Travel is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It can, however, bring with it a fair amount of hassle and stress.
One potential source of additional stress that you really don’t need is your backpack. Getting this part of your pre-trip prep right, in fact, can be the difference between a trip to remember and a trip to forget.
So it’s well worth taking some time to choose your pack wisely.
To simplify things and help you navigate the abundance of packs, specs and features out there, read on for our buyer’s guide to choosing the best carry-on backpack for traveling.
Carry-on Backpacks Side-By-Side Comparison
How to Choose the Best Carry-On Backpack for Traveling
Choosing the best carry-on travel backpack isn’t as simple as plumping for a big brand name and an appropriate size.
Before clicking ‘buy’, there are a number of important factors and features to consider in order to make sure you’re getting the pack that’s right for you.
Below, we’ve listed some of the most important:
Top Loading or Side Loading?
Perhaps the most hotly debated point among backpack buyers and users!
Ultimately, this is a matter of personal preference. There are, however, pros and cons to both systems:
Bottom Line: For the sake of convenience, we’d recommend going for a front or side-loading pack unless you’ve tried and tested top-loaders and are sure this system works for you.
A travel pack usually doesn’t require the same waterproofing capacities as a hiking backpack.
If you envision hitting a few trails while on your travels, however, opt for a pack made with waterproof materials or which comes with an integrated or freebie raincover.
Well organised compartments is one of the most desirable aspects of a pack for the savvy traveler.
Put simply, with multiple compartments you can organize and store your gear a lot better.
This makes it easier to locate things when needed and to separate clean clothes from dirty clothes, electronics from other accessories, and valuables or breakables from liquids and sharp objects.
Size and Capacity
What size of pack you choose for a travel carry on is largely - but not entirely - dictated by your airline’s regulations and MLC (Maximum Legal Carry).
Maximum weights vary from airline to airline, but MLC measurements are usually 22 x 14 x 9 inches.
This doesn’t necessarily exclude packs that are slightly larger (in the 22-25” long range, for example).
If you’re keen to have those extra few inches, you can simply avoid stuffing the pack to the brim and make sure you’ve tied down the hood straps to compress those extra few inches.
In the quest to create the most ultralight backpack, many manufacturers skimp on ‘luxury’ features such as a padded hipbelt.
This is particularly true of travel packs, where the expectation is that you won’t be wearing the pack for as many consecutive hours as a hiking pack.
With any backpack, however, the majority of the pack weight will be pushing down on your hips. As such, sufficient padding on the hipbelt is all but essential.
Even if you’re only carrying the pack for an hour or two, a thin, poorly padded belt could easily become an inadvertent instrument of torture for the duration!
Padded Shoulder Straps
As with the hipbelt, these can make the difference between a comfortable carry and a long spell of chafing, rubbing and excessive pressure on both your shoulders and your lower back.
To avoid these annoyances, shoot for wide straps with ample padding.
If possible, load the pack up in the store and try it on before buying.
Padded and Ventilated Back Panel
Your backpack can become mightily uncomfortable if the back panel isn’t sufficiently padded or ventilated.
Mesh and molded foams offset or thwart the poking capacity of hard or sharp objects by providing a space or buffer between you and the pack’s contents.
This buffer or space also aids ventilation.
Most forms of padding will be contoured so as to allow air-flow between your body and the pack.
Other packs use a suspended mesh back panel, which provides ventilation by holding the pack an inch or so away from your back.
Framed or Frameless?
This feature helps to support the weight you’re carrying and better distribute your pack load.
Although useful in this regard, even the lightest frames can add quite a few ounces to your pack’s overall weight.
These packs are usually lightweight and more compact than their framed brethren.
The can also be more ergonomic by adapting to fit the shape of your back and your posture.
On the downside, they offer less support than packs with an internal frame and often provide no barrier or buffer between your body and any bulky, poky items in your pack.
Better for lighter loads.
The degree of versatility you require from your pack will depend on what you plan on getting up to.
If you see yourself doing a fair amount of hiking or other outdoor activities while traveling, a good idea would be to choose a pack as closely styled to a regular hiking pack as possible.
Not only will you benefit from the more durable and waterproof materials, but also the (usually) more streamline shape, better load distribution and all-day comfort with heavier loads.
If you’re more likely to be city-hopping or traveling for business, a front-loading, EDC (Everyday Carry) pack with a laptop sleeve and briefcase-like compartments will most probably suit your needs better.
Most front or side-loading packs have dual pull tabs on the zippers so they can be locked together, but it’s always best to check before buying.
Make sure your locks are TSA-friendly - these locks feature a special release function that allows the TSA to open and check your bag without breaking the lock.
Now we know what we’re looking for let’s get down to our review of…
The 5 Best Carry-On Travel Backpacks of 2017
A fantastic all-rounder that could well become your go-to pack for a variety of activities.
As well suited to a day in the hills as it is a day in the office, at the beach or doing your A to B on subways, trains and buses, the Porter Travel 46 is superbly versatile.
It also comes in a sleek, stylish design, is bang on MLC regulation size and features travel-efficient top loading with an adequate amount of storage pockets and compartments.
Additional nice, handy touches include the padded carry handles on the top and sides and the stowaway hip-belt and shoulder harness.
The only downsides to this pack are its slightly odd shape (almost cube-like), which makes it stick out a little behind you as you walk, and a lack of padding on the waist belt. Neither of these should be big issues if your load isn’t too heavy.
A very spacious and well-thought-out backpack that’s as suitable for a trekking holiday as it is for city-hopping.
At 50 liters, this pack is bang on the MLC for most airlines but unless filled to the brim shouldn’t cause any problems.
The highlights of the Kelty Redwing pack are its ripstop materials, adjustable frame, abundance of storage compartments and its general user-friendly convenience.
It boasts plenty of cushioning in the rear, shoulders and hips and is let down only by its waterproofing ability and slightly heavy weight.
The Redwing isn’t the lightest of packs, but offers a lot of extra storage and a very comfortable, supportive frame system in return for those few extra ounces.
With the Transit 50, Deuter have pulled off pretty much the perfect hybrid of a hiking backpack and a travel backpack.
This pack is made with coated ripstop fabric and boasts a wealth of very handy features.
Most notable are the concealable backpack system which zips away, a removable strap which allows you to turn the pack into a shoulder bag, padded grab handles and several nicely sized storage compartments for organizing your gear.
Although surpassing the MLC of many airlines by 3 inches (it measures 25” tall), you can avoid any check-in issues by simply clamping down the hood a fraction tighter.
The only downsides to this pack are its price and its top-loading system.
Otherwise, it packs a ton of fancy features that make it a solid option for anyone seeking a very versatile, comfortable pack that’s suitable for a diverse range of traveling adventures.
A superbly functional, versatile little pack that boasts a wealth of user-friendly features and a solid, reliable construction.
Wherever you’re headed, the Farpoint 40 boasts just about all of the desirable assets you’ll need to go in comfort and with the maximum convenience.
Our favorite features on this tidy top-loader are the ventilated back panel, cushioned carry handles, abundance of storage pockets and removable shoulder strap.
Are there any downsides?
Well, it’s bit short on capacity for ‘kitchen-sink’ type travelers and has a few niggly design features such a flappy straps and non-optimal laptop sleeve placement.
Otherwise, this pack offers great value for money
Although the smallest pack in our review, the Surge Transit might be a good option for the minimalist traveler who likes to keep things simple and well organized.
It boasts a sleek, intuitive design, a whopping seven exterior pockets and a fleece-lined sleeve for your laptop or tablet.
It’s made of tough, ripstop Cordura nylon, weighs only 3lbs. 6 oz and features a very nicely padded, ventilated back panel.
The only downsides to this carry on luggage backpack are its smaller capacity and shortage of padding on the hipbelt.
All in all, this a great, travel-efficient option for those who are more likely to be prowling Paris or Prague than heading out on hikes or other outdoor adventures.
As stated above, choosing the best carry on backpack for you will depend largely on your personal preferences and the kind of traveling you plan on doing.
That said, there are a number of facets and features that are universally desirable - most notably comfort, convenience and quality.
In each of these attributes we have found the Deuter Transit 50 to have narrowly edged out its closest competitors.
As fans of a front-loading system for traveling packs, the top-loading Deuter defied our expectations.
In addition to a very useful 12-liter day pack, it boasts a decent amount of interior and exterior compartments to help keep things organized and maximize convenience.
Comfort-wise, the load-bearing aluminum frame, breathable foam back and padded hipbelt offer excellent support and make it suitable for even heavy loads.
The only real downsides to this pack are its price and weight, but your extra bucks and those added ounces get you lot of extra quality.
It doesn’t offer quite as many storage compartments, but atones for this with nice touches galore, better versatility and a superior quality build.