Are you looking for the perfect travel backpack?
Then you are probably choosing a travel backpack based on: Price, expandability, fit in overhead bins as a carry-on, weight, durability, external attachment points, TSA-approved (flat-opening), internal organization, and maybe a few more points I haven’t listed here. We wrote a blog a while back about the best messenger bags for travel and commuting to work or school, but what about the best travel backpacks? Read on…
Maybe you are a minimalist that likes low-profile bags or hates “squarish” backpacks. Maybe you want expandability, but side-stabilizer/side-compression straps to keep your bag slim and against your back. Maybe you always overpack and want a good hip belt and travel backpack load lifters. It could be that as a lady, straight shoulder straps don’t fit your body type well and you’re looking for contoured shoulder straps. Maybe $150 is your max. amount to spend and $400 for a piece of travel luggage (no matter how well-made) is simply foolish. Whatever your preference, we recommend a few of the best travel backpacks being sold today, and maybe close to being the perfect travel backpack.
Some of the best expandable, full-featured travel backpacks based on overall durability, price, size, expandability, etc. would be: The large-size Greenroom136 Rainmaker 2.0 Tactical, The Minaal Carry-on Bag (35 liter), The Tortuga Travel Backpack, The GoRuck GR2 or GR1, the Tom Bihn Aeronaut (in 45, or 30 for European airlines), The Blackhawk Phoenix PACK Three-Day travel pack, the 5-11 RUSH 24, 72 (or possibly the newer Ignitor), the Voodoo Tactical TSA Compliant Bag, a Triple Aught Design or TAD Fastpack Litespeed, maybe even a f-Stop Satori travel photography bag (Like the Lotus or Kashmir), or something either similar to one of these travel bags, or inferior to these travel backpacks.
Each traveler has to decide which features are MOST important to them. Due to the various requirements of different users and travelers, there is no perfect travel backpack (at least I have not found it yet!). For me, size is priority (has to go on the airplane), expandability is equally important, as well as comfort (i.e. load lifters) and slim profile (load compressors/side compressions straps), external and internal organization (because rather than clothes, my bags are used in a business load-out of laptop, hard drives, cables, files,…), toughness, price, appearance, weight, and TSA-compliance (a nice added feature) in that order.
For price, the Greenroom136 Rainmaker 2.0, 5-11 RUSH24, and the Tortuga are more affordable options.
For toughness, American-made bags by TAD, GoRuck, and 5-11 are best. After all, they are made for U.S. military special operators and designed to never fail in the field. Due to the quality materials used or for paying for all American manufacturing, means they tend to cost more, but I love them all the same. The Bullet Ruck and Rucker are slimmed-down, slightly more affordable options ($100 cheaper). See the redesigned TAD Fastpack Litespeed below to see not only how tough these bags are, but how flexible they are in terms of packing for different kinds of trips.
Carryology also reviewed the TAD Fastpack Lightspeed 2.0 here: http://www.carryology.com/bags/bag-review-tad-fast-pack-litespeed-backpack/ and have their own review/blog of best-rated travel backpacks. I liked their first review better but politiely disagree with most of the packs in their second post.
While my Backhawk Phoenix backpack is long and slim, rather than boxy, and has GREAT expansion, even with extensive modifications it still needs an internal molle framesheet to provide rigidity and additional organization. Everything seems to slide down to the bottom, and papers and magazines tend to get crumpled. While the pack also has a good (non-removable) hip belt (which I tighten backwards and clip around the girth of the pack when I’m not using it) and thick padded should straps, and GREAT side compression straps, it does seem to be heavier than other packs and that’s noticeable when you’re frequently putting it on and taking it off running through airports, etc. I got my Blackhawk bag off eBay so the price was right and I love this pack for more traditional outdoors usage – Just realize that it can carry most everything as long as it doesn’t require lots of internal organization. Other reviews have tended to observe the same thing. (BTW, we love the Carryology website and recommend it.)
If you are buying a bag primarily for international travel, be aware that European airlines are more restrictive than those typically in the USA. Luftansa for example, restricts bags to 55x40x23cm, or 21.5″x16″x9″ compared to standard U.S. airline bag restrictions of not exceed 62 inches (157 cm) when you total length + width + height (see more at http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/columnist/hobica/2014/06/10/carry-on-luggage-bag-size-limits/10246511/). Some European airlines also have a policy where all cabin baggage on international flights has to be checked and have a red tag indicating that an agent has approved it before passing security. See a chart here.
I have posted a review of the less familiar Greenroom136 Rainmaker Tactical 2.0 (27-liter) bag. This bag is not only tough, but handcrafted out of the best materials and allows for a lot of customization including colors, molle, velcro and more. (See some of the beautiful, colorful custom options here.) It is also fully TSA-compatible and I can say that this feature, even when fully stuffed, makes getting through airports quick and easy. All the Greenroom136 bags also have an option to add a very intelligent hidden pocket behind the back padding for cash, passports, travel documents and more so you don’t need to worry about pickpockets (At the 5:10 min. mark). The 10.10oz. Army Duck Canvas with real Martexin Original Wax in brown is a sweet, beautiful bag that will weather over time and you will be proud to own 20 years from now, or pass on to your kids.
One last “wishlist” item I like to see in my perfect travel backpack is a pocket to stash/hide hip belt or shoulder straps after unbuckling them. The Tom Bihn Aeronaut does it well. So does the Minaal, a new favorite of ours. The Tortuga also does this using their strap covers. 5-11 has a Triab 18 single or double shoulder strap bag that does this, even if the bag opening is a bit unconventional.
Tortuga has a (unbiased?!) chart comparing the various bags to their own here: http://www.tortugabackpacks.com/pages/competitors.
I have to confess, if price was no object, the Tom Bihn Aeronaut would be my perfect go-to travel bag, if I was NOT trying to use it at the other end of my trip as my business commuter travel bag. However, I usually also take a checked travel spinner (or four-wheeler travel luggage) or a roll-on with me, in addition to my one personal carry-on piece or bag. And I usually require my travel backpack to be my commuter bag at my travel destination once I drop everything off/empty it out at the hotel once I check in. Given this consideration, the Tom Bihn bag doesn’t work as my on-site business backpack or messenger bag, requiring me to pack a messenger bag in the Tom Bihn for most trips. For me, that is a deal breaker, since I’d rather have wheels on that checked bag/second carry on item. Your mileage may vary.
One thing none of these travel backpacks has a wheeled option or 2 to 4 wheeled rolling option. Not only does the frame and handle and wheels add weight, but they take up space and can easily break if trying to use them on uneven surfaces. While there are some legitimate wheeled backpacks, and shoulder-carry travel backpack options out there, for the purposes of this review, they are not a requirement (or our choice) for the perfect travel backpack. Maybe we’ll review a few of those travel bag options at a future date.
Another item I didn’t focus on was capacity. Minaal has a good explanation why here. Organization and intelligent design in use of space and finding the right bag to match how you plan to pack it/use it is much more important than liter size. The one caveat is expandability. Once you have a bag that works and can be organized or used exactly as you need it to, then expandability comes into play when you need it to hold just a bit more or plan to check it on the plane. As a result, being able to slide under your seat MAY BE a more important feature than capacity, unless you don’t plan to take many plane trips with your new bag.
I have to give a last shout out to one of my favorite bag companies, SFBags.com (Waterfield Designs) for their very classy and very low-profile slim Staad backpack and their nice totes. The Staad comes in both “Slim” and “Stout.” The “stout” is hardly fat at all and is what I purchased. However, be aware that the Staad Stout is more of a beautiful high-end commuter backpack or business backpack than it is for packing for multi-day trips due to its narrow profile.
If you regularly check your primary bag, and want to look like a million bucks on your flight or at your final destination, then consider the Staad as your next favorite travel backpack.
While the Staad is pricey at $319 or so, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better made or more beautiful backpack if you are an executive, a travel minimalist, or regularly check bags (and so don’t need lots of capacity). See our YouTube review here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQUEg8RE6ik&index=4&list=PLNLs4yRPBGxQYV9Sugor8KJAP3FfRXmg- and our loadout here: https://youtu.be/flw4_Hz-Q0Q
We also have a full review here: https://www.overseastripinsurance.com/news-and-helpful-links/waterfield-staad-stout-laptop-backpack-review/