Updated December 15, 2018
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!