The 5 Best Carry-On Backpacks For Travel in 2021

Travelling with a carry-on backpack is one of the best things in the world.


I believe that backpacks are generally a better option than suitcases for travel, especially for anyone that wants to travel on a budget or do things that are any way adventurous.


They’re much easier to walk, run or generally move around with, especially in developing countries that don’t have good footpaths, inclined ramps, escalators, elevators and other similar infrastructure that makes life easier for pedestrians.


In some cities, having a suitcase might mean that you can barely walk a single step whenever you have to move with your luggage and you’re completely dependent on taxis, three-wheelers and other local transport services to go anywhere.


And as if cities aren’t bad enough, a suitcase becomes virtually redundant outside of built-up environments; imagine trying to haul a suitcase along a pothole-ridden dirt track or forest trail crisscrossed by tree roots.


So, backpacks are the ideal way for adventurous travellers to haul around their belongings, but even better than just any generic backpack is a carry-on backpack.


A carry-on backpack is any backpack that can be taken into the passenger compartment of an airplane as hand luggage or cabin baggage. This is in contrast to a backpack that would not be permitted in the cabin and would have to go in the cargo hold of the plane as checked luggage.


Airlines have pretty stringent size and weight limits for hand luggage, so carry-on backpacks generally don’t exceed 40L in capacity. There will also be more restrictions on what items you can bring in a carry-on; sharp objects like knives and scissors can go in checked luggage but not in a carry-on, for instance.


You’re not going to be bringing along the kitchen sink in a carry-on backpack but that’s okay, because these backpacks are not designed for the type of person who is uncomfortable with minimalism.


But if you are the sort of person that’s comfortable with carrying less or even of the persuasion that less is more, a carry-on backpack is exactly what you need for your trip.


With a carry-on backpack slung over your shoulders, you can now skip the time-consuming wait at the baggage carousel after arriving at your destination.


You can keep your bag on your lap for maximum protection at all times, even in cramped vehicles. Nobody will ever ask you to pay for two seats in a minivan because your bag takes up an entire seat by itself.


You’ll also bump into people, encroach on people and knock things off shelves less often. You have a smaller footprint now that you’re not carrying a small house on your back.


Thanks to the lightness and compactness of a carry-on backpack, you’ll be more agile, more mobile and more capable of navigating tight or crowded spaces. You’ll even be more surefooted and less likely to topple over thanks to a lower centre of gravity.


Travelling with a carry-on backpack is great, but choosing one isn’t so easy. There are a plethora options in this segment of the market, and I’m sure you haven’t got the time to study and meticulously compare them all.


That’s why we’ve gone ahead and done all the time-consuming research to bring you this roundup of the best carry-on backpacks for travel in 2021. 

Most of the backpacks in our roundup are not cheap, but that's only because we've been careful to only choose backpacks of the utmost quality and durability, and all of the essential features. 

A travel backpack is one piece of gear that you definitely don't want to cut corners on because the really cheap ones are almost guaranteed to fall apart or spontaneously burst open at the seams during your trip, and it will most likely happen at a very inopportune time as well.

Without further ado then, here are the best carry-on backpacks for travel in 2021.

1. Osprey Farpoint 40 Men's Travel Backpack

Dimensions (H x W x D):  

M/L - 22 x 14 x 9 inches 

S/M - 20 x 14 x 9 inches 


M/L - 2lbs. 15 oz

S/M - 2lbs. 14 oz.

Material: 210-denier ripstop nylon/600-denier packcloth

Capacity: 40 L

Available colour(s): Black, Jasper Red, Volcanic Grey

The Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack is a highly durable, fully-featured backpack with an internal alloy frame for added stiffness and form maintenance. Many people consider it to be the best men's carry-on backpack on the market.

With a volume of 40L, the bag is carry-on compliant with the vast majority of airlines but do be warned that 40L is pushing it dangerously close to the carry-on size limits of some of the really strict European budget carriers (such as Ryanair).  

Some people have had problems with getting this backpack on board some of the stricter airlines, but this normally only happens when the bag is overloaded with items and unable to be compressed to a smaller size.

Therefore, if you want to use it successfully as a carry-on with stricter airlines, it would be best to leave plenty of spare room in the bag and not overload it.

Since this backpack comes in two different sizes, you may be wondering which size is best for you. Our advice would be that if you’re 5’6’’or under, go with the S/M and if you’re taller than 5’6’’, the M/L size will suit you best.

Features of the Farpoint 40 include high-quality dual lockable zippers, a padded haul loop, a padded side handle to carry the bag as a duffel bag, front compression straps, a padded hip belt (no pockets), a sternum strap with attached rescue whistle, a padded & ventilated back panel, two external side mesh pockets for water bottle/umbrella, external sewn-on attachment points (for a travel mug, flashlight, keyring etc.) for 

The bag supports a duffel bag mode and comes with an attachable/detachable shoulder strap made from strong webbing material for this purpose. A removable zippered back panel allows the shoulder straps and the hip belt to be tucked away out of view when using this mode. When you want to convert the bag back into a normal backpack, just unzip the panel fully, roll it up tightly and the tight roll of fabric then neatly fastens to a small Velcro patch at the base of the bag.

The Osprey Farpoint 40 has plenty of compartments and small pockets to allow you to easily keep everything organized, but not so many that you’ll end up forgetting where things are.

There are two compartments; a very spacious main compartment and a smaller front compartment, which seems to cater largely to storing electronic devices and other gadgetry.

The main compartment opens up like a suitcase (panel-loading) for easy access to the contents. It's very roomy and has a few tie-down compression straps inside, which are useful for securing your clothes to prevent them from shifting around inside the bag. It also has a small zippered mesh compartment inside, which is perfect for keeping items like socks or underwear.

The smaller front compartment is best suited to storing flatter items and has a nice padded laptop sleeve, which could easily hold a 15-inch laptop, although travelling with such a large laptop would almost defeat the purpose of carry-on only travel. We recommend an 11-inch or 13-inch laptop at the most. A Velcro tab can be flapped down over the opening of the laptop sleeve to secure the laptop in place.

There’s also a smaller zippered pouch/sleeve inside the front compartment, which is perfect for holding smaller electronic devices like tablets, iPads, Kindles etc. It could also be used to store your chargers, important cables and other technology-related items.

The bag also has a small outer zippered slash pocket on the front of the bag just above the Osprey logo, which is perfect for keeping spare change, pens, passports and any other items that travellers need to have quick and immediate access to while on the go.

Not only is this a very durable backpack that should last you a heck of a long time, it also comes with a lifetime guarantee, should there be any defect or problem with the bag. If Osprey can’t repair the bag, they’ll give you a brand new replacement backpack.

The one minor con with this backpack is that the padded laptop sleeve is situated in the front compartment. This can make the bag feel a bit heavier and also the front compartment could be forced into a curved shape if you overload the bag, thus potentially endangering your laptop. Many travellers that own this bag just don’t keep their laptop inside the front compartment and instead keep it next to their back in the main compartment, inside its own sleeve or case.

2. Outlander Packable Backpack 33L

The Outlander 33L is a very simply designed, no-frills, ultra-light and ultra-compact backpack that is ideal for minimalist travellers who are just taking a short multi-day trip and only need to pack a few clothes and other essential items. Despite being made of such lightweight thin material, it is still a surprisingly durable bag.


The bag is well within the carry-on size limits of even the strictest airlines and its compactness also means you won’t have to worry about it fitting in overhead compartments on airplanes, under seats and in overhead racks on buses and trains, in hostel lockers etc.


This backpack is also known for being 'packable', meaning it can be packed away inside a small zippered pouch, which allows you to easily carry it as an extra daypack if you normally travel with a larger primary backpack.


For the purposes of long-term travel we probably couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend this backpack as it doesn’t offer a laptop sleeve or much protective padding for other electronics, and most long term-travellers are probably going to need a laptop and other electronic devices at some point to allow for working online.

Basic Specs

Weight: 0.46 lbs

Volume: 33 litres (33L)


Recommended load limit: 10-15 lbs


Dimensions:  19” x 13” x 8.2’’  (H x W x D)


Bag material: Ripstop Nylon


Available colours (9) : Black, Green, Red, Light Blue, Dark Blue, Pink, Orange, Purple, Grey

The positives

The Outlander doesn't go overboard with luxury features but does manage to get it right when it comes to the basic elements that every good backpack should have.

Ultra-light and ultra-compact


Weighing in at a paltry 0.5 lbs, this bag’s ultra-lightness is one of its key selling points and you’ll be hard-pushed to find a lighter backpack than this at 33L capacity.

Less weight in the backpack itself means that you can carry more of the items you love without exceeding those irksome carry-on weight limits that many airlines enforce.


The bag also packs down really small and can be stashed away inside the small pouch that it first arrives in, which is really handy if you’re not yet ready to go carry-on only and you need a lightweight daypack in addition to your primary backpack.


Multiple compartments & pockets


The Outlander 33L definitely has enough compartments, pouches and pockets to keep your stuff organized.


There are two primary compartments; a very spacious main compartment, which also has a decent-sized zippered dangling pouch at the top (for holding valuables) and a somewhat smaller front compartment.


There is also a small zippered slash pocket at the front of the bag for stashing spare change, pens, passport and any other items that you need to have quick and immediate access to.


The bag also features two stretchy external mesh pockets, one on each side, which are deep enough and roomy enough to hold a large water bottle or an umbrella if you’re doing a day-hike or just exploring around town all day.


Durable & water-resistant material


The bag is made from a very lightweight but durable Ripstop nylon material, which will prevent budding tears in the fabric from worsening. The fabric is also quite water-resistant and will stand up well to a few light splashes or light rain, but you wouldn’t want to trust it to keep your contents dry in a heavy downpour.


Adjustable padded shoulder straps


The adjustable shoulder straps on this bag are not very thickly padded, but what padding they do have seems to be sufficient and the bag is still very comfortable to wear, even when fully loaded with heavy gear. The straps also have a mesh covering for added ventilation.


Dual-lockable abrasion-resistant SBS zippers


The two primary compartments of the backpack feature reliable dual-lockable zippers that can both easily be locked if you carry your own luggage lock.The zipper pulls are made of strong webbing material and are long enough to give you good leverage.


Haul Loop


The haul loop at the top of this bag is nothing special – just a loop of webbing but it is functional and well stitched, allowing you to hang the bag from a hook off the floor or easily shift it to a new location if necessary.


Lifetime Warranty


The backpack comes with a lifetime warranty so you should be covered if you buy a defective product. As the lifetime warranty is described on Amazon - exchange, return - whatever it takes.

Very inexpensive


Normally priced below $20, this is the perfect backpack for those on a tight budget and is really excellent value for money. That said, having limited money to spend is definitely not the only reason to choose this backpack and it could still be a great choice for those with more money to spend.

The downsides

As might be expected for such an inexpensive backpack, a few compromises have been made, which may or may not matter to you, depending on what your needs are as a traveller. Here are the main downsides we found with this backpack:

No laptop sleeve or cushioning for fragile items


This backpack unfortunately does not offer an in-built laptop sleeve, which may be a bit of a deal-breaker for some digital nomads and other travellers that need to travel with a laptop.


You can still of course protect your laptop with its own separate case or neoprene sleeve, but don’t expect the bag itself to offer it much additional protection or to allow you to segregate your laptop from the rest of the contents.


The bag offers no padding around the back or other areas either, so any other fragile electronics or other vulnerable items that you want to carry inside this backpack should have their own protection and you definitely shouldn’t rely on the bag to provide it.


Not very suitable for carrying heavy loads


The bag material is very strong and durable and the stitching is of high quality, but because the bag lacks some of the extra features like a hip belt and sternum strap, it may not be very comfortable when carrying heavy loads for prolonged periods.

You therefore wouldn’t want to overload this bag too much with heavy camping gear or electronics for the sake of your back and shoulders.

That said, this will really only affect people who like to travel with 20lbs or more, which is not what carry-on travel is about in the first place.


Back panel lacks cushioning and ventilation


The absence of any cushioning in the back panel means that you’ll need to be a bit more careful about how you arrange items inside the bag, ensuring that there are no lumpy or sharp items that could potentially jab into your back through the unpadded material.


The lack of any ventilation technology in the back panel could also be a minor issue for some, especially if you plan to do a lot of sweaty day hiking with this backpack.

3. Timbuk 2 Uptown Travel Backpack

Although not the most aesthetically pleasing bag on the market, the Timbuk 2 Uptown Travel Backpack makes up for that by being a highly functional and practical backpack.

At 30L capacity, this is a top-notch carry-on backpack that has been specially designed for lightweight travellers that fly a lot. It’s also a backpack that places a lot of emphasis on organization for all your items and excellent physical protection for your electronic devices.


The special TSA-compliant electronics compartment will be very handy for travellers when passing through airport security and the bag’s compact size means that even the strictest budget airlines will be very happy to see you taking it on board. You also should never have problems stowing it under seats or in overhead racks on buses, trains etc.

Basic specs

Weight: 2.2 lbs

Volume: 30 litres


Recommended load limit: 20-30 lbs


Dimensions: 19.5” x 11.2” x 6.5’’  (H x W x D)


Bag material: Ballistic Nylon

The positives

There's a lot to love about the Timbuk 2 Uptown; it covers all the bases very well and has the notable TSA-compliant electronics compartment in the back, which will allow frequent fliers to breeze through security while everybody else struggles.

Excels in organization


This backpack has four primary compartments although one of these is an electronics compartment, designed specifically for your laptop and other electronic devices.


The two outermost (towards the front) compartments feature organizer panels inside them, which consist of a generous number of small zippered and non-zippered pockets, making this a pretty unbeatable backpack where organization and compartmentalization is concerned.


You can distribute your chargers, cables, keys, external hard drive, USB stick and any other small items throughout all of these extra organizer pockets. The outermost of these two organizer compartments is also padded, which makes it perfect for keeping any sensitive electronic devices like a tablet or an iPad.


Moving towards the back of the bag, the third compartment is designed to be the main compartment and is the most spacious of all the compartments. It’s just a roomy compartment for your items with no additional organizer pockets or fancy extras.


The bag also features a small zippered slash pocket at the front, which is perfect for those smaller items like spare change, passport, boarding pass etc. that you need to access in a hurry.


There is additionally a small crush-proof and tricot-lined floating top pocket, which is designed for items like your smartphone or sunglasses.


There is also a single external mesh pocket found on one side of the bag, which is stretchy and is very handy for keeping an umbrella, poncho or water bottle.


Padded and well-ventilated back


The bag has a generously padded back panel with mesh covering, which not only increases your comfort while wearing it but also gives extra protection to any fragile or vulnerable items you may be carrying.


A central ventilation chimney (air channel) runs centrally through the padded back panel and four side ventilation channels (like tributaries) also connect to this central channel, meaning that the bag provides excellent ventilation for your back. The central ventilation chimney also provides a hollow space for your spine to occupy so that the weight of the bag is never pressing directly on it.


TSA-compliant padded electronics compartment


The bags fourth compartment, located right next to your back is well padded and is specially designed for your electronics. It has a protective sleeve for safeguarding your laptop (up to 15’’ laptop) and another protective pouch opposite the laptop sleeve, which is perfect for protecting your kindle or iPad.

A Velcro tab can be secured down over the laptop sleeve to keep your laptop firmly in place.


This fourth compartment is also TSA-compliant, which means that while passing through airport security, you can just fully unzip the compartment, lay the bag down flat on its front and let it pass along the conveyor belt and through the X-ray machine. Once the bag comes through the other side of the X-ray machine, all you have to do is quickly zip the electronics compartment back up and be on your way.


Normally you would have to go through the whole rigmarole of removing your laptop from an overstuffed bag, placing it in a plastic bin, running it through the machine and then stuffing it back into the bag again but the Timbuk 2 Uptown backpack will save you all of that hassle.


Adjustable padded shoulder straps


The shoulder straps for this backpack are very well-cushioned and mesh-covered, making the bag very comfortable to wear, even with heavier loads.


The straps distribute the weight very evenly across the shoulders without pinching you at any specific spots and can also be adjusted so that you can wear the bag in the way that feels most comfortable to you.


There is also a bottle opener attached to one of the straps, although many people may find this to be a bit of a gimmick.


High quality dual-lockable zippers


All of the primary compartments of this backpack, including that all-important electronics compartment, come with high quality dual-lockable zippers so you can easily secure your valuables from pickpockets with a luggage lock. The sliders have plastic cylinder-shaped zipper pulls to give you plenty of leverage.


Sternum strap


The bag has an adjustable sternum strap, which will be a welcome feature for those travellers that want to load the bag up with a bit more weight.

The sternum strap seems to be a bit limited in terms of adjustability however and some people may find it difficult to tighten or loosen it to the degree they need.


Two carry handles


It’s good to see that the bag does have a haul loop at the top (albeit just an unpadded loop of webbing) so you can easily grab it off the floor, quickly shift it to a new location or even hang it from a hook up off the ground.


There’s also a loop of webbing on the side of the backpack to allow you to carry it like a briefcase, should the need arise.


Vista loop for Blinky bike light


There’s a small loop of webbing on the front face of the bag for attaching a blinky bike light to let traffic know you’re there at night.  It’s a nice feature to have if you’re a cyclist or if you plan to do any cycling with the bag.

The downsides

The Timbuk 2 does come with a few very minor downsides, but none of them should be major deal-breakers for most travellers.

No in-built raincover


Although the backpack is made of a water-resistant fabric, it’d be nice to see a raincover included for some additional protection against rain and splashes. You can of course still buy a raincover for the backpack separately so this is only a minor issue.


No matching external mesh pocket


The Timbuk 2 Uptown backpack has no matching external mesh pocket on the other side, which is not disastrous but it would be nice to be able to carry a water bottle on both sides to balance out the weight betterand maybe also just for better aesthetics and symmetry.


Sloped base


One minor downside with this backpack is that the base is not completely flat and slopes in such a way that the bag tends to lean or fall forwards onto its front when you set it down on the ground.


If you add a laptop or plenty of weight to the back of the bag it should help counteract this but it still may be an inconvenience for some that the bag won’t always stand up vertically and will pitch at a significant angle.

Don't worry about this too much though; it usually just leans and shouldn't actually fall over if you pack it correctly.

4. Osprey Ozone 35L Travel Pack

The Osprey Ozone 35L Travel Packis another very lightweight backpack (although not as light as the Outlander 33L) and at 35L capacity, we would consider it to be around that sweet-spot size for a carry-on backpack.

The bag is not quite large enough to raise concerns about carry-on size restrictions or encourage you to overpack and is also not so small that you would have to ruthlessly stuff items to make them all fit inside the bag.

Basic specs

Weight: 1.87 lbs


Volume/Capacity: 35 litres


Recommended load limit:


Dimensions: 19” x 12” x 11’’  (H x W x D)


Bag material: 210D Nylon


Available colours (3): Black, Hoodoo Red, Summit Blue

The positives

The Osprey Ozone contends for the throne with its near ideal size, aesthetically pleasing appearance and it's padded hip belt, which will be irrelevant to some travellers but much welcomed by those that prefer to travel with heavier loads. In addition to these features that set it apart, it also does a wonderful job at covering all the bases.

Multiple compartments & pockets


The bag has three primary compartments.


The outermost of these compartments at the front of the bag is an organizer compartment and has within one small mesh pocket, another small fabric pocket directly behind this and a small zippered pocket. It also has a row of three elastic pen-holder loops.


The middle compartment of the bag is very well-cushioned, uses a heat-embossed fabric and is specifically designed for protecting a tablet or iPad from knocks and scratches.


The main compartment of the bag opens up front-loading style (although it'd be nice if the zippers opened a little further) and is very spacious.

Inside here, against the back panel of the bag there’s a very generously cushioned laptop sleeve with a Velcro tab to flap down over the opening and secure the device in place. The sleeve is easily large enough to fit a 15’’ inch laptop.


Built into the wall of the laptop sleeve is a secondsleeve – this one zippered, which could be a great place to keep documents or other fairly flat items like magazines etc.


Adjustable sternum strap with rescue whistle


It’s always good to have a sternum strap to ease the pressure off your shoulders and the rescue whistle is a plus for travellers that do a lot of hiking in remote areas.


Adjustable padded hip belt


This bag does have an adjustable hip belt, although the actual hip pads that wrap around your hips are very small and only moderately cushioned. However, that won't be a big deal for most travellers since it’s a reasonably small backpack and you normally won't even require the hip belt anyway if you know how to pack correctly.


Two external compression straps


Like the Farpoint 40, this backpack comes with external compression straps to prevent the contents from shifting around, thus improving your stability.

There are four compression straps in total; one at the top and one at the bottom on each side of the backpack. The two lower straps do pass around the water bottle pouches but shouldn’t cause too much of a problem.


Padded & ventilated back panel


The Osprey Ozone 35L comes with a nice mesh-covered and well-cushioned back panel, which should help with comfort under heavier loads and also with air circulation around your back to prevent excessive sweating.


Adjustable padded shoulder straps


The fully adjustable shoulder straps on this backpack are not the most cushioned we’ve come across but they’re as padded as they need to be. You’ll certainly find the bag wears very comfortably and distributes the weight evenly across your shoulders without any pinching in specific areas.


External side mesh pockets


The bag has two stretchy external mesh pockets, one on each side, which are useful for keeping a water bottle, poncho or umbrella. The pockets angle forwards slightly, to make it easier for you to reach for your water bottle or umbrella without having to take off the backpack.


High quality dual lockable zippers


The high quality dual zippers that open and close the bag'sprimary compartments are lockable with a luggage lock if security is a concern. Loops of cord, partially sheathed in plastic, act as zipper pulls to give you decent leverage.


Top haul loop


The bag has a nice haul loop, slightly thicker and more padded than what you’ll find on some other cheaper backpacks. You’ll be able to comfortably shift the back to a new location or hang the bag from a hook to keep it off the floor.

5. Tortuga Air Travel Backpack 27-35L

At 27L capacity, the Tortuga Air Travel Backpack is an ideal carry-on backpack and even so for the strictest budget airlines (such as Ryanair). It also has the ability to be expanded to 35L by means of an expansion zipper and at this capacity will still work perfectly as a carry-on bag for all but the most pedantic airlines.


The Tortuga Air is a perfect carry-on backpack for a short multi-day travel adventure but could also easily be used as a long-term travel backpack, provided you know how to pack light.

Basic specs

Weight: 2.4 lbs


Volume: 27 litres to 35 litres (27L -35L)


Recommended load limit: 25-30 lbs


Dimensions: 19” x 12.5” x 7’’  (H x W x D)


Bag material: 100% Nylon


Available colours (1): Black

The positives

The Tortuga Air backpack doesn't really do anything wrong and with its panel-loading design and expandable volume, this backpack has some features that some of the other backpacks on this list would envy.

Panel-loading design


This main compartment of this backpack opens up just like a suitcase (or book), making it very easy to access to the contents. No need to root down through layers of stuff to find that pair of socks at the bottom of the bag.


Expandable size


This backpack has the unusual ability to expand by 2 inches (5cm) if extra space is required, thus increasing it’s volume by an impressive 30%, from 27L to 35L capacity. This is very simply achieved by a unzipping an expansion zipper that runs around the backpack near the front.


Multiple compartments and pockets


The backpack has four primary compartments, one of which is an electronicscompartment found next to the back panel.


The zippered front compartment functions primarily as an organizer compartment. There’s plenty of space inside the compartment itself for a few small items, as well as an organizer panel with numerous small pockets, which can perfectly fit smaller items like keys, cards, smartphone, passport etc. There are also some pen-holders and a nice little zippered pocket inside here too.


Due to the panel-loading design, the bag opens up like a clamshell or suitcase (unzips in the middle) to reveal the large main compartment. Inside here you’ll find a large empty space with two tie-down compression straps to keep your clothes from shifting around inside the bag.


The other half of the backpack that hinges open also provides a breathable zipperedmesh compartment on its inner face, with plenty of additional space inside for extra clothes or dirty clothes (if you want to use it as a place to segregate your dirty laundry).


The electronics compartment at the rear of the bag is well padded and is opened by a zipper that runs along the side of the backpack. The compartment has plenty of space to fit a 15-inch laptop and also features another small pouch that seems to be designed to hold a tablet or e-reader up to 10 inches or so. There is no laptop sleeve as such inside here, as the compartment itself is designed to hold your laptop.


The bag also has a small hangingtop pocketlike the Timbuk 2 Uptown, which is perfect for keeping your smartphone, sunglasses and any other fragile items that need to be readily accessed.


On the outside, you’ll find a small zippered side pocket on one side only, great for holding a water bottle, poncho or umbrella once unzipped. When zipped up it won’t fit those larger items but you can still use it for smaller items like keys, passport etc.


Adjustable padded shoulder straps


The backpack comes with fully adjustable and well-padded shoulder straps, which distribute the weight very evenly and feel very comfortable across the shoulders, even when the bag is heavily loaded or carried for prolonged periods of time.


Padded and well-ventilated back panel


Another plus with this backpack is the very nicely padded back panel, keeping your back comfortable under heavier loads and also helping to physically protect any fragile items that you’re travelling with. Many of the cheaper or lower quality backpacks omit this important feature.


The padding on the back panel comes as two separate padded areas (one on each side) with a spine-relief channel running between them. This channel also functions as a ventilation chimney to keep air circulating around your back and reduce sweating.


Sternum strap


The bag comes with a sternum strap to help keep those shoulder straps pulled close together and to shift some of the weight off your shoulders if at any point they start to ache. Although the bag lacks a hip belt, this shouldn’t be much of a problem as you generally won’t be loading it heavy enough to really require one.


High quality dual lockable zippers


The main compartment, front compartment and electronics compartment all come with high-quality dual lockable zippers, which can be secured with a luggage lock to help protect you against pickpocket theft. Loops of cord are attached to all the zipper sliders and the loops terminate in plastic pull-tabs, making it easy to undo or close the zippers.


Side compression straps


The bag comes with two compression straps, one on each side of the backpack and these really just compress the bag at the sides and help to prevent the contents from shifting around. On the side of the bag with the zippered outer pocket, the compression strap can also be used to help secure your water bottle and ensure it doesn’t fall out.


Padded top haul loop


Unlike some other backpacks, which only have a loop of thin webbing for a carry loop, the Tortuga Air comes with a nicely padded handle attached to the top of the backpack, allowing you to comfortably shift the bag to a new location or hang it from a hook off the floor.

How to choose the right carry-on backpack for you

When choosing a carry-on backpack for travel you must first consider why you need one in the first place. You need a travel backpack to perform four main functions:

1. To enable you to comfortably and easily carry your essential personal belongings

2. To protect those items from theft, physical damage and inclement weather

3. To keep your personal belongings organized and easily accessible for whenever you need to take them out.

4. To withstand the wear and tear of life on the road

Now, you may not be able to find a backpack that does all of these things perfectly. That’s okay though. The goal is to find a backpack that fulfils all of your priorities, without compromising too much on the other features that are less important to you, but still matter.

With that in mind, here are the most important factors that you need to keep in mind when choosing a carry-on backpack for travel. 

1. Comfort & mobility

Let’s now look at the first thing a backpack should do. The right carry-on backpack should allow you to comfortably and easily transport your essential items. We'll now take a look at some of the variables you need to consider in order to ensure that your backpack will be comfortable to wear and won't hamper your mobility on the road. 

Frame type

There are three main backpack frame types; internal frame, external frame & frameless. 

Internal frame and external frame backpacks possess a metal or plastic frame to provide rigidity and structure. They are normally too large to be taken onto an airplane as hand luggage and are mainly used for hiking and trekking.

Frameless backpacks possess no frame at all and the structure or rigidity is provided by the items that you pack into the bag. They are generally lighter, smaller and simpler in their design than framed backpacks. They also tend to be more stylish and aesthetically pleasing. They grant unrivalled mobility and their simpler design generally means less complications and less problems.

The only drawback of the frameless backpack is its reduced load carrying capacity. You generally don't want to exceed loads of 20 lbs with one of these backpacks. With that said, most travellers won't need to carry around 20 lbs of gear anyway so this is only a drawback if you're planning to buy one of these for serious hiking.

When choosing a carry-on backpack, you'll generally be focusing on frameless backpack options, since these are small enough to be permitted on board an aircraft.

Volume (capacity)

Carry-on backpacks have to be quite small and compact to be permitted in the cabins of airlines. For this reason, the upper volume limit for a carry-on backpack is about 40-45 L. 

Backpacks that exceed this capacity are likely to cause you problems with the airline and you may be forced to check them in, so I would stay at or below 40L to always be on the safe side. 

I've found that 35L of capacity is the sweet spot for me; not too big and not too small. I'm a person who can be on the road for months at a stretch, but if you're only going to be taking very short trips, you might be okay with a 25L backpack or smaller. 

It really depends on what items you like to pack (see what we pack in our carry-on packing list), as well as where you're travelling to. Colder regions will probably require you to pack more warm, bulky clothing, so you may want to buy a bigger backpack if you plan to do a lot of travelling in such parts of the world. 


Deep-bodied backpacks can cause discomfort or even back pain, because they shift the centre of gravity farther away from the body, thus forcing the wearer to lean forwards more to maintain balance.

It’s also easier to accidentally knock into people or knock items off shelves with this type of backpack. Shallow, longer backpacks are a better choice….as long as they aren’t too long, which we'll discuss next.

Fit (length)

You generally won't have to worry too much about fit when choosing a carry-on backpack, as smaller-capacity backpacks are unlikely to be disproportionately long in relation to your torso, which is something that can cause wearers a lot of discomfort. 

However, it's worth in keeping in mind anyway that a backpack should never be much longer than the distance between your C7 vertebra (the one at the base of your neck that sticks out the most when you tilt your head forward) and the top of your pelvis (where you can feel your hip bones). It's okay if it's shorter than this distance though.

Shoulder straps

A good carry-on backpack will have reasonably wide, outward-curving shoulder straps with plenty of padding or foam cushioning to distribute the load over a larger surface area, thereby ensuring comfort.

Ample cushioning in the shoulder straps is especially critical if the backpack doesn't have a hip belt. Shoulder straps should also be fully adjustable so that you can wear the bag in the way the feels most comfortable for you.

Back padding

A good carry-on backpack will also provide ample foam padding in the areas where the backpack makes contact with your back. The padding should not be too compressible and should firm enough to protect your back from getting poked by badly arranged or pointed objects inside the bag.

Hip belt

A padded hip belt is important if your bag is going to be quite heavy, as it allows you to transfer most of the uncomfortable weight off your back and shoulders and onto your hips. The hip belt should sit just above your iliac crest (top of your sternum). It should be also be adjustable to better conform to your waist size.

Sternum strap

In addition to a hip belt, some backpacks offer a sternum or chest strap, which is again useful to have if you're going to be bearing fairly substantial loads for prolonged durations.

This strap helps to take some of the weight off your shoulders and also pulls the shoulder straps towards each other, stopping them from sliding sideways off your shoulders. Make sure it has good vertical range (important for girls) so you can raise it up high enough that it doesn't impair your breathing.


Badly designed backpacks with poor ventilation will leave your back soaked with sweat, especially after walking the streets in hot countries or after having exerted yourself.

A good backpack however will allow for ample air circulation behind your back, keeping it cool while you walk. Backpacks achieve this in a number of ways.


- By having your back make contact with an outer mesh ventilation layer (known as an ‘air-mesh’), which leaves a gap for air to flow between your back and the bag.


- Some have two parallel padded regions running either side of your spine, which create a hollow channel (ventilation chimney) between them, allowing air to flow along the channel. 


- Padded regions are also often covered with a mesh layer to allow for air circulation.

Compression straps

Although not an essential feature, compression straps, normally situated on the sides of a backpack, will help to compress the contents and stop them from shifting around. This will in turn help improve your balance and mobility while wearing the bag. 

Some backpacks have a weird design flaw where the compression straps run right across the external side pockets, which means that when you're actively using the straps, you can't use the pocket to carry a water bottle or umbrella (or anything else for that matter) at the same time. Watch out for backpacks with this issue. 

Haul loop

The small loop of webbing or padded material found at the top of most backpacks is useful for quickly shifting your backpack to a new resting place or carrying it like a briefcase in very cramped situations. Make sure that the backpack you’re buying has one and that the loop looks strong and well stitched.

2. Protection from theft, inclement weather and physical damage

Now we'll take a look at the second thing you need a backpack to do. A good backpack should protect its contents from theft, physical damage, and inclement weather.

Anti-theft features

Most carry-on backpacks fail to incorporate special security features that are aimed at thwarting theft. They'll usually have zipper pulls that can be padlocked together with a small luggage lock, but that's about as far as they go on the security front.

Fortunately, there is a specific breed of carry-on backpacks called anti-theft backpacks that incorporate several innovative anti-theft measures. 

With unusual no-access-front designs and security features like puncture-resistant zippers, interlocking zipper sliders, slash-resistant shoulder straps and body panels, steel cable tethering systems and RFID-blocking pockets, these backpacks are designed to soothe the nerves of the extra paranoid traveller. See our article on the best anti-theft backpacks for travel for comprehensive information on this subject.

Weather protection

If you're going to be carrying any expensive electronics or important documents in your carry-on backpack, it should definitely be made from a fabric with some degree of water-resistance in case you get caught in a downpour. 

So which fabrics are water resistant? Well most of them offer some degree of water resistance. Manufacturers often coat nylon fabrics with PU (polyurethane) or silicone to improve upon their natural water resistance. 

Similarly, leather backpacks can be water-resistant if the leather has been waxed or coated. 

It’s hard to know exactly how water-resistant a backpack is without doing a test. Pouring a few cups of water over it should tell you fairly quickly if the fabric is water-resistant or not.


Thicker material will also take longer for the rain to soak through so make sure the material isn’t too thin, whether it’s nylon, leather, polyester or something else.


Note that the overwhelming majority of backpack fabrics are only water-resistant, not water-proof. This isn’t a problem for most travellers though as they’ll rarely be at risk of submerging the backpack underwater. If you do need to fully waterproof gear you should buy a special dry bag for that. 

Since backpacks aren't waterproof, a carry-on backpack should also have a built-in raincover that can be quickly deployed when it's raining. All is not lost if a backpack doesn't have built-in raincover, as you can purchase one separately, but I still usually consider a built-in cover to be an essential feature.

As for UV resistance, it's generally not as important as water resistance as it can often take years for it to show its effects. Just bear in mind that nylon and kevlar are more prone to UV degradation than most other backpack materials. There are various sprays available to help protect UV sensitive materials from UV radiation and improve their lifespan.

Physical protection

Carry-on backpacks do inevitably take a few hard knocks on the road, even if you’re being extra careful. For example, they might occasionally fall to the ground from the overhead luggage rack on a bus, or get bumped into by moving pedestrians or even speeding motorcycles in crowded scenarios. You might also drop your bag carelessly on the ground at times, forgetting that you have fragile or sensitive items inside. 

Just as it influences the level of water resistance, the type of material that the bag is manufactured from affects the amount of protection it affords from knocks and impacts. We recommend natural veg-tanned leather as the material of choice if physical protection will be very important on your trip. Also remember, if you want more protection, thicker is better. 

Padding also plays a crucial role here, and that back padding that provides comfort while wearing the bag will also act as a cushion if the bag is impacted on that side. If you're carrying a laptop it's very important to ensure that the backpack has a generously padded laptop sleeve, as this is one item that you don't want to take any chances with. 

3. Organization & accessibility

The third important thing you need a backpack to do is to keep your items well organized and easily accessible whenever you need them.


A good backpack will provide the means to keep your belongings organized so that you can locate items quickly and access them easily without it always being like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Consider the following features in backpacks with regard to keeping your stuff organized and easily accessible.

Laptop sleeve

A dedicated laptop sleeve is important for many travellers, not only to protect your device from impacts and liquid spills but also for better organization and easy retrieval when you need to take out your laptop at airport security or any other time you need to take it out. So if you're bringing a laptop, make sure that you chose a backpack that has one of these.

Compartments, pockets and penholders

A backpack with multiple compartments, a quick-access front pocket, a handful of inner pockets and couple of penholders is useful for organizing your gear, but you shouldn't keep any valuables inside the more accessible outer pockets if pickpocketing is a concern. Valuables are best locked away deep inside the main compartment when thieves might be around. 

On the other hand, too many compartments and pockets might be detrimental, as they might make it difficult for you to remember which section you kept a specific item in.

External side pockets

Often made from stretchy material, external side pockets are designed to allow you to carry a water bottle or umbrella. I consider external side pockets to be a pretty indispensable carry-on backpack feature, as without them you'd have to carry your water bottle in your hand the entire time while hiking or sightseeing in hot weather. 

You don't want to risk carrying it inside your backpack because of the risk of leakage or spillage, especially if there are electronics inside the bag. Make sure though that the pockets are large enough to fit your water bottle as they can be ridiculously and inexplicably small in some bags.

Hip belt pockets

For a place to store smaller items like your phone or a map for easy access, hip belt pockets are a useful feature to look out for in backpacks that include a hip belt.

Loading method (top-loading vs front-loading)

Most carry-on backpacks employ a top-loading design, where you can only access the internal contents from the top by opening the zippers of the main compartments. 

This design doesn't work too badly for a carry-on backpack because you usually won't have to empty out the whole bag just to reach an item at the bottom, but most travellers would still benefit from a backpack that has a front-loading or panel-loading design; this means that one of the panels opens like that of a suitcase, making it easier to see all the contents at once and find what you're looking for.


The anti-theft backpacks that we mentioned previously use the panel-loading design but you can also find panel-loaders where the opening panel is located at the front. An excellent example of one of these is this backpack made by Tortuga. 

4. Durability 

The fourth and final thing you need a carry-on backpack to do is to withstand the inevitable wear and tear of life on the road.


Durability is a super important thing to consider when choosing a carry-on backpack for travelling with. Nobody wants to purchase a backpack, treat it with care and yet still find that it falls apart a few weeks later. 

You want something that’ll last for a few years and withstand the inevitable wear and tear from life on the road. Here are a few of the factors that will help you to determine how durable a backpack is going to be before your purchase it.


The material or fabric the backpack is manufactured obviously plays a major role in determining the durability.


We’ve owned backpacks that lasted little more than a few weeks before falling apart because they were made from weak materials. On the other hand, many backpack materials can be very durable and can last for years if you treat them well.

The main properties of the material to consider when assessing it's durability are its thickness, abrasion resistance, puncture resistance, tensile strength, tenacity (tear resistance), UV resistance and rot-resistance.


Here is a brief comparison of several backpack materials and how they compare with regard to a few of these properties:

Cotton (canvas)


Pros: Inexpensive, Reasonably durable

Cons: Heavy, Weaker than Nylon, Not very abrasion-resistant, Prone to rotting & mildew

‘Pack Cloth’ Nylon


Pros: Strong, Water resistant, Lightweight, Abrasion resistant, Puncture resistant

Cons: Not very breathable, slightly heavier than other nylon fabrics, not very durable

Ripstop Nylon


Pros: Strong, Fabric prevents a rip, tear or hole from worsening, lightweight, water-resistant, abrasion resistant,

Cons: Not puncture resistant, not very durable

Polyester Pack Cloth


Pros: Fabric resists UV degradation

Cons: Weaker than nylon, not rip-proof, often brightly coloured (attracts attention), not very durable



Pros: Strong, stylish, very durable

Cons: Requires more care & maintenance than synthetics, heavy, expensive

Cordura Nylon (Air-treated nylon) – most popular backpack fabric


Pros: Lightweight, Abrasion Resistant

Cons: Not very durable, Slightly less water-resistant than other nylon fabrics



Pros: Extremely strong (possibly the strongest fabric in the world), abrasion resistant

Cons: Very Expensive

Whatever material you choose, remember that the thicker a fabric becomes, the higher the tensile strength and the greater the resistance to tearing.


When looking at one particular fabric, like nylon for example, a unit called the denier is a useful proxy for the strength of the fabric. The denier is a measure the fineness of the yarn used in the fabric (measures the density in grams of the yarn per 9,000 metres of length). For example, a nylon fabric of 800 deniers will be stronger than one of 400 deniers. You can’t use deniers to accurately compare strength across different fabrics however ,so just bear that in mind.

Quality of stitching

The quality of the stitching is also extremely important in determining the lifespan of a backpack. No traveller wants to spend all his time stitching up holes and tears in his backpack.

First, examine the hidden stitching along all the insides of the major seams. Are you able to easily count the number of stitches per inch? 

If so, that’s not a good thing. Less than 6 stitches per inch is too few while going beyond 10 stitches per inch starts to reduce the strength of the fabric. 8-10 stitches per inch is the optimal number and what you're hoping to see.


Examine the areas of the bag where extra reinforcement is needed; areas like the haul loop attachment points and especially the attachment points of the shoulder straps. Look for zig-zag stitching or an extra row of stitches here, as this area is a common point of failure for many travellers.


The type and quality of the zippers in a carry-on backpack are not to be overlooked. A broken, rusted or badly damaged zipper can often mean the end of the life of the bag.

Metal tooth (metal chain) zippers like steel or aluminium ones are a major no-no for a carry-on backpack that you're going to be travelling and spending time outdoors with, as metal zippers rust easily when exposed to rain. They also have a strong tendency to snag everything in them (clothes, skin etc.).

Most backpacks nowadays use coil zippers. These use a nylon monofilament that's coiled to form the zipper teeth. Coil zippers are highly flexible and are thus best for applications where the zipper must follow a curved path. Coil zippers have good water resistance, decent strength and they're easy to repair. One downside with coil zippers is that they easily jam if sand or grit gets between the teeth.

Some backpacks use Vislon or molded plastic tooth zippers. These are the ones with large plastic teeth that are fused to the zipper tape. They're stronger and more durable than coil zippers and less susceptible to jamming from dirt and grit.  The major problem with the Vislon zippers is that if you lose or damage a single tooth, the entire zipper is ruined.

As for which brand of zippers you can count on, YKK zippers, made by the Japanese behemoth company YKK, are widely believed to be the world’s best zippers so it’s a good idea to choose a backpack fitted with these.

And now we'd like to hear from you. Do you prefer to travel with a carry-on backpack and if so, why? Do you use a backpack model that we didn't mention here? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below and we'll reply to you as soon as we can. Thanks for reading!

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