Backpacks have been around for years and, by my best guess, will be around for future generations of space-bound earthlings. They’re useful, practical, and have a place in just about everyone’s life for one purpose or another in school, travel, or hiking.
In order to narrow down what makes a good travel backpack specifically, we need to first define what travel means for us.
To separate travel from hiking, camping, and backpacking we’re going to define travel as front-country traveling without specific intent to camp out of your bag. Examples of traveling for our purposes would be airline flights, business travel, or backpacking between cities in Europe.
Because most traveling involves having your backpack primarily transported on some sort of vehicle, weight and bulk may not be top considerations. Choosing a bag which is large enough for your purposes is great, however be sure not to go large just as a safety precaution.
Huge backpacks may not fit in carry on spaces or travel well in taxis for example. Let’s talk about what make a great travel backpack and what the top bags and brands are on the market today.
Quick Answer: The 5 Best Travel Backpacks For 2017
- Osprey Packs Farpoint 55 Travel Backpack
- Osprey Packs Porter 46 Travel Backpack
- The North Face Surge Backpack
- Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler Duffel
- Granite Gear Cross-Trek 36L Backpack
Here is a feature overview of my top 3 overall picks with full reviews and our buying guide below.
Best Travel Backpacks
Travel Backpack Reviews
I can’t say enough good things about Osprey – their lifetime no question warranty is one of the best in the industry. While relatively heavy at times, their gear is nearly bomb-proof and never seems to miss a beat in the design department. This pack also comes in 40L, 70L, and 80L sizes.
The Farpoint backpack is made specifically to cross the boundary between luggage and backpack with stowable shoulder and hip straps for airline and motor transport.
Detachable daypack system on this bag allows you to take a smaller bag for a quick hike or a jaunt into town – which is a pretty cool feature on a travel backpack.
This pack is designed and styled after a duffel bag first, backpack second. With a zip of the mesh back panel you can deploy the shoulder straps and hip belts for carrying the bag or stow them away for easy travel through airports and bus stations when necessary.
Unlike the Farpoint, however, the shoulder straps and hip belts are more of an afterthought on this bag.
If you opt for the larger 65L version of this bag, you’ll have an extra top zippered quick access pocket. Whether or not that is really necessary for your uses is up to you.
Conveniently, it’s easy to attach the Osprey Daylite pack for extra storage and options if you want more flexibility from this bag. This is another highly recommended travel backpack from Osprey.
This is essentially a 32L duffel bag with optional backpack straps. One of the cool things about this bag in specific, however, is the clamshell design where the bag splits open in half for access to organized contents without having to open up a main compartment stuffed with gear.
Like most travel backpacks, the shoulder straps can be stowed for transport which is always convenient to avoid having them shredded off by baggage machines, plus it also has a remove able sternum strap.
There is a padded, dedicated laptop sleeve is a little more front-country oriented than the other bags we’ve looked at. One external pocket and shock cord storage are available but all around this is primarily a front-country duffel bag.
This is a great overall luggage bag with backpack carrying options. Sized to fit many carry-on restrictions for airline travel, you can even use it as one of many bags in your travel arsenal.
There are carry handles on almost every side, daisy chain attachments for external gear, and foam padding in the bottom of the bag to help protect contents from being damaged.
I like the lockable zippers and single main compartment design. Call me simple, but I prefer to keep my gear in a single compartment while organizing contents in various stuff sacks.
With stowable shoulder straps and hip belt combined with the pass-through slot for wheeled luggage handle, this bag is the perfect complement for any wheeled luggage.
Carry the bag either attached to other luggage, use the backpack straps, or pick it up by the large carry handle for a duffel bag type feel.
Granite Gear is one of my favorite little-known backpack companies, and they’ve been making great gear for years largely unnoticed. This travel backpack exemplifies their creativity.
Dedicated storage space for phones and laptops is extra-secure and protected to pad that sensitive gear. Multiple pockets for organization, and compression straps bridge the gap between backpack and carry-on luggage.
How to Choose a Travel Backpack
Waterproof or Not?
Backpacks these days come in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and materials. Many would-be backpackers get fleeced over at the outfitter store by being sold a waterproof or water resistant backpack.
Unfortunately for us backpackers, there are usually many zippers and/or a large hole at the top for inserting gear where water might also get in.
Even the most waterproof fabric is rendered useless when you need to open your backpack to get out a forgotten piece of gear in a rain storm.
For most backpackers, and travelers, I usually recommend an internal waterproofing system. Let the backpack get wet and let the water come right through the backpack. Any essential equipment which must be kept dry should be stored in waterproof drybags inside the backpack.
This helps me keep things organized, dry, and protected. A simple trash compactor bag liner can also be a great solution. Forget about waterproof backpacks – they’re useless once water finds a way in.
Any quick Google search for traveling and backpacks will return advice about locking your backpack. If you’re worried about someone stealing your backpack then I’ve got news for you: they’re just going to cut the bag open after they steal it, empty any valuables, and toss the rest.
Locking zippers on your bag really only prevents quick theft, someone stashing things in your bag, or baggage handler mischief. Even baggage handler mischief is unlikely to be thwarted by using a lock as you’ll need to use a TSA lock for airline travel, and they’re easy to get in to.
Most travel backpacks are going to be large – some will be large enough to need a frame. Packs meant to carry contents of more than 20-30 pounds of gear should feature a frame. The job of a backpack frame is to help facilitate the transfer of weight load from the shoulders on to the hips using backpack hip belts.
Today’s packs are primarily internal frame and are much more sleek than older external frame packs. If you’re carrying smaller, lighter loads or loads for less duration then a frame may be negligibly useful.
Hip belts on large travel backpacks are primarily responsible for helping to distribute the weight load of the backpack contents evenly across the hips. Hips (and legs) are much more capable of carrying heavy loads for long duration than the spine, shoulders, and back.
For this reason, you’ll want a backpack with a nice padded hip belt. I prefer thinner hip belts as they tend to conform to my body better than thickly padded hip belts.
Brands such as Osprey feature heat-moldable custom hip belts than can be formed to fit the contours of your unique body shape.
Breathable Back Panels
One cool feature of modern backpacks becoming more popular recently are various forms of back panels meant to facilitate airflow to reduce sweat and heat buildup between the backpack and your back.
Bent frame packs are designed to hold the main body of the pack away from your back by a few millimeters to help cool the body by airflow. Unless you’re planning to do some seriously hot-weather hiking or longer duration walking with your pack on, I wouldn’t worry about it.
When choosing a backpack, it may not be overly evident that the type, design, placement, and number of pockets can be critical. For general travel, you may want several isolated pockets for storing and organizing gear and belongings.
One major drawback, however, is that it can become confusing or difficult to track and remember what you have with you when your equipment is stored across multiple pockets.
I love hip belt pockets, they’re handy and convenient places to store snacks, small phones, wallets, or ID and passports.
Another often overlooked pocket is the water bottle pockets. Look for a bag with water bottle pockets cut at angles so that you can easily access your water on the fly and replace it into the pockets without removing the bag.
There are as many solutions as there are various needs when it comes to travel backpacks. Remember to consider your personal needs and wants when choosing a backpack for travel. Many of you may want multiple smaller pockets for organization, some of you may prefer a single large compartment such as the Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler.
For maximum versatility, I would recommend either the Granite Gear Cross Trek Backpack or one of the Osprey travel backpacks. All things equal, Osprey’s lifetime guarantee is pretty hard to beat so it’s always good to know that they’ve got your back should anything happen. Travel safe and enjoy those adventures with a great travel specific backpack from our review list.