What to look for

in a travel backpack
14 min read

Whether you’re taking a weekend adventure or you’re traveling abroad for 3 months, your bag can make or break your back (literally, sorta) and your trip. Read on to find out what to look for in your travel backpack!

Look for trustworthy brands

To start off with, you want to aim for a backpack that comes from a trusted and established travel company. Two brands that I heavily researched were: Osprey and Tortuga. Osprey has been around since 1974 and makes well-renowned, sturdy, and overall useful bags. Tortuga, on the other hand, is a newer company, having started in 2009. They’ve very quickly become a well-rated travel backpack company. In fact, my final choice came down to: the Tortuga Setout, the Osprey Farpoint 40, and the Osprey Porter 46. I went with the Porter 46 for the reasons you’ll see below, but both of the other options can be the perfect bag for you!

Cheap for your wallet, not your back

To start off with, buying a travel backpack shouldn’t bankrupt you. If you buy an expensive bag but can’t afford the trip, then what’s the point? Most backpacks range between $60-$200. Anything higher than $200 might not be worth it, depending on your other criteria. For example: my bag, the Osprey Porter 46, comes out to $140. It’s large (but carry-on size), has great organization, is front-loading, and more! Don’t let your travel backpack break the bank.

Getting the Right Size

The sizing of your travel bag is one of the most important aspects and it’s dictated by your needs. What kind of trip(s) will you be embarking on? Is it for a weekend? If so, a smaller bag (25-35L) would probably do the trick. Are you backpacking through Asia for three months? You’d probably need something larger (unless you’ve mastered packing light, which I have not). You can also pack compressible day-bags that are 10-20 Liters, that way you can leave your primary bag at the hotel / hostel / home-base. Think over your trip, decide your travel plans, and get a bag that you think would fit your needs!

Important note for carry-on bags: the limit for a carry-on backpack is 45 Liters on most major airlines. Keep this in mind when choosing your bag. You wouldn’t want to buy a large bag (like the Osprey Farpoint 55 Liter) and find out you can’t take it on the plane!
A Fellow Traveler’s Backpack Suggestion

The Kelty Redwing 50

Dave Karalekas

“I’ve tried all types of bags and my favorite has been the Kelty Redwing. Durable, spacious, and the hip straps redistribute the weight so my supplies don’t hurt my back. I’m able to easily fit a week’s worth of clothes and have enough room to bring stuff back. Love the Inner pouch where it would be impossible for pickpockets to steal anything.”

A front-loading main compartment will save you a bunch of headaches later on

Front-Loading Main Compartment

If you’re unfamiliar with how front-loading backpacks work, just think of your suitcase. Suitcases unzip and allow you to access all of your items regardless of where they physically are. The same is true for front-loading travel backpacks. You want to be able to get to your travel camera or your favorite book at the bottom of your bag right? Not a problem if your bag has a front-loading compartment.

There’s a compartment for almost anything

Great Organizational Options

Interior organization is a huge component of a good travel backpack. That being said, it’s super important that your backpack can fit packing cubes. These compressible, zippered pouches will keep your bag incredible organized and much easier to navigate. Plus, you’ll be able to pack much more than you originally thought (not that you should). Some packs also have super-useful travel organizers where you can store your passport, keys, and more. As a final note, interior zippered pockets are a nice feature as well. Just sayin’.

A Fellow Traveler’s Backpack Suggestion

The Nomatic Travel Bag

Renee Roberts

“I love my Nomatic Travel Bag. It’s versatile and reliable for all my adventures! It has plenty of pockets for organization, packs like a suitcase, and still fits the size requirements of a carry-on.”

Finding a laptop sleeve that fits a 15″ laptop is important too

Laptop Sleeve

Chances are, your laptop will be the most expensive thing you travel with. It would make sense to protect it, right? Most travel backpacks have a laptop compartment, but look for one that holds your laptop against your back. Some bags have the computer sleeve on the outside of the bag, but having it against your back will make it much harder to potentially steal.

Secure hip straps will save you a lot of backache

Comfortable Straps = A Happy Back

If you’re planning on hauling your pack around more than just to-and-from the airport, you’re going to want comfortable straps. This feature is easier to understand by physically testing the bag. If you can’t, keep an eye out for these features: shoulder straps that look like they contour your torso, thick and flexible hip straps, and molded back padding that allows for ventilation (no one likes a damp, sweaty back). These features will help give the backpack structure while also holding it tightly to your back. This will keep the weight distribution even throughout your back and not your shoulders. You know what they say, using comfy backpack straps each day will keep the chiropractor away (but if you need one, I know a guy).

A Fellow Traveler’s Backpack Suggestion

The SUNWIN Knapsack

Nikki Sereno

“When you live 3000 miles away from family, you have to learn how to be a budget traveler. I picked up the Sunwin Travel Backpack when I was a freshman in college for half the price of a conventional travel pack. Although it’s been 5 years, it’s still my go-to for any short getaway.”

You can put a lock through that tiny hole

Lockable Zippers

These are a must if you’re planning to leave your backpack in a hotel, hostel, or bus. Whether it be pickpockets on the street or airlines messing up and sending your bags ahead of you, you want your stuff to be secure. If you do plan on locking your zippers, be sure to use a TSA-approved lock. That means you won’t have to worry about TSA cutting your lock if they have to search your bag.

This bag is waterproof, but it definitely has some pros and cons

Water-Resistant or Waterproof

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but make sure that your travel gear is protected! This feature is not as important for me, because you can buy a rain shield for your bag. It’s pretty much a bag made of windbreaker-like material and covers your backpack like a sock. For example, my waterproof Earth Pak is perfect for adventure hiking, but awful as a regular travel pack. The roll-and-clip method of closing your bag is a nightmare for organization, and it lacks any extra real compartments. Think of your itinerary and evaluate if having a water-worry-free bag is a something you value over other features.

A Fellow Traveler’s Backpack Suggestion

The Northface Casimir 27

Lauren DonnELlY

“I’ve been using this bag for a couple years now on 2-3 week trips and it’s been perfect for me. It says it’s good for 1-2 day hiking trips, but if you have access to washing (hostels, Airbnb etc.) paired with a day pack you could easily get up to a month or two.”

A cool packback can make you look like an adventurer. Or homeless. Choose wisely

Looks Cool

Despite what other travelers might tell you, aesthetics matter. Get something that you think looks cool and fits your personality!

Personal Suggestion: Osprey Porter 46L

After I went down this checklist, I finally decided to rock the Osprey Porter 46L. It’s HUGE (46 Liters which, while just over the maximum allowed carry-on size, hasn’t caused any airline problems). It also has compression straps on the exterior of the bag, fantastic organizational pockets, a massive, front-loading main compartment, comfortable straps that can be stowed away, it keeps my laptop safe with a rear-facing computer compartment, and more! I’ll be writing a review on the bag after I stress-test it a few more times (like in Iceland!), so keep an eye out for that post in the near-ish future. In the meantime, click the button below to snag your very own Osprey Porter 46 and leave a comment below if you found this post useful.

Comment below with your travel backpack choice!