Best Travel Backpack: the Endless RTW War


best travel backpack disclaimer for budget travel blog half the clothes for post discussing travelpack rucksacks that qualify as a small backpack

Read more about my blogging ethics here.

I’ve put off writing a “Best Backpacks” page for years.

Why?  If you’ve read my kind-of minimalist RTW packing list you know what I think about the travel backpack wars.

(Hint: they don’t matter!aMy experience: small backpack size is the most critical “feature.”  If you get that part right, you don’t need to stress about the bells and whistles.  Every travel backpack has both awesome and annoying bits. )

Okay, okay.  Y’all are obsessed with which small backpack is perfect for global travel.  Fine.  Here are the RTW travel backpack options I know about.  I continue to add new rucksacks as I come across them & as readers write in or comment.

Fleet Feet:

The travel backpack group for lovers of minimalist RTW packing lists

If I were the world’s dictator, every RTW travel backpack would be this size.  Nearly all experienced globetrotters agree – light is best, buying “maybe” trip items as you need doesn’t cost more, minimalist packing saves you financially and mentally.  This article explains the latter.

Each travelpack here comes in healthily below carry-on limit:
(metric: 56 x 36 x 23 cm
imperial: 22 x 14 x 9 inches)

Remember many airlines bthe latter list is less comprehensive, easier to read, and Europe-only allow less!  And critically – the weight of even a small backpack is becoming a sticking point.  For that reason, I’ve added a travel vest to my RTW packing list.

Without further ado, your minimalist travel backpack options:


Gregory Border 25(25L)

Up until I serendipitously received my wilderness Arcteryx hiking backpack (the kind you DON’T NEED to bring on your RTW trip!), I had a massive crush on Gregory packs.  They’re insanely good gear and have a reputation for fitting many body types.  The Border 25 travel backpack has several useful outside pockets, and it’s digital nomad (tech!) friendly.  It’s not flashy – a plus for international travel in my opinion.  Some who own this travelpack note that the laptop compartment does a great job of coddling your electronics but can make for a rigid feel against your back depending on your size.


Tom Bihn Smart Alec: (26L)

visible variant TB0103-SBID

A lovely, understated, top-loading small backpack.  Super durable.  Lots of exterior attachment points.  Can add a TSA-friendly laptop sleeve.  Purpose-built travel backpack.   As this company is known for excellent design and ethical practices, your bag isn’t being build on the backs of poor Chinese.  Expect to pay for the living wages associated with good products.  The guy who turned me onto this bag reckons it’s the best travel backpack for digital nomads.


Osprey Porter 30: (30L)

Hands down one of the most popular RTW travel backpacks on the market.  Not only is Osprey a company with years of backpack design experience, they will repair or replace any product failures free of charge.  People love that you can zip away the very comfortable shoulder and hip straps.  People don’t love that the laptop compartment is far away from your body: any outdoor backpacker can tell you heavier items should be close to your back to prevent strain.  Lots who own this travelpack like the accessibility outer pockets provide.  One tester said he fit just as much in the 30 as he did the 40 because of the 30’s great design.


Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30: (30L)

visible variant TB0905-BBSD TB0905-BBND TB0905-BBID TB0905-BBLD TB0905-BBWD TB0905-BBZD TB0905-BBFD TB0905-BBKD

A duffel-suitcase-backpack combo for all those luggage backpack lovers.  Hideaway shoulder straps.  Plenty of organizer compartments, which can be opened to make one big space.  Handy exterior pockets.  Lots of upgrade options to customize your bag just for you – add a waist strap or comfier shoulder strap.  When using it in the backpack travel mode, it doesn’t have the typical breathability against your back like purpose-built industry competitors.  But it’s durable!  And like all of Tom Bihn’s ethically and well-made products: expensive.


Timbuk2 Uptown: (30L)

People love the crazy amount of organizing pockets in this small backpack – especially the top quick-access zip pouch.  TSA friendly laptop compartment. Digital nomad friendly travel backpack.  Lined pockets for things like sunglasses.  Tons of reviewers love it and find it really comfortable and durable, and insist it’s the best travel backpack.  Others have general craftsmanship and fit complaints.  Some say straps and zippers start out stiff.  A few people expected it to be lighter when empty. Everyone agrees that it definitely fits under the seat in front of you.  Sexy, understated design. My takeaway after reading dozens of reviews is this travelpack satisfies those who are easy to please.  Pickier folks need to open their wallets a little wider and keep hunting for their best travel backpack.


Mountain Hardwear Paladin: (33L)

Mountain Hardware is a company known for well-made, well-designed gear.  A Half the Clothes reader tipped me off to this travel backpack, and she loves it.  It’s definitely tough enough to stand up to round-the-world travel.  I find it a bit flashy, but to each their own.  It’s top loading, which drives some of the travelpack crowd crazy. I think top loading is fine in a small backpack, especially one like this with lots of openings.  People like the extra external, easy-access zip pockets for stashing small things.  It’s more waterproof than most other carry on backpacks.  One reviewer thought the shoulder straps needed more padding, others are wild about it.


North Face Big Shot(33L) :

This 33L travel backpack is top-loading, which we know knocks it out of the running for a top spot on the best backpacks list according to travelpack snobs.  It has multiple compartments for organization, so you won’t need packing cubes.   Dedicated fleece-lined laptop slot keeps your computer centered and off the ground.  Cheap, but you may get what you pay for.  Some say this small backpack holds up to serious abuse, some say it doesn’t.


Minaal 2.0: (35L)

Minaal Carry-on 2.0 Bag

If I were going to date a travel backpack, it would be this one.  We share the same values, and it’s really sexy.  It has exterior pockets for quick stash items, easy-access suitcase style openings, organizing compartments, and you can use a single lock on zippers.  Definitely will put a dent in your wallet, so be sure you run the purchase through your free flights credit card.  Option to use the compression straps to keep thieves out or retain easy access for yourself.  On the list of digital nomad (tech!) friendly rucksacks.  Straps zip away.  Check out the Snarky Nomad’s in-depth review.


Gregory Border 35: (35L)

As above, Gregory is an incredibly experienced gear company putting out top-of-the-line gear.  If Minaal and I broke up, I’d at least go on a few rebound dates with this travel backpack.  No exterior water bottle pocket (which I think is no problem since you should be using a collapsible water bottle anyway.) One bonus: you don’t even have to take your laptop out at the airport.  As is common for a travelpack in this category, you’ll struggle to fit this under the seat if it’s crammed full.


Berghaus Freeflow 30+6: (36L)

30L in the main compartment of this small backpack, 6 in the top section wilderness backpackers call “the brain.”  Although it’s a top loader, I don’t think that’s huge trouble with a small travel backpack.  You will have so little (the right amount of!) gear that you don’t have to dig too much for anything.  Top loading becomes a problem when you’re carrying lots of stuff you infrequently cor never! use.  Highly adjustable to fit your body for max comfort & coolness when wearing for long periods in the heat.  Good ergonomic design keeps weight close to your body.  Women’s version has an additional lower compartment.  Lightweight + comfortable is hard to find in the backpack travel world!


Danger Zone: 

The travel backpack group for corpulent minimalists & stuff-security addicts

If you have to wear really large clothes, minimalist die-hards might still let you in their special club carrying one of these rucksacks.  If you’re a normal-size person who fills one of these travel backpacks with stuff you’re worried you might need, you’ll never get past the minimalist club’s bouncer.

Most airlines will be more kind, however.  These qualify in aviation as a small backpack and usually fit within carry-on limits.


Osprey Farpoint 40: (40L)

I think the wild popularity of this travel backpack (as compared to the Osprey Porter 30) reflects the compromise of wanting to travel light, but having the (perceived!) freedom of a little extra space.  Some say it’s more comfortable than the Porter 46 – yet another reason to stop at 40 liters!  Aside from Osprey’s lifetime guarantee, people love that it zips open all the way for full, easy access to gear.  People wish this travelpack had more organizational features and externally accessible pockets.  Some are sad that the water bottle pocket is underneath the compression straps: I don’t think it matters, as you should be using a flat, collapsible water bottle for RTW travel.  People like the duffel bag strap for another carrying option.  It’s well known for fitting all body types.  (Women tend to struggle with fit on other bags like the Tortuga).


REI Vagabond Tour 40: (40L)

Black

If you’re concerned about ergonomics, definitely consider a travel backpack made by a hiking company like REI that has years of troubleshooting and design experience.  The Vagabond should almost be in the next category because one of its dimensions (length) is 2″ beyond technical carry-on limits.  However, many people report being able to use it as a carry on backpack.  Some wish it had more external pockets and that all the compartments could be accessed from one angle  (vs. having to change the bag’s orientation to gain access). Converts to duffel, but doesn’t include a shoulder sling to be carried messenger-bag style (just duffel handles which people say aren’t super comfortable compared to competitors’).  Owners of this travel backpack commented about the hip belt leaving something to be desired in the comfort department.  People generally found it very spacious and liked the internal organizing features.  Keeps it’s shape when packed.  Breathable back panel and straps.


Mountain Warehouse Ventura: (40L)

This is a cheap travel backpack that I was hesitant to cover.  It’s only listed here so I can tell you NOT to buy it.  If this is all the money you have for buying rucksacks, go to a thrift store (op shop) and see if you can find a small travelpack you like there.  People complain about the craftsmanship, shoulder straps, and fit for petite people.  The only positive reviews I could find were less than ten words long or seem to be written in poor English by obvious shills.


 

Basically Parenthood:

The travel backpack group for people who love stress

Okay, okay – I’m being a bit dramatic.  Hear me out.  Any travel backpack in this category pushes the carry-on limits and the physical space limits common on trains, busses, boats, etc.  Every time you even think about the carry-on police, you’ll break a sweat.  The size is big enough that you often won’t be able to keep it within reach.

Enter big-bag drama: the dreaded second bag. Big travel backpack owners generally need an additional small backpack for personal electronics, passport, water bottle, etc.  They may think they’ll put the small bag into the big one most the time, but they won’t.  When they most desire a single bag (on the move) is the time that they’ll most need those second bag items (theft awareness in and out of taxis, getting on and off busses/boats/trains).

Staying aware of two bags, one of which weighs at least as much as a small child, is like trying to travel with a toddler.  No kid experience?  It’s like trying to travel with a seriously drunk friend who doesn’t care even a little about getting to the airport/station/pier on time and keeps wandering off at the most inopportune times.

If you still can’t live without the stuff that causes you to need a pack this size of travelpack, at least you were warned.  Here’s what your fellow kitchen-sink packers use to tote their possessions:


Tortuga Backpack: (44L)

Tortuga Travel Backpack (angled view)

Wildly popular with lots of travel bloggers because they have a great affiliate program (where they pay the travel blogger if you buy the bag after reading their recommendation.dI’m not saying it’s not a great bag: I’ve applied for the program.  I’m just saying some bloggers might find it a little easier to recommend a travel backpack they get paid to talk about.  It’s part of the reason the excellent Tom Bihn rucksacks aren’t as popular – they don’t pay travel bloggers to talk about them! ) Lots of people compare it to the Osprey Farpoint 40 and like Tortuga’s organizational features better.  Opens like a suitcase.  Not cheap.  Some small-framed women don’t like the way it fits.  Exterior straps have pockets for when you get busted by the carry-on police and have to check it.  I’ve heard people affectionately call this the Turtle Travel Backpack because it causes you to resemble said animal.  I personally don’t love the boxy look, but bonus points for muted design and color.  When it fits people’s bodies, they’re wild about the strap padding.  Tortuga has landed a spot on lots of “Best Travel Backpack” lists!


Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45(45L)

visible variant TB0906-SBID TB0906-SBLD TB0906-SBND TB0906-SBSD TB0906-SBUD TB0906-SBWD TB0906-SBFD

Identical to the 30 reviewed above, except it has room for more (too much!) stuff.  While principally a durable duffel, it transforms into backpack travel mode if you pull out the hideaway shoulder straps.  As a travel backpack, doesn’t have the typical breathe-ability against your back like purpose-built industry competitors.  Organizing features eliminate the perceived need for packing cubes.  Option to unzip organizer compartments to make one big space.  Many people like all the easy-access exterior pockets.  You can upgrade and customize your bag – like adding a waist strap or comfier shoulder strap – but it’s kind of annoying the bag doesn’t come with those features.  I suppose it’s because Tom Bihn’s ethically and well-made products are expensive: they don’t want to make consumers pay for any features they don’t want or need.


Osprey Porter 46(46L)

This popular company’s 46L travel backpack is just a tiny smidgen over carry-on limits, tempting many “but-what-if-I-need-it?!” worriers.   It’s basically a duffel bag mated with a suitcase, with passable (but not amazing) shoulder straps and hip belt. It doesn’t have the internal, lightweight frame of the Farpoints.  People like the organizing pockets, the ability to zip away the straps, and the durability.  The laptop pocket is farthest from your body – an ergonomic and theft downside, airport security upside.  If you want an option to carry it messenger-bag style, Tom Bihn makes the best strap.  Opens like a suitcase.  Compression straps not only compress but make it harder for strangers to access your bag.  However, they also make it harder for you to access your bag.  And since there are no exterior straps/pockets, on-demand things like airport liquids need stored in top pocket.


eBags TLS Motherlode Weekender: (54L)

Please beg your vertebrae to forgive me if you end up getting this travel backpack.  And ask your wallet’s forgiveness, too if (when?!) you get busted by carry-on limits.  I originally heard about this travelpack from a guy I met at a Meetup gathering eHi Alex! when I was house sitting for a few week in Kansas City, Missouri.  He adored this bag and sang its praises.  Fellow eBag users didn’t like: hip belt leaves something to be desired, no internal frame so less comfortable carrying over long distances.  Also heavier than some of it’s competitors.  Small people feel about this travel backpack the way they do about the Tortuga.  It’s just too darn big and turns them into Turtles. Usual consensus is it’s not a women’s backpack if you’re any version of petite.  Why people love it: opens like a suitcase, tons of organization pockets and dividers.  Lifetime warranty just like the beloved Osprey packs.  Expandable zippers to give you that extra few inches once you’ve crammed in souvenirs.  Lots of people are amazed at how much fits in it, so I’ll just hop back up on my “too big!” soapbox real quick here.


Osprey Farpoint 55(55L)

I cringe to include this bag, even though you’ll find it on plenty of “Best Travel Backpack” lists.  Please don’t get it!  Some people squeeze past the carry-on size police, but many others don’t.  Okay, bias aside: it’s comfortable thanks to the internal frame.  People like the idea of the detachable daypack (see big bag drama above for reality).  It’s made of light(er than Porter 46) materials.  People say the water bottle pockets won’t actually fit a bottle when the pack is full.  (But you’re going to use a collapsible water bottle anyway, right?!)  People also say that the panel that hides the shoulder straps and hip belt away is hard to stow when actually using the straps and belt.  And folks don’t love the exterior pouches on the day pack because they don’t hold things in well.  Like any other Osprey travelpack, this one also has the lifetime warranty.  People like the water-resistant material.  Any of the rucksacks this size need to be front-loading (suitcase style opening)… and it is!


What I Carry: 

The travel backpack for thrifty veteran minimalist travelers

If I were shopping for the best travel backpack right this second, I wouldn’t even glance at the North Face Borealis.  I have this bag because I did what I think everyone should do: use what you already have!  It’s served me well, despite taking a beating through almost two decades and dozens of countries.  I will replace it someday.  I’m drawn to Osprey because of their lifetime warranty, mostly-positive reviews, and history making rucksacks that were meant to be carried comfortably over long distances.  Of course I’d get the Porter 30.  But I’d miss my Borealis.  I’ll update when/if that day comes!

North Face Borealis: (28L)

My version of the Borealis can’t be found outside ebay.  Critically, today’s Borealis’ don’t have the two exterior straps on the base of the bag that allows one to strap on a load of dirty laundry, a hammock in the Amazon, a pair of shoes in the tropics, etc.  I don’t like using the front-of-bag bungee for this because it’s weaker (I replaced it once years ago) and it adds load far from the body.  Wilderness backpacking taught me how critical it is to carry loads as close to your body as possible.  Modern Borealis owners agree that it’s still durable fexcept for one guy who washed his bag and ended up with a mess.  He points out that North Face sold their company after the turn of the century and their reputation for quality has decreased since then and like the exterior waterbottle pockets (which I use for trash and quick access to my camera when in safe places).  Like me, they love the “office” – the middle compartment of the small backpack – that has tons of great organizational features.  The back panel is padded and comfortable, especially in hot sweaty situations.  The hip support belt is completely superfluous – not useable or in a location that’s useful – but the bag is small enough it’s never been heavy enough for me to wish I had a hip belt.  Other owners agree!

This page is a living document updated regularly.

Chime in below and tell us all which travel backpack you love (… or loathe)!

References   [ + ]

a. My experience: small backpack size is the most critical “feature.”  If you get that part right, you don’t need to stress about the bells and whistles.  Every travel backpack has both awesome and annoying bits.
b. the latter list is less comprehensive, easier to read, and Europe-only
c. or never!
d. I’m not saying it’s not a great bag: I’ve applied for the program.  I’m just saying some bloggers might find it a little easier to recommend a travel backpack they get paid to talk about.  It’s part of the reason the excellent Tom Bihn rucksacks aren’t as popular – they don’t pay travel bloggers to talk about them!
e. Hi Alex!
f. except for one guy who washed his bag and ended up with a mess.  He points out that North Face sold their company after the turn of the century and their reputation for quality has decreased since then


11 comments

  • August 30, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    Wow I didnt know that there’s so many backpacks to choose from. I can tell though that most of them are well equipped for traveling.

    • August 30, 2016 at 7:08 pm

      I’m always finding even more. Really to research the Deuters soon!

  • August 30, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    OMG I think you covered every backpack scenario for most people. Such a great roundup of the good and the bad (in the case of mountain warehouse ventura). Will be bookmarking this post to refer people to, well done!

    • August 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Sara. I dream of organizing it a bit more for side-by-side comparisons of packs. So many words to write, so little time. Someday, maybe! 🙂

  • August 28, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    I don’t do RTW travel, but I’m a minimalist packer none the less, and I love the Paladin and Porter packs for keeping everything tidy and compact, and not allowing for overpacking, while at the same time allowing for cramming just one more thing in the pack when need arises. You really can’t go wrong with either of those packs.

    • August 28, 2016 at 6:11 pm

      Have you used both packs? Last-minute or one-off cramming is what I love about my Borealis – being able squeeze stuff in the external bottom straps has been a lifesaver!

  • August 28, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    We have just come make home after one year of full-time travel and our Deuter backpacks were fantastic and were able to hold everything we need in all our travels. I do like the looks of the Minaal backpack you listed.

  • August 28, 2016 at 1:40 am

    This is quite a comprehensive list of backpacking bags. I’m not a backpacker, but I really do like carry something small and efficient. It’s so much easier to travel if you’re traveling light. Thanks for the info!

  • August 28, 2016 at 1:09 am

    Ahhh so many good bags to choose from. For me, buying bags is always a hit and miss. I’ve read so many good reviews about certain bags only to be disappointed with them once I try it out. Thanks for your honest tips.

    • August 28, 2016 at 7:06 am

      Amen! I think any bag is bound to have bits that aren’t amazing. I feel like size makes or breaks 80% of the satisfaction, hey.

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