Best Carry-On Travel Backpacks (2018)

February 5, 2018

For this buyer’s guide I researched 22 carry-on backpacks, tested 10, and settled on 7 winners. I physically reviewed and tested every one of these! You can jump ahead to my top picks:

Of course, not everyone needs a carry-on backpack for the same purposes. A frequent business traveler is clearly going to want something different from a student heading off to backpack around Europe. That’s why I’ve included some versatile all-rounders as well as some more specialized bags.

A carry-on backpack lets you travel without ever checking-in your luggage, and will also give you a much more versatile solution than your typical wheeled luggage.

Do keep in mind that carry-on size limits are not strictly standardized across every airline. Some lower-tier airlines use their own weird size restrictions.

For example, in Europe the ultra-budget airline Ryanair can be difficult with their carry-on limits. Then again, flying Ryanair is like flying on a prison bus, and their business model is built around selling you add-ons. There are other budget airlines like this around the world. But broadly speaking, the backpacks on this page all conform to generally accepted carry-on size norms.

Elsewhere, I also have a guide on how to travel light with some neat tips on how to pack efficiently and minimally.

Note: this buyer’s guide is fully independent, i.e. no sponsorships of any kind.

Best general carry-on backpacks

Great durable packs on a medium budget

Tortuga Setout TOP CHOICE

Tortuga Setout is the best all-purpose carry-on backpack that I’ve come accross. This 45-liter pack has a clamshell design, giving you easy access to all your stuff. You will also find a ton of handy pockets and organizers inside.

The Setout is clearly designed to be a versatile tool, 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 equally suited for that as well.

The harness of the Setout is kind of a big deal for a travel bag. It has thick comfy straps, a back panel with proper padding and ventilation space, and even a hip belt with two spacious zipped pockets for quick access. (This is a feature normally found on trekking bags. But if you don’t like it, you can detach it.) A laptop or tablet compartment sits in the back, which is ideally placed for load balancing. On the side it has a large mesh bottle holder, which could also hold a small tripod.

A grey heathered material on the outside and a white interior make the Setout quite stylish as well — though without screaming “tourist” or drawing needless attention. The main material is 900 denier polyester which has a water-resistant coating.

Again, this bag is all about versatility. If you don’t want to carry it as a backpack, you can detach the harness and attach a shoulder strap. Ta-da: it’s now a duffel bag!

The Tortuga Setout currently retails for $199 (via Tortuga’s online shop), and I think in this price category it’s the best carry-on backpack you can get. You can also read my in-depth review here.

Price: $199 view at tortuga

✔ Maximum carry-on size
✔ Clamshell-style main compartment
✔ Laptop & organizer compartments
✔ Adjustable waist strap and chest strap
✔ Stow-away harness & detachable belt
✔ 2 carry handles
✔ Lockable zippers

 


 

Osprey Farpoint 40

Ideal for backpacking & hostel-hopping. The Farpoint 40 is one of the most popular backpacks around, and often seen in backpacker hostels all over the world. I myself traveled around South America and Asia with one of these continuously for two years. The Farpoint 40 is designed to be lightweight and budget-friendly, though I do think it also lacks a few clever organizational features found on other bags.

The big selling point of the Farpoint 40 is its fully padded harness. This means the Farpoint 40 is comfortable enough to wear for extended periods of time, making it more than just a transit bag. This is why it’s popular with backpackers who may need to walk around town to find a place to stay or hike up to a hostel in the countryside. I even took it trekking in the Himalayas for a week and had no issues (even though it is not really a trekking backpack).

The design is quite appealing, though I do feel the internal lime green color is a bit over-the-top (apparently this makes it easier to find things, but I don’t know if this is worth it!). It uses a mix of 600D and 210D nylon which is fine, though these lighter materials might not quite satisfy the most hardcore travelers. The Farpoint 40 is best suited for light packers and for hostel-style travel.

The Farpoint 40 comes in S/M and M/L editions. 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.

✔ Clamshell-style main compartment
✔ Laptop compartment
✔ Detachable shoulder strap included
✔ Stow-away harness
✔ Carry handles
✔ Lockable zippers
✔ Budget priced

What I don’t like:
✗ Not enough clever storage spaces (packing cubes recommended)
✗ Intense neon green interior (owww my eyes)

Price: Check on Amazon view at amazon

 


Best duffel-style carry-ons

Packs carried with a shoulder strap or on your back

Osprey Porter 46 (US only)

Osprey Porter 46 in teal colorThe Porter 46 is a duffel-style bag that also has a harness, allowing you to carry it as a backpack. It’s made of thicker material than the Farpoint 40 and has padded foam walls that stand up when empty. It has plenty of side-pockets and a built-in travel organizer. I think its harness is not quite as good or well-padded as other backpacks reviewed here, though it still makes for a good general purpose carry-on bag. It excels mostly with its great organizational features and neat protective shell.

The Porter 46 seems ideal for urban and air travel. If you’re going on very long or outdoorsy adventures, I would suggest getting a bag with a more advanced harness like the Farpoint 40 or Tortuga Setout.

Note that this backpack is available from Osprey US but not from Osprey Europe. You can read my full review here.

(The Porter 46 was updated in 2017. I reviewed this newest edition.)

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 (at least for long hauls)
✗ Lime green interior
(though it’s a bit better than neon green)

Price: $140.00 view at amazon

 


 

Osprey Transporter 40

Best for expeditions, storing climbing gear, sports equipment, etc.

This bag is not a race car nor an SUV; it’s a tank.

Made of laminated 840D nylon and double-coated for weather-resistance, it’s designed to be a workhorse. No, it doesn’t come with a laptop compartment or side pockets or little spaces to keep your pens or keys or whatnot. It’s not that kind of bag. It just gives you one big storage space with four big carry handles and a stowable backpack harness.

This is a super durable adventure carry-on bag. It’s designed to be thrown around and you can trust it to keep your gear secure and protected from the elements. It can certainly be carried on your back, but it would be equally at home in the back of a pickup truck or in a garage or on a boat. If you need to carry any sporting gear or expedition gear, this is your best bet.

As a traveler and digital nomad, I need my bags to be light and versatile. But when testing the Transporter 40, it’s clear to me that it serves a specific purpose extremely well. I reviewed the 40L carry-on sized version, though it has bigger versions up to a whopping 130 liters. The Transporter 40 comes in a small stuff sack, so you can compress it way down for storage.

(The Transporter 40 was updated in 2018. I reviewed this newest edition.)

What I like about it:
✔ Extremely tough material
✔ 4 grab handles
✔ Stow-away harness
✔ Superb for active outdoors use 
(travel and non-travel)

What I don’t like:
✗ While tough, it’s not so versatile

Price: $110.00 view at amazon

 


Best premium carry-on backpacks

Pro backpacks ideal for frequent or long-term travelers

Tortuga Outbreaker 45 TOP CHOICE

Best for long-term travelers. This bag has the same features and advantages as the Setout reviewed earlier on this page, but with a few key differences (besides the $100 difference in price).

Firstly, it has a fully adjustable suspension system. This means you can precisely adjust this bag to your particular height, giving you the maximum possible comfort. It’s a feature normally reserved for advanced trekking- or adventure bags. Secondly, instead of normal polyester or nylon, this backpack is made of sailcloth (yep, exactly what boat sails are made of). This material consists of four separate layers giving ultimate durability and weather-resistance. While surely overkill for just a weekend trip, this bag is made with the seasoned world traveler in mind.

I do think its design is a bit awkwardly boxy, though it does aim for maximum volume within the carry-on limits.

✔ Everything I like about the Tortuga Setout
✔ Made of premium sailcloth
✔ Fully adjustable suspension system

✗ Boxy design

Price: $299 view at tortuga

 


 

Minaal Carry-On 2.0

Ideal for businesspeople & digital nomads. The result of a popular Kickstarter campaign, the Minaal 2.0 has a clean look and numerous ways to manage your items inside. I think it’s a great bag in particular for business travelers and city-hopping digital nomads, as it really invites you to pack minimally with just your laptop + electronics and a few neatly organized clothing essentials.

One of the cool things about this bag is its clamshell-style main compartment has several integrated packing cubes already included. If you get a kick out of traveling in a minimalist style, then you’ll surely enjoy this feature. With a capacity of about 35L, it has a streamlined shape and light design, though its modest size can make it arguably a bit less versatile than other packs I’ve reviewed for this guide.

The Minaal 2.0 is a concept bag that’s sure to appeal to one-bag enthusiasts and urban travelers. On the other hand, it may not be the obvious choice for more outdoorsy or adventurous trips, and its price tag may be a little high for the average traveler.

Price: $299 view at minaal

 


 

Peak Design Everyday Backpack 30L

Best for photographers & videographers. Originally designed with photographers in mind, the Everyday Backpack is the most clever backpack I know of. It’s a bit of a specialized bag, but utterly amazing for what it’s for.

It has incredible fully customizable inner panels that let you create individual shelves for storing your lenses and other gear. It also has loads of smart pockets for storing smaller items like SD cards or lens covers. You can read my full review here.

The 30-liter version is ideal for carrying bigger gear like drones or tripods. I think the 20L version also works well as a general-purpose commuter and city bag (i.e. for everyday use!). Do keep in mind that the capacity listed includes an additional 8 liters from its expandable top hatch. Under normal circumstances, you’ll get about 22 or 12 liters of capacity.

✔ Mind-blowing versatility
✗ Not for ninjas 
(can be squeaky when straps rub against the fabric)

Comparison table of the best carry-on backpacks in 2018

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

Backpack Type Size Price My rating
Tortuga Setout General 45L $199 5.0
Osprey Farpoint 40 Backpacking 40L $160 4.5
Osprey Fairview 40 Backpacking 40L $160 4.5
Osprey Porter 46 Duffel 46L $140 4.5
Osprey Transporter 40 Heavy/expedition 40L $110 4.0
Tortuga Outbreaker 45 General/nomad 45L $299 4.5
Minaal Carry-on 2.0 Business/nomad 35L $299 4.5

 

2 comments

  1. Devan Reply April 23, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    Great article! I have been thinking about getting the Tortuga Setout and you have me sold. I have an older version of a Tortuga bag and have wanted to update. Thank you!!!

    • Marek Reply April 23, 2018 at 7:31 pm

      If you liked the older Tortugas I bet you’ll like the Setout. It’s a really nice upgrade from the previous designs!

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