For this buyer’s guide I researched 22 carry-on backpacks, tested 10, and settled on 8 winners. I physically reviewed and tested every one of these.

If you’re in a hurry, check out my top choice

Tortuga Setout

View at Tortuga

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.

Quick Overview: Best carry-on backpacks

Tortuga Setout

Top Choice

  • Maximum carry-on size
  • Clamshell-style main compartment
  • Laptop & organizer compartments
Osprey Farpoint 40
  • Clamshell-style main compartment
  • Great for hostelling & budget travel
  • Detachable shoulder strap included
Osprey Porter 46
  • Front-loading
  • Many side-pockets and a travel organizer
  • Laptop compartment at the back
Standard Luggage Carry-On Backpack
  • Two interchangeable colors included (blue and orange)
  • With raincover and shoulder straps
  • Highly secure laptop compartment
Osprey Transporter 40
  • Extremely tough material
  • 4 grab handles
  • Stow-away harness
Tortuga Outbreaker 45
  • Everything I like about the Tortuga Setout
  • Made of premium sailcloth
  • Fully adjustable suspension system

Best general carry-on backpacks

Top pick Tortuga Setout

Price $199

Pros

  • Maximum carry-on size
  • Clamshell-style main compartment
  • Great suspension system
  • Not too heavy

Cons

  • No major cons

Tortuga Setout is the best all-purpose carry-on backpack that I’ve come across. 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.

View at Tortuga

 

 


 

Osprey Farpoint 40

Price $140

Pros

  • Clamshell-style main compartment
  • Lightweight, great for backpacking
  • Budget priced
  • Detachable shoulder strap included

Cons

  • Intense neon green interior on some versions
  • Lack of clever storage spaces (packing cubes recommended)

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.

View at Amazon

 


Best duffel-style carry-ons

Osprey Porter 46

 

Price $140

Pros

  • Front-loading
  • Many side-pockets and a travel organizer
  • Laptop compartment at the back (better balance!)
  • Stow-away harness

Cons

  • Harness not quite as good as Farpoint or Setout
  • Lime green interior (though this is a matter of taste)

The 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. You can read my full review here.

View at Amazon

 


 

Standard Luggage Co. Carry-On

 

Pros

  • Blue and orange colors both included
  • Loads of pockets and spaces
  • Superb padded laptop compartment
  • Shoulder straps and raincover included

Cons

  • Raincover a bit difficult to put on

This carry-on bag by Canadian manufacturer Standard Luggage Co. is also capable of being used as a backpack or as a duffel bag using a shoulder strap that’s included. This backpack has some great design touches that make it stand out from the rest. I like the color accents that are used, which can be changed between orange and blue (both are included).

The suspension system is deliberately kept a little basic in order to make it fully stowable, though it does include an adjustable sternum strap, two padded straps, and a nicely padded back. The bag has loads of storage spaces. The most notable pocket is the laptop compartment, which is better than I’ve seen in many other backpacks. You can put your precious laptop inside a protective sleeve, which in turn is held vertically by two straps, and this harness, in turn, sits inside the back compartment. Your electronics will be highly protected inside.

Osprey Transporter 40

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

 

Price $110

Pros

  • Extremely tough material
  • 4 grab handles
  • Stow-away harness
  • Superb for active outdoors use

Cons

  • While tough, it’s not so versatile

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.)

View at Amazon

 


Best premium carry-on backpacks

Top Choice Tortuga Outbreaker 45

Best for long-term travelers. 

Price $299

Pros

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

Cons

  • Boxy design
  • Heavier than the Setout

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.

View at Tortuga

 


 

Nomatic 40L Travel Bag

Ideal for businesspeople & digital nomads

 

Price $269

Pros

  • Focused on minimalist travel
  • Integrated packing cubes
  • LOADS of clever features
  • Works well together with rolled luggage

Cons

  • A little pricey

The result of a popular Kickstarter campaign, the Nomatic travel bag 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 invites you to pack minimally with just your laptop + electronics and a few neatly organized clothing essentials.

And yep, it is ridiculously clever and innovative. You’ll find way more packing features on the Nomatic Travel Bag than virtually any other backpack. You can even pimp it with optional accessories like a laundry bag, shirt organizer, toiletry bag, and vacuum compression bag — all designed to work as one integrated system.

The only downsides are its price and the potential for its design to be overkill for a casual traveller. The materials used are sturdy and durable, but an adventurous backpacker may want something a bit lighter or flexible. That said, I think this is a bag designed especially for the professional traveller.

With the added accessories it’s the perfect hotel/city backpack, thanks to the shirt organizer that keeps shirts wrinkle-free, the laundry bag (which you can hang on your hotel room door), the shoe compartment, compression bag, and so on.

 


Comparison table best carry-on backpacks in 2019

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 Backpack / Duffel 46L $140 4.5
Standard Luggage Carry-On Backpack / Duffel 35L (expands to 45L) $179 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