The 15 Best Carry-On Backpacks For Travel in 2021 (Complete Buyer's Guide)

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


When it comes to carrying your essentials on the road, I believe that backpacks are generally a better option than suitcases, especially for anyone that wants to travel on a budget or do things that are any way adventurous.


Backpacks are much easier to walk, run or generally move around with, especially in developing countries that might lack proper footpaths, inclined ramps, escalators, elevators and other similar infrastructure that makes life easier for travellers with wheeled luggage.


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


As if cities weren'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 carry 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 40-45 L in volume. 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.


Obviously, 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 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 when you travel with a carry-on backpack. You'll 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 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. 

​Overview: The 15 Best Carry-On Backpacks For Travel in 2021

1. Osprey Farpoint 40 Men's Travel Backpack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 21.3 x 13.8 x 9 inches 
  • Weight: 3.17 lbs. (1.4 kg)

  • Volume: 40L

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

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

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2. Osprey Fairview 40 Women's Travel Backpack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D):  21.3 x 13.8 x 9 inches

  • Weight: 3.17 lbs (1.4 kg)

  • Volume: 40 L 

  • Material: 210-denier nylon mini hex diamond ripstop

  • Available colour(s): Black, Rainforest Green, Misty Grey

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3. Osprey Porter 30 Travel Backpack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 19” x 13” x 10’’ 
  • Weight: 1.3 kg (2.87 lbs)

  • Volume: 30 L

  • Material: 500D Recycled Nylon Packcloth 

  • Available colour(s): Black, Castle Grey, Kraken Blue, Mineral Teal

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4. Tortuga Setout Divide Travel Backpack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 20 x 13 x 6 inches

  • Weight: 3.8 lbs

  • Volume: 26L to 34L

  • Material: 900D polyester 

  • Available colour(s): Heather Grey

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5. Aer Travel Pack 2 (33L)

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 21.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches

  • Volume: 33 L

  • Weight: 3.7 lbs (1.68 kg)

  • Material: 1680 D Cordura Ballistic Nylon

  • Available colour(s): Gray, Navy, X-Pac

6. Peak Design Travel Backpack (30-45L)

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 22 x 13 x 9 inches

  • Volume: 35 - 45 L

  • Weight: 4.52 lbs (2.05 kg)

  • Material: 400D 100% recycled nylon canvas

  • Available colour(s): Black, Sage

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7. Nomatic Travel Bag (30 or 40L)

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 
    30L - 21 x 9x 14 inches  
    40L – 19 x 9 x 13 inches

  • Weight:
    30L - 3.3 lbs (1.45 kg)
    40L – 3.4 lbs (1.54 kg)

  • Volume: 30L or 40L (two options)

  • Material: Waterproof tarpaulin, Ballistic Nylon

  • Available colour(s): Black

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8. Minaal Carry-On 3.0 Travel Backpack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 21.6 x 13.7 x 7.87 inches

  • Volume: 35L

  • Weight: 3.12 lbs (1.41 kg)

  • Material: 600 D Picton recycled yarn, hair & dust resistant

  • Available colour (s): Aoraki Black, Vancouver Grey

9. Heimplanet Transit Line Travel Pack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 21 x 13 x 7 inches

  • Volume: 34 L

  • Weight: 3.4 lbs (1.66 kg)

  • Material: 800D Nylon, 600D polypropylene blend

  • Available colour(s): Black, Castlerock Grey

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10. Thule Subterra 34L Travel Backpack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 20.5 x 12 x 9 inches

  • Volume: 34L

  • Weight: 2.75 lbs (1.25 kg)

  • Material: 800 D Nylon

  • Available colour(s): Black, Mineral (blue), Ember (red)

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11. GoRuck GR3 45L Travel Backpack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 22 x 14 x 9 inches

  • Volume: 45 L

  • Weight: 2.34 kg (5.15 lbs)

  • Material: 1000D Cordura Nylon

  • Available colour(s): Black, Steel

12. Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Travel Pack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 20 x 12 x 8 inches

  • Volume: 35 L

  • Weight: 3 lbs 8 oz (1.6 kg) without accessories, 4 lbs 10 oz (2.1 kg) with accessories

  • Material: TPU-coated 1000D polyester, 840D Ballistic Nylon

    Available colour(s): Black, Evergreen, Spruce, Key Lime, Fiery Red and Indigo

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13. Riutbag X35 Large Anti-Theft Backpack

  • Dimensions (L x W x H): 13.7 x 9.8 x 19.7 in (35 x 25 x 50 cm)

  • Volume: Expandable up to 35L

  • Weight: 2.95 lbs (1.34 kg)

  • Material: 1000D Cordura Nylon

  • Available colour(s): Black 

Check price at Riutbag

14. Timbuk2 Uptown Laptop Friendly Travel Backpack

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

  • Weight: 2.2 lbs (1 kg)

  • Material: Ballistic Nylon

  • Volume: 30 L

  • Available colour(s): Pike, Jet Black, Midway (grey)

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15. Swiss Gear 1900 ScanSmart Laptop Backpack

  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 18.5 x 13.25 x 9 inches

  • Volume: 31 L

  • Weight: 3.3 lbs (1.66 kg)

  • Material: Durable 1200D polyester

  • Available colour(s): Urban Heather, Heather Gray, Gray, Gray/Black, White/Black, Blue, Black, Black/Red

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​The 15 Best Carry-On Backpacks For Travel in 2020 (Fully Reviewed & Compared)

​1. Osprey Farpoint 40 Men's Travel Backpack

Dimensions (H x W x D):                                                        M/L - 21.3 x 13.8 x 9 inches 

Weight:                                                                                        M/L - 3.17 lbs. (1.4 kg)

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

Volume: 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.  

When this backpack was first launched several years ago, it was a unisex backpack that was targeted at both men and women. It's still a great backpack for women, but ever since Osprey launched the Fairview 40 (reviewed directly below) they've started referring to this as a men's backpack.

 The Fairview 40 has the same total volume and most of the exact same features as the Farpoint 40, but some subtle changes in the design make this a more comfortable backpack for women to wear and a better choice.

With a volume of 40L, the Farpoint 40 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, dual external mesh pockets on the front panel for a 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.



Comes in two different sizes

Duffel bag carry mode

Panel-loading main compartment


Laptop sleeve is in the front compartment

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​2. Osprey Fairview 40 Women's Travel Backpack

Dimensions (H x W x D):    

S/M - 21.3 x 13.8 x 9 inches 


S/M - 3.17 lbs (1.4 kg)

Material: 210-denier nylon mini hex diamond ripstop

Volume: 40 L

Available colour(s): Black, Rainforest Green, Misty Grey

The Osprey Fairview 40 is the female counterpart of the Osprey Farpoint 40. This woman’s carry-on backpack has a capacity of 40L and comes in two sizes, the S/M which is 40L and the XS/S, which is 38L.


Unsurprisingly, it boasts many of the same external and internal features as the Farpoint 40, like a padded haul loop, a padded side handle for carrying it in duffel bag mode, a stowaway zippered back panel, external front compression straps, padded adjustable hip belt, adjustable sternum strap with emergency whistle, external mesh pockets on the front panel, lockable zipper sliders on the main compartment, ventilated mesh back panel and so on.


The compartments are also very similar to those of the Farpoint 40. The Fairview 40 has a roomy panel-loading main compartment with a zippered internal mesh pocket and two internal compression straps to keep clothing securely strapped down inside.


The front organization compartment, which is also lockable, has a mesh tablet sleeve and a padded laptop sleeve (holds up to 15” laptop), and you can put some other stuff in this compartment as well. 

The backpack also has a zippered slash pocket just above the Osprey logo on the front, which is perfect for keeping a first-aid kit, sunglasses, snacks or any other items that you might want to grab in a hurry.


Since the backpack is designed specifically for women, there are some differences in the design of the hip belt and the shoulder straps are narrower and more curved to take into account the differences in female anatomy and ensure greater comfort. There are also the obvious differences in the sizes and the colours that the two backpacks are available in.



Comes in two different sizes

Duffel bag carry mode

Designed specifically for women


Laptop sleeve is in the front compartment

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​3. Osprey Porter 30 Travel Backpack

Weight: 1.3 kg (2.87 lbs)

Volume: 30 litres

Dimensions (H x W x D): 19” x 13” x 10’’ 

Material: 500D Recycled Nylon Packcloth 

Available colours: Black, Castle Grey, Kraken Blue, Mineral Teal

The Osprey Porter 30 Travel Backpack is the smallest in the company's Porter series, which also comes in a 46 and 65 litre version. 

You might get away with the 46-litre version for carry-on travel, but it’s safer to go with the Porter 30. This is a very highly rated travel backpack, with a 4.8/5 average star rating on Amazon.


With a total volume of 30L, the Osprey Porter 30 is a little smaller than the Farpoint 40 or Fairview 40 backpacks, but is still surprisingly spacious. It’ll fit perfectly under the seat on a plane, so you shouldn’t have to stow it up in the overhead luggage bin where it’s harder to keep an eye on it.


This backpack could be an ideal companion for weekend getaways and shorter trips lasting for just a couple of weeks, or even for longer trips if you’re a true minimalist that packs very light.  It's not a bag that’s designed to be heavily loaded, so if you plan to do any hiking on your trip, there are better options.


Like other Osprey packs, the Porter 30 can be easily converted into a duffel bag, which is more a more appropriate method of carrying the bag in certain travel situations.


When switching to this duffel mode, the adjustable shoulder straps and the sternum strap (with emergency whistle) stow away neatly inside a zippered compartment on the back of the bag. The hip belt can also be tucked away into two small pockets. The bag can then be carried via the padded side handle. There’s also a padded haul loop on top to allow you to easily grab the bag in a hurry.


The most eye-catching feature on the outside of the bag is the Straitjacket compression system, a kind of fabric sheath that pads the sidewalls of the bag and allows the bag to be compressed via two compression straps at the front.


Other features on the outside of the pack include four external attachment points (these can be used to attach an Osprey Daylite Pack, which is sold separately) and D-rings on the side that allow for a shoulder strap (bought separately) to be attached if you want to carry it like a shoulder bag. Disappointingly however, there’s no external mesh pocket for a water bottle.


The bag also performs well on the organizational front, with three compartments and a number of smaller pockets.


The roomy main compartment, which has lockable zipper sliders and opens up like a suitcase (panel-loading) for easier access, is designed for keeping clothing and other large items. Inside here you’ll also find dual zippered mesh pockets along the sides.


The front organizational compartment, which also has lockable zipper sliders, contains a large zippered mesh pocket and an array of small open pockets for items like wallets, cables, power bank, headphones etc.


The rear compartment is dedicated to protecting your gadgets, and features a padded laptop/tablet sleeve for quick access.  


The backpack also features a small vertical zippered front pocket that’s useful for keeping maps, books and travel documents, and a zippered top pocket for those items you need to grab in a hurry, like keys, sunglasses or sandals. 


Plenty of compartments and pockets for organization

Duffel bag mode

Dedicated electronics sleeve

Straitjacket compression system protects contents and keeps everything tight


No external water bottle pocket

Can't be loaded up too heavily

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​4. Tortuga Setout Divide Travel Backpack

Dimensions (H x W x D): 20 x 13 x 6 inches

Weight: 3.8 lbs

Volume: 26L to 34L

Material: 900D polyester 

Available colour(s): Heather Grey

Tortuga makes some of the highest quality backpacks in the industry and their expandable Setout Divide Travel Backpack is their option aimed at carry-on travellers and especially those that are digital nomads or remote workers. 


There are separate men's and women’s versions of this backpack that differ in terms of fit, so bear that in mind if you’re thinking of purchasing it.


The Setout Divide has a rectangular shape and is expandable from 26L to 34L, depending on how much stuff you’re carrying. Many people will use the 34L when they’re travelling and then reduce the volume to 26L to use the bag as a daypack once they reach their destination. The bag expands via a compression zipper in the middle that allows for the bag to gain 8 litres of extra volume when this zipper is opened up.


On the outside, the Setout Divide features injected moulded foam shoulder straps, a padded mesh back panel to prevent sweaty back syndrome, a padded removable hip belt with zip pockets, a removable sternum strap, a padded top grab handle, a padded side grab handle, a hanger loop (for hanging the pack on a wall hanger), durable & lockable YKK zippers, a luggage handle pass-through sleeve (to pair with a rolling suitcase), two external clips for attaching a shoulder strap, and two small compression straps with buckles on each side of the bag.


The bag can be converted into a duffel bag or briefcase mode like many of the Osprey packs; this is done by unclipping the hideaway shoulder straps at the bottom and then tucking them into a pocket on the rear to hide them away.


The expandable water bottle pocket on the side of the bag is really cool, as it unzips and folds out only when you need to use it; otherwise the pocket remains flush with the backpack and is almost invisible.


When it comes to the compartments and pockets, the Setout Divide features a main central compartment, a front organizational compartment, a dedicated electronics compartment at the rear and a zippered quick-access pocket (about 7 inches deep) on the front panel.


The main compartment, which opens up like a suitcase for easier access is roomy and is lined with ripstop material. It also features a large X-shaped compression strap to cinch down your clothing or packing cubes and keep everything nice and tight. On the inner side of the opening panel there’s a giant zippered mesh pocket, which you could use to segregate dirty underwear from your clean clothes.


The front organizational compartment has a zippered pocket, a large flat pocket, a mesh pocket, a keyring clip and a host of other small zipperless pockets, pen holders and card slots.


The dedicated electronics compartment at the rear has a padded laptop sleeve, as well as a separate tablet sleeve. The laptop sleeve has a false bottom, which means that your laptop will be suspended above the bottom of the pack so that it won’t get damaged if you accidentally drop the bag on a hard surface.


High-quality and durable backpack

Expandable design (great versatility)

Duffel bag mode

Dedicated electronics compartment


Some features feel a bit overkill for such a small backpack

Weather-resistant zippers would have been nice

Check price at Tortuga
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​5. Aer Travel Pack 2 (33L)

Dimensions (H x W x D): 21.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches

Volume: 33L

Weight: 3.7 lbs (1.68 kg)

Material: 1680 D Cordura Ballistic Nylon

Available colour(s): Gray, Navy, X-Pac


Aer started out as a crowdfunding project back in 2014 that aimed to create a gym-office hybrid bag. Fast forward to the present and the company now offers a wide variety of bags and accessories.


Aer's bags are characterized by their premium, long-lasting materials, smart, innovative features, minimalist, modern design and their high degree of functionality.


Our pick from the Aer backpack line is the Aer Travel Pack 2, which is an upgraded version of its predecessor, the Aer Travel Pack 1, which was already an excellent backpack.


Some of improvements that have been made to the first backpack include the ability to attach a padded hip belt, thicker padding in the shoulder straps, more weather-resistant zippers and grab handles that are more comfortable to hold.


The load lifters that were present in the Aer Travel Pack 1 have been removed to give this bag a more minimalist design, but this shouldn’t have too much of an adverse effect, as you’re probably not going to be carrying very heavy loads in a 33L pack anyway.


Indeed, the Aer Travel Pack 2 is a 33L, carry-on compliant backpack, so it’s right around that sweet spot size for short-duration trips, but certainly those with refined packing skills will find it sufficiently voluminous for extended trips as well.


The bag has a clean, minimalist design with very few dangling straps or bulky elements on the outside. The material is a durable and weather-resistant 1680D Cordura Ballistic Nylon that will definitely stand up to the rigours of life on the road.


On the exterior, the bag features a padded haul loop, a side grab handle, a padded removable hip belt (sold separately), an adjustable removable sternum strap, durable, lockable YKK zippers (some with storm flaps for extra water-resistance), Duraflex plastic buckles, a D-ring, a ventilated, padded air mesh back panel and a luggage handle pass through strap (in the middle of the back panel) that can also be used as a grab handle.


There’s also a stealth water bottle pocket on one side of the pack. This normally lies flush with the pack but when you open up the zipper it allows the expandable pocket to open out.


Dual compression straps on both sides help to shrink the size of the bag if you want to just use it as a daypack once you reach your destination, and you can also use the straps to attach items to the bag, such as a foam roll mat for camping.


For organization, the bag has four compartments, namely a main compartment, a front organizational compartment, a rear laptop compartment and a dedicated shoe compartment on the underside that fits up to men’s size 13 shoes.


There’s also a zippered quick-access pocket on top, which is perfect for keeping sunglasses or a mobile phone. On the front you’ll find another large zippered pocket that’s big enough to hold a book.


The clamshell-opening main compartment is quite centrally located and can be opened up after opening the compression strap buckles. Inside is a capacious chamber where you can stow your rolled-up or folded clothing, packing cubes or other large items. On the inside of the door to the main compartment is a zippered mesh pocket and below that another smaller zippered pocket.


The front organizational compartment contains several zipperless pockets, a small mesh pocket, pen holders, a large, deep zippered pocket that contains a keychain ring, and a deep pouch.


The quick-access laptop compartment is at the rear of the bag and has a sleeve inside that will hold up to a 15.6” laptop. Unfortunately, there’s no false bottom here, which means that your laptop falls right to the bottom of the bag and will be less protected if you accidentally drop the bag on a hard surface.


The good news however is that the laptop compartment has a weather-resistant YKK Aquaguard zipper, a feature that was missing from the Aer Travel Pack 1 and that resulted in water being able to leak into the compartment during downpours. 


Clean, minimalist design

Dedicated shoe compartment

Side compression straps allow bag to be converted into a daypack

Some zippers are weather-resistant


No false bottom for laptop compartment

Side compression straps can make accessing the main compartment a bit tedious

​6. Peak Design Travel Backpack (30-45L)

Dimensions (H x W x D): 22 x 13 x 9 inches

Volume: 35 - 45 L

Weight: 4.52 lbs (2.05 kg)

Material: 400D 100% recycled nylon canvas

Available colour(s): Black, Sage


Peak Design is another company that has been creating crowdfunded carry solutions since their first product (a camera-carrying device called Capture) was put on Kickstarter in 2010 and became an enormous success. Today they sell everyday bags, travel bags, camera gear, pouches, packing cubes and apparel.


The Peak Design Travel Backpack is a 45L carry-on backpack that can be collapsed to a size of 30L when you want to use it as a day bag or if you need to reduce its size comply with the hand luggage requirements of strict airlines. 


The default size of the  pack is 35L and from here the bag expands via dual expansion zippers at the front of the bag to yield 10L of extra volume. Button compression snaps near the top of the bag reduce the volume to 30L.


The outside of the bag has a minimalist look and is predominantly made from a weatherproof, 400D 100% recycled nylon canvas. There's also a 900D nylon canvas on the bottom of the backpack for extra abrasion-resistance. The interior has a DWR (durable water repellent) impregnated PU (polyurethane) lining to ensure zero rainwater can enter.


High-density foam padding in parts of the bag helps it to maintain its form, and many of the zippers (though not all) are YKK. Most of the zippers are lockable and come with additional security features like loops of webbing near the end of the zipper track that prevent the zipper slider from moving.


Features on the exterior of the pack include multiple lash loops for attaching gear, 360-degree grab handles (one on top, one on each side and one on the bottom), an expandable side water bottle pocket with a zip pocket built into it, a dual-purpose handle in the centre of the back panel that lets you carry the bag in duffel mode or acts as a pass-through sleeve for a wheeled luggage handle, a protected luggage tag holder pocket on the back panel (you can store your contact details here in case you lose the bag), and a padded, rotatable hip belt that can be stowed away inside the comfy padded back panel. The hip belt has a stretchy zip pocket on the left pad and two loops on the right pad that serve as external attachment points.


Like the hip belt, the padded shoulder straps are also fully concealable inside the back panel and are also rotatable in Peak Design’s signature style; this helps with accessing the bag from the side zipper while you’re wearing it. They feature a detachable and fully adjustable sternum strap and plastic keepers to prevent dangling straps


When it comes to organizing your gear, the Peak Design Travel Backpack has a front organizational compartment, a laptop-friendly main compartment and a few additional pockets.


The main compartment opens up suitcase-style case via a zipper at the rear of the bag. The compartment can also be accessed via side zippers on each side of the bag. Inside is a large bucket that can be filled with packing cubes, electronics pouches, laundry pouches and so on. Peak Design sells their own packing cubes and pouches if you want to have an integrated packing experience and have everything fit more precisely.


The padded laptop sleeve has a Velcro closure and is situated on the inside of the door of the main compartment. Inside the laptop sleeve is another separate, smaller tablet sleeve with its own Velcro closure.


The front organizational compartment opens out flat (clamshell opening) and you’ll find two zippered pockets on the inside of the door. Within the plasticky mesh pocket at the top you’ll find two interior pockets (these are a good size for wall chargers or charging cables) and two pen holders. Below the mesh pocket is a featureless liner pocket that’s about the same size as the former and is useful for keeping flatter items.


On the other side of the front organizational compartment is a panel with a zippered mesh pocket and another zippered liner pocket. This panel divides the front compartment from the main compartment and can be unzipped and rolled up to create a single giant compartment inside the bag.


The bag also possesses a quick-access zip pocket that’s accessed at the top of the front panel. The front panel also features a semi-hidden magnetically-closed pocket that’s accessed from near the bottom of the panel.


Clean, minimalist design

Expandable and compressible

Expandable (to 45L) and compressible (to 30L)

Lots of customizability

Inbuilt security features for zippers


Some zippers are not YKK

Sternum strap detaches a little too easily

Check price at Peak Design
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​7. Nomatic Travel Bag (30L or 40L)

Dimensions (H x W x D):

30L - 21 x 9x 14 inches

40L – 19 x 9 x 13 inches


30L - 3.3 lbs (1.45 kg)

40L – 3.4 lbs (1.54 kg)

Volume: 30L or 40L (two options)

Material: Waterproof tarpaulin, Ballistic Nylon

Available colour(s): Black


The Nomatic Travel Bag is the result of an extremely successful crowdfunding campaign that raised over $1 million from over 5,500 backers on Kickstarter. 

The backpack is the brainchild of two cousins who had initially designed an innovative wallet and launched it on Kickstarter before they began creating backpacks.


Nomatic also makes the Nomatic Travel Pack and Nomatic Backpack, but they are both smaller than the Nomatic Travel Bag, which comes in a 30L or 40L version. This size in the 30-40L range is the sweet spot for carry-on travel, so we think you’ll like the Nomatic Travel Bag the best.


Nomatic recommends the 30L version of this backpack for 2-4 day trips and the 40L version for 3-7 day trips but really, if you’re reasonably proficient at packing a bag you can probably travel for months at a time even with the 30L version.


The Nomatic Travel Bag is a duffel bag/backpack hybrid with a sleek, minimalist and modern design. The shape is rather boxy, which is probably something that you either like or you don’t. It's clear that Nomatic are trying to do something very different and innovative with this backpack, and perhaps that's why it has become so popular. The material on the outside is predominantly a highly-durable and 100% waterproof tarpaulin, with ballistic nylon also used in some parts.


The most noticeable features on the outside of the bag are the luggage handle pass through sleeve (for attaching the bag to a rolling suitcase), the padded haul loop, the well-padded & ventilated shoulder straps, the removable sternum strap and the carry handles for duffel bag mode (easy to switch to).


The padded waist straps, which each come with their own zip pocket (great for holding a passport) only come with the 40L version. There are no external side pockets or side handles on this backpack.


Interestingly, the zippers are not YKK, which you’d expect from a backpack in this price range, but they seem to be snag-resistant and they’re also coated with polyurethane for water-resistance. In fact, the hardware in general for this backpack, while it is durable, doesn’t feel very premium, which it probably ought to be if you’re paying this much.


Another issue is that the back panel, while it is comfortable against your back, isn’t properly ventilated, so you’re going to get a sweaty back if you’re carrying this bag around in warm weather. There are also a lot of dangling straps when you’re wearing this back, which some users might find annoying.


Alright, let’s talk about the pockets and compartments next.


The main compartment of the backpack unzips via the back panel to help thwart pickpockets and opens up like a suitcase, so you’ll have easy access to all the contents.


This main compartment is where the bulk of the bag’s volume is, although do take note that the amount of available space here will be compromised if you’ve filled the water bottle pocket (see below) or the shoe compartment (see below). The main compartment is literally just a big featureless chamber, with no internal mesh pockets or dividers to aid with organization.


On the inside of the opening panel of the main compartment is the padded laptop sleeve (which will hold up to a 15” laptop) and a slightly smaller tablet sleeve. The laptop sleeve is designed to give security screeners an unobstructed view so that you can keep the laptop inside the bag while passing through airport security.


On the top panel of the bag there are three zip pockets.


The first is a valuables zip pocket lined with soft fleece material. It's intended for items like your phone and sunglasses. The pocket has a “cord pass through hole” which lets you charge your phone in the pocket by feeding the cable from your power bank into the pocket through this hole.


The second zip pocket on the top panel is a water bottle pocket, which is an interesting deviation from the usual stretchy external side pockets that most backpacks provide for water bottles. Nomatic probably did this to avoid disrupting the bag’s minimalistic, streamlined design. Don’t worry about spillages because this water bottle pocket is completely waterproof.


The third zip pocket on the top is a larger quick-access pocket, which is perfect for keeping a jacket, hat or any other large items that you might want to grab in a hurry.


On one side of the bag you’ll find the organizational compartment, which is another surprise due to the unusual location. Inside there’s a zippered RFID-blocking pocket to protect your bank cards and biometric IDs from electronic pickpocketing. There’s also another large zip pocket, two zipperless pockets and two elastic mesh pockets, which are creating for holding charging cables and other tech.


On the other side of the bag you’ll find two zip pockets, one big and one small. The big one can hold a paperback book no problem and Nomatic recommends that you use the small one for your boarding pass.


On the underside of the bag there’s a little grab handle and a dedicated shoe compartment, although you might not use this if you’re like me and you don’t carry a spare pair of shoes when you travel.


The Nomatic 40L also comes with a collapsible mesh laundry bag, which you can use to segregrate your dirty laundry. The bag can be hung on a door handle or clothes hanger inside your room and fits neatly in the main compartment of the bag. 


Innovative, minimalist design that helps thwart pickpockets

Comes in two size options

Duffel bag mode

Very nice organizational compartment

Dedicated shoe compartment


Build quality could be more premium given the high price

Back panel is poorly ventilated

Dangling straps can be a bit annoying

Check price at Nomatic
Check price on Amazon

​8. Minaal Carry-On 3.0 Travel Backpack

Dimensions (H x W x D): 21.6 x 13.7 x 7.87 inches

Volume: 35L

Weight: 3.12 lbs (1.41 kg)

Material: 600 D Picton recycled yarn, hair & dust resistant

Available colour(s): Aoraki Black, Vancouver Grey


Minaal was founded by Jimmy Hayes and Doug Barber, two travel-loving friends from New Zealand. The company launched its first backpack in late 2013 following a very successful Kickstarter campaign that raised almost $350,000. Minaal now sells a range of backpacks and related accessories.


The long-awaited Minaal Carry-on 3.0 is the successor to the Minaal Carry-on 2.0. The latest update has the same sleek, minimalist design and is exactly the same size (35L), dimensions and weight (3.12 lbs) as its predecessor, but a number of new features have been added and important upgrades have been made to existing elements of the bag. 

The bag is available in two colours, namely Vancouver Grey and Aoraki Black (Aoraki is another name for Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand at 3,724 m elevation.) The 3.0 is a bit more expensive than the 2.0, but if you’re in the market for a new travel backpack and you don’t already own the 2.0, the upgrades might be worth the extra money.


The new features and upgrades in the Minaal Carry-on 3.0 include a new 600D recycled yarn fabric that hair and dust won’t cling to (this was a major issue with the 2.0), a new 1200D Picton fabric that reinforces high-abrasion zones (22% more resistant to tearing), a new Unified Harness with slightly thicker and more comfortable shoulder straps, a slimmed down sternum strap, a secret zip pocket on the rear panel (designed for your wallet, passport or other valuables), upgraded closed-crown YKK zippers, new easy-pull zipper tabs to make closing the main compartment easier when its packed full, an improved side water bottle pocket with an elasticized base that allows it hold bigger bottles, a tech compartment that now opens flat, a bigger laptop sleeve (now holds up to 16” laptop), a lighter back panel internal frame, a more snug-fitting integrated rain cover, and a new white logo on the front.


Like the 2.0, the Carry-on 3.0 has a comfortable and well-ventilated back panel, a side grab handle for briefcase mode, an integrated rain cover (which stows away in a small zip pocket on the underside) and side compression straps (one on each side) to condense the bag, It’s fully compatible with Minaal’s attachable hip pads, shoulder sling, shirt protector, toolcases, RFID travel wallet, extender straps and other accessories.


The clamshell-opening main compartment is a roomy bucket that you can fill with packing cubes, clothing, electronics cases and other large items. There’s an organization panel on one side of the compartment with a large zippered mesh pocket which you could use for extra clothing, charging cables or any other small items. Below the mesh pocket is another non-mesh zippered pocket where you could keep even more miscellaneous stuff.


The clamshell-opening tech compartment is situated at the rear of the pack and on the inside of the door you’ll find two padded sleeves; one holds up to a 16” laptop and the other can hold 11” devices. What’s nice is that both sleeves hold your devices well above the bottom of the bag and both can be accessed from either the top or the side by opening the Velcro flaps. On the other side of the tech compartment is a panel with a small zip pocket and a roomy pouch that works well for protecting a dress shirt.


There are two quick-access zip pockets (one small, one large) on the top of the backpack that are designed for holding items like your phone, sunglasses or hotel room key. The bag even comes with a lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects and unlimited concierge service.


Sleek, minimalist design

Excellent organization

Integrated raincover

Tech compartment is clamshell opening


Seems a little overpriced

Side compression straps can make accessing the main compartment a bit tedious

​9. Heimplanet Transit Line Travel Pack

Dimensions (H x W x D): 21 x 13 x 7 inches

Volume: 34L

Weight: 3.4 lbs (1.66 kg)

Material: 800D Nylon, 600D polypropylene blend

Available colour(s): Black, Castlerock Grey


Heimplanet began its journey back in 2003 when two German friends came up with an idea of creating an innovative tent during a surfing trip in Portugal. The company now supplies not only tents, but also tarps, camping accessories, bags, apparel and other outdoor gear.


Heimplanet is named after the German word “heimat”, which describes the place where you feel most at home, where you feel like you belong and where you know everything will be alright, no matter what. Their products are designed to give you that feeling of security and belonging no matter where you happen to find yourself in the world.


The Heimplanet Transit Line Travel Pack is our pick from the company’s backpack lineup. This is a carry-on compliant backpack that’s perfect for both short and longer trips with an urban focus.  


The shell is made from a durable, sustainable and waterproof Dyecoshell fabric, which is a blend of 800D Nylon and 600D polypropylene. Heimplanet seems to have a lot of confidence in this material, and they even go so far as to say that it'll outlive military-grade fabrics.

“Dyecoshell” refers to the fact that the fabric is dope dyed, which is where the yarn is dyed before weaving it into a fabric as opposed to afterwards. This is a more sustainable and environmentally friendly method of dyeing fabrics. The downside of this fabric however is that it does tend to attract and hold dust. The bag is currently available in two colours, namely Black and Castlerock Grey, which is basically a type of heather grey.


The bag uses durable and water-repellent “Water-R” YKK zippers (#5, #8 and #10 )with zipper pulls made from 550 Paracord and heat-shrink tubing, although unfortunately, the zippers are not lockable. It’s also nice to see aluminium hardware instead of plastic being used for some components of the pack.

One material found in the bag that you probably won’t be too familiar with is Hypalon, a type of synthetic rubber that’s resistant to UV, chemicals and extreme temperatures. It’s used for some of the bag’s external attachment points.


Features on the outside of the bag include a lightly padded side grab handle, an elasticated side pocket for a water bottle or umbrella, a compression strap on each side near the bottom (they won’t interfere with the opening of the main zipper) and a well-padded back panel with a pass-through sleeve that not only allows the bag to be hooked onto a roller suitcase handle but also serves as a tuck away pocket for the ends of the shoulder straps.


There’s also an option for attaching a couple of additional compression straps (sold separately) on the sides near the top or horizontally across the front of the bag. These can also be used to secure a tripod or jacket to the outside of the bag.


The harness system of the Heimplanet Transit Line Travel Pack is pretty decent; the  contoured shoulder straps look thin but use a high-density EVA foam for comfort when carrying heavier loads. To shift some of the load from your shoulders to your back, the shoulder straps also have “load shifters” at the top, which is Heimplanet’s term for load lifters.


A series of Hypalon rubber loops run along the shoulder straps and there are a few more on the front of the bag; these create a useful attachment system. The rubber Hypalon loops can be used to attach those additional compression straps we mentioned above, and also to attach the detachable sternum strap, which has a magnetic centre push buckle. This system makes the bag more customizable since you can add components when you’re using them and remove them when you’re not.


The bag also features a detachable hip belt, which is quite thinly padded and doesn’t shift a huge amount of weight off your shoulders due to its positioning, but that probably won’t be a huge drawback for a backpack of this size (34L). All the straps on the bag have plastic or elastic keepers so you won’t have to worry about loose straps dangling everywhere.


As for the interior and organization system, the bag opens up clamshell-style to reveal two organizational panels, one on each side of the clamshell.


On the inside of the door is the admin panel; it features a Velcro-secured, nicely padded laptop sleeve with false bottom that’ll hold up to a 17-inch laptop, a second fleece-lined sleeve that’s perfect for keeping a tablet or magazine, two small elasticized pockets on either side below that and two pen/stylus holder pockets in between the two pockets.


On the other side of the clamshell is the internal divider panel, which (on this side of the panel) has two zippered layflat 3D pockets made from an elastic material - a large one at the top and a slightly smaller one below it. These pockets collapse when not in use but expand considerably when needed.  a large one at the top and a slightly smaller one below it. These pockets collapse when not in use but expand considerably when needed.


This internal divider panel can be unzipped and tucked away into a stash pocket to reveal the main compartment of the bag, where you can arrange your packing cubes, pouches and other large items.


What’s handy is that you can also access the main cavity of the bag via a long, horseshoe-shaped zipper near the front of the bag, so you can place items that you might need to grab while on the move near that zipper to save yourself from having to open up the bag via the usual clamshell route.


There’s also a quick-access zip pocket with a keychain loop at the top of the backpack that’s perfect for keeping a phone, sunglasses, passport or hotel room key, and another quick-access pocket on the front panel that’s accessible via a vertical zipper (hidden underneath a flap) near the edge of the bag. This pocket is easy to grab stuff from while you’re wearing the bag.


Urban-focused backpack

Built with high-quality materials

Modular design allows for plenty of customization


Dyecoshell fabric holds some dust

Hip belt won't bear too much weight

Zippers are not lockable

Hypalon attachment system could use a little more refinement

Check price on Amazon

​10. Thule Subterra 34L Travel Backpack

Dimensions (H x W x D): 20.5 x 12 x 9 inches

Volume: 34L

Weight: 2.75 lbs (1.25 kg)

Material: 800 D Nylon

Available colour(s): Black, Mineral (blue), Ember (red)


Thule is a company that might be better known for their bike racks and roof boxes, but they also make some great backpacks. 

The Thule Subterra 34L Travel Backpack is a case in point, being an excellent carry-on compliant bag offering from the company. 


This is a dual-purpose bag that’s designed to function as both an everyday backpack or a travel bag for exploring the globe. It’s got a sleek, streamlined design and is the perfect size for one-bag travel, being just compact enough that you’re never going to worry about being allowed to take it on board the planes of stricter airlines.


The bag is made from a highly durable 800D Nylon fabric and all the exterior and interior zippers are YKK, so you’ve nothing to worry about in terms of build quality. On the outside of the bag you won’t find too many notable features due to the minimalist design.


There is a cool stealth side pocket on one side; this only becomes noticeable and expands to hold a water bottle or umbrella after you’ve unzipped it. There’s also a haul loop at the top (it’s strong and beautifully stitched but not very beefy), a side grab handle and the suspension system, which uses comfortable perforated EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) foam shoulder straps with a mesh covering. An adjustable, detachable sternum strap is also featured.


The well-padded back panel is pretty flat and has a central air channel for ventilation. A pass-through sleeve (to attach the bag to a roller suitcase handle) runs horizontally across the middle of the back panel.


The bag has an unusual roll-top closing mechanism. The bag first closes via a magnetic seal and then you roll it up, before securing it with the Duraflex plastic buckles. You can also use these buckles to compress the roll-top by cinching it down.


When it comes to the interior, the bag has two compartments, a roomy main compartment and a front organizational compartment.


The top-loading main compartment, which can be accessed via the rolltop opening, is pretty featureless; it’s just a roomy vault with a Velcro-secured, generously padded laptop sleeve (fits up to a 15.6” laptop). The bag actually comes with a large packing cube that fills the entire main compartment. Use of the cube is optional, so if you prefer you can use multiple smaller cubes or dispense with packing cubes altogether.


What’s interesting is that you can also access both the main compartment and the laptop sleeve via two separate zippers that run vertically along one side of the backpack. This is much more convenient than accessing the bag via the rolltop opening and you’ll probably be using these zippers to access the main compartment and laptop sleeve the majority of the time.


It’s fortunate that the zipper pulls for these two side zippers can be padlocked together and then held in place at the top using the rolltop buckle to prevent thieves from getting into the laptop compartment, because each of the two zippers only has one zipper pull.


The front organizational compartment has a large pouch lined with soft material at the top; a perfect place for keeping a tablet or Kindle. Inside here you’ll also find a couple of pen holders, two zipperless pockets that fit a passport perfectly and a zippered mesh pocket at the bottom, which is called the PowerPocket.


The PowerPocket is where you’re supposed to put your power bank, and you can then feed the cable through a channel up to the pouch at the top where you could have your Kindle, phone or tablet charging. The opening panel of the front compartment also has a large zippered mesh pocket.


Slick, minimalist design

Dual-purpose (works as daypack and travel bag)

Stealth side pocket for water bottle/umbrella


No proper locking mechanism provided for side zippers

Check price on Amazon

​11. GoRuck GR3 45L Carry-On Backpack

Dimensions (H x W x D): 22 x 14 x 9 inches

Volume: 45 L

Weight: 2.34 kg (5.15 lbs)

Material: 1000D Cordura Nylon

Available colour(s): Black, Steel


The GoRuck brand was started in 2008 by an ex Special Forces soldier named Jason and his  partner Emily, with the aim of creating an extremely rugged and durable rucksack that could withstand some of the harshest environments in the world. 

Fast forward to today and the company is selling a range of rucksacks, footwear, apparel and training equipment.


The philosophy of GoRuck revolves around rucking, the practice of carrying a loaded backpack for miles and gradually upping the weight, speed or distance travelled to increase strength, stamina, cardiovascular fitness and build one's character. 

The company organizes more than 1,000 rucking events each year led by decorated combat veterans of Special Forces.


The GoRuck GR3 supplants the GR2 backpack and is a slightly larger and slightly heavier bag than the 40 L GR2, boasting a number of improvements over its predecessor.


The upgrades include a thicker back panel internal frame sheet, newly added side compression straps with buckles (absent from the GR2), extra grab handles, a new and better-integrated removable hip belt (thickly padded), new velcro-backing in the main compartment and reduced interior organization.


As a 45L carry-on backpack, The GoRuck GR3 is the biggest bag in our roundup and is the largest possible bag that you can use as a carry-on. You won’t have any problems using it as a carry-on with US airlines, but you may face some issues with stricter airlines outside the US. If you’re a small person this backpack may be uncomfortably large for you.


The GR3 has a somewhat boxy design and an unmistakeable tacticool appearance, just like its predecessor. It’s made from a tough and durable 1000D Cordura Nylon material and the high-stress points on the pack are all strength tested to 400 lbs. All the zippers are YKK.


On the outside of the bag at the front you’ll find four rows of Molle webbing with 6 loops per row; these are for attaching Molle-compatible accessories like dump pouches and water bottle holders.


On the underside of the bag there are two additional rows of Molle webbing with 4 loops per row; these are for attaching the GR3 Compression Tough Bag (sold separately), which can hold a sleeping bag, dirty laundry or other additional gear, although be aware that if you add any more capacity to the GR3 it might no longer qualify as a carry-on backpack with many airlines.


The GR3 also features a comfy back panel with ventilation channels, silent zipper pulls (made from heat-shrunk 550 paracord), a thickly padded detachable hip belt (important for a large 45L pack like this one), side compression straps with buckles, two padded side grab handles (positioned slightly awkwardly at one edge instead of being centred) and a padded haul loop on top. There’s even a 3 x 2 inch Velcro rectangle on the front for sticking on a patch of your choosing.


For organizing all your belongings, the backpack features two compartments, a main compartment and a laptop compartment.


The clamshell-opening main compartment is a commodious chamber where you can arrange all your packing cubes, clothing and other large items. There are two rows of Molle webbing in here for attaching accessories. On the inside of the compartment door you’ll find three zippered mesh pockets stacked vertically from top to bottom.


There’s also a metal D-ring at the top of the main compartment that you can clip your hydration pack into using a carabiner before feeding the hose out through the exit port underneath the top grab handle.


The Bombproof laptop compartment (as Go Ruck calls it) is situated at the rear of the bag and holds up to a 17” laptop. The good news here is that there’s a false bottom, so your laptop doesn’t fall all the way to bottom of the bag.


There’s also a quick-access zippered slant pocket on the front of the pack, which will work best with flatter items if the rest of the bag is fairly stuffed. on the front of the pack, which will work best with flatter items if the rest of the bag is fairly stuffed.


GoRuck packs come with the Scars Lifetime Guarantee, so you’ll get a free repair or replacement if your bag comes with any defect in workmanship or materials, as well as if you manage to wear the bag out through normal use. No proof of purchase is necessary.


Very rugged and durable 

Huge capacity (for a carry-on)

Molle webbing loops inside and outside make the bag highly customizable and expandable

Big, "bombproof" laptop compartment

Scars Lifetime Guarantee


Very pricey

Won't be carry-on compliant with every airline

Some users might lament the reduced internal organization

Check price at GORUCK

​12. Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Travel Pack

Dimensions (H x W x D): 20 x 12 x 8 inches

Volume: 35 L

Weight: 3 lbs 8 oz (1.6 kg) without accessories, 4 lbs 10 oz (2.1 kg) with accessories

Material: TPU-coated 1000D polyester, 840D Ballistic Nylon

Available colour(s): Black, Evergreen, Spruce, Key Lime, Fiery Red and Indigo


Cotopaxi named itself after the almost perfectly symmetrical active stratovolcano of Cotopaxi that rises to 5,911 m in the Cordillera Central mountain range of Ecuador near Quito.


The company believes in using sustainable and recycled materials to make their products, fair treatment of its workers and as a certified B corporation it contributes 1% of its proceeds towards community development and poverty alleviation in developing countries by awarding grants to nonprofit organizations in six focus countries.


The Cotopaxi Allpa 35L is our pick for one bag carry-on travel from the Cotopaxi Allpa range, which also includes the slightly larger Allpa 42L Travel Pack and the Allpa 35L Del Día, which is identical to the Allpa 35L in features and function but is made from repurposed 600D nylon material left over from other companies’ large production runs and retails for slightly less.


The Allpa 35L can be purchased on its own or as a discounted bundle on the Cotopaxi website, where you can buy it with accessories (collapsible mesh laundry bag, nylon shoe bag, mesh water bottle sleeve) or with accessories plus one of Cotopaxi's daypacks (16L or 18L).


Built for adventure travel and exploration, the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L is made from a water-resistant TPU-coated 1000D polyester and the side panels are made from a highly durable 840D Ballistic Nylon. All the zippers are YKK, and you also have Duraflex plastic buckles, so materially-speaking, everything looks spot on.


The pack comes in Black as well as a range of striking colour options like Evergreen, Spruce, Key Lime, Fiery Red and Indigo. The alpaca logo on the front is barely visible in the black but in the bag's other colour variants the logo strongly contrasts with the primary colour of the bag. Even in the variants with punchy colours the bag retains a minimalist, understated design and a fairly uncluttered exterior.


A carabiner lash loop is sewn across each of the four corners of the bag; these allow for the attachment of accessories like Cotopaxi’s mesh water bottle pocket (the bag lacks an integrated water bottle pocket) and can also be used to tether the bag to a fixed object for extra security. There are also two lash loops on both of the top corners of the bag.


Other external features of the bag include a breathable and comfy slotted airmesh back panel (with “cotopaxi” written across it in large letters), a removable waist belt with zip pockets (only useful for keeping flat, flexible items) that tucks away into the slotted rear panel, stowable, contoured high-density foam shoulder straps that also tuck away into the slotted rear panel, an adjustable sternum strap, four grab handles (one on each side of the bag so that you can easily grab the bag no matter how it’s oriented) and theft-proof webbing sewn across the zippers. A rain cover is included and stows away inside the pack.

When it comes to the interior, the bag has three compartments, a roomy main compartment, a tech compartment at the rear and a front organizational compartment.


The main compartment of the bag can be accessed without taking the bag off via a vertical shortcut zipper on the left side of the bag. It also opens up suitcase-style via the main zipper to reveal a large zippered mesh compartment on the right hand side with two compression straps for keeping everything held firmly in place. This is where you would keep your packing cubes and most of your clothes.


On the left hand side of the main compartment you’ll find three individual zippered mesh pockets; two smaller ones at the top and one bigger one below that. These pockets are where you’d keep smaller, lighter items, such as the included rain cover, your passport, charging cables and other accessories. There’s also a discrete zip pocket inside the main compartment, which would be a good place to keep some valuables.


The front organizational compartment contains a zippered mesh pocket, a plastic keychain and an open space that’s large enough to hold several items. One clever feature of the internal pockets is that they have a brightly coloured background, which makes it easier to find darker coloured items that you might be searching for.


The tech compartment at the rear is accessed by a vertical zipper that runs along the right-hand side of the pack close to the back panel. The laptop sleeve is well-padded, has a false bottom to keep your laptop slightly elevated off the bottom and can hold a 15” laptop, although the fit will be rather snug if the laptop is inside its own protective cover. There’s also a padded tablet sleeve in here. 


Super rugged and durable

Minimalist design retains playfulness

Plenty of external attachment points

Included rain cover

Plenty of thoughtful touches


A little heavy for a 35L pack

Hip belt sits quite high up the torso if you're tall

Check price on Amazon

​13. Riutbag X35 Large Anti-Theft Laptop Backpack

Dimensions (L x W x H): 13.7 x 9.8 x 19.7 in (35 x 25 x 50 cm)

Volume: Expandable up to 35L

Weight: 2.95 lbs (1.34 kg)

Material: 1000D Cordura Nylon

Available colour(s): Black 

Riutbag is an anti-theft backpack brand that was founded in 2014 by UK entrepreneur Sarah Giblin. who personally designs every painstaking detail of the backpacks before they are manufactured by hand (using sewing machines) by two production teams in a factory in Hui’An county in Fujian Province, southern China.

Riut is pronounced like “riot”, as the design is intended to be disruptive and represents a revolution in backpack design and thinking. Riutbag backpacks are designed to serve the urban or city traveller and commuter, and all of them employ a no front access, panel-loading design with all of the external zippers protected against the wearer’s back for utmost security.

The Riutbag X35 carry-on backpack is our pick for more paranoid travellers that want a carry-on backpack with beefed-up security. This particular backpack even won an award – the European Product Design Award 2020. The backpack was featured in our guide to the best anti-theft backpacks for travel and it is, in our opinion, the best carry-on compliant anti-theft backpack.

The Riutbag X35 employs a unique folding mechanism that allows you to expand it from an everyday 15L laptop backpack into a roomy 35L carry-on backpack that’ll just about be permitted on most airplanes. There’s also an intermediate mode that affords a capacity of about 20-25L; this configuration is achieved by bringing in the snap fastenings on the side of the bag.

The Riutbag X35 is mostly made from highly durable and waterproof 1000D Cordura nylon, while the base is made of TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), an anti-abrasive and high-performance plastic that can withstand extreme temperatures and helps to protect your laptop from knocks.

Vegans will be pleased to know that the backpack does not use any animal products in its construction and is made entirely from synthetic materials.

The features on the outside of the backpack include two stretchy mesh side pockets (each can hold a 1.5 L water bottle), a bicycle light holder on the front (so you can be visible when you’re not using the high-vis raincover), an adjustable sternum strap (this can also be fully removed), a haul loop and a pass-through strap on the back for hooking the bag onto a wheeled luggage handle.

You can buy an attachable hip belt separately to take some weight off your shoulders if you’re going to be using the bag in expanded mode a lot. All the zippers on the Riutbag X35 are high-quality YKK zippers.

The back panel, which has a zippered D-pocket at the bottom and another zip pocket at the top, opens up suitcase-style to reveal the capacious single compartment inside. Anything you put inside here can optionally be kept separated from the inner side of the opening panel by the mesh divider.

The 15.6” laptop sleeve and the tablet/documents sleeve are located on the inner face of the door that opens to the main compartment, as are two large mesh pockets for organization of your passport, wallet, phone, charging cables, and other small items.

Note that unlike the other backpacks in this article, the Riutbag is sold exclusively through the brand’s official website, They will ship globally, although if you live in the UK delivery will usually be fastest (3 – 4 days).

Regardless of where you are in the world, the longest you should ever have to wait for delivery is 10 days, and you will be able to track your order. Shipping is free for orders over £100 and the backpack will arrive in a reusable drawstring bag that can used for various purposes rather than being disposable.

If you purchase any Riutbag anti-theft backpack using our special referral link you can receive £5 off your purchase from the website if your order value exceeds £39.


Highly customizable, modular design

Backpacks are handmade and given individual attention

Expandable up to 35L (three different modes)

Durable, waterproof material

Hidden zippers for pickpocket protection

No front access design thwarts pickpockets


Body panels and shoulder straps are not slash-resistant

Zippers are not puncture-resistant

Check price at Riutbag

​14. Timbuk2 Uptown Laptop Friendly Travel Backpack

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

Weight: 2.2 lbs (1 kg)
Volume: 30 L

Material: Ballistic Nylon

Available colour(s): Pike, Jet Black, Midway (grey)


The Timbuk2 backpack line sprung into existence when Rob Honeycutt, a San Francisco bike messenger, began to sew his own messenger bags in his garage using a sewing machine.

Our pick from that line for this roundup is the Timbuk2 Uptown Laptop Backpack, a dual-purpose, carry-on compliant backpack that works as both a commuter bag and a travel backpack for international roaming. 

The bag has been a bestseller on Amazon for years and is a more budget-friendly option compared to some of the other backpacks we’ve reviewed so far.


The Timbuk2 Uptown is a stylish, lightweight backpack with a volume of 30L, so it’s a great option for shorter trips or for those looking to travel for longer periods with a minimal amount of gear. Users praise the backpack highly for its excellent organization and physical protection for electronic gadgets.


The material is a very tough, durable and water-resistant ballistic nylon, so this pack will have no trouble enduring challenging travel situations. However, it’s recommended to buy a separate rain cover if you plan to hike in the rain with this or if you’re travelling to a destination where high amounts of rainfall are expected.


On the exterior, the bag features a top haul loop, a side grab loop, a Vista loop for attaching Blinky bike lights (nice to have if you plan to do any cycling at night with the bag), cushioned, mesh-covered shoulder straps (one of which features a bottle opener), an adjustable sternum strap, high-quality dual lockable zippers, a stretchy mesh side pocket (for a water bottle or umbrella) and a padded back panel with mesh covering and ventilation channels for ample air circulation.


When it comes to the interior, the backpack has four compartments including the dedicated electronics compartment, which is designed specifically for your laptop, tablet and other gadgets.


The two outermost (towards the front) compartments feature organizer panels inside them, which feature a generous number of small zippered and zipperless pockets, making this a pretty unbeatable backpack for organization and compartmentalization. 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 padded, which makes it a perfect place to keep 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 chamber for your items with no additional organizer pockets or extra features.


The dedicated electronics compartment is at the rear; it has a Velcro-secured padded sleeve for safeguarding your laptop (fits a 15” Macbook) and another protective pouch opposite the laptop sleeve, which is perfect for protecting your kindle or iPad.


This electronics 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 zip the electronics compartment back up and be on your way.


This saves you from having to go through the whole rigmarole of removing your laptop from an overstuffed bag, placing it in a plastic bin, running it through the X-ray machine and then stuffing it back into the bag again.


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 grab in a hurry.


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

One minor downside with this backpack is that the base 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 tilts a bit and shouldn't actually fall over if you pack it correctly.


TSA-compliant electronics compartment

Two dedicated organizational compartments

Vista loop for attaching Blinky bike lights


No included rain cover

Sloping base means that the bag tends to lean at an angle resting on a flat surface

Check price at Timbuk2
Check price on Amazon

​15. Swiss Gear 1900 ScanSmart Laptop Backpack

Dimensions (H x W x D): 18.5 x 13.25 x 9 inches

Volume: 31 L

Weight: 3.3 lbs (1.66 kg)

Material: Durable 1200D polyester

Available colour(s): Urban Heather, Heather Gray, Gray, Gray/Black, White/Black, Blue, Black, Black/Red


Swiss Gear is a trademark of Wenger, which has been owned by Victorinox since 2005. The brand is known for its reliable, high-quality backpacks, luggage, accessories and watches that are built for both functionality and style.


The Swiss Gear 1900 Laptop Backpack is the brand’s best backpack for one bag carry-on travel. The bag comes in multiple colour options and has a volume of just 31 litres so it’s definitely not pushing the size limits for a carry-on, but it’ll still work great for multi-day trips or even for longer trips if you’re a packing pro. 


The shell of the pack is made from a durable, weather-resistant 1200D ballistic polyester fabric that feels nice to the touch, and the hardware is of pretty decent quality. The oversized metal zipper pulls seem pretty tough, but the fact that they're not coated means that they jangle, which some users find quite irritating. 


Features on the exterior of the backpack include two elasticized side water bottle pockets, side compression straps (one on each side) that run across the water bottle pockets, a sturdy haul loop reinforced with an easy-grip moulded plastic cover, and a medium-sized carabiner and daisy chain of webbing on the front panel to provide attachment points for clipping items to the outside of the bag.


The padded back panel has a decent airflow ventilation system and the padded, contoured, adjustable shoulder straps possess a breathable mesh fabric and a small sewn-in loop for holding sunglasses.


The Swiss Gear 1900 Laptop Backpack excels when it comes to organization. Those that prefer to just have a large open bucket that they can throw their own packing cubes into may feel that this bag gives them less freedom in how to organize their gear, but there is another type of person that will love having this amount of inbuilt organization.


The bag only possesses two compartments, a main compartment, a dedicated laptop compartment and a dividing panel in between the two with a floating pocket for a tablet (more on that below).


The main compartment opens up via a zippered flap at the front of the bag and consists of an open cavity with some interior organizational features.


Inside there’s an accordion file holder system with two divided sleeves for holding flat items like files, documents and notebooks, and a padded media pocket that dangles from the top of the bag and holds your cell phone or tablet/iPad. A headphones cord can be threaded from this media pocket out through an exit port at the top of the bag.


On the inside of the opening flap of main compartment there’s a decent-sized zippered mesh pocket as well, which is a good place to keep your chargers and cables.


The dedicated laptop compartment is opened up via a zipper at the rear of the bag. The compartment is nicely padded on all sides and at the bottom, and it can hold up to a 17” laptop.


Right next to the zipper for the laptop compartment is another zipper that when unzipped allows the laptop compartment to be laid out flat, with your laptop visible inside its compartment via a semi-transparent mesh screen on the inside of the panel.

When the bag is opened out like this there’s a stretchy floating “TabletSafe” tablet pocket for a tablet (about 7 inches wide) on the divider panel on the other side of the clamshell. This pocket protects your tablet by keeping it suspended about 4 inches away from the shell of the pack in every direction.


This feature is what makes the bag “ScanSmart” and TSA-compliant, as you can sometimes avoid having to take your laptop and/or tablet out of the bag when passing through airport security by laying the bag out flat like this with the electronic devices on display when it passes through the X-ray conveyor belt.

At the front of the bag on the exterior there’s a pretty large quick-access zip pocket (about 8 inches deep) at the top and another zip pocket at the bottom that contains an organizational panel with a detachable keyring, a handful of liner pockets, a mesh pocket and a couple of pen holders.  There’s also a fairly deep zippered accessory pocketThere’s also a fairly deep on both sides of the bag. on both sides of the bag.


TSA-compliant tech compartment

Lots of pockets for better organization

Floating tablet pocket provides superior protection


Metal zippers jangle

Polyester fabric is not as durable as other choices, such as nylon or leather

Check price on Amazon

​How to choose the perfect carry-on backpack for travel?

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

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

2. To protect those belongings 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 bags 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 typically in the range of 40-45 L.

Backpacks that exceed this capacity are likely to cause you problems with some airlines and you may be forced to check them in, so I would stay below 45L 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. 


The shape of a backpack obviously influences its aesthetic appeal. Some backpacks, for example, have a boxy design, which does afford a little extra volume but at the expense of making the bag look unattractive to some people.

The shape of a backpack can also affect comfort. 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.


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. 

With that said, very tall people may face some issues with some carry-on backpacks, like hip belts that go around the waist instead of the hips. Very small people may also find the larger carry-on bags (40L+) too long for their torsos.

It's worth in keeping in mind 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 (contoured) shoulder straps with plenty of padding or foam cushioning to distribute the load over a larger surface area, thereby ensuring comfort, especially when carrying the bag for extended periods.

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.

Some shoulder straps feature load lifters, which are small straps at the top of the shoulder straps that can be tightened to help lift some weight off your shoulders and transfer it to your hips. These are not so important to have in a smaller carry-on backpack but if you're buying a 40L+ bag that you're planning to load up pretty heavy they will definitely help to ensure greater comfort.

Back panel

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

The other important thing to look out for in the back panel is ample airflow. Badly designed back panels with no ventilation will leave your back soaked with sweat, especially after walking the streets in warm weather 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. 

Hip belt 

A well-padded hip belt is an important feature to have for a relatively large carry-on backpack (40L +), especially if your bag is going to be loaded up with some heavy stuff. 

A hip belt allows you to transfer much of the bag's 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. Some hip belts have zip pockets; due to how the belt will curve around your body, these pockets will usually only work well for holding fairly thin and flexible items.

Sternum strap

In addition to a hip belt, some backpacks offer an adjustable 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.

Grab handles

Most carry-on backpacks have at least one grab handle on the outside. A grab handle is handy for overcrowded situations (i.e. getting on and off a bus, a bustling market etc.), where it's easier to slip past people while carrying the bag like a briefcase. An external handle is also useful for grabbing the bag from an overhead luggage compartment on a bus, train or plane.

The most commonly seen handle on backpacks is the haul loop, a small loop of webbing or padded material found at the top of a bag. These are a standard feature, but some bags also feature one or two side grab handles, which are usually intended for carrying the bag in briefcase or duffel bag mode. Some bags even have four grab handles (one on every side) so that there's also a handle for you to easily grab, no matter what side or angle you approach the bag from.

Make sure that the backpack you’re buying has at least one grab handle, that it's reasonably well-padded (so your hand doesn't hurt when you lift the bag) and 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 unconventional, 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 frayed 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 need to fully waterproof your gear you should buy a special dry bag for that. 

Since backpack fabrics are only water-resistant to varying degrees, it's a good idea to have a rain cover for your carry-on backpack. Some backpacks include one, but many nowadays do not. All is not lost if a backpack doesn't have an integrated rain fly, as you can always purchase one separately, but I consider an included cover to be a major bonus.

As for UV resistance, it's generally not as important as water resistance as the effects of UV damage can often take years to manifest. 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

Your carry-on backpack will inevitably take a few hard knocks on the road, even if you’re being extra careful with it. For example, your bag might occasionally fall down from the overhead luggage rack on a bus, or get bumped into by pedestrians or even vehicles on a crowded street. At times you might also drop your bag on the ground 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.

Padded laptop sleeve

A generously padded laptop sleeve is essential for travellers that carry a laptop, 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 (i.e. at airport security). 

Many laptops now also provide dedicated tablet sleeve as well, often in the same compartment of the bag where the laptop sleeve is situated. If you're a gadget-loving person, it's always nice to have.

Internal organization

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.

Side water bottle pockets

Often made from an elastic material, external side pockets are designed to allow you to carry a water bottle, umbrella, tripod etc. 

A well-designed water bottle pocket should be unobtrusive when not in use and should be able to expand to securely hold a range of water bottle sizes. Bags designed for urban travel tend to have one external water bottle pocket, whereas those intended for hiking often have dual side pockets.

I consider an external side pocket to be a pretty indispensable carry-on backpack feature, as without one you're forced to carry your water bottle in your hand the entire time. You definitely don't want to risk carrying a water bottle inside your backpack because of the risk of leakage or spillage, especially if you have electronics in the bag. 

Loading method (top-loading, panel-loading, side-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 panel-loading design; this means that one of the panels opens like that of a suitcase or clamshell, making it easier to see all the contents at once and find what you're looking for.

Some panel-loading backpacks also offer side zippers to access the main compartment; these are useful if you want to quickly grab something without opening up the whole thing like a suitcase.

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, unsuitable materials. On the other hand, many backpack materials can be very strong 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.


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 company YKK, are widely believed to be the world’s best zippers, so you can always rely on a backpack fitted with these.

Other hardware

The materials used for other hardware components like buckles, clips, snaps, attachment points etc.  also play an important role in determining the overall lifespan of the backpack. 

Most backpacks use plastic hardware (Duraflex buckles are generally the gold standard here) but occasionally you'll see metal (often aluminium because of its lightness) components being used, which is always a bonus. Metal hardware is stronger and more durable than plastic, although it does add more to the weight of the pack.  

Other factors to consider when choosing a carry-on backpack

We’ve discussed some of the most important factors to consider when purchasing a backpack for travel. There are a few additional considerations that will also be important to some people.


It may end up being your backpack for the next few years so you probably would like it to look at least a little bit chic. 


Luckily, carry-on backpacks tend to be more stylish than the large hiking ones. They look more natural and won't raise any eyebrows. They also allow you to move more smoothly through crowds and tight spaces, which makes you appear to be more in control and at ease within your environment.

However, the design can vary a lot, even from one carry-on bag to another. I personally don't like carry-on backpacks that look too boxy. A lot of companies are going for a sleek, minimalist exterior nowadays, which is undoubtedly popular with many people. Many people feel that you can’t beat leather as the material of choice for stylish looking backpacks. 


Some backpacks are available in just one or two colours, while others come in a wide range of colours or colour combinations. Plain black is almost always available.


If you're concerned about theft, drab colours like brown, grey or black are best. Your bag will blend in more this way and be less eye-catching to thieves. 

If you're choosing the colour with your overall style in mind, then you might want to choose a backpack colour to match your travel outfit. If in doubt, the colour grey will go well with virtually any outfit.


How much should you spend on a travel backpack? I say, "as much as you need to". If you find a backpack for under $50 that ticks all the boxes, then you don't need to spend more. 


However, with the cheaper backpacks you’re generally going to see a lot of compromises in the strength and durability of the materials, the thickness of the padding, the amount of functionality, and so on. Indeed, it's highly unlikely that an ultra-cheap backpack will tick all of the important boxes.


A backpack is one product where it’s advisable to invest a little, because a high-quality pack will faithfully serve you for years, if not decades. And the very last thing you want is to have a substandard backpack fall apart on you during a trip, a calamity that’s all too common among those who opt for a cheaper bag. 

​What is the difference between a daypack and a carry-on backpack?

Although daypacks can also be taken on board a plane as cabin baggage, we aren’t usually referring to them when we use the term “carry-on backpack”. A daypack is normally carried in conjunction with a larger checked bag where the bulk of your gear is packed. 

The idea is that you use the larger bag to haul all your gear to your destination and then once you arrive you unpack just the items you need for your daily outings and use the much smaller daypack to carry those items around with you from day to day.


A carry-on backpack, on the other hand, typically refers to a bag that’s designed for one bag travel; a single bag that’s big enough to hold all your clothes and gear (except for perhaps your camera gear, which might have its own camera bag), without your needing to bring any additional pieces of luggage.

​Can a carry-on backpack be used for longer trips too?

Absolutely! I have travelled continuously for more than 6 months with just a single carry-on backpack. You’d be surprised how little you actually need to function and be comfortable on the road long-term.


There isn’t really a whole lot of extra stuff that you need to pack for extended trips compared to what you’d pack for a week-long trip. If you don’t need to use an item in that first week, what are the chances you’ll need to use it in subsequent weeks?

If you’re willing to do your own laundry regularly (or pay someone else or a machine to do it for you), then you don’t even really need to pack much extra clothes. Yes, you won’t have a huge choice of outfits to wear, but that’s one of the prices you have to pay to travel light.


Less is definitely more when it comes to packing and there are so many advantages to packing light and very few disadvantages. If you’re interested in learning how to cut down on extraneous clutter, I recommend you check out our packing tips for minimalist travel. 

​How to travel with a carry-on backpack?

Since, a carry-on backpack is designed to be an all-in-one solution, that’s exactly how you would travel with it.


You’d pack everything you need for your entire trip into the carry-on and then when you arrive at your destination you can use the bag as a daypack by keeping all the stuff you don’t need for your daily outings in your locked hotel room or inside a locker if you’re sleeping in a dormitory.


Of course, the downside of the one bag travel approach is that some carry-on backpacks (especially the 40-45L ones that are approaching cabin baggage size limits) might be too large to make for perfect daypacks, although many carry-on bags are now compressible/expandable to address this issue.


It's also possible to pack a packable/foldable daypack in your carry-on bag if you want to have a smaller bag to use for your daily adventures instead of a half-empty carry-on bag that might seem unnecessarily large for carrying just a water bottle, a sweater, an umbrella and a few snacks.


If you are checking a large backpack it’s unlikely that you’d ever want to also travel with a carry-on bag. If you are packing boatloads of stuff, a large checked bag combined with a daypack would make sense, but a large checked bag combined with a carry-on bag probably wouldn’t.


If you were thinking of combining a large checked bag with a carry-on bag in order to carry more stuff, then it’s probably better to just buy an even bigger checked bag with more volume. However, if you can find a carry-on bag that compresses down small to work well as a day bag, this might become a reasonable option. 

If you liked this article or found it helpful, please share it with other travellers. Did we miss any awesome carry-on backpacks? Please leave us a comment if there's another carry-on backpack out there that you reckon should have made this list. 


Many of the best carry-on backpacks in 2021 are the result of a painstaking research and development phase and a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.


The competition is really steep in the backpack market nowadays, and this is forcing companies to become really innovative and to really push the envelope in terms of their products’ design, comfort and functionality.


We’re seeing a lot of really cool backpacks with smart features emerge from these new start-ups, although the cutting-edge features and materials that these backpacks boast also tend to come with a commensurate price tag. Still, you generally do get what you pay for, and buying a bag that costs three times more but lasts three times longer and provides superior functionality, aesthetics and comfort is a smart decision.


Really, we are spoilt for choice with the number of excellent carry-on backpacks that are available to us in today’s marketplace and I am confident that you will have found something in this roundup that’s right for you.


Always remember that no backpack is going to be perfect for everyone but every backpack is going to be perfect for someone.

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Our names are Eoghan and Jili and we hail from Ireland and India respectively.

We are two ardent shoestring budget adventure travellers and have been travelling throughout Asia continuously for the past few years. 

Having accrued such a wealth of stories and knowledge from our extraordinary and transformative journey, our mission is now to share everything we've experienced and all of the lessons we've learned with our readers. 

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