My purple camo Trans by Jansport backpack served me well for 20-plus years. It accompanied me to several countries, on countless road trips and along many hikes.
However, as I improved my packing strategies and my needs changed, I realized my current backpack situation was not ideal.
My bag lacked padding for my laptop, which I never travel without these days. It didn’t include enough compartments for me to stay organized, either. Also, I’ve lost more than a handful of water bottles over the years, thanks to the short and loose side pockets.
The best travel backpacks are durable, well-organized and roomy enough for all your travel essentials.
They can also be more comfortable for frequent use. Because they’re better at distributing weight, they’re less likely to cause musculoskeletal damage that lugging a heavy tote bag on one shoulder might.
“Carrying heavy weight on one side of the body can cause a forward tilt of the shoulder, and poor posture, which can lead to shoulder and back pain long-term,” said Dr. Jenny Yu, head of medical affairs at Healthline Media (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures).
Backpacks are also easier to manage than rolling carry-ons, making your sprint to your connecting flight a little more efficient.
It was time to level up. Choosing the perfect replacement was a daunting task, though. I researched several models from different brands in varied price ranges.
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Considerations when choosing a backpack
The type of bag you choose depends largely on how you plan to use it. Will it serve as your go-to bag for day trips, work commutes and road trips? Or, do you need a sturdy backpack for camping, hiking and long-haul flights or extended travel?
Once you narrow down your needs, it’s easier to hone in on your other requirements.
Your travel plans and how you plan to use your backpack will likely determine how small or large your bag should be.
A park day out with the kids or a cruise port shore excursion may just require a small (6–10L) bag. Daypacks, typically 10–30L, are fine for your work commute or hiking. For travel purposes — from weekend getaways to multiday vacations — backpacks in the 30–45L range are your best bet.
On most U.S. airlines, a 45L backpack is the maximum size carry-on allowed. If you’re flying on a budget carrier, you’ll probably want to stick with something under the 40L range.
For packing purposes, a 45L bag is a good option if you’re not bringing another carry-on. It should be able to hold four large packing cubes, a medium packing cube and a toiletry bag. This size fits in the overhead compartment.
Storing your backpack in the overhead bin? It shouldn’t be larger than 22 by 14 by 9 inches.
You can fit two large packing cubes, a medium cube and a small toiletry bag in a 35L backpack. It should fit under the seat in front of you on the aircraft.
If you want to ensure your backpack fits under the seat, it can’t exceed 18 by 14 by 8 inches, according to airline policy.
Backpacks can feature a variety of anti-theft components — some styles are more robust than others.
You may not need your bag to be at a Fort Knox level of security, but it should inclfeatures that can protect you (and your belongings) from thieves or pickpockets.
Consider a backpack constructed with slash-resistant material and straps, as well as lockable zippers.
Bags that offer RFID protection are lined with a special material that blocks accidental payments and intentional skimming of credit cards. They can prevent criminals from electronically accessing your personal information.
If you use packing cubes, this might not be as big of a consideration for you. Even with packing cubes, I like having smaller sections for things I need to access easily — my phone, chargers, reporter notebook (yeah, I’m old school), passport and other necessities.
What do you typically pack in your backpack? As I mentioned, a laptop pocket is essential for me. I also like to have hidden pockets to store my passport, COVID-19 vaccine card and wallet. Separate areas to stash my sunglasses, chargers, keys and other important items I travel with are important, too.
Keeping the above features in mind, I reviewed five backpacks ranging in price and style. Here’s the round-up.
Patagonia — Black Hole 32L Travel Pack
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KRISTY TOLLEY/THE POINTS GUY
What I liked
The Patagonia Black Hole 32L Travel Pack is completely constructed with 100% recycled materials, including the body fabric, lining and webbing. It comes in a handful of colors — gold, red, black and gray/blue. The shinier shell has a polyurethane coating that makes it water-resistant.
This bag is also Fair Trade Certified™ sewn (as are all Patagonia products). Since the program launched in 2014, it has impacted more than 75,000 workers in 10 countries.
The lightweight bag packs flat and is very flexible. At first glance, I wondered if it would be structured enough to protect my laptop. However, the padded pocket worked well and fits most 15-inch laptops. The pocket is also slightly elevated from the bottom of the bag, which can protect your laptop if the bottom of your bag gets wet.
Both my 28- and 40-ounce insulated water bottles fit easily in the side pockets.
I tested this bag (along with the Away F.A.R. backpack) during a recent long-haul trip to South Africa. I packed:
- My 13-inch laptop.
- A 28-ounce insulated water bottle (filled once I passed through security).
- Compression socks.
- Travel pillow.
- Cross-body bag containing my passport, credit cards and money.
- A small reporter’s notebook.
- Two paperback books.
- Makeup bag.
- Toiletry bag.
- A large Ziploc bag filled with snacks (protein bars, as well as bags of almonds and trail mix.
Filled, the backpack weighed just under 10 pounds.
I was impressed with the number of items I was able to pack. This backpack is like the clown car of backpacks. The sturdy straps held it in place and it never felt cumbersome to carry.
I liked the two rows of daisy chain-style loops on the outside of the bag. It’s good for hanging bulky items or things you don’t want to get crushed inside.
If you plan to long-distance hike with this bag, there’s a hole at the top for the hose of your hydration pack.
The Patagonia Black Hole Travel Pack doesn’t offer RFID protection. However, if the wallet that holds your ID and credit cards has the RFID protection feature, you should be covered.
Although this bag has an air mesh back panel for increased ventilation, other reviewers commented that the airflow wasn’t substantial enough to prevent a sweaty back. I didn’t encounter that issue. This bag doesn’t include a hip belt, which could provide more stability. I typically don’t use hip belts on backpacks, so I didn’t mind it missing here.
Sizing: 16.93 by 7.87 by 23.03 inches, 1.1 pounds (empty).
Price: Around $249 on Amazon.
Arlo Skye — The Backpack
The brand’s luggage line consistently garners high praise from reviewers, so I figured its one backpack offering, The Backpack, would be pretty solid. Color options are mint and black. It arrived tucked in a large reusable drawstring bag that included a handy silica gel pack, one of my essential travel accessories.
What I liked
I tested a black backpack. I liked the bag’s sleek design and leather top handle and trim. The water-resistant material is a nylon and polyester blend.
A tiny zip pocket at the top of the bag is the ideal spot to stash my earbuds, charger or a small pair of sunglasses. If you don’t have a clunky set of keys, they may fit as well. I set off my car alarm attempting to shove mine into the small pocket.
The front section has a zippable mesh pocket, and two RFID-lined slip pockets for secure storage of your credit cards, ID and passport. A decent-size (9.5 by 7 inches) front pocket with a zipper provides easy access to your smartphone, keys and other items. There was room enough to store my Kindle (without its cover). There’s also an attached key leash.
A middle section provides an open pocket for a tablet or iPad, and two smaller pockets — one of them, an expandable mesh. The third (back) portion of the bag is a padded laptop compartment that fits up to a 15″ laptop.
The backpack also features a wide back sleeve that fits securely over the handle of carry-on luggage.
If you need a backpack that could serve as your one and only carry-on, this may not work for you. It’s roomy enough for basics and a minimalist packer could possibly fit a weekend’s worth of clothes and essentials in it. However, I think it would be a better option for your daily commute, weekend road trips or day trips.
The water bottle pockets were kind of useless to me. The pockets don’t expand and there is no give in the material, so you’re somewhat limited in bottle size.
It barely fit my 28-ounce insulated water bottle (I couldn’t push the bottle all the way to the bottom of the pocket). However, you would probably be fine with a purchased 16-ounce plastic bottle of water.
I don’t like storing my water bottle inside my backpack because of potential leaks (and water damage to my laptop), so I ended up carrying my 40-ounce bottle separately. There is a metal hook on one side of the bag so you could attach an insulated bottle to it with a carabiner.
Sizing: 11.8 by 7.5 by 17.7, 2.1 pounds (empty).
Away — F.A.R. Backpack 26L
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KRISTY TOLLEY/THE POINTS GUY
Away has a sizable fan base (including TPG staffers) thanks to its stylish hard-side rolling luggage.
F.A.R. (For All Routes) is the brand’s recently launched outdoor line. The collection is designed with frequent travelers and outdoor adventurers in mind. Bags in the collection are constructed with lightweight 100% recycled polyester, and are abrasion- and water-resistant. The zippers and webbing are also made with recycled materials.
What I liked
I tested the 26L backpack. The bag arrived wrapped in a plant-based compostable plastic bag, which is in line with the brand’s push toward offering more sustainable and environmentally friendly products.
It’s available in five colors — black, vivid blue, red-orange, burgundy and (dark) green.
As I mentioned above, I tested this bag on my return long-haul flight from South Africa. On the trip home, it contained everything I packed in the Patagonia backpack, as well as two small bags of souvenirs I snagged at the airport on the way out.
Since it’s a bit smaller than the Patagonia backpack I carried first, I was concerned it wouldn’t hold everything I started my trip with. I was pleasantly surprised it did with no issues.
The two side pockets for water bottles are roomy. The features list reads that the pockets fit up to 32-ounce bottles, but my 40-ounce insulated bottle fits easily (though I traveled with a 28-ounce bottle).
This backpack had lots of pockets and hidden storage. The front compartment has interior slip pockets for easy access to small essentials like your wallet, smartphone, passport, a book or two, chargers and other items. It was a slightly tighter fit once filled, but I suspected it would be given the size difference.
The main compartment features a larger slip pocket for your laptop. The padding wasn’t quite as thick as the Patagonia laptop pocket, but it was enough that I didn’t worry about it being damaged.
Two hidden zipper pockets on each side are so well concealed I wouldn’t have found them if I hadn’t read the features card included with the backpack.
You can attach your keys or other items to the bag’s wide front webbing loops. Also, the thick backpack trolley strap slips easily onto your luggage handle.
In addition to the backpack I tested, the F.A.R. line includes three sizes of duffles, a 45L backpack, a water bottle bag, a packing cube, a zippered pouch and a messenger bag.
Of the five backpacks I tested, this was probably my favorite. Based on my experience with this brand, I will likely add more F.A.R. products to my travel arsenal.
Sizing: 19 by 12.6 by 7.7 inches, .78 pounds (empty).
One of the products in Solo’s Re:Cycled collection, the Solo Re:Claim is made from Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of strong, lightweight and 100% recyclable plastic. The collection is reasonably priced and includes additional backpacks, totes, rolling cases, laptop sleeves and other products (all constructed from recyclable plastic).
The bag I tested was heather-grey. It also comes in burgundy and navy (though the navy backpacks were unavailable at the time of writing this).
What I liked
The backpack is water-resistant and comes with a five-year limited warranty. It features a smaller padded front zippable pocket with compartments for pens, cards, your phone and a tablet, as well as a small clip for your keys. A roomy fully-padded compartment fits 11- to 15.6-inch laptops.
There are mesh pockets on each side for water bottles. Although the pockets give a little, I struggled to squeeze in my 28-ounce insulated bottle. Once I got it in, though, I felt confident it wouldn’t fall out.
A tag was included in the packaging with information about Solo’s partnership with the National Forest Foundation. The company plants trees with every bag sold from its Recycled Collection.
I didn’t really care for the two handles at the top of the backpack. They were located on each side of the opening with a wrap-like velcro to connect them. It was kind of annoying to have to take it apart every time I wanted to unzip the bag.
I usually travel with a 40-ounce bottle, which did not fit in the side pockets.
Sizing: 16.5 by 12.25 by 6.75 inches, 1.2 pounds (empty).
Price: About $67.26 on Amazon.
Briggs & Riley — @Work Large Cargo Backpack
What I liked
This backpack is ideal for work commuters and business travelers who need a sleek and professional-looking bag to carry their business essentials. It’s also roomy enough to pack clothes and toiletries you’d need for an overnight stay if needed.
The hefty price tag might intimidate you. However, when you consider the company’s lifetime replacement warranty and consistently positive customer reviews, I feel like it’s worth the investment.
It has an interior organizer, main and laptop compartments, a durable fabric lining, an RFID-blocking pocket with two hidden credit card pockets that hold a wallet and passport.
There are also three elastic slip pockets with leather tabs to organize smaller items such as cords and USB drives and two more slip pockets to store other items.
Its top cargo pocket on the front panel holds travel accessories. It features two elastic pen loops, a large main compartment, a full-length slip pocket in the main compartment for storing folders or files, as well as two elastic pockets in the main compartment for storing cables and chargers.
It also includes a laptop compartment with a padded sleeve, plus a padded tablet pocket in the laptop compartment.
The exterior is 1600D ballistic nylon that resists wear, moisture, dirt and abrasion. The front panel also has a leather nameplate on the front (that you can monogram), a deep zip pocket on the front panel for easy access to items such as sunglasses or a smartphone, top-grain leather carry handles and a gusseted side u-zip pocket with an elastic band for a water bottle.
The backpack has adjustable padded straps, an aerated mesh back padding and a slip-through back panel that allows the backpack to slide over a luggage handle and bottom corner guards to protect the backpack from wear and tear.
It’s very comfortable. I’m surprised at how light it feels given its large size. I tested it during my daily office commute. It holds my laptop, charger, wallet, phone and an extra pair of shoes.
I also appreciated the light contrasting shade of the bag’s inside lining — it’s so much easier to find my items.
Color choices are limited to black and dark grey. However, if you’re using it for daily work or business travel, you want something that looks professional and this definitely fits the bill.
Additionally, there aren’t any real external gear attachment options. The bag does include a removable luggage tag, which is nice.
Sizing: 19 by 15 by 8 inches, 3.2 pounds (empty).
A well-organized and sturdy travel backpack is worth its weight in gold.
If you expect a lot out of your bag and want it to last through all your future travels, you may want to spend a little more on it. If you travel occasionally and just need a backpack for convenience, lower-priced options should suffice for your needs.
Before you buy your next backpack (or other travel essentials), check out TPG’s guides to airline and shopping portals, as well as the best credit cards for online shopping. That way, the gear you buy for your next trip can also help you pay for it.
Do you have a backpack you can’t do without? Let us know in the TPG Lounge or email us at [email protected] We’re always on the lookout for products that make travel easier and we would love to hear from you.