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With horror stories of absolute meltdowns in checked bag areas across the country, it’s no wonder travelers are jittery over sending their precious luggage off onto that bag belt to nowhere. Will it make it on the plane? Will it be lost in a sea of Samsonites somewhere far, far away? Will it be adrift in suburban purgatory? Seasoned jetsetters know rule number one: keep your bag with you at all times. But with airlines making sure every seat is occupied, unless you’re boarding with the first few groups, there’s a possibility your carry-on-approved rollerboard/rollaboard (yes, they’re both right) will get gate checked. And now you get to worry about your bag with all of the other jamokes.
There’s a solution to your travel dilemma to head off trouble: a travel backpack. Yes, we are suggesting you fit everything you need into one bag. And you can do it if you’re going overnight, for a long weekend, or traveling a week or longer. You just need to know how to pack. (We will help you with that, too.) We looked for options that were user-friendly, versatile, and easy on the eye.
Things to consider
Pack light: The perfect pack is when you get home from a trip and realize every article of clothing, every lotion or tincture, every pair of socks were worn or used. It’s as coveted as hitting an even dollar figure when you’re gassing up a car. If you’re traveling with just a backpack, that’s a must-do. Yes, you may even have to choose between your new favorite shirt jacket and travel blazer. Be ruthless and think about what you need and what you can get away with. Doing this in the summertime is inherently easier. Thinner clothing! But if you’re going on the road for a while, be prepared to do laundry, so pack items that aren’t dry clean only.
Footwear fanatics, time for a reality check: You know this already, but they’re a compact packing killer. If you can get away with one pair on your back plus the ones on your feet, that’s great, and you might like a pack with a dedicated shoe pocket. Better yet, is there any way you can survive with the ones on your feet? We get it, if there’ll be an upscale night out, you probably can’t swing white sneakers only. But if your trip verges more on cultural expedition, here’s a pro-tip: bring on the socks. Layering socks is a great way to have the same kicks be viable for hot and cold weather in the same travel span.
Forget bells and whistles: If you seldom travel with a laptop, you probably don’t need a bag with a laptop sleeve. If you’re lost without a water bottle, you might want to opt for a pack with an outer pocket (no shame in a carabiner, either). Do you dread schlepping through the airport? Simpler bags tend to have less weight to begin with. The point being: all of the accouterments in the world don’t matter if you won’t use them. Be discerning. Buying a well-made product means it’ll go the distance and you’ll have it for years. Might as well love it.
The pros and cons of packing cubes: Yes, they are space-saving, especially if you opt for the compression kind. (These Thule ones use ripstop nylon to prevent tears.) And it’s certainly helpful if you’re fitting a lot of clothing into a small bag. But as you choose a bag, consider how you’ll Tetris them all in. Some bags love being modular, some aren’t as into it. One universal idea is to use smaller cubes over bigger ones. You can sometimes fit them into spaces better. And if your trip has multiple locations with different clothing requirements, divide up the packing cubes so you don’t have to unpack and repack at every stop. Remember to stuff clothing in unused spaces outside of the cubes. Socks go in shoes. Running clothes pack well into corners.
Don’t bank on carry-on: Gate check is real. Be prepared. Have your most valuable items stored separately, ideally in something like a cross-body bag: wallet, passport, meds, phone, charger and cords, other valuables. A lightweight canvas bag that takes up hardly any space is great to stash your laptop, book or e-reader, and headphones. And having a luggage tracker like an Apple AirTag on your bag can’t hurt if your backpack’s headed for the belly of the plane.
Bigger isn’t always better: The typical carry-on luggage size is 22 x 14 x 9 inches on domestic flights, and can be even smaller for international routes. (It’s not standard across airlines, so check with your individual carrier before you jet.) Most backpacks give volume in liters, so if you’re in doubt, check the technical specifications for the actual dimensions.
• Best travel backpack for frequent travelers
• Best travel backpack made from recycled fabrics
• Best travel backpack with compartments
• Best lightweight travel backpack
• Best structured heavyweight travel backpack
• Best versatile travel backpack
• Best travel backpack with wheels
Best travel backpack for frequent travelers
Thule Aion travel backpack 40L
Long travel means you’re going to accumulate dirty clothes. This light, 3-pound backpack has a removable, slide-in rolltop TPU bag that separates damp, dirty togs from the clean stuff. It’s got a useful zippered storage area on the outside so you can have easy access to electronics, earbuds, and snacks to pull out while you’re trekking down the jetway. Plus, it has a coveted outer pocket for a water bottle. It’s on the slightly smaller side, so don’t pack a second pair of shoes if you can help it when embarking on more than a long weekend. For what it worth, it scores plenty of style point.
Best travel backpack made from recycled fabrics
Cotopaxi Allpa 42L Del Día
The brand is known for environmentally and socially responsible practices that don’t get in the way of good design. The lay-flat bag has one large half that’s great for packing clothes (with or without cubes), and the other side has a shoe compartment, another mesh area for a toiletry bag, and additional zipper compartments for the other bits and bobs you can’t live without. Small details like zipper protectors are nice touches, as is the water bottle holder. And it comes with a TPU-coated polyester shell for bad weather. Get secure with chest and waist clips, or tuck away the backpack handles and opt for a duffel strap instead. If you’re not afraid of color, you can earn extra environmental brownie points with the Del Día option, each a one-of-a-kind bag made from remnant fabrics.
Best travel backpack with compartments
Hold the packing cubes. This 42-liter segmented bag has five horizontal zippered compartments to keep all of your clothing separate and organized. You no longer have to undo your whole pack when you’re trying to retrieve a pack-up puffy jacket or to stash extra layers. And the inner area opens up separately for things like dirty clothes and shoes. No rummaging while you’re at the airport, since the backpack’s got a separate laptop sleeve and two end pockets for valuables and electronics. It’s got plenty of handles to make it easy to throw around, and is completely waterproof including PU coated sealing zippers so you’re ready if the weather is iffy. The bag does double-duty for transporting bulky items or equipment outside of plane rides. The segmented pockets can get stowed and the clamshell bag can open to provide the full 42 liters of storage for things like climbing equipment.
Best lightweight travel backpack
Helly Hansen HH Scout Travel Duffel Bag
The slim, boxy design hides the fact that it’s a roomy 50 liters, and it won’t look out of place if you use it as a gym bag (or for its original purpose—taking to the sea). There’s a pouch area behind a side zipper roomy enough for a pair of boots and all of your dirty clothes on the road, or gym and cycling shoes if you’re doing a two-a-day. You’re not going to find tons of pockets and hideaways; the Scout’s simplicity is what keeps it so light—2.5 pounds—so if you’re traveling, you’ll want to use small, modular packing options for clothing, toiletries, and anything that tends to drift down to the bottom of a bag. You might want something like a cross-body bag for easy access to high-touch items (passport, phone, map).
Best structured heavyweight travel backpack
Yeti Crossroads 35L Backpack
Capacity-wise, it’s on the smaller side, but because it’s highly structured, it makes it feel much more spacious. (When you open it up, it’ll feel like you’re packing a clamshell on a rollerboard.) If you’re a bells-and-whistles person, this is for you. Plenty of zipping pockets, a laptop sleeve, detachable outer straps that can be used to hold things like a jacket, yoga mat, climbing ropes should you need to bring those on the plane. And the ever important water bottle slot (internal, so you have to leave a little room when you’re packing). Yeti makes things that are built to last, so it’s not surprising that the bag is on the heavier side—nearly 4 pounds—but there are no weight limits to carry-ons, as long as you can muscle it into the overhead bin.
Best versatile travel backpack
Eagle Creek Migrate Duffel Bag 40L
It’s a fan favorite for a reason. The soft boxy design that clocks in at around 2 pounds conforms to whatever you’re bringing with you. Snowboarding in Zermatt? Your helmet will fit just fine. Are you packing your new Timbs and don’t want to get creases? Stuff those suckers with socks and t-shirts and they won’t smush in this backpack duffel. It’s got a nice outer zipper pocket for easy access, and the wide mouth clips down on the sides and straps in the middle help with compression. The bag uses 100% recycled material, partially from old windshield plastics (save the planet!) and goes flat for storage (save space!). It’s comfortable to wear as a backpack for long distances, and it has an internal storm flap, making it outdoor-adventure-ready, too.
Best travel backpack with wheels
Topo Global Travel Bag Roller
This one is a little bit of a cheat, but hear us out. It’s a backpack with wheels! Not the dorky kind from junior high (although the kids who had those now work at white shoe law firms and Apple). This one has a small, slick design with a hard outer casing on half and fabric on the other. It’s actually a three-fer, since it can be carried as a duffel bag, too. Given the design, it doesn’t feel backpack-y when you’re filling it up. It’s got a half clamshell, eight inner zippered areas, then an outer zippered area with a laptop sleeve and another zippered pocket. The pockets are see-through so you won’t be scrounging around. It’s super smooth to wheel around when you’re tired of lugging. At 44 liters and 6.6 pounds it’s on the larger and heavier side, but we think of that as a plus. The structure gives you the option if you want or have to check a bag (that whiskey you’re bringing to your buddy’s bachelor party can’t come on the plane with you). But since it’s international carry-on sized for a rollerboard, chances are you’ll be able to bring it on the plane—sans alcohol.
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