The 65L Proxy from Gregory not only lessens the burden of heavy loads but also keeps wet gear separate in an internal waterproof pouch.

With load-bearing technology borrowed from the backcountry and styling fit for any city, these packs 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 urbane styling that works in San Francisco or Buenos Aires. Still, the best travel packs take a page from sporty, mountaineering models: They feature weight-support structures built into the backpanel that make 50 pounds of clothes and gear feel like 15. For country and city adventures, these packs top our list.

Dakine Split Adventure 38L
This compact weekender keeps essentials organized.

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 Dopp 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 35L capacity.

Yet its tidy size manages to organize a surprising array of goods. A 15-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.

Buy Now: $135-$150, dakine.com

Eagle Creek Migrate Duffel 40L
Backpack straps tuck away on this weatherized duffel.

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.

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.

Buy Now: $79, eaglecreek.com

Sherpa Adventure Gear Yatra Adventure Pack
The rucksack gets modernized for today’s travelers.

Your grandfather might’ve once carried something that looked like the Yatra Adventure Pack. But instead of waxed cotton canvas (which results in a heavy pack, even when empty), the roll-top Yatra is made of a lightweight yet super-tough Cordura polyester with micromesh fabric on the shoulder straps and backpanel to wick away sweat.

article continues below ad

The interior is surprisingly embellished: The taffeta lining is printed with fanciful snow lions, endless knots, and other Himalayan designs (founded by Tashi Sherpa, this company honors the unsung heroes of Mount Everest). A side zipper permits fast access to the padded laptop sleeve built into the backpanel, and a zippered pocket and open pouch inside the pack secure small electronics or a wallet—although the long, dark tunnel created by the rolled opening makes these storage spaces tricky to reach. We found the external storage to be more practical because the elasticized side pockets keep a water bottle secure and a sunglasses case fits neatly into either of the snap pockets.

If you travel light, you can fit a weekend’s worth of clothing into the Yatra, because the adjustable closure accommodates big loads and small ones: Shoes, a toiletry bag, and a few outfits will fit, but you can as easily carry a few picnic essentials without feeling them roll around in a too-big bag. And with each Yatra purchased, Sherpa Adventure Gear donates a children’s book to a Nepalese student.

Buy Now: $80, sherpaadventuregear.com

Peak Design Travel Backpack 45L
An array of packing cubes tailors this sleek pack to every need.

The pinnacle of versatility, Peak Design’s Travel Backpack 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 10L of space to the pack’s default 35L.

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.

Buy Now: $300, peakdesign.com

Thule Versant 60L
This hiking specialist adapts to in-town travel.

When you need a backpack for hiking the Inca Trail or trekking among Himalayan teahouses, this should be your pick. The Versant ($260) 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). 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.

article continues below ad

Buy Now: $260, thule.com

Osprey Ozone Duplex
This two-part system minimizes the burden of heavy loads.

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.

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.

Buy Now: $220, osprey.com

Gregory Proxy 65 and Praxus 65
These multi-sport haulers tame wet, muddy gear.

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 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.

Buy Now: $170, gregorypacks.com

>>Next: The Best Luggage for 2019