A good travel backpack is one of the most important pieces of gear you can own. After all, it needs to hold all your stuff, as well as anything you might bring back. It needs to suit your needs, your body type, and your budget.
I fully recommend you get a travel backpack over any other kind of bag. Not a duffel bag, not a rolling suitcase, but a travel backpack. This keeps your hands free and greatly improves your mobility. I remember my rolling luggage bouncing awkwardly over the cobblestone sidewalks on my way to hostels in Philadelphia and Chicago. I’d prefer not to relive those experiences!
A travel backpack will also save you time and money. You can save yourself checked baggage fees on airlines by packing everything you need in your carry-on. And by keeping the bag with you at all times, you need not wait in line at the baggage claim. This is the ever-growing world of one bag travel, which travelers all over the world are embracing.
A good travel backpack is a serious game-changer, and I don’t use that term lightly. If you’re in the market for a travel pack, look for one that has the following features:
Get a front-loading travel backpack. That means it zips all the way around and opens up flat, like a suitcase. You do NOT want a top-loading backpack.
Top-loading backpacks are more suited to being in the backcountry for a week. They distribute the weight of the heaviest objects down towards your hips, taking the strain off your shoulders. However, backpacking in Utah’s Arches National Park and going in and out of train stations are two very different things. If you needed something out of a top-loading pack, you’d have to take out everything.
Having a front-loading travel backpack ensures that you can easily access all of your belongings at any time.
This is going to be one of the most important parts of the one bag selection process, and it depends entirely on your packing ability.
The general consensus among one baggers is to stick between 20 and 45 liters’ worth of space. The goal is to be able to pack a bag and live out of indefinitely, while staying within those parameters. Of course that’s the goal, but you can very well have a smaller bag for shorter trips and a bigger one for longer-term travel.
I remember when I first wrote this article for my old blog, I made a comment to the effect of “Some people can even travel for months out of only 45 liters!” Which makes me laugh now because my current bag is only 26 liters and I’ve lived out of that for weeks on the road with no problem. I even bring along extra gear like my drone. I’ve been able to perfect my minimalist packing one bag game so that I travel pretty light now, but that also took me a few years. If you’re new to this or simply have extra equipment you need to bring, it’s perfectly fine to be closer to that carry-on maximum of 45 liters.
Pro Tip: To give you an idea, 20 liters is about the size of a typical school backpack or book bag.
The reason that 45 liters is my upper limit is because that is the largest that’s considered carry-on compliant.
Carry-on compliance means that you can store the bag in the overhead compartment of a plane. This is useful because it saves you money by avoiding checked baggage fees. You also get to keep the bag with you at all times, avoiding that dilemma of airlines losing your luggage.
Disclaimer: I have heard of some travelers who claim to have gotten on board with 65-liter backpacks. They may have gotten lucky that one time, but I *do not* recommend this. No gate attendant is going to spot the difference between a 44L and a 45L pack. But if you go up there with a big ol’ 65L hiking pack, they’re going to notice right away. Stick to 20-45L packs for a guaranteed carry-on.
Pro Tip: Going with a smaller backpack can you save you money.
Some budget airlines like Spirit may have dirt cheap flights, but they make up for it by charging for absolutely everything, including carry-on bags. This can sometimes be as much as $100 extra! But, what they do allow are personal items. On my most recent trip to Peru, I brought my 26L GoRuck GR1 as a “personal item,” even though it was technically too big. I had no issues with it, and was able to avoid those extra charges.
As with anything, you’re going to want a travel backpack that can last as long as possible. You’re going to want something that’s made out of strong material and has quality components.
Many backpacks are made from nylon, which is strong, lightweight, and durable, although in the last couple of years we’ve been seeing more exotic materials like Xpac, Dyneema, and sailcloth. These tend to be more expensive, but offer advantages like lighter weight and better water resistance.
Going back to the industry standard of nylon, you’re typically going to see ballistic nylon and Cordura. You’ll also seem numbers ending in a D, like 210D, 500D, and 1000D. The “D” stands for denier, which is a unit of linear mass density for fiber. If you want to get scientific about it, denier corresponds to the mass in grams per 9,000 meters of the material. Basically the higher the denier, the stronger the material.
Rip-stop nylon is an exception. It has a lower denier but features a special cross-hatch weave that stops rips from spreading. However, it’s more susceptible to abrasion damage over time. That’s why heavyweight materials like 1000D Cordura or 840D ballistic nylon hold up better over years of regular use.
Durability also extends to the components of the pack. This may seem overly specific, but be sure to look for YKK zippers. It seems like a small detail, but the zipper is an invaluable part of the pack (if you’ve ever had the misfortune of your zipper breaking in the middle of a trip, you know). It’s a very crucial component, and no one makes zippers like YKK. They are truly heavy-duty, and most any pack worth its salt is going to use them.
As far as sternum strap buckles and hip belt buckles go, one of the best manufacturers is Duraflex.
Once you’ve narrowed your choices, you’ll also want to look at the overall weight of the pack. A lot of airlines will restrict carry-ons based on weight as well as dimensions, although the latter is rarely enforced. If an airline only allows 20 pounds, and the pack itself weighs 5 pounds, that doesn’t leave as much room.
Try as much as possible to stay around 3 pounds or less. Going up around 4 pounds is no big deal but you really shouldn’t be hitting anything like 5 pounds, and honestly you can find plenty of high-quality bags in the 2-pound range. If I was to make any exception to this, it would be for the Tortuga Outbreaker 45L, which has won many awards despite weighing in at 5.1 pounds. Having said that, plenty of packs out there that weigh considerably less.
Again, may seem like nit-picking, but in the world of one bagging, every ounce counts.
Optional: Hip Belt
If you’re going to go with a bag closer to the 45 liter limit, I would strongly advise you to get one with a hip belt.
The hip belt transfers 60-80% of the weight of your bag from your shoulders to your hips. Will it look a little nerdy? Yeah, maybe. But you really won’t care once you notice how much lighter you feel. Plus, many hip belts have built-in pockets, which are perfect for stashing passports and other travel documents.
The hip belt is not 100% necessary, though. The eBags TLS Motherlode Weekender is a larger travel backpack that does not feature a hip belt, though people still swear by it due to its reasonable price. Many bags, like the Cotopaxi Allpa 42 or some of the Tortuga bags, come with removable hip belts, which is perfect for carrying down narrow airplane aisles.