Fitting your life into one bag is no small task. We’re here to help.
Our team at Pack Hacker developed the “best travel backpack” guide in partnership with our friends (and bag experts) at Carryology. We’re constantly updating this guide as new backpacks are released, and the travel landscape changes.
Selecting The Best Travel Backpack for One Bag Travel
There’s something so freeing about traveling with only one bag. All of your important stuff is within arm’s reach, and it forces you to cut down of many of life’s seemingly-necessary consumer goods that you can probably live without. With one bag, you easily glide from location to location, always having just enough, but never too much.
Choosing the perfect travel backpack for one bag travel can be a tough endeavor. There are so many brands and models to choose from with varying degrees of durability, price, and try-on-ability (we made this word up for trying something out before buying it online). Add varying views and opinions into the mix from folks with different values, needs, and body types—and you’ve got a veritable clusterf*ck of options to wade through. Whether you’re a new traveler gearing up for your first trip, a digital nomad going through a “sell-all-my-stuff-and-put-it-in-a-backpack” phase, or somewhere in between, it’s essential to have the best travel backpack that works for you.
Here’s the bottom line: There is no “best” backpack that is perfect for every traveler in every scenario. However, we believe it is possible for everyone to find a pack that’s perfect for their unique needs. In this guide, we’ll break down the factors we think are most important when choosing the perfect one bag travel backpack for you.
This guide is written and informed by Pack Hacker contributors, many of whom are frequent travelers and digital nomads. That means we’re using and testing these products everyday to build a better understanding of what’s available out there and how each bag may appeal to different types of travelers. If you’d rather skip all this info and get straight to the backpacks we’ve reviewed, you can take a look at all of our Travel Backpack Reviews.
Why a backpack vs. standard roller luggage?
We’ve found that backpacks give you much greater mobility. You can breeze through airports. You’ll never stand around a baggage carousel after a long-haul again. And as long as your pack is carry-on size compliant, you’ll never lose your luggage, ever. Depending on your travel style and what you’re hauling, it comes down to your personal preference—both roller luggage and backpacks can be good options. In this guide, we’ll focus on travel backpacks for a couple reasons:
They feel freeing
You’ve got both of your hands free and you’re not constantly dragging something behind you. No matter what terrain you’re walking on, you’ll never have the annoyance of loud or unsteady wheels behind you from standard travel luggage. Sure, roller bags work like a charm on smooth airport and hotel floors, but how about the winding cobblestone roads of Paris or a sandy beach in Ko Pha Ngan? You can traverse almost any terrain when you’re wearing a backpack.
Travel backpacks are versatile & usually lightweight
If you pack light enough, you can comfortably have all of your belongings with you at once. Did you arrive earlier than your hotel or Airbnb check in? No problem, just take your pack around with you for the day—no need to stop by and drop your luggage off. Versatility at its finest.
They provide flexibility
You’ll take up less room on the airplane or in public transit. You’ll generally feel more agile vs needing to drag around rolly luggage, with the added benefit of not looking like an out-of-place tourist. It caters to a more adventurous lifestyle by always being ready to go. And, you can easily catch that train that’s about to depart without awkwardly side-running with a roller bag or two.
In this guide, we’re going for travel versatility. We want you to look good carrying these bags around in an urban environment, but also have the flexibility to head out on a hike for a couple days of camping without having your backpack ruined by the elements. If you’ve got a piece of roller luggage, it’s going to be hard to do that spontaneous ½ day trek on the trail to the neighboring city you’ve been wanting to check out. Likewise, if you want to post up at a coffee shop for a day of office work, you’re going to look out of place with bulky, multi-colored hiking bag. The packs mentioned in this article will blend into most city environments and are durable enough to withstand the abuse of longer excursions.
Decisions, decisions… Navigating the not-so-clear world of travel packs.
Bag Weight and Size (Carry-On Compliance)
We favor smaller bags that’ll fit under the seat in front of us. Yes, it can be a challenge to fit your entire life into a 40L bag, but wow, is it worth it!. Trust us, you can fit your entire life into a 18L backpack if you’re disciplined and we would highly recommend staying under 50L for one bag travel. Life is just easier with a smaller & lighter backpack.
Airlines can get pretty stingy around the amount of weight you carry with you when traveling. It’s important to make sure your backpack itself isn’t too heavy, as that will ultimately work against you, allowing you to fit in less clothing & other travel gear (we’re all for less, but you should try to avoid the penalty of carrying a heavy carry on). Airlines around the world have many different weight and size restrictions. We’ve found CarryOnBagSizes.com from Minaal to be pretty accurate.
It’s easy to get caught up in all this talk around liters of a backpack. There’s really no “industry standard” around this and the liter size of a pack can vary from brand to brand. What’s more important is the “True Volume” of a backpack, and how usable the space is. Some weird, trapezoid-shaped backpack will certainly be more of a challenge than something with a larger, rectangular compartment. The thickness and flexibility of the material matters as well. A thin, strong material will leave you with more space inside of a backpack than something with thick padding in the liner, however, an inflexible material—dyneema, for instance—doesn’t have much additional flex and isn’t very forgiving when you’re trying to pack your bag to the brim. Efficiency of space can make or break the usefulness of a pack.
Weather resistance is another key component to consider for one bag travel. With all your tech gear and expensive possessions in your pack, what’s the use in getting it all wet? We look for packs with some great weather resistance that’ll easily get you through light rain, and ideally through 20 minutes of a monsoon in Southeast Asia. There’s a big difference between Waterproof and Water-Resistant bags. We’re mainly focused on the latter, as this will be plenty in most situations. Sure, waterproof is more secure, but unless you’re leaving your pack outside in a torrential downpour for hours on end or plan to go snorkeling with your laptop on your back, there’s really no need for that extra tech.
Got something that really needs some additional weather-proofing? Consider picking up a Daka Pouch. It’ll give your valuables that extra layer of protection without requiring you to purchase and entirely waterproof bag—plus, these pouches double as organizers, separating your precious gear from the rest of your loadout with some additional protection to boot. It’s a win-win.
Durability and Quality
Whether you’re traveling for a week, a month, or a year+, your backpack is pretty much your home, so you don’t want it to break. Take it from us: The last thing you want is to find out that you lost your phone charger because your zipper broke during the journey to your next accommodation. You should feel okay about investing in a good backpack because higher quality products will not only prevent loss and damage to your gear, but will also last for several years. It can be a challenge to tell if a backpack is durable right out of the box. We test bags as much as possible in order to notice the faults so you don’t have anything break on the road. Higher durability usually means higher weight, but not always. Here are a couple key considerations we’ve found when it comes to durability:
YKK zippers are some of the best around, and the best travel backpack brands tend to use them. They’re super strong and have different weights depending on the area of the pack they’re used. A YKK #10 would be super strong for a main compartment, whereas a YKK #4 may be suited for smaller side pockets that don’t receive as much use or tension. YKK is obsessed with quality and they do everything in house—they smelt their own brass, forge their own zipper teeth, they even make the machines that make their zippers and make the cardboard boxes they ship in! All of this means that you won’t end up with broken zippers—one of the most frustrating things that can happen while traveling. YKK zippers also account for about half of all zippers in the world, so that says something. Although less popular, RiRi zippers are pretty great as well. Basically, both RiRi and YKK will be superior to any other zipper made in-house by a bag manufacturer.
Consideration: GORUCK GR2
The GORUCK GR2 is one of the most durable packs out there with tons of high quality material—1000D CORDURA®, YKK zippers, designed by an ex-green-beret—the thing isn’t gonna break. How do we know that? We’ve tested it on the road, everyday for a year. The founder of GORUCK, Jason McCarthy, states that he won’t use anything else but YKK zippers—and he built a company around putting heavy-ass weights in his bags to exercise with. If YKK zippers are good enough to hold up in combat, they’re good enough for one bag urban travel as far as we’re concerned. With all that durability, there is a weight penalty though. The GR2 comes in at 4.75 pounds when empty.
See Our Full Review View Details and Buy
Backpack Fabric and Material
There are a ton of fabrics and materials out there, too. When looking at fabrics, you’ll often see a number followed by a D—250D, 950D, 1500D, etc. The D stands for denier, a term used to measure the thickness and weight of a fabric. The formal definition is the mass (in grams) per 9,000 meters of a fabric—so lightweight fabrics (like silk) have a very low denier, while heavier fabrics (like canvas) have a higher denier. When it comes to backpacks, a higher denier is not necessarily better. In general, a higher denier will be more durable, but also heavier. While denier can tell you the weight and thickness of a material, the type of fabric and weave will ultimately tell you more about the strength and durability. Although not completely mandatory, here are some materials to look out for when selecting your pack:
Pretty close in property to standard nylon, “rip-stop” nylon has a special, square weave that prevents further ripping from happening after a puncture. It has an incredibly high strength-to-weight ratio and, as the name implies, it is extremely resistant to rips and tears. The reason why it is so strong is that additional fibers are sewn into the weave. Rip-stop nylon was developed in World War II as a stronger alternative to silk parachutes, and is currently used in ejector seat parachutes for fighter pilots!
Ballistic nylon refers to any nylon fabric that has a “ballistic weave,” which is a variation on the simple basketweave. This gives it excellent tensile and tear strength—especially when layered—but also makes it heavier than a lot of other materials. Keep in mind that ballistic nylon almost exclusively comes in black. Why is it called ballistic? It was originally used on flak jackets for World War II airmen, to protect them from artillery-shell and bullet fragmentations. PSA: We do not condone the use of backpacks for protection in war zones.
A very strong, thicker weave of nylon that requires some DWR (Durable water repellent) coating for added water resistance. CORDURA® has the best abrasion resistance out of the materials listed here, and is relatively light for its durability. This is an ideal material for areas that are going to experience a lot of contact, like pack bases. CORDURA® is most commonly found on motorcycle gear, due to its high abrasion resistance. It also looks more “natural” than other nylons—more like cotton, and less shiny and plastic-y in appearance. You’ll mostly always see a “®” next to “CORDURA” (in all caps) because #branding and #lawyers.
Kodra is virtually synonymous with CORDURA®, but made in Korea. Peak Design opted for this in their Everyday Backpack.
The actual material is called ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene… but most know it as sailcloth (yep – the same material used on a sailboat). A relatively rare material for backpacks, brands like Tortuga have taken advantage of sailcloth due to its light weight and water resistant properties. It is by far the lightest material on our list and the most waterproof (no need for DWR or liners) but it does have some drawbacks. It is really stiff and crinkly with zero stretch—this can cause problems if you’re trying to utilize every nook and cranny of your pack. It is fairly durable (and can be easily patched), but it isn’t quite as indestructible as some of the other materials listed. It also tends to be one of the most expensive backpack materials out there.
Dyneema is generally thought to be the strongest fiber in the world. No joke: This stuff is supposed to be 15x stronger than steel. Lighter and more expensive than it’s nylon counterpart, but a little less flexible, Dyneema is a solid, modern fabric for very light backpacks.
These materials are great and all, but the production process will ultimately dictate whether or not they stay together. A mismatch in materials could also lead to poor quality. If a bag is made with 1000D CORDURA®, but it doesn’t have good zippers to match, it doesn’t matter how good the fabric is. Look for brands that proudly back their product with generous warranties, like GORUCK and their “SCARS warranty” or Patagonia and their “Ironclad Guarantee”. These brands make a quality products and they know it, so they’re happy to back it up. If a brand offers no warranty, or a short warranty, there’s probably a financial reason for that and the quality may not be as high. We’re all about buying quality pieces that last versus something that’s going to need repair or replacement year after year.
The slimness of a pack can help out quite a bit. Not only does it seem less heavy because the weight is close to your back, but it has the added benefit of giving you a smaller, slimmer form factor. With this, you won’t be taking up too much room on public transit or smacking people in the face when you’re boarding the airplane—it’ll be a better experience for you and everyone around you.
PRO TIP: Backpacks that offer a more “square” shape tend to hold more than bags of other shapes, but sometimes that comes with an aesthetic penalty (unless you’re into a box on your back).
Top-Loading vs Panel-Loading (Clamshell) Backpacks
There’s a big debate around clamshell and top loading packs. We’re personally a fan of clamshell for one bag travel, as it gives you more open space to work with. Clamshell functions more like a suitcase, really blending the backpack and suitcase elements. You can easily open it up flat and see everything inside, so it tends to be easier to organize all your travel gear. Top loaders are great if you’re on a long, multi-day trek or participating in other outdoor-focused activities as there’s no main zipper that can fail you (which could be catastrophic if you’re halfway up Mt. Everest on a climb).
Consideration: WANDRD PRVKE
Take something like the Wandrd PRVKE. Originally intended for photographers, this top-loader and clam-shell hybrid offers a ton of access points depending on your organization and needs.
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Is the Pack Comfortable to Wear for Hours?
Comfort is a big deal when it comes to one bag travel – especially if you plan to carry the bag around with you for hours on end. You’ll want a high-quality harness that works with the shape of your body. When selecting a bag, it’s important to take into account how big or small of a person you are, and your body type. Although this matters more for hiking backpacks where you’re carrying a ton of gear, it’s less-important for smaller, one bag travel packs. You’ll still want to consider this though. A backpack suited for someone that’s 6’5” and 250 lbs probably isn’t the best travel backpack for someone that’s 5’3” and 140 lbs.
You’ll want to look for bags with high quality straps that work for your body type. A mismatch here could lead to an uncomfortable carry, even with only a little weight inside.
The thickness of straps doesn’t necessarily matter. Thinner straps that use high quality foam may be more comfortable than thicker, bulkier straps.
If you’re concerned with weight, look for bags that include load lifters – these are the adjusters that appear at the top of the straps. This concept is borrowed from larger hiking backpacks and do wonders for fitting the bag well to your back with different loads.
Some straps swivel and pivot to cater to different shoulder widths, as well as make it easier to quickly flip the pack around and access the goods you’ve got inside.
Curved straps can work well for women & men with bigger chests, and some companies—like GORUCK—offer straps specifically for different body types.
We’re middle-of-the-road on hip belts for one bag travel backpacks. They can help a ton if you’ve got a heavier load or plan to carry your pack for long stretches, but aren’t necessary if you pack minimally in a smaller pack.
A well designed back panel can make things much more comfortable. Although it’s hard to avoid the old sweaty back with longer periods of wear in hotter climates, well-ventilated mesh and foam can help with this. A curved frame can help with ergonomics and ventilation as well, but we don’t see this on many travel-focused backpacks. Sometimes, it seems like overkill.
Consideration: Mission Workshop Fitzroy
The Mission Workshop Fitzroy provides a good example of thinner straps that are actually super comfortable. This is due to the high density foam, load lifters on the straps, optional hip belt, and padded mesh back panel. See Our Full Review View Details and Buy
How do you pack the thing?
With all these fancy features, it’s important to consider how you should use them, and how you pack your bag. Generally speaking, you want to pack the heaviest items closest to your back. This’ll ensure the heaviest bits of your bag are the closest to your center of gravity, pulling you down less from the back of the bag.
If you’ve got all the features mentioned above, you want to strap and tighten your hip belt first, then adjust the shoulder straps, then tighten the load lifter straps (the straps on top) to a 45° angle, and finally, adjust and tighten the sternum strap.
Whether you’re hopping on a plane or navigating city streets, you need a backpack that can hold up.
Organization: Multiple Travel-Focused Pockets or One Big Compartment?
Some backpacks take the approach of having a massive inner compartment with no organization. This is great if you’re planning on using some packing cubes or compression sacks, but not so great if you want a little more internal organization out of the box. More things to consider: is there a dedicated place to put a pen or two for those pesky customs forms? Is it easy to grab? How about a dedicated laptop compartment? How’s the security overall? Can an opportunistic thief quickly get into it? Or are the zippers somewhat inconspicuous.
Packing cubes can be a great addition to your luggage regardless of whether the bag is one massive compartment or has a couple of smaller pockets inside. Packing cubes allow you to organize clothing between type, outfits, clean or dirty, and much more.
Compression sacks allow your gear and clothing to be compressed down to the smallest possible size. The one negative here is that they tend to wrinkle clothes. Also, since you can compress everything so small with these, you may end up packing more weight than originally intended.
Consideration: Mammut Seon Cargo
The Mammut Seon Cargo offers a nice place to store your sandals, shoes, dirty clothes or muddy hiking boots directly in the pack. The pocket is unobtrusive if not used, but provides a good clear separation within the confines of the pack.
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Be on the lookout for packs with great security features. Are the zippers lockable with TSA approved locks? Are there separate, secret security compartments to place your passport and other valuables in hard to reach places? Is it made of a strong material to prevent the quick slash-and-grab? Are the outer pockets minimized to make it hard for a thief to quickly unzip and grab what they want?
A lot of safety when traveling comes down to common sense and your own self-awareness, but there are a couple pack features that can make your trips a little bit safer.
Lockable Zippers & Anti Theft Backpacks
Some packs offer lockable zippers or special looped zipper pulls that can be configured to deter thieves. Locking the zippers on your pack won’t turn it into an anti-theft backpack—someone can still take it or cut through the fabric—but it can help stop wrongdoers from quickly unzipping your bag for a quick-grab, or make them move to the next easily-accessible bag on a train or bus. No backpack is impenetrable though, and some of theses features on backpacks can be gimmicky—included just so the purchaser has some peace of mind—even if the benefit isn’t that great. Peak Design’s security features (example below) and PacSafe’s ToughZip put a lot of emphasis on that extra layer of security.
Consideration: Peak Design Everyday Backpack
The zippers on the Peak Design Everyday Backpack come with a locking feature on them. This won’t necessarily deter all theft, but it’ll stop anyone from the old unzip & grab trick —and it won’t be against TSA Guidelines. Anything that makes your bag just a bit harder to get into means a thief will pass it up for an easier opportunity elsewhere.
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Anti-Theft Backpack Materials
Some bags offer stronger fabric that naturally enforce the bag. As we mentioned before, fabrics like Ballistic Nylon, CORDURA®, and others are super helpful with this. Some companies even include special mesh wiring, like Pacsafe’s eXomesh®, that almost theft-proof your backpack, allowing you to lock it to a fixed object for added security. EXomesh® is either lined inside of the fabric, and can also be purchased for use externally with other backpacks. For the type of traveling we do, we think this is a little paranoid and adds some weight plus another thing to carry. But depending on your situation, it could be useful. Strolling through Tokyo? Probably not necessary. Heading to Barcelona for the first time? Yeah, we’ll take that extra layer of security.
RFID Blockers (identity theft-proof backpacks)
We feel that having a bunch of RFID-blocking tech covering an entire backpack is overkill. Sure, it’ll stop folks from electronically scanning your passport, but If you’re concerned with this, you could get a special wallet or wrap your passport & cards in aluminum foil. Let’s face it—it’s much less effort for a thief to physically grab what they want from you than dicking around with RFID technology. But again, whatever helps you sleep at night. If it’s a 100% secure backpack you seek, we’re not going to stop you.
Compression and Expandability
If you’re going with one bag, versatility is important. Ideally your pack will cater to different amounts of items that are packed in the bag.
Some packs even offer detachable daypacks, but they tend to be a little bit larger in liters to justify the additional use of materials (extra zippers and extra straps.) If you’re looking for a small daypack, consider some highly compressible bags from Sea to Summit. There won’t be any padding on these, but you could also pair these with a padded field pocket from GORUCK or a padded laptop compartment if you’re wanting to cafe-hop and work for the day.
If you are looking for a more padded day pack. A Timbuk2 Rapid Pack or something like a Fjallraven Kanken could do some good for you. At the end of the day, you’re packing another set of straps, padding and zippers – all space and weight that’s being subtracted from your main pack.
We personally like sticking to one bag whenever possible, and there are some bags out there with the right size and look that can be used as a day pack and for one bag travel.
Consideration: Aer Travel Pack
The Aer Travel Pack feels just big enough to comfortably use as a one bag solution, but not too large to take around as a daypack. The added compression straps make it even better, allowing you to empty your bag out except for what you need during the day and really cinch down the straps to create a smaller looking backpack for day to day usage.
See Our Full Review View Details and Buy
You know what they say—“It’s not how you feel, it’s how you look.” Or something like that...
Style is Individual
At the end of the day, the look and feel of a travel backpack should be right for you and your tastes. There are a couple things to consider as far as aesthetics go we’ll pull in here for consideration. Stylish “urban travel” backpacks became a lot more popular within the last couple years, and that’s the look we prefer. Gone are the days of international travel with a big blaze-orange hiking backpack. Those certainly have a utility, but that utility is in the wilderness. Here are a couple overall style points for your consideration:
Minimalist Travel Backpacks
When you’re in a new country, think a bit about how you want to be perceived. If you’re heading to a more crowded or dicey area, nothing screams tourist like having a large, colorful backpack while looking up at tall buildings or a landmark in awe. It’s easier to keep a low profile and blend in a little if you’re not carrying around a monstrosity of a bag that acts as an advertisement for thieves and wrongdoers looking to target travelers for their own gain. It’s an added bonus if you can roll into a meeting wearing one of these things. As one-bag travel has become increasingly popular in recent years, we’re seeing a lot of solid urban packs coming out that are built specifically with one-bag travel in mind.
There are a ton of great, high quality bags out there that are made to military spec. There’s some really great utility to things like MOLLE for customizing your pack and including other accessories on your bag, and the stronger materials make for extremely durable bags. Keep in mind that some folks may perceive you as being in the military if your bag has too much digi camo going on. It’s one thing if the pack is all black & subdued, but another if it’s camo and filled with patches. If this is your look, go for it, but this type of pack might also bring about some “unwanted attention” in certain parts of the world.
Outdoor & Hiking Backpacks
Think brighter colors and louder material. Sportier pack with many pocket options. For a long time, these types of packs were the only option for long-term one-bag travelers. They tend to be bulky and are built to carry big, heavy loads over long distances—usually outdoors. This typically means lots of straps and a tall pack that will peak up over your head. Great for a long camping excursion, not so great for a trip through the airport or a newly-discovered city square. They also tend to scream “TOURIST”—no one casually walks around with a huge hiking backpack.
These bags are engineered with a classic look in mind. Most will be some variation of the one-compartment style with leather straps, subdued colors, and some type of canvas-y material. These packs look great but can sometimes lack functionality and comfort. Although there are a few bespoke style travel bags (we like Vinta and Rivendell Mountain Works), most will fall into the day-pack category.
The humble backpack: It’ll get you through anything and everything...
Wrapping it all up—or zipping it shut—there really is no “best travel backpack”
Although, there is a best travel backpack for you. All this boils down to your preferences.
When we first started creating this guide, we admittedly thought there would be one best bag for travel, but the deeper we dug, the more we realized it depends on what you require as an individual traveler based on your needs. Sure, there are generally guiding principles to follow, and a bag made out of cardboard objectively won’t last, but there are too many quality packs out there to pick just one. If you’re on a short trip, a less durable, lighter pack will suit you well. If you’re headed to southeast asia during the monsoon season—you may want some heavy-duty weatherproofing.
We wish you the best of luck moving forward with your selection. If there’s anything we can do to help, please drop us a line.
The How to choose the best carry-on travel backpack for you guide was created byand everyone on the Pack Hacker team.
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