Best Travel Backpacks (2018)

Size guide & recommended light and versatile travel backpacks

A few of the backpacks I reviewed. (Not reviewed: my shoes.)

If you are trying to find the best backpack for travel, it can be challenging to find one that ticks all the boxes. Many retailers and websites just won’t give you the right advice! They will often try to sell you the biggest and most expensive backpack, not the lightest or most convenient.

If you travel frequently or if you’re planning a big trip, then it’s often better to go for something light and versatile (and possibly carry-on size), as you’ll want a bag that is always comfortable to carry. In this guide, I will share with you what I believe are some of the top travel backpacks for traveling anywhere.

Note: this buyer’s guide is fully independent, so no sponsored content. Oh, aaaand! I actually physically test and review the backpacks

What I know about this: I’m a frequent traveler and a former full-time nomad. I’ve owned many different backpacks and now regularly review backpacks here and on my YouTube channel.

 

Key features to look for

  • Front-loading (you will love this!). Many backpacks are top-loading, with a drawstring to close it at the top. This sucks. It means having to dig around awkwardly to get something from the bottom. Bags with a clamshell design are much nicer: you just zip them open face down, with everything within instant reach. Super convenient.
  • Waist strap. Using a waist strap distributes the load around your whole body instead of just your shoulders. It’s essential for frequent travel as it helps avoid sore shoulders and bad backs.
  • Laptop compartment. A separate padded compartment keeps your electronics secure. Of course, you can also use these zipped compartments for books, your travel journal, or many other things.
  • Rain resistant. You don’t want water to leak into your bag! Make sure it’s weather sealed or includes a rain cover.
  • Carry-on sized (if possible). It might not a deal breaker for everyone, but carry-on size lets you save time and avoid additional luggage fees on some airlines.

Other nice-to-haves: lockable zippers (rings that let you attach a padlock or wire lock to prevent opportunistic theft), good carry handles (for when you’re not wearing it on your back) and internal or external compression straps (helps you pack more and organize better). 

Quick Overview: The Best Travel Backpacks

Image Product Details
it-table__imageTop all-purpose travel bagTortuga Setout
  • Maximum carry-on size
  • Front-loading
  • Excellent organizer compartments
View on Tortuga
it-table__imageOsprey Farpoint 40
  • Front-loading
  • Comfortable suspension system
  • Laptop & organizer compartment
View on Amazon
it-table__imageOsprey Porter 46 (US only)
  • Excellent side-pockets and travel organizer
  • Front-loading
  • Laptop compartment at the back
View on Amazon
it-table__imageAer Travel Pack 2
  • Loads of storage spaces
  • Sturdy material but easy access
  • Separate shoe compartment
View on Aer
it-table__imageTop business travel bagNomatic 40L Travel Bag
  • Extremely clever features
  • Highly weather resistant material
  • Plethora of optional accessoiries
View on Nomatic
it-table__imagePacsafe Venturesafe X40
  • Front-loading
  • Fully featured harness
  • Rain cover included
View on Amazon
it-table__imageTop medium-sized travel bagOsprey Farpoint 55
  • All the same features as the Farpoint 40
  • PLUS a removable 15 liter daypack
  • Can clip the daypack to the front, zip it to the main pack, or use separately
View on Amazon
it-table__imageCamping, trekking & backpacking bagOsprey Atmos 65
  • Fantastic suspension system with fully adjustable torso length
  • Very comfortable and highly padded back panel
  • Integrated raincover
View on Amazon

 

Travel backpack size guide

Many sports and outdoors retailers will just try to sell you the biggest or most expensive packs, but these aren’t always the most suitable for every job. Novice travelers also often hugely overestimate how much space they will need (I know because I’ve been there myself!).

Left: a trekking backpack. Right: a travel size backpack.

When you’re staying in hotels or hostels, you won’t be needing lots of space to store things like a tent, camping gear, or a sleeping bag. That means you can forget about all the trekking and mountaineering backpacks and go with something more modestly sized. You’ll end up with less weight on your back, more freedom to move, and much less hassle.

For an example of how much can fit in a smaller-size bag, have a look at the video below. It happens to be focused on packing for Southeast Asia, but you can pack in a roughly similar way for traveling anywhere.

Backpack sizes are typically expressed in liters (i.e., the volume they can contain). You’ll notice that backpacks sometimes have this number in their product name. Thinking in liters might not be totally intuitive, so here are my 2 cents on some of the common sizes:

15-30 L Too small unless you’re going on a weekend trip, or you’re super minimalist.
40-45 L Woohoo! The happy sweet spot. Good for shorter trips but equally fine for trips lasting many weeks or months (that is, if you know how to pack light). Ideal if you’re traveling within one climate and don’t need lots of bulky winter clothing. This size is usually accepted as carry-on luggage, saving you time and money.
45-60 L Perfect if you need just a bit of extra space. Consider this size if you will travel through various climates, if you’re bringing additional equipment (sports gear, etc.), or maybe if you can’t resist buying many souvenirs. Otherwise, a 40 or 45L is probably fine.
65-120 L NOPE. This size is for trekking, camping, and mountaineering only. If you use these for travel, you’re likely to overpack and curse your backpack repeatedly. The internal support frames often already weigh several kilos. For most travelers this is overkill.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a light packer. For example, I typically pack no more than around 7 to 10 days worth of clothes, even if I’m traveling for much longer. I believe it’s much better to wash your clothes from time to time than to carry a huge travel wardrobe around everywhere. Read my guide to packing light for more on this!

 

Best carry-on travel backpacks

Tortuga Setout TOP CHOICE

Update: this bag currently only ships to the US.

The Tortuga Setout is a new product launched in 2018, and I’ve been super impressed with it. It’s my new top pick for best carry-on size travel backpack. Tortuga has been making clever travel bags for many years now, but I think with the Setout they’ve truly hit a home run!

The Setout is clearly designed to be a versatile bag, making it easy to recommend for any type of trip. If you’re using it mainly for urban or air travel, then that’s great! But if you want to take this on a more adventurous trip, then it’s very suited for that as well.

This big 45-liter backpack gives you the maximum carry-on capacity of most airlines. Its clamshell design meanwhile gives you easy suitcase-style access to all your stuff. The harness with its wide straps is also very comfortable, while the back panel comes with proper padding and ventilation space.

The hip belt is nicely cushioned and has two zipped pockets, which is a handy feature normally reserved for trekking bags. For a traveler, that just means having two quick-access pockets whenever you’re on the move.

Don’t need that hip belt? Then you can detach the whole thing! The entire harness is stowable as well, essentially letting you turn the Setout into a duffel bag if needed. This is one of those rare backpacks that you could easily take backpacking around Europe or Asia but just as easily on a weekend or business trip.

I’m a big fan of the Setout’s well-padded belt with handy storage pockets

The Setout has plenty of handy pockets and sleeves inside. Your laptop or tablet go in the back, which is ideal for load balancing as well as security. I like the bag’s restrained and stylish design, with a brushed grey (weather resistant) polyester on the outside and an off-white interior. This is a lot classier than the garish neon colors that some other manufacturers use.

The Tortuga Setout currently retails for $199 (via Tortuga’s online shop) and is my top recommended carry-on backpack. You can also read my in-depth review here.

The Setout has tons of neat organizational features inside

Price: $199 view at tortuga

✔ Maximum carry-on size
✔ Front-loading (woohoo!)
✔ Laptop & organizer compartments
✔ Adjustable waist strap and chest strap
✔ Stow-away harness
✔ 2 carry handles
✔ Lockable zippers

 


Osprey Farpoint 40

Osprey Farpoint 40, one of the best all-purpose travel backpacks

The Farpoint 40 is a great choice for world travelers looking for a light and budget-friendly bag. It’s hugely popular in the backpacking scene and I see them all the time in hostels around the world. I myself took one on a 2-year round-the-world backpacking trip.

Many travel backpacks come with just a flimsy little harness, but not so with the Farpoint 40! It’s super comfortable to wear thanks to a padded back panel, well-padded shoulder straps, and a full-size hip belt. Six different adjustment straps make it easy to distribute the weight fully along your entire back. All this makes it a great pack to carry for longer stretches of time if needed.

It may not be exactly a trekking backpack, but it’s comfortable enough to take on an occasional hike. I even took it trekking in the Himalayas for a week and had no issues. (Mind you, I was staying in guesthouses, so I didn’t carry a tent or sleeping bag. For that it’s simply too small.)

The Farpoint 40 is a smidge cheaper than the Setout, but I think it’s not as good in a few areas:

  • The laptop sleeve would also be better placed at the back.
  • There are also not quite as many handy pockets, dividers, or sleeves as in the Tortuga Setout or the Osprey Porter 46.
  • The internal colors are kinda over-the-top (usually neon green). This is apparently to find lost items more easily, but ehhhh I’m not so sure about it. Clearly a matter of taste though

Maybe this bag won’t be quite ideal for the techie traveler or minimalist / one-bag enthusiast, but I think the Farpoint 40 is perfect for budget travel and backpacking. If you buy the Farpoint, I recommend buying some packing cubes to go with it (these packing cubes are nice and fit exactly). That way you won’t mind having somewhat fewer internal pockets to work with.

As of 2017, there’s also the Osprey Fairview 40, which is the exact same bag but with a women’s specific fit and a different color.

✔ Front-loading (woo!)
✔ Laptop & organizer compartment
✔ Waist strap and chest strap
✔ Detachable shoulder strap included
✔ Stow-away harness
✔ Carry handles
✔ Lockable zippers
✔ Budget priced

What I don’t like:
✗ Not quite as many clever storage spaces
✗ Ugly lime green interior (on some models)

Price: $160.00 $135.85   -15% view at amazon

 


 

Osprey Porter 46 (US only)

Osprey Porter 46 in teal colorThe Porter 46 is an interesting alternative to the Farpoint 40 that’s available only in North America.

It seems designed from a different starting point. The Farpoint 40 feels almost like a down-sized trekking bag made suitable for general travel, while the Porter 46 feels like a duffel bag that got upgraded to a backpack.

It has padded walls that stand up, whereas the walls of the Farpoint 40 will fold in when not packed. It has more side-pockets and a better built-in travel organizer. But also its harness is thinner and not as well-padded, making it less ideal for heavier loads or walking long distances.

I think the Porter 46 is somewhat more suited for urban/airport/general travel, while the Farpoint is somewhat better for adventure travel. The Porter 46’s frame is slightly clunky and wide and it isn’t quite as comfortable on your back, but it’s a lot easier to store your stuff inside and is a good deal more versatile. It also does a better job of carrying a laptop (or other electronics) than the Farpoint 40.

Osprey Europe has discontinued this product line but in the US they released a new version in 2017, which I recommend over the older one. You can tell by the logo: if it’s a monochrome outline, it’s the new version. If there’s an oval badge around it, it’s the old version. You can read my full review here.

What I like about it:
✔ Front-loading
✔ Many side-pockets and a travel organizer
✔ Laptop compartment at the back (better balance!)
✔ Waist strap and chest strap
✔ Stow-away harness
✔ Carry handles
✔ Lockable zippers

What I don’t like:
✗ Harness not as good as Farpoint or Setout

Price: $140.00 view at amazon

 


 

eBags Mother Lode Convertible

eBags Mother Lode backpack

Many of you asked me to review this bag, so I got it and tested if for several weeks. While marketed as a weekend bag, I think the eBags Mother Lode can work pretty well for various types of trips. You can read my full review here.

The key strength of this carry-on backpack is the number of pockets and zipped compartments. It just has loads of spaces for you to store travel documents, toiletries, or your smartphone or laptop. The main compartment has a clever optional divider wall that can split this space into two halves.

One potential downside is the harness which is quite thin and basic, making it more geared towards city- and weekend travel. The back also isn’t padded, making this a backpack you’ll probably want to carry for shorter distances only. The boxy design is also a little uninspired.

Still, it’s a pretty decent bag for a low price. What it lacks in sexiness, it might just make up for in utility. But if you’re a very frequent traveler, I think there may be better choices at just a slightly higher price point.

✔ Front-loading
✔ 2 carry handles
✔ Inner compression straps
✔ Lockable zippers
✔ Low price

 Basic harness, no padded waist strap or padded back
✗ Design and materials look dated

Price: $200.00 $129.99   -35% view at amazon

 


 

Pacsafe Venturesafe X40

Pacsafe has long made a name for itself with travel security products such as money belts, passport wallets, and portable locks. They also make backpacks with a focus on anti-theft features.

The X40 is a lightweight carry-on bag with a comfortable harness that’s comparable to the Farpoint 40. I like that it has a back panel mesh as well as wide waist straps that also have zipped pockets in them, which is a handy feature typically only seen on trekking backpacks. Safety features include slash-proof webbing, lockable D-rings, a smart zipper lock for the main compartment, and an included padlock.

The built-in rain cover is a nice plus, as is the removable internal divider (can be used to separate clean and dirty gear, among other uses). The only slight downside is the price, which is above that of other backpacks in this list.

✔ Front-loading (yayy!)
✔ Inner compression straps
✔ Waist strap and adjustable chest strap
✔ Waist strap has pockets
✔ Rain cover included
✔ Enhanced security features

✗ Only one thin carry handle (though this is not a big issue)
 A little pricey

Price: $249.95 $244.95   -2% view at amazon

 


 

Best larger travel backpacks

Osprey Farpoint 55 TOP CHOICE

Osprey Farpoint 55 backpack (blue)I love the versatility of the Farpoint 55. It’s essentially two travel packs combined into one integrated system. You can leave the detachable daypack on or off, you can clip the daypack onto the main bag for a ‘turtle shell’ carry mode, and you even can zip away all the straps and carry it as a regular bag. 

I recommend this backpack if you don’t want to go for full minimalism and need just that extra bit of space for additional gear, souvenirs, your shoe collection, etc. Multiple pockets and pouches on the daypack provide easy access to smaller items, though as with the other Osprey packs I do also recommend getting some packing cubes to help you organize the main compartment.

I’ve traveled with this backpack extensively. You can read my full review of the Farpoint 55

Left: the Farpoint 55 main backpack plus daypack (zipped off). Right: the Farpoint 40.


✔ All the same features as the Farpoint 40
✔ Plus a removable 15L Daypack
 Too big for carry-on
(officially, the main bag is just slightly over the carry-on limit)

Price: $160.00 view at amazon

 

 


 

Deuter Transit 50

Deuter 55 BackpackThe Transit 50 is another fine travel backpack sold by German manufacturer Deuter. (Fun fact: they were the ones to originally invent the modern suspension backpack in the 80ies!) The Transit 50 is in many ways similar to the Farpoint 55, though doesn’t have a laptop compartment. Still, it easily holds any other travel gear and is an excellent choice for any active traveler.

✔ Front-loading (actually not entirely, but it also has a separate bottom compartment giving easy access)
✔ Waist strap and chest strap
✔ Carry handles
✔ Inner compression straps
✔ Lockable zippers
✔ Detachable daypack

✗ No laptop compartment

Price: $179.00 view at amazon

 


 

 

What about other backpacks?

There are a lot of backpacks out there, but many I just chose not to list for various reasons.

For example, North Face has the Terra 50 rucksack, but it’s annoyingly top-loading. All the Berghaus, Vango, Lifeventure, and JanSport bags are as well, and they also lack many useful features.

I chose to list the backpacks above as they all have neat features and would be ideally suited for frequent travelers rather than only for outdoors enthusiasts.

Why it’s worth the investment

A good backpack is an investment that pays off over time. Spend somewhere in the range of $150 / €120 / £100, and you can likely enjoy using this bag for a long time to come.

You get what you pay for, which is something I had to learn. I once bought a cheaper backpack by Mountain Warehouse (a UK store), and it fell apart just two months into my trip. I had to replace it when I was in Vietnam and still had several months left to travel. I got a (possibly fake) North Face backpack in Hanoi, and it too died on me soon, with the shoulder straps quickly tearing apart. In hindsight, I should have gotten something proper from the start…

Comparison table of the best travel backpacks in 2018

Finally, a quick comparison of all the backpacks mentioned in this post. The prices are approximate as color choices and sizes can affect this. (Click the links to see the most up-to-date prices.)

Backpack Type Size Price My rating
Tortuga Setout Carry-on 45L $199 5.0
Osprey Farpoint 40 Carry-on 40L $160 4.5
Osprey Fairview 40 Carry-on/women 40L $160 4.5
Osprey Porter 46 Carry-on/duffel 46L $140 4.5
eBags Mother Lode Carry-on/weekender 40L $130 3.5
Pacsafe Venturesafe X40 Carry-on 40L $249 4.0
Osprey Farpoint 55 Carry-on + daypack 40L + 15L $180 5.0
Deuter Transit 50 Main + daypack 50L + 10L $189 4.0

P.S. Links to Amazon and other online stores give me some commission (at no extra cost to you). This is explained more here. This page contains no sponsored or paid-for content.

2 comments

  1. Garrett Reply July 24, 2018 at 9:49 am

    The top table says the Osprey Farpoint 40 is the top choice, but further down it appears the Tortuga Setout is the “winning” bag.

    • Marek Reply July 24, 2018 at 1:48 pm

      Yeah, the Setout is out of stock this month which is why the Farpoint 40 got bumped in the table. The Setout is still my top pick if you can wait for it to be restocked 🙂

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