I like to travel with just two bags. A carry-on size rolling suitcase (my two favorites are my Eagle Creek Tarmac Carry-On and my Bric’s 21″ X-Bag Carry On Spinner) and then a regular size backpack that my small purse fits inside of.
I have gone through so many backpacks that I thought were great and later realized that they were too small, had the wrong pockets or didn’t have an essential feature. After buying, returning, trying, testing, selling and donating numerous backpacks over the years I have finally figured out what I want from a travel backpack.
Backpacks are not a one size fits all travel item. There is no one best backpack for everyone. Everyone needs different things when they travel. Here is what you should consider when buying a backpack to travel with.
I am a shorter person so I like to carry smaller backpacks. For me at 5’1″ about a 25L or less backpack is the best size. I find that the smaller the backpack, the less inclined I am to pack unnecessary items. However there is such thing as too small. I carried a 15L backpack through South America and I found that it was always a little bit too much of a challenge to fit everything inside.
Depending on how long and how heavy your backpack is you should think about the straps. If you are going to be spending all day carrying it having extra padding will be much more comfortable. I also just recently realized that using the chest strap actually makes a big difference when you are carrying your bag for a long time so you might also want a bag that has that feature.
Backpacks sometimes make me nervous because they allow such easy access for strangers to reach in without you knowing so I like to choose backpacks that have pockets on the backside, zippered pockets on the interior of the main compartment or on the sides.
Water bottle pocket
This is probably my most important thing I use when traveling. Whether you are carrying your own reusable bottle or putting in bottles you buy along the way I am never without water while traveling. And having the bottle pocket keeps your water separate so it doesn’t spill and you have easy access to it.
Cameras and Computers
I am usually carrying a laptop with me so a laptop pocket is essential. This is not a very hard feature to find today. Most backpacks these days come with them. If you are carrying a lot of camera gear you might also want to invest in a camera specific bag that has adjustable dividers inside to fit cameras and lenses. One of my favorites is the ONA Bolton Street Camera Bag.
Zippers & Locks
If you’re carrying a lot of valuables you may want to make sure you can lock your backpack. I love the look of drawstring backpacks but find they’re not very practical for travel. Look for metal zippers that you can attach a luggage lock to or if you want to be on the safe side invest in a backpack by PacSafe that has lots of additional locks and straps to make it more secure.
You should also consider what kind of travel and what you are going to use your backpack for the most. If you are only going to be traveling in cities maybe a more casual canvas backpack would work. If you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking then you’ll want a more sporty nylon backpack. Think you will be caught in the rain? Get a backpack rain cover that you can use on any kind of backpack to keep your belongings dry!
And of course you should love your bag and actually want to carry it around. With so many options now you shouldn’t have to sacrifice the style of your backpack for what you need it for.
Lo & Sons Hanover Backpack – I love this bag because of it’s minimal design, hidden side pockets, removable padded insert and that it has a flap that lets you slip it on top of your rolling carry-on.
Lululemon All Day Backpack (no longer available but you can find it on eBay) – This is my go to backpack these days. I love that the laptop pocket zips open separately from the main compartment and it has a quick access pocket zipper on the top.
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L.L. Bean Stowaway Day Pack – I use this as a small lightweight backpack for day hikes. It’s small enough that I can keep it in my regular suitcase if I want to carry it as a second backpack.
Patagonia Refugio 28L Backpack – If you like having lots of pockets and not so much one giant main compartment this bag has multiples. It’s also on the bigger size, 28L without looking super bulky.
Fjällräven Kanken 17″ Backpack 20L – This backpack comes in multiple sizes but I personally like the larger size because of it’s laptop back pocket. Having the double handles on top makes it easy to carry as a tote as well.
PacSafe Pacsafe Slingsafe LX300 Anti-Theft Backpack – For the extremely cautious this backpack’s arm straps can be unlocked and locked around a stationary object if you need and the zippers are lockable.