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Published Aug 1, 2022 11:00 AM

Frequent flyers and daily commuters both know the value of a good travel backpack. When making subway connections or running through airport terminals, having your hands free and essential everyday gear—your laptop, a book, a water bottle, a change of clothes—makes traveling easier. Great travel bags come in all shapes and sizes, just like your trips. From big camping backpacks with room for clothing and shoes to smaller bags that snuggly swaddle your electronics, and keep them dry in an unexpected downpour, the best travel backpacks can store and protect whatever you need to bring with you on your next trip.

How we picked the best travel backpacks

As a freelance writer and editor covering adventure travel and outdoor gear, I’ve worn and worn out more than my fair share of travel backpacks. I usually travel at least once a month by air and carry my laptop everywhere to work from hotel bars and local coffee shops. I’ve spent years testing backpacks, especially bags for carrying my laptop or maximizing my carry-on-only space on nearly every airline you can imagine. 

In addition to my personal experience and testing (and general knowledge of durable materials and fabrics), I checked out consumer reviews to get a general sense of brand reputations and explored the popularity of specific products. Plus, I compared company warranties and other logistical information.

What to consider when picking the best travel backpacks

Finding a  travel backpack isn’t necessarily a make-or-break decision. It doesn’t need to be a perfect fit like a properly sized pair of hiking boots. A backpack designed for daily commuting works just fine on airplanes, and a large backpack can serve as your daily commuting bag if you prefer more space. There’s no right or wrong choice. If you’re buying a backpack for a specific type of trip, though, it helps to think about what you need, so you can get the bag you want. Here are a few things to think about while shopping around. 

Where are you going?

First and forecast, consider how often you travel. Do you bring a backpack on your daily commute? Bringing your laptop to coffee shops? Going on road trips? Flying for work or going sightseeing? There are bags designed for each of these experiences: If you know what you want, you can find one that fits perfectly into your life. You might also want to look at featured designs for various locations. For example, backpacks with built-in locks can be helpful if you’re leaving your backpack unattended briefly at coffee shops, and a pass-through sleeve can be useful if you’ll frequently be towing your backpack with a roller bag through airports.

Size and capacity

If you use your bag for daily travel, choose something on the smaller side that’s easy to pack and unpack since you’ll be doing it every day. Backpacks around 16 liters (L) should suffice. If you’re looking for a carry-on bag to hold clothing and maximize much you can pack, look for a bag with a large compartment and compression straps to pack everything as tightly as possible. These are usually in the 30-40 liter range, and won’t be allowed as a carry-on. If you want something big enough to be an overnight bag, but need it to fit under the seat in front of you, look for something between 20-30L.

Compartments

Depending on what you’re doing, the interior structure of the bag may be as important as its size and capacity. Some bags have a single open compartment. Others have special pockets for sensitive items. Still others have modular compartments that you can adjust to hold specific gear.

The most common compartment is a laptop pocket, which can be helpful. But don’t fret if your favorite travel backpack doesn’t have one, as you can use a padded laptop sleeve to protect it instead. Some larger “clamshell-style” travel backpacks open flat and usually feature a large compartment for clothing, making them helpful as an alternative to packing a suitcase.

Other types of pockets and compartments you’ll find include tech organizing pockets, external pockets for bottles, protected and lined pockets for sunglasses, and very small pockets for pens and small items like flash drives. A bag with too many pockets can be hard to navigate, but too few make it easy to lose and/or break small items. If you don’t have a preference, aim for one with a few small- and medium-sized pockets. If you find you need more structure, you can always use a packing cube or case to create more compartments.

Materials matter

There are, very literally, hundreds of materials that can be used to make travel backpacks. Rather than looking for a specific one, keep an eye out for the important qualities they offer. For example, “rip-stop”—a bag material “feature” that prevents rips and tears from growing over time—comes from how a bag material is woven, not the fabric, so you may find it on many kinds of bags. Likewise, bags that are water-resistant or “abrasion-resistant” get that trait from a collection of materials.

On the other hand, it pays to pay attention to how a bag was made. More and more manufacturers make travel backpacks from sustainable materials. Some—such as Cotopaxi, Dueter, and Timbuk2—also use “factory scraps,” which are leftover materials that would otherwise be thrown in the trash. 

When looking for a sustainable bag, look for companies that follow international, cross-brand standards like Bluesign, which certifies products for sourcing sustainable materials and for using factories with ethical labor practices. That said, there are plenty of companies that implement their own sustainable manufacturing practices. If you care about sustainability, you’ll find plenty of good options if you do a little digging. 

Water resistance

You should also look at what materials go into your bag. Specifically, consider whether or not you’d like your bag to offer some protection against water. As with materials, there are many ways to achieve various degrees of water protection. The measurements and testing are actually quite extensive and complicated but, usually, water resistance means it can withstand some level of water (like rain) without letting moisture through. Most travel backpacks will meet these criteria, although how much water they can withstand varies from product to product. Most water-resistant backpacks will use a coating called DWR—Durable Water Resistance—which usually means you’ll be fine in light rain and snow. Almost any fabric can have a DWR finish, though it wears off over time. 

Waterproof fabrics mean they can withstand extreme amounts of water; everything short of full submersion, usually. These fabrics will be much more plastic-y and solid feeling, rather than feeling like a woven fabric. If the travel backpack you like isn’t as water-resistant as you’d like, you can always add a rain cover if you’re expecting bad weather. 

If you take public transportation or live in a city, you’ll probably want a travel backpack with some level of water and weather protection. If you’re using it more like luggage, that probably won’t matter as much, and you may be able to save some money on your bag by buying one with slightly more budget materials.

The best travel backpacks: Reviews & Recommendations

The best travel backpacks make air travel less stressful and daily commuting a bit easier. Travel backpacks are not hard to find—nearly every travel or outdoor brand makes at least half a dozen—but finding the right one for you can feel harder than it should be. Fortunately, we’ve spent weeks testing bags on the road and days scouring online reviews to help narrow down the list. 

Best overall: Osprey Nebula

Osprey

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Why it made the cut: The Osprey Nebula is relatively affordable for a big bag and comes loaded with features we like, including a fold-out laptop sleeve, compression straps, and hip and sternum straps.

Specs

  • Weight: 2.4 lbs
  • Internal capacity:  34L
  • Size: 12.2 x 11.8 x 118.9 inches (WDH) 

Pros

  • Fold-out laptop panel 
  • Expandable outer pocket 
  • Side pockets large enough for bottles or tripods 
  • Compression straps to maximize space

Cons

  • Could be too large for daily commutes 

Simply put, the Osprey Nebula is a darn good bag. At 34 liters, its main compartment is extremely roomy, as are its external front pocket and the large side pockets. Admittedly, it’s a bit bulky, but you can slim it down with its external compression straps.

Beyond its capacity, which makes it the perfect size for long trips, the Osprey Nebula has every backpack feature you could dream of. There’s a Velcro-secured fold-out laptop sleeve so you can access your computer without opening the rest of the bag; double water bottle pockets; a removable chest strap and mesh strap padding to help distribute weight when full; a lined pocket for sunglasses; and a handful of vertical pockets for smaller items. It even has features you’d never think you needed, like pockets to hide the compression straps when not in use and a second slim pocket in the laptop area for a tablet or travel documents. 

Some daily commuters may find it to be a bit too large to lug around every day. For travel, though? It should serve most adventurers quite well, whether you’re heading out for a week or a weekend.

Best for air travel: Dueter Aviant Duffel Pro 40

Deuter

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Buy it used or refurbished: eBay

Why it made the cut: The very packable Dueter Aviant Duffel Pro 40 holds almost as much clothing as a roller bag, allowing you to nearly double your carry-on space without paying extra fees.

Specs 

  • Weight: 2 lbs, 10 oz
  • Internal capacity: 40 liters 
  • Size: 20.5 x 13.8 x 8.7 inches (WDH)

Pros 

  • Works as a duffel or a backpack
  • Compression straps maximize space 
  • Variety of inner and outer pockets 
  • Waterproof, tear-resistant, and Bluesign approved 

Cons 

  • No hip strap 
  • No padded laptop pocket 

If you’re getting on a flight with nothing but a backpack, you need to make sure you can comfortably cram as much stuff as possible into it. The Deuter Aviant Duffel Pro is built specifically for that, with a duffel-style design and backpack straps making it easy to carry through airports and pass off as your personal item (just don’t pack it to the brim if you want it to look like it’ll fit under your seat). 

Of Deuter’s many Aviant bags, the Pro 40 stands apart thanks to a few extra-useful features for flyers. Its top panel fully unzips for easy packing, and internal compression straps to maximize how much it can fit.  There’s a separate shoe compartment, which is very helpful if you want to avoid tracking dirt all over your fresh clothes. It also folds into its own storage pouch, making it a great backup bag if you plan to fly home with extra baggage.

Best for laptops: Timbuk2 Authority Laptop Bag Deluxe

Timbuk2

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Buy it used or refurbished: eBay

Why it made the cut: A slim travel backpack with a ton of storage space, the Timbuk2 Authority Deluxe features a chest strap to distribute weight and a very protective, easy-access pocket for even the largest of laptops. 

Specs 

  • Weight: 2.4 lbs
  • Internal capacity: 28 liters
  • Size: 11.4 x 5.31 x 18.9 inches (WDH)

Pros 

  • Fits up to 17-inch laptops
  • Pairs well with a carry-on suitcase
  • Air channel to avoid back sweat during commutes

Cons 

  • Side pockets don’t hold larger water bottles 
  • Not as deep as other bags 

I’ve been using a Timbuk2 laptop bag as my go-to carry-on personal item for a long time, returning to it even as I switch from travel bag to travel bag. The Authority Deluxe has a secure pouch that keeps up to 17-inch laptops snug and secure and has just the right amount of organizational pockets for chargers, cords, and travel accessories

The Authority Deluxe is a particularly good choice for travel, as opposed to daily carrying, because it features lots of alternative ways to quickly access your most important stuff. There’s a side access panel to pull out your laptop even if the bag is packed full or jammed under a seat. There’s also a strap allowing you to holster your bag on the handles of a carry-on suitcase for easy maneuvering through airports. There are also a few slim pockets on the outside of the bag—useful for stashing your phone, passport, or other items you’ll want to access on the go.

Best for cameras: Peak Designs Everyday Backpack 30L

Peak Design

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Buy it used or refurbished: eBay

Why it made the cut: Peak Designs’ Everyday backpack for photographers features adjustable panels to hold various lenses and bodies, plus useful features for photographers like silent clasps, side access panels, and an external tripod carry. 

Specs 

  • Weight: 4.65 lbs (with dividers)
  • Internal capacity: 22 to 30 liter (adjustable)
  • Size: 13 x 5.9 x 19.1 inches (WDH) 

Pros 

  • Durable, waterproof, weatherproof fabric 
  • Comes with camera organization dividers
  • Expandable pockets and tuck-away straps 
  • Quiet one-handed buckles 

Cons 

  • Expensive
  • Small side pockets 

The Peak Designs Everyday Backpack’s subtle design hides a host of great features for photographers. Its weatherproof fabrics and rearrangeable dividers let you create perfect-fitting compartments for varying sets of camera bodies and lenses, along with a laptop and other gear. It also has other thoughtful features shutterbugs will appreciate, including a silent lock/unlock mechanism (so you don’t scare away wildlife with a loud Velcro woosh when you switch lenses), locking zippers to ensure no one steals your expensive camera gear, and a laptop sleeve.

Best small: Matador Beast 28 Ultralight Technical Backpack

Why it made the cut: Though it packs up quite small, the Matador Beast 28 is well-suited to active days, with a waterproof coating, a hip belt to distribute weight, and a light build that’s easy to carry while sightseeing. 

Specs  

  • Weight: 1.8 lbs 
  • Internal capacity: 28 liters
  • Size: 11 x 7 x 22 inches (WDH)

Pros 

  • Packs into its own stuff sack
  • Flexible frame, mesh padding, and hip belt for weight distribution
  • Weather-proof 

Cons 

  • Thin material
  • Minimal pockets 

There are plenty of packable travel backpacks on the market, but most of them are flimsy, with unpadded straps that can dig into your shoulders if the bag is heavy. The Matador Beast 28 is the exception, which looks and feels like a specialty outdoor/hiking backpack. It has a flexible frame and hip belt to more comfortably distribute weight, plus a super-durable and tear-resistant outer fabric. It’s hydration compatible, so you can use a hydration reservoir/bladder when you’re hiking but remove the bladder if you just want to use it as a sightseeing bag or daypack. It also stuffs down to the grapefruit size, so it can fit in your luggage if you’d rather pack it for a flight.

Best for business: Briggs and Riley Baseline Traveler

Briggs & Riley

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Why it made the cut: A modern, minimalist travel backpack with a separate large clothing compartment, the Briggs and Riley Traveler functionality features a dedicated tech pocket, plus monogramming and fabrics that add a touch of sophistication.

Specs 

  • Weight: 3.3 lbs
  • Internal capacity: 28 liters
  • Size: 12 x 8.8 x 18 inches (WDH)

Pros 

  • Modern, upscale look
  • Clamshell-style opening makes smart use of space
  • Lifetime guarantee
  • Pass-through ports for charging cables 

Cons 

  • Expensive
  • Black only

There’s no shortage of commuter bags for professionals, but the Briggs and Riley Traveler is an especially good backpack for people who frequently hit the road for work. Made from water-resistant nylon, its clamshell-style design can probably hold enough to be your only bag on a quick overnight trip, storing clothing on one side and your laptop, notebooks, or papers on the other. It also features a few useful design flourishes, including a back panel to secure the bag to a carry-on and a “power pocket” with a pass-through cord slot to charge your electronics on the go. Last, but not least, it comes with free monogramming when you buy it directly from Briggs and Riley, adding a traditional touch ideal for the boardroom. 

Most sustainable: Cotopaxi Allpa 28L

Cotopaxi

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Why it made the cut: The Cotopaxi Allpa 28L is functional, durable, and sustainable in every way you can imagine.

Specs 

  • Weight:  2 lbs, 10 oz 
  • Internal capacity: 28 liters 
  • Size: 11 x 9 x 19 inches (WDH)

Pros 

  • Supports eco- and community-conscious development 
  • Opens flat for easy access to storage 
  • Compression zippers 
  • Laptop pocket 

Cons 

  • No side pockets 

Few brands take more care to make their travel bags as sustainably as Cotopaxi. The company bakes sustainability and socially conscious business practices into everything they do, from using scrap materials in 94 percent of products to donating “at least one percent” of its revenue to nonprofits working to end extreme poverty around the globe. If you’re looking for the best travel backpack to have a positive impact on communities, individuals, and the environment—and perform flawlessly while traveling, of course—it’s the Cotopaxi Allpa 28L.

The Allpa 28L travel pack features a clamshell-style opening with a full-size compartment on one side and a split pocket on the other. Both sides feature compression zippers to keep the pack’s profile as slim as possible. There’s a slide-in laptop pocket, a hip belt and sternum strap for comfortable carrying, and even a rain cover, just in case.

Opt for the Del Dia version and you can choose your one-of-a-kind color combo; Cotopaxi makes their bags out of scrap materials and gives the staff in their factories free range to choose whatever color combos strike their fancy on any given day. 

Best budget: High Sierra Loop Backpack

High Sierra

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Buy it used or refurbished: eBay

Why it made the cut: The High Sierra Loop isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, but it’s big, durable, and comfortable, even when full.

Specs 

  • Weight: 2 lbs 
  • Internal capacity: 33 liters
  • Size: 13.5 x 8.5 x 19 inches (WDH)

Pros 

  • Great price
  • Compression straps for securing gear 
  • Large capacity

Cons 

  • No padded laptop pocket
  • Bulbous design 

The High Sierra Loop backpack isn’t an impressive-looking backpack, but it’s an effective, budget-friendly travel bag. It’s large and loaded with useful features like exterior compression straps, a tablet pocket, padded straps, and easy-access external pockets for water bottles or a phone. 

What it lacks, really, is a prestigious name, along with the style and perks that tend to come with a bag from a major brand. It doesn’t come with a warranty, or any waterproof protection, so don’t use it as your primary travel bag on outdoorsy trips. Even with a few caveats, it can comfortably hold a ton of gear and keep it organized. For less than $40, that’s a pretty good bargain.

FAQs

Q: How much do travel backpacks cost?

Travel backpacks can range from less than $50 to $300 or more. They vary in price based on their size, the materials they’re made from, how they’re made, and more. You can buy a very cheap backpack, akin to something for a young student, for under $30. As you add more expensive fabrics, like leather and waterproof materials, prices go up. Likewise, many travel-centric features—like locks, padded sleeves, and durable zippers—are reserved for technical bags that cost $100 or more.

Q: What size backpack is best for traveling?

The ideal size for your travel backpack will depend on where and how you plan to travel. If you plan to use it as a suitcase to carry clothing and shoes on planes, you’ll want the largest possible bag that meets your airline’s carry-on bag guidelines. That’s usually somewhere around 14 x 9 x 22 inches (WDH) for bags in the overhead bins and 13 x 9 x 17 inches (WDH) for a personal item (though most airlines never enforce the latter).

If you’re using your bag for daily commuting, you’ll want something more slim and narrow, especially if you take public transportation. For most people, a 13- or 16-liter bag is large enough to carry a laptop plus daily use items like a water bottle, jacket, keys, chargers, and more.

Q: How do I pack a backpack for air travel?

If you’re using a smaller bag, like a commuting laptop bag, most items will sit upright and be easy to access, so you don’t need to worry much about organization. 

When using a large travel backpack, I like to use packing cubes for clothing and items I won’t need mid-flight, then I pack them at the bottom of the bag. Pack the things you’ll need during the flight last so they’re on top and easily accessible. If you have a side access panel on your bag, place your easy access gear on the side, and make sure the panel is facing up when you stow the bag under your seat.

Q: Where can I recycle a travel backpack?

Unfortunately, most local recycling centers won’t be able to process a backpack, especially one with multiple materials. There are ways to recycle or dispose of your bag responsibly, though.

First, check with the brand to see if they have a warranty or repair program. If they do, you may not need to recycle their products at all. But if you’ve decided you no longer want to keep something, consider selling it on a clothing and accessory resale site (like Poshmark or Geartrade) or selling it back to a store; REI gives co-op members a store credit when they trade in their old gear. Finally, consider donating the backpack to a local charity, especially if it’s an appropriate size for a student.

Final thoughts on the best travel backpacks

Hit the road with any backpack and sure, it technically becomes a travel backpack. But the best travel backpacks are quite a bit different from the school bags of yesteryear. Having the right travel backpack can protect your laptop, or keep your clothing from getting soaked if you get caught in the rain. Though it may seem like a simple item, having the right backpack helps make traveling less stressful, whether you’re commuting or crossing continents.