Courtesy of Mystery Ranch
Photo courtesy Peak Design; design by Emily Blevins
An array of packing cubes tailors the Peak Design Travel Backpack 45L to every need.
With load-bearing technology borrowed from the backcountry and styling fit for any city, these travel backpacks are ready for every adventure.
Free your hands and the mind will follow—or so say devotees of travel backpacks. Similar to traditional suitcases, these bags organize clothes, electronics, and other trip essentials and come in a range of sizes to support short jaunts or long expeditions. But travel backpacks also liberate your arms for other tasks. And without wheels that bounce and jam on cobblestones or gravel, they let travelers cruise easily across any terrain.
No longer reserved for adventure travel, some backpacks feature chic styling that works in San Francisco or Buenos Aires. Still, the best travel backpacks take a page from sporty, mountaineering models: They feature weight-support structures built into the back panel that make 50 pounds of clothes and gear feel like 15.
The best travel backpack for you depends on the kind of trip you’re taking and how long you'll be away. Here are features to consider when shopping for a new backpack:
If you’re not sure where to start, our guide to the best travel backpacks will help you find one with a price point that matches your budget and features that fit your style of traveling.
The pinnacle of versatility, Peak Design’s Travel Backpack (pictured above) adapts to your every whim. Want to tuck away the shoulder straps and turn it into a handled tote? No problem. Shrink it to daypack? Snaps elegantly compress the top. Enlarge it to accommodate the souvenirs you bought? Zippered expansion panels add 10 liters of space to the pack’s default 35 liters. (Keep in mind that once it’s fully expanded, the backpack is slightly over most airlines’ carry-on bag size requirements.)
Peak Design also offers an array of packing cubes (sold separately) for specialized storage. The Tech Pouch ($60) pleases digital nomads and business travelers who carry multiple phones, tablets, battery packs, and Wi-Fi extenders. The Wash Pouch ($60) does the same for toiletries. Camera cubes in various sizes ($50-$90) let photographers safely carry a DSLR and lenses. Multiple access points provide quick entry to the main compartment, and the Travel Backpack can be easily swung around to the front of the body so you don’t have to take it off to change lenses or hunt for a charging cord. Two stretchy side pockets hold a tripod or water bottle.
As standard luggage, the Travel Backpack is best for light packers (it’s hard to fit more than a pair of shoes and a few outfits in the main compartment). But it carries that weight comfortably and provides systematic storage for a range of needs. That’s both a pro and a con: Getting full functionality out of this pack requires investing some time to understand its myriad options, but if there’s a pack that does a better job of marrying elegance and efficiency, we haven’t found it. —Kelly Bastone, AFAR contributor
If you prefer the structure and organization of a wheeled carry-on, but don’t want to deal with the added heft of wheels, consider the Mystery Ranch Mission Rover travel backpack. Constructed with a sleek-looking Cordura nylon, this durable pack can stand up to outdoor adventures but won’t look out of place as you check into a business hotel.
Like a regular suitcase, this travel backpack has a main clamshell opening with two large zippered compartments to stash your clothes and dopp kit. But unlike hardshell roller bags, the Mission Rover has a series of pockets built into the front of the pack that help keep your tech and small items organized. In addition to a shoe compartment located at the bottom of the pack, there’s also a padded laptop sleeve at the top of the bag, plus another small zippered pocket on the front to keep your passport, phone, and other small items within reach.
Sized to fit in most airlines’ overhead bins, the sleek Mission Rover can be carried like a traditional backpack or a duffle—just stash the backpack straps into the back panel of the bag and clip on the single shoulder strap. —Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor
Most backpacks with detachable daypacks fix the smaller unit to the outside, farthest from the wearer’s back. But when Osprey’s veteran pack designer Mike Pfotenhauer set out to create the perfect backpack for his business-and-pleasure trips to Vietnam, he flipped the arrangement: With the Ozone Duplex, the base is a compact backpack designed for comfort that holds a laptop, earphones, water bottle (in easy-to-reach side pockets) and passport (in a hidden zippered pocket). Items like clothes and shoes fit into a larger “cargo bag” that clips to the daypack and can be chucked in the overhead bin while your valuables sit your feet. Unlike other piggyback styles, the Ozone Duplex makes the daypack—which most travelers carry more often than the full pack—the keystone element rather than a tack-on.
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There are additional benefits to this arrangement. Valuables are placed closer to your body, protecting them from theft. And because heavy items (like your computer, camera, or books) ride close to your back, their weight feels minimal. A sturdy hip belt and a weight-supporting internal suspension also help make big loads feel lighter. In fact, we’ve stuffed the 65L Ozone (60L for the women’s version) with an astonishing quantity of goods—including a DSLR with extra lenses—and barely registered the burden.
Unclipped from the daypack and rigged with a removable strap, the cargo bag can serve as a shoulder tote. The two parts fit together without preventing access to zippers or pockets on either component and conform to carry-on dimensions. When both parts are stuffed to capacity, clipping the two together becomes trickier—but we managed fine, even when fogged by jet lag. —K.B.
Tortuga’s Setout Backpack 35L combines the portability of a backpack with the practicality of a suitcase. Unlike a traditional top-opening backpack, the Setout has a clamshell opening that allows easy suitcase-like access. Inside the main compartment, you’ll find dedicated pockets for stashing small items and separating clothes. In the back, there’s a separate zippered pocket for your tech including separate sleeves for your laptop and iPad to help you keep everything organized. A front pocket keeps small items like keys and your passport organized.
Made with a durable polyester fabric constructed from recycled water bottles, the Setout is also protected with a water-resistant, durable water repellent (DWR) coating. In addition to being durable and sustainable, it’s also a very comfortable bag to carry thanks to breathable, injection-molded foam and air mesh padding, and removable hip belts.
While the women’s version of the bag is the same dimensions, it comes with a suspension system fit for shorter torsos so it sits more comfortably around your hips and shoulders. The 35 liter Setout makes a great weekend bag, but Tortuga also makes a 45 liter version that is also carry-on friendly. —Jessie Beck, SEO manager
The top of the Migrate Duffel 40L hides two padded straps that, when removed from their streamlined sleeves, clip into buckles to transform your hand luggage into a backpack. With cushioned straps, it’s a reasonably comfortable carry on your back, even without internal engineering to support heavy loads (in this form, it’s best-suited to light, bulky items such as workout clothes or a bike helmet), and the central zipper rests on your back, where pickpockets can’t reach it.
When worn as a backpack, the Migrate Duffel meets carry-on dimensions. But if you end up buying one too many souvenirs, you can tuck away the backpack straps and unfurl the tote bag handles to expand the bag to 44 liters (you’ll have to check it at this point though).
Waterproofed with a shiny coating of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), the tough, puncture-resistant polyester fabric makes this tote tough enough to ride in the back of a pickup or on the cargo rack of a colectivo bus. Handles on the top, side, and ends serve as convenient tie-down points. And although the zipper isn’t waterproof, a storm flap beneath it keeps rain from soaking inside. Water can’t seep in through the seamless bottom either—so when an errant wave soaked this bag on a beach, our books and towels stayed dry inside.
Just as impressive: The Migrate’s materials are all bluesign approved, meaning that they’re sustainably made and safe for people and the environment. The extra-durable fabric on the bottom of the duffel incorporates recycled polyester, and the water-repellant coating is made from upcycled plastic windshields. —K.B.
A carry-on, duffel, and backpack all in one, the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Travel Pack is an organized traveler’s dream with zippered compartments for laptops, passports, keys, and clothes. Other notable design features include “theft-proof webbing,” which lets you tuck in the bag’s zippers so it can’t be opened without you noticing, and four carabiner lash loops that allow you to clip on a water bottle or thread through a scarf you want to have handy.
This carry-on sized bag can easily fit in the overhead bin of an airplane, but can often go underneath the seat in front of you (unless you have a full weeks’ worth of clothing crammed in there). If you’ve packed heavy and want to take some of the stress off your back, you can also use the bag’s removable hip belt to provide more stability.
Although the bag’s polyester shell is coated with thermoplastic polyurethane—making it completely waterproof—it also comes with a removable rain cover that adds an extra layer of protection for the whole backpack. —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor
When you need a backpack for hiking the Inca Trail or trekking among Himalayan teahouses, this should be your pick. The Thule Versant fits bulky gear like a sleeping bag and pads—and adeptly supports their mass. Sturdy aluminum struts reinforce the backpanel and transfer weight to your hips (keeping it off your shoulders). The thickly padded hip belt makes loads feel comfortable over many miles and hours of walking. And when properly packed, the Versant kept us feeling balanced as we hiked rough paths and hopped over creeks.
Dedicated men’s and women’s models provide an optimized fit, as does the adjustable hip belt, which you can lengthen or shorten by four inches so that it cradles your hip bones for the most comfortable carry. The shoulder straps also move up or down to suit a wide range of torso lengths.
A built-in rain cover keeps contents dry, even on New Zealand’s notoriously rainy Milford Track. Pockets on the hip belt let us store snacks and a cameraphone within easy reach (one of those pockets is, conveniently, waterproof). Both versions of the bag are longer than 27 inches, making it too big to be used as carry-on baggage. But the Versant’s cleverest feature is the removable lid: Instead of converting to a daypack, this compartment morphs into a courier-style sling that’s perfect for in-town explorations. —K.B.
The ultra lightweight Matador SEG42 Travel Pack provides maximum organization without having to buy extra packing cubes or other accessories. Essentially a backpack with packing cubes built in, the SEG42 is divided into five zippered segments accessed from the front of the bag allowing you to keep your gear organized by type, day, or item size.
Additionally, the bag has a full clamshell zipper, allowing you to borrow space from the segments and keep boots or dirty laundry separate from your clean clothes. Since there's no such thing as too many pockets, you’ll find an external access laptop sleeve and another small pocket at the top of the bag for your phone, wallet, and keys. Even though it only weighs a few pounds, the SEG42 is made with durable nylon and protected with a Ultra Tear Strength (UTS) coating that increases the bag’s waterproofing and tear strength by 30 percent.
Unless you pack it to the gills, the 42 liter SEG42 is carry-on compliant for most airlines. —L.M.
Some trips involve a lot of gear—especially if you’re snorkeling, hiking, or cycling. The 65L women’s Proxy and men’s Praxus fit it all, and even corral dirty stuff in a separate waterproof section: A big, interior, pack-length, zippered compartment made of TPU prevents wet swimsuits or muddy shoes from contaminating your clean, dry items.
That wet-stuff section is located close to the wearer’s back, which is the best place for heavy (possibly waterlogged) items because as weight moves farther from your back it throws you off balance. Stiff foam reinforces the backpanel and transfers the pack weight to the hip belt, where it feels less burdensome. The shoulder straps adjust to suit various torso lengths, which not only helps wearers achieve a perfect fit but also allows people of varying heights to share this backpack.
The downside? At nearly 26 inches long, the Proxy and Praxus are too big to pass as carry-on baggage. And while the front zippered electronics pocket includes a padded pouch for a laptop and multiple pockets for cords, phones, and pens, it isn’t detachable, so you have to be willing to check any items stored there. But when you do forfeit the pack to baggage handlers, it easily transforms into a streamlined, strapless parcel: The removable hip belt and fixed shoulder straps tuck neatly into a zippered zone that keeps webbing from getting jammed in luggage belts and carousels. —K.B.
Smaller than most of the other load-haulers we review here, the Split Adventure 38L doesn’t overwhelm its wearer: It never looks like you’ve grown an enormous turtle shell. Still, it manages to fit the necessities for short trips, because this backpack opens like a suitcase. On one side of the main compartment, you’ll find elastic bands that clip together to secure clothing or packing cubes; the other side contains two mesh pockets big enough for a toiletry kit and a pair of shoes.
That’s one pair of shoes. If you’re a chronic overpacker or you’re taking an extended trip, you’ll wish this pack were bigger. More than a couple outfits will max out the 38L capacity.
Yet its tidy size manages to organize a surprising array of goods. A 17-inch laptop fits into the padded sleeve behind the shoulder straps, charging cords and other valuables slide into a zippered exterior organizer pocket, and tuckaway buckles secure bulky stuff (like a yoga mat or winter jacket) to the outside. Even sunglasses find their own safe haven in the fleece-lined pocket on top. —K.B.
This article was originally published on March 23, 2019; it was updated on November 2, 2020, with current information. Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. AFAR may earn a commission if you buy through our links, which helps support our independent publication.
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