylon is a rugged and relatively stiff material that doesn't shrink or stretch after repeated use. Its toughness and water-resistance are prized by outdoor gear manufacturers because of the resulting durability.
Some designers prefer to use a softer, more supple fabric that’s easier to work with, stretchier, or more refined to the touch. To achieve this, nylon can be blended with natural or semi-synthetic materials such as cotton, wool, rayon, polyester, or spandex — the list goes on.
Nylon blends incorporate the rugged characteristics of nylon with those of the fabric they're paired with. This means that there's a profusion of blended fabrics used in all kinds of applications — from fighter pilots' parachutes to fashion runways.
Sailcloth is a broad category of fabrics and materials that run the gamut from natural fibers, such as sail canvas or hemp, to synthetic fibers like nylon and other more modern textiles. While some sailcloth fabrics make use of extremely high-tech, costly and lightweight fabrics like UHMWs (see below), others are constructed from laminated composites, i.e. multiple layers of more common materials like nylon and polyester.
Additional layers, laminates or coatings incorporated into sailcloth fabrics can add properties like waterproofing, UV protection, or extra durability. If you come across a bag labelled as sailcloth, scrutinize its materials to better understand what it's really made from and therefore what properties the sailcloth incorporates. You can refer back to this guide for the properties of the individual fabrics and coatings involved in their construction.
Polypropylene is one of the lightest synthetic fibers found anywhere. Like most nylon, it’s highly resistant to abrasion. As an ‘extruded’ plastic, polypropylene is hydrophobic and cannot absorb water — which makes it effective for moisture wicking. It also has a low thermal conductivity so it’s well suited to cold weather use and is often found in base layers that are in contact with the skin. It does tend to retain body odor, however, and it’s easily damaged by UV rays. This makes it a poor choice for outerwear or sun-exposed applications.
Polypropylene is found in the top sheets of diapers, drinking straws, cold weather gear, sportswear, ropes, and may occasionally be found as a liner or lightweight internal fabric in bags and backpacks.
Although polypropylene is one of the most widely produced plastics, waning demand for polypropylene fabric (largely due to advances in other synthetic fabrics) is making it more expensive than would otherwise be expected.
When you think of polyester, your mind may immediately leap to retro polyester tracksuits like those worn by Run-DMC or The Royal Tenenbaums. That’s the stuff. It’s used in everything from mouse pads and upholstery to conveyor belts, blankets, track suits and jazzy shirts. It’s also the primary fabric found in mass-produced school bags. In fact, it’s one of the most versatile and commonly used fabrics found anywhere. However, if you’re searching for durable, high-quality travel bags that are built to last — look elsewhere.
Composites / Ultra-high-molecular-weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE, UHMW / HMPE)
Dyneema (Cuben Fiber)
Originally designed for use in racing sails on high tech yachts, cuben fiber or Dyneema (rebranded by Dutch chemical company DSM), is extremely light and incredibly strong. In fact, its strength-to-weight ratio is a ridiculous 15 times higher than steel and double that of Kevlar, a material well-known for its use in bullet proof vests. 100D Dyneema yarn is approximately twice as strong as nylon yarn of the same denier. Generally, that means you can reduce the weight of the fabric in a given application by half and still retain the same strength.
Due to its construction, Dyneema is also highly water-resistant. It's actually a laminate consisting of a thin sheet of Dyneema (UHMWPE) laminated between two sheets of PET (Mylar). This laminate construction accounts for its crisp or stiff appearance.
Although its durable, lightweight properties make it appealing, Dyneema is also extremely expensive and hard to work with, so it typically costs more than double the common alternatives. For those reasons it hasn’t really gained widespread adoption outside highly-specialized use cases like ultralight backpacking.
As a laminate, its aesthetics are distinctive – it looks more like a lightweight tarp or crinkly plastic material than a fabric, so it's often found in applications where technical performance is paramount and looks are secondary. That said, more manufacturers are beginning to experiment with Dyneema and if you find it being used to make your bag, you're likely looking at a very lightweight, cutting-edge piece of kit.
Spectra and Dyneema are different trade names for essentially the same polyethylene fibers. Spectra, manufactured by Honeywell rather than DSM, exhibits very similar characteristics to Dyneema and the two differ only slightly in fiber weight and rigidity. Spectra is created with a gel-spun process whereas Dyneema is extruded.
Dyneema X Gridstop
Gridstop is a high quality version of rip-stop nylon that incorporates a diagonal rip-stop weave with a grid of High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Dyneema thread. This dual grid lattice ensures an excellent tear strength. A PU (polyurethane) coating is added to the inside of the fabric to make it water-resistant.
However, as the Dyneema only makes up 9% or less of the weight of the fabric, Gridstop should be thought of as reinforced nylon fabric rather than true Dyneema. It's less expensive than Dyneema and, because it's not a laminate, its water-resistant coating is not as long-lasting.
More on coatings, laminates and treatments below.
X-Pac is a composite that takes advantage of the properties of several materials by creating a single sheet out of several layers laminated together. X-Pac was created by Dimension-Polyant for use in racing sails. It fuses a nylon outer layer (or facing) with a polyester yarn insert called ‘X-ply’, and PET (Mylar) film. The X-ply diamond grid is responsible for X-Pac's distinctive look and excellent tear resistance while the Mylar accounts for its crisp texture, prevents the material from stretching, and acts as a waterproofing. Punctured X-Pac should be patched rather than sewn together as poking additional holes in the Mylar film will make it more susceptible to water penetration.
The nylon facing used in X-Pac is available in different deniers, and — as with any fabric — the higher the denier, the more durable and heavyweight it will be. Because X-Pac is made of multiple layers, the nylon used is typically a lightweight, non-ballistic weave. 210D nylon is light and provides fair puncture and abrasion resistance. For more rugged applications and abrasion protection look for 420D or above.
Kevlar is best known for its use in body armor and other ballistic or stab-resistant applications for the military and law enforcement. Is your gear is going to be exposed to highly specific hostile and hazardous environments that require the unique properties of aramid fabrics like Kevlar? If you’re not a journalist in a war zone, there are less expensive, more lightweight and more breathable options that are also strong, durable, and abrasion resistant.
Other well-known aramids that typically aren't used in backpack construction include Twaron, Nomex, Technora. These are high-melting point fibers that are most commonly found in flame-resistant clothing.
Two hundred times stronger than steel and lighter than paper, it's famously been said that a spiderweb coated in graphene could catch a falling plane. But let's not get crazy. Graphene is notoriously difficult to manufacture. Which means that, for now, its super strength comes at a super cost. Graphene is conductive and can carry a charge so it may open the door to some futuristic wearable applications but apart from Tony Stark, no one is using graphene in bags... yet.
What's the best anti-theft security backpack?
No anti-theft backpack is a fortress, and you certainly don't want to feel like you're lugging a literal fortress around. Security is always a game of trade-offs, and 'security theater' isn't limited to TSA checkpoints. As always, added features mean added weight.
So, make sure that the travel bag you choose makes use of effective security features without the unnecessary gimmicks designed to massage your fears without actually adding to your safety or security.
That said, there are a number of clever security features that the best anti-theft travel backpacks have in common. A well-considered anti-theft backpack makes you less appealing to pickpockets because of a few recognisable design elements. With common sense and a bit of luck, you'll travel for a lifetime without ever encountering a problem.
Preparation equals confidence when it comes to backpack security
If you understand the risks and you’re taking steps to mitigate them, you'll feel in control of the situation even if the worst happens. Always keep in mind that even the most 'hardened' anti-theft backpacks aren't impenetrable and if a potential bag slasher or thief pulls a weapon, you're better off just handing over your gear.
As any experienced traveller knows, things happen from time to time. Losing some or all of your gear may seem dire in the moment, but you'll bounce back and soon it'll be just another episode in a lifetime of adventurous travels.
Beware of anti-theft backpack overkill
Beware of overkill. One of the most important components of security is managing your mindset. Going into a situation feeling paranoid can mark you as out of place and uncomfortable – an easy target – just as much as wandering around like a dazed tourist can.
Security theater – anti-theft backpacks or slash-proof backpacks with a 'security cage'
Security backpacks or slash-proof backpacks with a built-in cage or wire mesh add weight without adding real-world theft protection. While slashing a handbag or purse on crowded public transit may give a thief access to its valuable contents right away, taking a blade to a backpack and reaching inside is probably more likely to yield a handful of dirty laundry.
In other words, the layout of a well-considered travel backpack means your valuables are already 'slash-proof' because they're safely stowed within the inner sanctum of the device compartment. Unless your backpack is organized with storage on the outside, or has lots of easy-to-pilfer outer pockets, a thief would have to go through several layers, plus the clothing in your main compartment to get to your valuables. Therefore, a slash attack in a crowd wouldn't be worth it unless the thief has time alone with your gear.
Durable, high-quality pack materials are already more difficult to rip, slash, cut, or penetrate than what's used in many daypacks. For example, the fabric used in the Carry-on 2.0 is a custom blend we developed to upgrade the original 600D and 1000D Cordura used on our Carry-on 1.0. The webbing on the straps is made of highly resilient nylon. To gain access to your Device compartment from the outside, a thief would have to cut through the outer fabric, through both sides of the 3D pockets and then through the document sleeve. Entering through the back panel would be even more difficult as it contains a structural layer of flexible HDPE and a sealed sleeve that holds a soft but durable layer of EVA foam (incidentally, a material many yoga mats are made from).
Secure backpack design features
Discreet design and avoiding backpack theft
The single best way to avoid problems is to keep a low profile. An ideal anti-theft backpack won't scream tourist or announce that it's full of luxury clothing and high-end equipment. The aesthetic should be minimal and functional in colors that don't draw undue attention. Choose a bag that's designed to fit naturally into many contexts. A wilderness hiking pack may hold your gear comfortably, but it'll definitely draw attention downtown. Look for a backpack that won't stand out among the pile of luggage destined to go underneath the bus.
Anti-theft backpacks and secure storage
The best anti-theft backpack designs will separate your tech and valuables from the bulk of your gear so you know how to access them, but others don't. Internal zippers and the right amount of organization will give you quick access to what you need, but will impede someone unfamiliar with your bag from reaching your valuables while you're distracted.
Look for a bag that places your tech and valuables in a protected storage area against the hard-to-penetrate back panel of your bag. This makes your expensive gear and essentials difficult for thieves to reach and protects your tech from shocks, drops, and damage.
With the weight of the bag closer to your center of gravity, it also makes it easier to carry the load of the pack when wearing it. By elevating your heavy laptop and chargers and protecting them in prime position near your back, you'll be surprised how much more comfortable your backpack feels over the long haul.
Anti-theft backpack pockets
Look for a bag with stash or quick access pockets set high on the bag, with a clear line of sight when you're in a crowd. Security is a team sport, and pickpockets are far less likely to make a move in plain sight. If your bag has lots of outer pockets — particularly if they're situated low on the bag where they'll be hidden from view — you'll need to think more carefully about what you put inside them when navigating crowded spaces or public transport.
Lockable zippers and security backpacks
Most petty thefts are opportunistic. A situation presents itself — and the chance to grab some quick loot is too much for the thief, baggage handler, or passerby to resist.
Lockable zippers on your main compartments won't make your backpack theft-proof to determined criminals, but they will serve to deter opportunistic attacks. Security is an arms race. As long as your bag is a bit more difficult to break into than the one next to it, you've established 'credible minimal deterrence' and you're less likely to be targeted. Usually, this means that your gear survives the night bus unscathed.
No bag makers have yet harnessed the doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’, but you heard it here first.
RFID protection and identity-theft proof backpacks
If you're concerned about someone trying to electronically scan your credit cards or passport, the easiest and most effective solution is to keep those items in a dedicated RFID-blocking wallet or passport cover.
You don't need an identity-theft-proof backpack to preserve your peace of mind. RFID protection throughout your entire bag adds weight and doesn't protect those small essentials when you need it most. These items need protection when they're in use – stashed momentarily in the front pocket of your jeans, your coat, or your jumper. One example of RFID-blocking on this more intimate scale is our own RFID Travel Wallet.
What's the best travel backpack for foul weather?
As with every gear decision, intended use matters. The best backpack for foul weather really depends on what conditions you plan to use it in.
What makes a backpack vulnerable to weather?
To find the best backpack for use in all-weather conditions, it's important to understand how water gets into a bag. Most travel backpacks use water-resistant materials. Some even use truly waterproof, non-porous materials like TPU, rubber and silicone in spite of their heavy weight.
Unfortunately, materials alone don't make your bag secure. In fact, construction matters at least as much as materials.
A travel backpack made of heavy-duty TPU may still be vulnerable to water penetration at two weak points: the seams and zippers. So, be doubly sure before you submerge a bag that looks waterproof with your electronics inside.
Unless they've been sealed with additional materials like a protective seam tape or an overlapping weld, seams have thousands of tiny holes that water can pass through. And protecting zippers effectively for immersion generally requires both tape and a layer of rubberized coating.
Find the best protection for the conditions
Truly waterproof materials like coated TPU and welded seams are sweet for keeping water out when your bag goes overboard, but they’re rarely needed in everyday conditions. If your gear has a chance of being fully submerged because you’re on a whitewater rafting trip, for example, then you may need an actual dry bag. But most of the time, that extra protection is just added weight.
Many travel backpacks will hold up just fine and keep your electronics safe on a rainy day in the city. Under normal circumstances, your gear won’t be exposed to heavy weather for extended periods that could eventually soak through a water-resistant bag — because it’s uncomfortable for you to be in harsh weather for that long.
For bags that rely on water-resistant materials as their only form of foul weather protection, look for water-repellant coated zippers. Water-repellant coatings can be surprisingly effective, reducing zipper chain water absorption by as much as 90-95%. DWR-dipped YKK zippers are among the best in class, as they provide exceptional moisture performance without increasing the pull friction of the zipper itself.
Beware of other zipper treatments that do increase pull friction, as they may result in a higher defect rate and shorter lifespan for the zipper. After too many high-friction pulls, lesser coatings can start to look ragged — which typically can’t be fixed without replacing the bag.
Another smart trick to look for is in the design of the bag itself. If water-resistant materials are the primary mode of weather protection, then sky-facing zippers — the ones most susceptible to rainfall — should be kept to a minimum. Sky-facing zippers should be protected by other structural features of the bag, or they should be positioned to shed water. If the bag doesn’t have a rain fly, then vertical zippers, which tend to fare better in wet conditions, are generally preferable — ideally paired with a waterproof design elements like a rolltop closure or top flap.
When a tropical downpour hits, when you need to bike to work through Hurricane Geraldo, or if you’re stuck at a bus stop in the rainforest, you’ll need the next-level weather protection that a rain fly can provide.
How does a rain fly work?
Rain flys are incredibly easy to use. They're made of ultralight waterproof materials with an elasticated closure or cinch that holds on to your bag tightly. Bags that come with rain flys will often have a dedicated pocket for stowing them. The better ones have a detachable rain fly for easy drying, and a dedicated water-resistant pocket made of the same material in case your rain fly goes back inside without drying completely.
If you're on the go and you need to stow your rain fly while it's still damp, make sure you air it out as soon as you can to avoid any unnecessary funkification (which for some reason is not yet a valid Scrabble word).
To use your rain fly, simply pull it out of the dedicated pocket, unfurl it, and pop it over your bag. It should deploy in a flash and hold itself tight against the backpack straps at the top and bottom of your bag. Look for a rain fly that's fitted to your backpack and gives you full coverage. A fitted rain fly will stay on without any trouble — whether you're hiking fast through underbrush, riding a Boosted board, cycling to work, or taking a cargo boat up the Amazon.
When you arrive at your destination, you can completely detach your rain fly to let it dry and head straight into your meeting. Just give it a quick shake to knock the droplets off. Drying will only take a few minutes because it's made of waterproof materials. Then pack it into itself and clip it back into your bag's dedicated pocket.
If you're weighing every gram or you're confident you won't be in heavy weather for long, you can leave your detachable rain fly behind. But you may want to keep your detachable rain fly with you anyway...
Sidebar: The many (unorthodox) uses of the detachable rain fly
One thing’s for sure: people gonna people. As gear designers, we've been stunned and impressed at the way our rain flys have been repurposed. We've seen them used as seat covers, miniature picnic blankets, improvised shoe bags, impromptu grocery bags, and even hats (a real conversation starter, though not (yet) recommended by professional stylists).
We've also seen people carry all kinds of things in their bag's dedicated rain fly 'trunk' along with the rain fly – like laptop chargers, wet bathing suits, toiletries, and not-so-secret snacks. Very impressive. Whether it's one of ours, or the rain fly that came with your bag — we're sure you'll surprise yourself with ways to put it to good use.
Bottom line: When do I need a waterproof backpack vs. a water-resistant backpack?
If you're planning to spend all day on the water in a kayak, whitewater raft, or on a stand up paddleboard, you need a fully waterproof dry bag.
If you want to fill your bag up with water and use it for kettlebell swings (we see you gym rats), you need a fully-waterproof dry bag.
If you're planning to fill your bag with wine and sneak it into a stadium, you should really reflect on your life choices and maybe go with a (much classier) wineskin instead.
You get the point...
A fully waterproof backpack is basically overkill. If you're planning to wear your bag around the city in the rain, a water-resistant bag should stand up to everyday conditions. If you need a bag that can handle a tropical downpour or a long bike ride to work in heavy rain, a water-resistant bag with the added protection of a seam-sealed rain fly is your best bet. When you need a dry bag to hold your phone and wallet at the beach — or separate a wet bathing suit from the rest of your gear — get a simple one that's sized for that purpose, and pack it inside in your travel backpack like a stuff sack.
Believe it or not, our friend Ben swears by Ziploc. Just remember, waterproof bags don't breathe AT ALL. So, beware of putting dirty laundry in there for long!
The most comfortable backpack to wear
The longer you’re on the move with your backpack, the sooner you’ll realize that comfort is non-negotiable.
Whether you’re hopping around the city or taking your bag on extended trips, you’ll quickly be sorry if you make your choice based on aesthetics or price alone. Look for a bag that can be adjusted to fit your body. Take your height, build, and body type into consideration.
Long-distance hiking backpacks that are designed to carry heavy loads often come with bendable frame-stays that you can customize to your back. Travel backpacks are smaller, lighter, and unframed, but they can be highly adjustable starting with the harness system.
What makes backpack straps comfortable?
Start by evaluating the straps themselves. The thickness of backpack straps isn’t a good indication of their comfort. Bulky, heavily-padded straps can be hot, uncomfortable, and compress quickly whereas thin straps made from resilient, high-quality foam can feel softer over the long haul and outlast the thick padded type.
Pay special attention to typical problem areas. Discomfort often occurs where the straps meet the neck, on the shoulders themselves, across the chest, or at the ribs. Some further questions to pose include:
- Are there unsealed seams along the neck area?
- Can the straps be adjusted to accommodate different shoulder widths?
- Will any swivels, pivot points, or hardware be digging into your soft tissue?
Look for a harness with a highly adjustable four-point load balancing system. The ideal bag should have plenty of length in the straps to fit your body type, and a way to contain any dangling webbing left over. Load lifters, located on top of the shoulders, help you balance the weight of your pack by drawing it up and forward – closer to your center of gravity.
Originally found in large hiking backpacks, these additional points of adjustment make a big difference when you’re moving with a weighted bag. They reduce the tendency of your backpack to roll or swing away from your body — which means you exert less energy when resisting the sway of your pack and maintaining your balance. An adjustable sternum strap should comfortably fit your chest. When buckled it’ll help lock your bag in place so you and your backpack move as one.
How to choose attachable hip pads?
If you’re planning to do some serious hiking, carry heavier loads over long distances, or tackle uneven terrain, a hip belt can be a lifesaver. While it’s not a must for a travel backpack even when fully loaded, it’ll certainly be your friend — especially if you’re on the smaller side. Look for a padded, load-bearing hip belt rather than just a stabilizer strap. The padding should be made of the same comfortable material as your shoulder straps.
An attachable hip belt is best for one bag travel. Because the pads aren’t necessary for everyday use, you’ll want to be able to remove them for your regular trips to the cafe. You’ll have less dangle to manage and cleaner lines when you’re moving around the city.
Speaking of dangle: look for thoughtful touches like elasticated straps which contain the hip belt’s excess webbing. Make sure the attachment points are strong and easy to use, and that the belt buckle is comfortable. Since it won’t be in use all the time, it should also be small enough to stow away easily in your bag.
Find the right backpack silhouette for your frame
Travel backpacks made with airline carry-on regulations in mind generally have a wider and flatter silhouette than hiking bags. This helps them slide into the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. It also means they don’t stick out behind you quite so much on crowded elevators and trains. However, carry-on regulations were designed for airlines, not the human frame. So depending on your body type, you’ll want to watch out for boxy, overly wide bag shapes.
Hiking backpacks are typically more cylindrical to keep them from snagging on the underbrush as you hike along narrow trails. Look for a travel backpack that isn’t too wide for your body, especially if you’ll be carrying a water bottle or strapping things to the outside. No one wants to be that awkward tourist knocking over lamps and sending precious glassware scattering as they bump and jostle their way through the bazaar.
What to look for in a travel backpack's back panel
The primary contact points with your travel backpack are your shoulders and back. So, after the shoulders, you’d better get the back right! Make sure the backpack you choose has a comfy, well-designed back panel. The padding should be comfortable and thick enough to blunt the sharp corners of the occasional awkward object you might want to carry. The back panel should also employ one of these approaches to ventilation:
Suspended mesh or trampoline back panels
A suspended-mesh or trampoline back panel typically allows the most airflow, and tends to be the coolest option. However, it generally shifts the center of gravity away from your back, which makes the backpack more prone to rolling and thus not the coolest option. The constant tugging on your shoulders and increased swaying arguably means you’ll potentially tire faster and experience more soreness.
Open-cell foam back panels
Open-cell foam covered in a moisture-wicking material is soft, highly-porous and breathable. Hooray! However, once it’s compressed under load, the foam density increases and loses much of its softness and breathability.
When properly adjusted, an open-cell foam back panel will feel more ‘locked in’, with your skeletal structure bearing the weight of the pack rather than your shoulders and neck. Unfortunately, your back will still get sweaty and that open-cell foam will retain that moisture and odor.
Closed-cell and compression-molded foam back panels
By contrast, closed-cell foam and compression-molded foam have encapsulated air cells. This means they’re more structural, better suited to carrying heavy loads, and won’t absorb as much moisture. Although they come in a range of densities, they’re not as comfortable or as breathable as open-cell foam.
Dual density foam
Many hiking backpack manufacturers use dual density foam to create a comfortable outer layer of breathable padding with a dense, supportive core. Combining the properties of both open and closed-cell foams gives you the best of both worlds — increased comfort under both light and heavy loads, with less overall bulk, and a moderate amount of breathability.
EVA foam — which is found in most yoga mats — is a very comfortable, high-density, non-absorptive foam. It is much less bulky than open-cell foam, and still feels plush and soft. With a properly adjusted harness it is perhaps the most comfortable product to use. However, because it’s less breathable, EVA foam back panels rely on patterns of air channels and moisture-wicking materials in the heat.
What kind of bag has the most functional storage: a top-loading or panel-loading backpack?
There’s a long-running debate over which type of backpack has the most functional storage: top-loading or panel-loading designs. If you’re not hanging out in bag forums all day, trust us: things can get HEATED. While there are valid points to be made on both sides when comparing various styles of outdoor hiking backpacks, when it comes to the best travel backpack, it’s no contest. Panel-loading backpacks are the clear winner.
For travel backpacks, access is everything. Instead of one long hike through the backcountry from campsite A to B, travel is broken up into a series of mad dashes, false starts, leisurely strolls, and long layovers. You change modes of transportation, environments, contexts, and even climates frequently.
All of this means that you need instant access to your gear at a moment’s notice. When your seatmate starts snoring loudly, you want a bag that lets you instantly reach your noise-canceling headphones — confident that you can grab them quickly without your dirty laundry spilling everywhere.
The benefits of a top-loading backpack
Top-loading backpacks are often lighter, less complex, and narrower than travel backpacks. Many include extra features designed for a comfortable carry experience on the longest of trail days. They can be a good fit for certain body types and use cases. Their bright colors may help your bag stand out from the others on the baggage carousel, at the bus station or on the street. A top-loading design is secure and well balanced when packed with care, and your load tends not to shift around while you’re on the move.
Drawstring closure is simple and effective but less secure
Most top-loading backpacks feature drawstring closure. The advantages of drawstring closure is that it’s simple and quick, unlikely to break, and easy to replace. When a zipper fails, the repair is labor-intensive and needs to be handled by a professional — if the bag can be salvaged at all. Often, a main zipper breakage results in a new bag or warranty replacement – a real setback on any trip.
However, while you may have experienced zipper breakage on an old bag in the past, it almost never happens with the super high quality YKK zippers used in the best travel backpacks. Although drawstrings have their advantages, they’re often difficult to secure with a travel lock. That means most top-loading backpacks don’t have lockable compartments. Nonetheless, since they tend to have few pockets and can only be accessed from the top, your gear is generally safe from pickpockets while moving through crowds.
Lightweight and simple, but also less durable
Many top-loading backpacks prioritize weight over durability. They have only one opening at the top that gives you access to the main storage compartment. For that reason, compression straps and additional zippers aren’t needed to help close the bag, and internal pockets (which would be difficult to access from the top) are usually skipped.
That means top-loading backpacks usually incorporate less hardware and components overall. They’re also not expected to withstand the same rough handling a travel backpack may receive when checked. Many top-loading hiking backpacks are therefore made with less durable materials like lightweight 200D nylon versus a travel backpack’s 400+ D fabric. That means that top-loading backpacks are hardy enough for the trail but don’t stand up well to travel-specific handling.
Top-loading backpacks often aren’t built to meet carry-on regulations
Top-loading packs are usually built with backcountry hiking in mind rather than airline carry-on regulations. They tend to be long, narrow, and more cylindrical in shape than the best travel backpacks. That means they’re less likely to fit under the seat in front of you and may be too long for the overhead bin.
Carry-on regulations are expressed in two ways: by total centimeters/inches or — more commonly — with specific guidelines for each dimension: length, width, and height. To maximize volume under the L x W x H formula your travel backpack should be shaped more like a rectangle or traditional suitcase than a cylindrical hiking backpack.
While the “total centimeter” measurement of a top-loading backpack may be fine on some airlines, they’re the wrong shape for the baggage sizer. Top-loading backpacks usually aren’t carry-on sized, which could mean yours will have to be checked and might cost you in fees.
Comfortable depending on your body type
Tall travelers — and those with a narrow frame or shoulders — may find the cylindrical shape of top-loading backpacks more comfortable to wear in crowds. This is partly because they won’t stick out so much on either side.
Since they’re primarily designed as hiking bags, top-loading backpacks often have robust hip pads, shoulder straps and load lifters to keep the weight of the pack secure and close to your center of gravity. That makes for a comfortable all-day carry design.
Many larger top-loading backpacks also have an internal frame that can be molded to fit your back. While those features can be extra comfortable, they also add a lot of weight that isn’t necessary for a carry-on sized load.
Top-loading backpacks can only be packed one way: carefully
With a top-loading backpack, the biggest problem is that you have to do a lot of digging to reach anything that’s not at the top of the bag. If the item you need is buried at the bottom your bag, that can mean unpacking half of your backpack every time you want to access your noise-cancelling headphones, sleep mask, or earplugs. Because this can be so time-consuming and inconvenient, you have to really plan ahead.
It’s best to pack your items in order of frequency of use by putting the lesser-used ones at the bottom of the bag and the more commonly used ones at the top. Because you can’t see into the bag easily to find what you’re looking for, it’s important to pack everything in the same order every time.
That's fine for long-distance hiking, because you won't be constantly accessing your bag while you're walking. You can keep your lunch at the top — and you don't need your tent or sleeping bag until you set up camp for the night.
Travel is totally different. Instead of one continuous hike straight through to your destination, travel is full of stops and starts. At each layover, security checkpoint, or bus change, you may want to get hold of your laptop, your camera, your cables, or snacks. You might have a chance to shower and change into pajamas — or you might need to scrub up, put on a fresh shirt and head to a meeting.
That’s why for a travel backpack, access is everything.
Panel-loading and front-loading backpacks
The benefits of panel-loading / front-loading backpacks
The bigger your bag’s opening, the easier it is to pack, unpack and organise on the fly. Panel-loading and front-loading backpacks have zippers that open large sections of the bag like a lid. After a few inefficient experiences with a top-loader, a panel-loading backpack feels almost like a miracle.
In addition to being easier than top-loading backpacks to pack and unpack, panel-loaders tend to be designed with travel in mind. They’re often more ruggedly built to handle the everyday abuse they’re likely to suffer. Front-loading travel backpacks are designed for air travel and sized in the 30-50L range. That means they often meet North American carry-on dimensions, and they’re sometimes built to international standards.
Easy to pack, unpack, and access
The ability to open large sections — or even the entire front panel — of your bag gives you much better access to your gear than a top-loading backpack. You can open the lid all the way, giving you line-of-sight access to almost everything inside. Because you can see into your bag, the storage compartments in panel-loading backpacks often contain pockets that help you organize your gear. If you can see it, you can grab it.
As long as you have a decent idea of where you packed an item, you can move the zipper pullers to the general area, and unzip them bit by bit until you find what you’re looking for. During this process, the rest of your gear remains relatively undisturbed. You can sometimes even access things on the fly with your backpack slung over one shoulder.
Panel-loading backpacks are the best for short stays in multiple destinations
If you’re moving fast and only staying for one or two nights at each destination, you don’t want the hassle of unpacking and repacking at every single hotel. That’s when panel-loading storage really begins to shine. With the ability to open the lid and see into most of your bag, you can live out of it directly without the need to unpack each night and repack every morning. You can just set your bag down, open it up, and easily reach most items without disturbing everything else.
That ease of access also means you won’t have to plan ahead as much, or worry about packing and repacking in the same way each time. You can let your gear sift and sort itself while you’re on the road. You’ll get a bit better at packing with each destination. After a few stops, you’ll have your packing routine dialed in, and most items will seem to naturally gravitate toward the same areas of the bag. By the end of your trip, you will have mastered your gear.
Secured with lockable zippers
If you can easily unzip your bag and reach inside while you’re still wearing it, someone else can too. A front-loading pack means your main zipper is on the outermost part of your bag. That’s why many front-loading travel backpacks come with lockable zippers.
Pay attention to the design and security features of the bags you’re considering. Make sure you find one that keeps your devices and valuables secure, close to your back, and away from the outer layer of the bag. Although travel locks aren’t necessary and theft is rare, it’s nice to have the option to lock your zippers. This is especially true if you’ll be leaving your bag out of your sight for extended periods — for example, if you’re staying in dorm-style accommodations, or traveling on a night bus.
Designed to be durable with the hazards of travel in mind
Many panel-loading backpacks are built for travel. They’re made with durable materials and high-quality construction and components. They can be dropped and dragged without getting scuffed or torn. They make use of the best quality zippers because they’re expected to be overpacked and pushed to their limits.
Well-designed panel-loaders will help you organize your gear effortlessly, giving you a dedicated protective space for your tech and devices. They’ll offer some pockets in the main compartment for your clothing. They’ll also have compression straps, which make zipping up easier and reduce the volume of your bag when it's only half-full.
Extra components mean added weight. Some panel-loading backpacks can be on the heavier side, particularly if they try to maintain their bucket shape with structured walls. A bit of structure can make packing easier, but may look hollow and boxy when the bag isn’t fully packed. Keep an eye on how the bag looks — packed full as well as empty — to see if it’s right for you.
Lie-flat packing / clamshell loading backpacks
Why lie-flat packing / clamshell loading is best
If access means everything when choosing a travel backpack, then a lie-flat design is your best choice. A sub-category of the panel-loader, the full clamshell backpack can be opened to lie completely flat like a suitcase.
They’re the easiest to live out of without unpacking, because they give you full access to everything inside. Their zippers go almost all the way around the entire bag, meaning that you can reach into them from either side with only the bottom closed to act as a hinge.
When you reach your destination, you can simply open a zipper, lay your bag flat — and you’ve finished unpacking. You can even lay your bag open inside a nice long dresser drawer and close it to keep your gear out of sight.
Key features of a well-organized travel backpack
How to choose a backpack that’s well-organised for travel
Makers of the best travel backpacks use a few strategies to help you keep your gear organised on the road – including built-in organisation and modular solutions like packing cubes and inserts. A backpack with more than a single main compartment often makes a great choice for extended travel. That gives you some flexibility in how you organise your gear and steers you away fro ‘barrel bag syndrome’. Now, let’s look at how to find the right blend of internal and modular organisation for your travel needs.
A key feature of the best travel backpacks is having more than one large compartment. Usually that means a space for clothing and items you need to unpack less frequently, and a device compartment or tech pocket that’s well-protected, more secure, and easy to access on the move when traveling. Each of these large compartments should have thoughtfully designed, built-in organisation. Since everyone’s gear is different and depends heavily on how the bag is being used, there should also be room for customisation with modular solutions as well.
A smart, well-protected layout
Smart bag design can cut down on the need for additional security features. The layout of the best travel backpacks will make sure your valuable tech compartment – with its laptop sleeve, passport pocket, camera insert, and small goods organisation – is not placed on the outside of bag. That might work for school bags or office-only items, but it’s inviting trouble when traveling.
Instead, the device compartment should be near the back panel where your valuables will be more secure and better protected from shocks and drops. This is also the best position to carry dense, heavy items from a comfort standpoint, as mentioned earlier. For items you need to grab at a moment’s notice, quick access pockets positioned high on the bag or zippers that terminate toward the top of the bag (within line of sight) work best. Low pockets should generally be avoided, since anything inside them is more vulnerable to theft.
Sneaky pockets, and pockets within pockets
While not a must, hidden pockets, internal pocket organisation, and zippered or secure interior pockets can be a big help when traveling. Added touches like these demonstrate an attention to detail on the part of the gear designer and can make it easy to grab just what you need at a moment's notice. You might find additional organisation inside quick access pockets, your bag's major compartments, or situated on the outside of the bag. More pockets and organisation can add up to more weight however, so find a travel backpack that limits itself to a few clever ideas that you’ll actually use.
What is too much organization?
Everyone knew the kid in middle school with the decked-out organiser backpack. It had individual pockets for ballpoint pens and special sleeves for pencils. It had removable inserts for markers, with extra room for highlighters and a stapler on the back. There was a snap pocket for a pair of scissors, a retractable whistle, a holster for a glue stick, and even an elastic band that kept a 24-box of crayons in place.
For a couple weeks, little Jeffy was riding high in homeroom.
But then the 48-box of crayons came out, the new art teacher switched from glue sticks to paste, the whistle was confiscated for ‘disrupting gym class’, and scissor use was restricted to Junior High kids only.
Poor Jeffy was crushed, and his homeroom popularity didn’t recover until late high school.
Anecdotes (and/or bitter memories) aside, too much built-in organisation adds weight and can be restrictive. Regular school days are highly predictable in terms of what you need to carry, sort and store, but a hike up to Everest Base Camp and a BTS ride to a conference in a hotel ballroom have almost nothing in common. Make sure that the travel backpack you choose has a mix of built-in and modular storage available, so it’s ready for anything you’ll throw at (or into) it.
Well-organised clothing compartments
The largest compartment of your bag will be used to hold clothes and soft items on most trips. Look for a bag that includes built-in organisation to manage your most common items. Is there a way to separate your clean and dirty clothes as laundry stacks up? Maybe you can roll and tuck your underwear and socks into a built-in storage pocket to give your shirts room to breathe so they won’t become wrinkled. Will your packing cubes or a shirt protector fit? How about your dopp kit? What will you do with your shoes?
The built-in organisation of the best travel backpacks shouldn’t have an answer for every one of these questions, but when you look at the clothing compartment, you should be able to start seeing the possibilities. Can you imagine how you’d pack the clothing compartment, and still fit the rest of your gear?
Clothing compartment – built-in organisation
The best travel backpacks incorporate some built-in organisation. The most versatile kind is lightweight and unstructured. That way, if you choose to use it, it’s there for you — but if it doesn’t work for the gear you’re carrying on a particular trip, it’s not a big compromise. Zippered pockets are very useful. Just make sure they’re accessible and easy to grab.
A few features to look for include:
Mesh pockets breathe and allow you to see what’s inside at a glance. They’re ideal for holding basics that you can grab easily, or for compressing bulky items like sweaters and jackets. You can use an unstructured mesh pocket to create some separation between your clean clothes and your laundry, filling it as you go.
Solid pockets won’t let you see inside easily, but they can keep items like shoes or laundry completely apart from your clean clothes. Stuff them full of things like underwear or socks that you don’t need to be as picky about when composing your outfit, or fill them with larger items that take up the whole pocket. Solid pockets are good for packing infrequently used items inside, or for separating different types of clothes — tops and bottoms, warm and cool weather, etc.
For specialty items, modular organisation generally works better than built-in organisation. It’s simply so much more versatile. A hardened pocket to protect your sunglasses or headphones sounds clever — until you realise you’ll be wearing them all day, or aren’t taking them along at all. Then you’re left struggling to fill a rigid, empty pocket that isn’t really designed to fit anything else.
Clothing compartment – modular organization
When it comes to modular organisation, the best travel backpacks may come with a full set of accessories. Gear companies may offer them as add-ons, or offer bundle pricing when building your own set of gear. Being able to pick up the bag itself at a base price gives you the chance to fully customise what you’ll carry inside, without buying any items you don’t plan to use. On the other hand, you might find an all inclusive option that works well for you. Avoid elaborate attachment systems for accessories like molle-webbing or elasticated grids that add lots of weight to your pack. While not strictly necessary, a few carefully positioned fixed points can allow you to customise and secure inserts and organisers.
Some of the best modular organisation solutions for use in your bag’s clothing compartment include:
Packing cubes come in a variety of sizes and can even be custom-designed to fit your bag. They’re an ideal way to separate items and to help you pack clothes more densely without going to the extreme of air-tight vacuum bags. Plus, most designs are breathable (so it’s no big deal if your freshly cleaned laundry isn’t 100% dry). You can even live out of them like drawers once you’ve reached your destination.
Popping a few packing cubes back into your backpack when it’s time to go is much easier than repacking a bunch of loose items, even if they’re nicely folded or rolled. The cubes can be used for just about anything — from laundry and underwear, to fluffy sweaters or even makeup and toiletries.
While some dopp kits are completely waterproof, it’s usually better to keep your liquids away from your tech and electronics. It’s smart to pack your dopp kit in the same compartment as your clothes. Make sure it’s accessible in case you have to show your liquids in the security line. Dopp kits tend not to have built-in storage, but they may have a mechanism for being attached to your bag, or stored in a waterproof pocket to minimise the havoc caused by leakage.
Shirt protectors & shirt folders
A shirt protector provides a bit of extra protection to keep shirt collars crisp and delicate dresses safe from pulling or snagging as you pack your bag to the brim. To the uninitiated, they look like big flapped packing cubes, with one rigid side. The flaps wrap around your folded clothes to secure them in place and the rigid backing helps your folded items, like dress shirts and suits, maintain their shape. This in turn keeps wrinkling to a minimum.
If you need to look professional when giving a presentation, or look sharp after travelling across the country for a friend’s wedding, a shirt protector can reduce the need for ironing and be super useful. As a bonus, find one that can be fixed to the interior of your bag, so it doesn't shift around and get crushed during transit.
A shoe bag can protect your pristine kicks from dirt and scuffs, but the real benefit is keeping their dirty soles away from your clean clothes. That comes in handy if your chosen backpack doesn’t have any built-in shoe storage. If you plan to use a shoe bag, look for something lightweight that can be cleaned easily. A reusable grocery bag is a cheap solution. If you’d rather keep it simple and don’t want the added weight of a shoe bag, you can always just pack your shoes soles out, facing the exterior of your travel backpack rather than its contents.
The amount of dirty laundry you’re carrying will vary throughout your trip, so a large mesh laundry bag like you might find in a college dorm room probably isn’t necessary. If you’re traveling long-term, it may seem like a nice idea to have a removable laundry bag. But keep in mind that your ‘laundry bag’ doesn’t have to be a specialty item. You could potentially fill up your packing cubes with laundry one-by-one as you wear your clothes. Alternatively, a grocery bag might work well.
A fully waterproof dry bag may be useful if you’re spending lots of time in the water — but waterproof materials like seam-sealed TPU are heavy, and a dry bag is probably overkill for most use cases. While they’re airtight and might seem like a good way to prevent your clean clothes from picking up odors — leave your dirty laundry in a dry bag at your own risk. That said, if you’re on a surf trip, or spending lots of time in wet environments where you might need a fully immersible solution, a dry bag can be indispensable.
Well-organized device compartments
You entrust your backpack's device compartment with your laptop, camera, and other high-ticket tech and documents. Depending on your travel style, a well-organised device compartment may be even more important than the larger space where you pack your clothes. Dollar-for-dollar, this is almost certainly true.
That's why it's crucial to find a reliable setup that’s thoughtfully designed to protect your gear, includes security features like lockable zippers, and still ensures that your tools and tech are easy to access on the move.
Device compartment built-in organization
Protected laptop sleeve
Pay special attention to the built-in laptop sleeve. This is the most critical part of your device compartment, and your bag’s internal organisation. A built-in design is better than a modular sleeve or case because it will hold your laptop in a fixed position in your bag so it can’t bang around. An ultra-reliable built-in laptop sleeve is an immediate saving of $50-100 (or more) because you won’t have to worry about the extra bulk of a separate protective sleeve or case while you’re on the go.
Travel can get rough at times, so ideally you’ll want to find a laptop sleeve that positions your computer against your backpack’s well-protected back panel. This is ideal for security, protection, and positioning of heavy items so that they carry comfortably. Make sure the design you go with holds your precious tech suspended away from the sides and corners of your bag to protect it from falls, shocks, and drops. Ideally, your specific laptop and tablet will fit snugly in the computer sleeve.
The best designs are adjustable and will be able to accommodate a variety of different laptop, tablet and device sizes without allowing them to slide around or get scratched by other items in the device compartment. Think about what you're likely to carry in different circumstances. For example, if you're a heavy tablet or mouse user you may want a place for that as well.
Watch out for laptop sleeves on the outside of your bag
A laptop sleeve that locates your computer on the outside or front of your bag away from your back should be avoided. It's not really more convenient and it'll be much less secure and well-protected. Unless your bag is fully packed, a design with laptop storage on the outside of your bag will be uncomfortable to carry with just your laptop and heavy tech inside or it’ll require serious compression straps, distorting your bag’s appearance. While you might be able to get away with this design type on an everyday bag, it's not suitable for a travel backpack.
The best device compartments will give you access to your gear from both the top and side. That way you can reach the tech and tools you need even if your bag is fully packed. Look for a lockable zippers that go most of the way around. Consider how you'll be holding the bag when you remove your tech and tools. Are there sturdy handles strategically located that you can grab with one hand while you slide your laptop out with the other? Or will you have to set the bag down to reach your things?
Fully lie-flat or "TSA-friendly" device compartments
Fully lie-flat designs can be handy at some airports but ultimately it's up to the discretion of the agents inspecting your things as to whether or not they let you send your bag through without removing your laptop.
According to the TSA, designs should meet the following criteria:
- Designated lie-flat laptop-only section
- The laptop-only section must contain only a laptop and be laid flat on the belt for screening
- No pockets, metal snaps, zippers or buckles allowed inside, under or on-top of the laptop
Secure zippered pockets
The outer zippers of your travel backpack's device compartment should be lockable, but a zippered inner pocket or two can provide some peace of mind when securing small important items like a backup drive, crypto wallet, watch or passport.
This is one you won't appreciate until you find yourself packing without a dedicated space for paperwork. Loose documents in a backpack get dogeared beyond recognition instantly. Whether it's office work, notes, or canyoneering brochures, a document sleeve comes in handy as a quick spot to stash your important papers and keep them organised and wrinkle free. Remarkably, while they're diminishing all the time, some destinations and airlines still prefer printouts for travel reservations or even charge you to make a printout on the spot. Plus, it's never a bad idea to have a hardcopy of your passport with you as backup.
Small item organization
Another feature of a well-organised device compartment is thoughtful storage for small items. While you can certainly address this with the modular storage ideas discussed below, it's nice to have small pockets built-in where you can tuck items away quickly — from change and chewing gum to earbuds and charging cables.
Device compartment modular organization
For some applications, modular storage is best. Here are a few key pieces to keep your cables and tech under control:
Tech inserts and cable organizers
Like packing cubes for your gear, tech inserts help you to collect all your productivity tools in a protective, easy-to-carry case that can be instantly retrieved from your bag. They're perfect for keeping those small electronics and accessories (that are so easy to lose) organized, and for making sure your cables don't get tangled. If you house your essentials in a tech insert you don't forget something fundamental. Your charger, your spare camera battery, and your adapter will always be safely organized and accessible wherever you're headed.
Once you reach your destination, you can use your tech insert(s) like a portable drawer. Pull it out and pop it on your desk and you're set up with your tools to hand. They're full of pockets and organisation so you they easily adapt to hold all of your gear.
You can even pack one as a seat bag so you have your cables, Kindle, and sleep mask and tooth brush in an easy access pocket for your next flight.
Laptop sleeves or cases
If your bag doesn’t have a built-in laptop sleeve or case, this one is often a must. If you have a high-quality laptop sleeve built into your travel bag and daily carry, you may never need another one again.
Cameras are surprisingly durable — but to protect your investment and keep your gear organised, specialized camera inserts or wraps may make sense. This really depends on what gear you're traveling with and how you shoot. A solution for gear hauling may not be as accessible for a day out and vice versa.
You’ll probably want to zip your wallet and passport away securely in your backpack on flights to keep your pockets clear so you can rest comfortably. However, when you’re hanging out in the city, the front or back pocket of your pants is often a more convenient place to keep your cash and cards for quick access. That’s why it’s more practical to have RFID protection built into your wallet and passport holder rather than your backpack. Dedicated RFID pockets add weight, and there’s not much use putting an RFID blocking wallet into an RFID pocket.
Some backpacks tout their built-in batteries and charging compartments, but battery technology is improving fast and resistors have a relatively short lifespan. Steer clear of travel bags and backpacks with built-in batteries. That way you won’t get locked into a piece of tech that you may want to replace in short time because your power requirements, connectors, or airline regulations have changed.
The current maximum battery size allowed on flights is comparable to a couple of large mobile phones stacked. That’s small enough to fit in many different pockets on any of the best travel backpacks. If your battery solution is modular and moveable you can switch pockets, switch sides, or place it at the top or bottom of your bag, to take advantage of the nearest charging point without running out of cord.