When choosing a backpack for travel there are a few things to look for and preferences to keep in mind based on how you want to travel.
I’ve tried quite a few different ones and here are some things I’ve learned about backpacks along the way.
Along that line, here are some resources for packing for all climates, and tricks to get around liquid allowances by carrying better haircare products.
I love backpack shopping.
I love getting into all the different gear specs and spending way too long online reading about each possible backpack and then choosing one.
Throughout the last 6 years, I’ve traveled using a backpacking backpack, a carry-on sized suitcase, a backpack made for business travel and lastly and most importantly, two backpacks made specifically for travelers.
Backpacks for travel are different. It’s important to know that if that’s what you’re in the market for.
For example, a backpack designed for backpacking will likely only allow you to access things from the top. This means that you will spend a lot of time unpacking and re-packing your bag, which is really annoying.
A backpack built for business travel like this one will be designed to look sleeker than a normal backpack. It will also assume you are not going to carry it very much. That means it will be uncomfortable for anything other than taking it from taxi to hotel.
A carry-on sized suitcase is great for Western Europe or a posh city destination like Singapore and that’s about it.
A backpack for travel is different. On the outside, it may not look like it. But when you get down to the details, you’ll find where they shine.
What you want as someone who is going to use a backpack for international travel is different.
These are backpacks that I’ve used that I like enough to keep using and would recommend to a friend.
I currently have last year’s model of this one which is a bit differently looking but with all the same features. I really like this backpack.
It fits much more comfortably than others I’ve had and I think that’s partially due to the fit being adjustable and different whether you buy the men’s or women’s version.
I also like that you can pack this as full as you want and it seems to just keep expanding and expanding. It’s kind of awesome.
It comes with a rain cover that stows away in one of the pockets as well.
Lastly, it comes with a mini-me version of the backpack that you can use for hikes, as a day bag and is just really handy in general.
I would say this one is perfect for most travelers. If you are going on budget airlines and doing lots of flying, opt for the 40L. If you are doing less flying (say just round trip to Europe and not a lot between countries), opt for the 65L and leave space for souvenirs.
You can find this one here.
I will always have soft spot for Tortuga and these backpacks. This is the backpack I’ve used the most and it has held up amazing well. I also like that it’s boxy because it allows you to pack and organize better.
The company was created by long-term travelers and digital nomads who couldn’t find the backpacks they wanted on the market. They are still a small company that competes with the big dogs. And they care A LOT about their customers. I’ve contacted them with issues and they not only resolved them quickly but they actually did a lot to make sure I got what I needed in time to leave. That means a lot.
My Tortuga is one of the earliest models but it has held up incredibly well. What I love is that their newer models are much sleeker and cooler looking. It won’t scream, “Hey, I’m a backpacker!” in every airport, train station and hotel lobby you go to. Rather, it will allow you to look a little more dressed up and professional.
When I was hiking to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal, I wished I had brought my Tortuga because it is so comfortable. That’s how good they are. That being said, they aren’t the cheapest model out there, but they are very, very good.
I’d recommend their Outbreaker bag for travel. It comes in both 35 and 45L models. So you can choose one depending on how lightly you want to go.
This one is great for if you want something you can use for vacations, work trips and weekends away.
Osprey is the big brand-name pack that is most commonly found in hostels across the world. It was one of the first big names to really understand what travelers need in a backpack and develop that product.
That being said, you’ll see so many Ospreys out there it will make your head spin. That’s because they’re good. You will get your backpack mixed up with someone else’s if you go with this one so get something like a bright strap or a patch to differentiate.
That’s the only backdraw with these bags.
They come in a variety of sizes, have zip away straps and they come in both men’s and women’s models.
The men’s is the Farpoint.
The women’s is the Fairview.
You really can’t go wrong with these. Just choose a size that feels right for the travel you want to do. For lightweight, carry-on only, choose 40L. If you’re okay with checking a bag, go up from there.
There are lots of backpacks out there on the market and the vast majority will be under $300.
You can absolutely buy a great backpack for under $300 and the ones I suggested above are all closer to $200.
Paying that much doesn’t require compromising quality either. Top brands like The North Face, Osprey, and REI have done tons of research and tested all kinds of fits and materials to competitively bring you affordable options and be competitive with one another.
What you’ll find as your really dig into backpack shopping is they have minor tweaks that make each brand slightly different. I’ve narrowed down those aspects to what is actually important and listed it out below.
I cannot emphasize how much headache this saves enough. Having a backpack that fully opens is so nice. You can open it like a suitcase and see everything at once. There’s no rummaging around like Mary Poppins in her carpet bag for forty minutes to find your flip flops.
Everything can be seen and found easily.
You can choose what to unpack and leave in place.
It saves hassle.
As a general rule of thumb, a backpack that is international carry-on size should be around 40L. The small version of backpacks for travel usually sit right around 40L. That means you should never have an issue getting them through the check-in process unless you pack them full of electronics and they are too heavy.
Backpacks for travel go up from there to 65L generally. I wouldn’t go beyond 65L. At 65, you have room to pack less when you’re leaving and allow room for souvenirs to bring home. Also, this amount won’t kill your back. It’s perfect for long trips and multiple climates. Although, I will admit, with the right packing list, you can also use a 40L for the same thing.
If you are planning to fly a lot, especially on budget airlines, opt for a 40L backpack.
If you are flying less and are not on budget airlines, or if you know you will want to bring home souvenirs, go for 65L.
For years, I used only a 40L Tortuga backpack and it was great. I could get off the flight with my bag and breeze past everyone waiting for 45 minutes at the baggage carousel. Every time I saw an exhausted looking backpacker with a huge bag I would be really happy I had my 40L.
Now, I am gone for longer and longer periods of time and I choose to bring a few more creature comforts with me like a portable speaker, blanket, lotion bottles that are not TSA compliant and some camera tripods so I pack a 65L. I can’t say there’s a huge difference in weight. The biggest issue is often just waiting at baggage carousels.
If you are using a backpacking backpack, chances are there is no laptop sleeve. Many of the backpacks geared for travelers keep in mind that you will likely be bringing a laptop and have padded, easily accessible sleeves for them.
I know it sounds small but this can really help. Backpacks get thrown around a lot, by TSA officials, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, on top of and underneath busses and in hostel storage rooms. If your electronics aren’t protected, it can be a problem. Buy a backpack for travel and it will most likely be suited to accommodate.
I know this sounds sad, but I have spent more time on the road with my backpack than anyone or anything else. You use it a lot! It’s your constant companion. You have to like one another.
When I was using a Tortuga backpack, it was comfy and I could carry it long distances without feeling miserable.
When I was using a business backpack, every block I walked was painful.
With my new backpack, it feels light even when it’s completely loaded.
This is all based on whether or not the bag is a good fit and if it’s designed to be carried for longer periods.
In my experience, a good backpack for travel should have a hip belt. I use mine maybe 20% of the time, but when you need it, you really need it. The hip belt should also have pockets so you can have cell phone storage and some money that is easily accessible.
Both the shoulders and hip belt need to hit you at the right places and make you feel like the weight is distributed.
Lastly, your backpack for travel will likely add in some thoughtful details.
There are almost no reputable brands out there that will sell you one without locking zippers and if you’re like me and you stay in hostels a lot, this is important.
Most will come with a rain cover which I find convenient but not an absolute necessity.
All will have a few external pockets. My current REI backpack has these and it’s really handy. I always need to find a place for those things that need to be accessed on the go like sunscreen, sunglasses and documents. It’s nice to have a few well-thought out options.
And that’s it. You want to take those thing into consideration and buy a backpack for travel that you feel is going to suit you for a few years to come.
There’s no reason a good backpack won’t last 10 years.