There are a lot of articles on the internet about the best backpack for travel, so why read this one? Because I travel. A lot. I spent over 6 years as a digital nomad living out of a bag, and for the most part, that bag was one of these backpacks. From epic round-the-world trips to summers in Europe to long-stays in cities and weeks trekking through jungles, I’ve packed and re-packed more times than I can count. And I’ve worked my way through a few backpacks in that time, too.
What follows is a guide to choosing a bag together with a summary of my the best backpacks I’ve used. I’ll look at top-loading backpacks, travel packs, cabin-luggage sized backpacks, and convertible backpacks with wheels, together with recommendations for my favourite bags. I’ll even talk through the pros and cons of travelling with a suitcase versus backpack.
Classic Top-loading backpacks
This style of backpack is by far my favourite. I know, I know, you can’t lock them and you have to delve to the very bottom to pull out that wrinkled top that you’ve spent the last 5-minutes feeling around for, but trust me – there’s a reason top-loading backpacks are as popular as ever.
Compared to travel packs (which zip open like a suitcase), I’ve consistently found top-loading backpacks better at maximising space, offering a better fit on your back (they tend to be taller and thinner to contour with your body so you don’t get stuck in bus and train doors) and they overall feel more comfortable to wear over the long-term, probably because of the shape.
Pros of top-loading backpacks
- Great at maximising your packing space – you can really cram stuff down into the tightest corners.
- Great fit for long-term wear.
- Great shape that means you can easily get around without getting trapped in doorways or knocking people over.
Cons of top-loading backpacks
- Sod’s law has it that the item you want is always at the bottom.
- You can’t usually lock top-loading bags.
- They don’t tend to look as stylish, so shifting from dorm to designer hotel can be a bit awkward.
Buying tips for top-loading backpacks
- Don’t worry about inaccessibility – buy packing cubes to sort your clothes. All the long-term travellers I meet swear by packing cubes.
- Security – sure, you can’t lock most top-loaders but hostels have lockers. And, most backpackers tend to also travel with a daypack/small backpack, which can usually be locked.
- Make sure you have a bottom access zip – I keep my running shoes and rain gear in there for quick access.
- Spend as much as you can afford – you typically get more for your money in terms of the quality, comfort, overall design and practical use.
- Try it on IRL – even if you then buy your backpack online, make sure you try on a toploader as the adjustment options can make a huge difference for weight distribution and comfort.
Now for the top loading backpacks I’ve tried:
Karrimor Panther 65 litre
I travelled on my first around the world trip with this bag and I loved it. It was reliable, robust, packed well and had enough different spaces to be able to organise my packing. The only downside was the size. Fully packed, it was way heavier than I wanted (getting up to 15kg – thanks to the 1000 incense sticks I bought for my mum in India). For that reason, I later bought a second top-loading bag, which was smaller and is currently my favourite bag (see below).
I have the Karrimor Panther. The Munro is very similar in style (and possibly just the USA name for the same pack?). You’ll get more choice if you buy direct from Karrimor but typically cheaper prices if you buy from the Karrimor store on Amazon USA or Amazon UK.
Osprey Kyte 46 Litre
I’ve met a lot of people on the road who use Osprey backpacks and they have nothing but great things to say about the brand and the bags, “They’ve been designed by travellers for travellers” is the consistent message and, I have to say, having taken the plunge and bought one myself, that’s a very fair assessment. I bought the Kyte, which is a backpack for women. The Kestrel is the male equivalent. (The backpacks have been designed with different male and female anatomy in mind).
Every inch of my Osprey backpack has been well thought out with zippered pockets and access areas in all the right places. But most importantly, the fit is far superior to any other backpack I’ve looked at – using a free app, you can photograph and then accurately assess the length of your back and then pick the right size for each pack type; you can then fit it even further with the usual adjustment straps on the bag. Osprey also makes cute backpacks, IMO.
I could wear my Osprey, fully packed, for hours and would barely notice it. For only 46 litres, this pack is smart enough for me to pack all of my travel essentials in it, including multiple pairs of shoes and cold-weather gear. Plus, I’m now travelling with a much more manageable sized bag compared to my 65-litre Karrimor, weighing a maximum of 11kg when stuffed full. It’s technically a hiking bag, which makes it a lot lighter and means it includes a free rain cover protector and space for a water pouch if you want to add one.
Travel pack are an advancement in the bag department, addressing the two problems with top loaders – travel packs open like a suitcase (although are usually soft like a backpack, not structured like a soft suitcase) and can be locked. It’s also common to be able to tuck away the straps and carry a travel pack like a normal bag via a handle or shoulder strap. I’ve tried two travel packs over the years. One I hated so much I gave it away (expensive mistake), the other I love and still use.
- You can definitely manage the hostel to hotel transition with more style courtesy of zip away straps.
- For the same reason, checking your bag is also more easy (no more hefting your bag to the odd-sized luggage deposit).
- Finding stuff is a lot easier thanks to the wide opening front.
- If you’re taking a large bag, the overall fit can feel uneven and awkward compared to toploaders that do a better job of compressing your clothes into a uniform shape.
- Over-packers beware: just like a suitcase, you’ve got to get that zip closed, which is hard to do when you don’t have the inflexible sides of a suitcase to guide you.
Buying tips for travel packs
- Focus on the straps and back system – it’s nice to be able to zip them away but most of the time you’ll be wearing the bag so make sure the straps are up to the job.
- Check the zip opening is high enough – I saw one bag where the zip was around the middle of the depth of the bag meaning you’d have a real job getting it closed.
- Try to find one with compression straps to keep your items in place when you’re packing light – it makes for a more comfortable fit.
Kathmandu Lighthaul 38 litres & 65 litres
This is by far my favourite travel pack. At this stage of my travels I’d downsized considerably – mostly because I wanted to switch to carry on sized luggage (you can read about how I made the transition to carry on). I was flying more than a handful of times a year and was getting sick of paying checked baggage fees. Also, I just wanted to generally lighten my load. Working and travelling, there were plenty of times I wanted to visit somewhere en-route to my destination, and a small backpack made this much easier, and more enjoyable.
As with all travel bags, the Kathmandu Lighthaul 38 litre opens like a suitcase, and you can zip away the backpack straps. Despite the relatively small litre size, the pack has a roomy interior, an easy-access section for your laptop if you are looking for a laptop backpack, and a spacious top section for other easy-grab items – snacks, in my case. I rarely tuck away the handles (too lazy) and don’t use the bag as a holdall style pack, but it’s an option. Overall, this is one smart looking travel pack that’s perfect for carry on. It’s also great as a city backpack.
If you can’t image whittling your possessions down to just 38 litres, there is a 65 litre version of this travel pack. While I haven’t tried it, I still have no hesitation recommending it. I have a second Kathmandu bag (a trolley backpack – see below), which I also love. I just think that Kathmandu does excellent quality backpacks.
Berghaus 65 litre travel pack
This is the only bag I don’t recommend. I’ve included it because so many backpack review articles fail to include backpacks that the writer has tried but didn’t like. Berghaus’ travel pack falls into that category for me. It was the first backpack I bought – the Jalan 65 litre with 10 litre travel pack. It wasn’t cheap but it got great reviews. Yay! Unfortunately those reviews were written by people who’d only taken the bag out of the plastic wrapping and tried it on; they hadn’t packed it full and taken it on a trip for any length of time. Boo!
When I did take the bag on its inaugural trip – two-weeks in Turkey – I rapidly realised that I dreaded having to put this bag on because the fit was awful. The bag could only be adjusted on one side, which meant it was permanently lopsided – not great when you’re carrying over 10kg.
I eventually bit the bullet and changed to a top-loader for my around the world adventures and I’m so glad I did. I later met two girls who had the Jalan and their bags had both split at the seams in the same place.
The Jalan bag is no longer available, which can only be a good thing. Berghaus did produce a subsequent travel pack called the Travel Mule, which looks similar and gets poor reviews. It’s also now out of stock. While I do like Berghaus for some travel products and the Jalan daypack was great, I’d be tempted to swerve the brand’s travel packs altogether.
Backpacks with wheels
I see a lot of travellers sporting convertible backpack with wheels, particularly ladies, so I decided to try one out. These trolley backpacks are aimed at travellers who don’t want to wear their bag on their back all the time but come with the flexibility to wear it with straps if you need to (think: stairs and sand). At first, I wasn’t a fan of this style of bag – I preferred to travel light and having the additional ‘baggage’ of a wheel system was too much. And then I went and ruptured my knee ACL ligament. That made me significantly reconsider my backpacking style. I’m now a major convert of backpacks with wheels.
- If you’ve got a bad back or knee injury or don’t want to carry the weight of a rucksack, having wheels is going to save you a lot of strain and pain.
- Better than a traditional suitcase as they’re often soft-sided and therefore more likely to squeeze under beds, fit in lockers and cram on buses.
- Let’s face it, they look a lot more grown up than a day-glow nylon rucksack.
- If you’re half travelling/half moving country (you know, that one-year in Australia kind of trip), need extra space for a winter trip, or just want a large backpack, wheelie rucksacks usually let you pack a bit more without worrying about the weight.
- They’re typically lockable which can ease any of those ‘will my bag get raided‘ worries.
- What you gain in ease of rolling, you lose in space for packing (those wheels and handle have to go somewhere).
- If you buy one too big or pack it too full, you’ll quickly lose the ability to wear it on your back.
- Packing light can be a challenge as these bad-boys are often larger in size and are therefore almost always going to have to be stowed on planes and buses.
Buying tips for backpacks with wheels
- This is a hybrid product so make sure you get the best of suitcase functionality with backpack flexibility.
- Look at the wheels and make-sure they’re fit for the terrain you’ll be covering – typically you’ll want something more rugged than standard suitcase wheels if you’re travelling to developing countries (or Europe with cobblestone streets).
- Check the weight of the bag both empty and full – can you actually carry it on your back if necessary?
- Try to buy as small a bag as you can – there will come a tipping point after which you simply won’t be able to get it on your back (certainly don’t go for anything over 70 litres).
Kathmandu Hybrid Trolley 50 litre
This was my second trolley / backpack with wheels and it’s the one that converted me away from my top loader. Ok, having knee surgery helped the decision but this hybrid backpack is just so well designed, it makes packing and travelling a breeze. You’ll see below that I wasn’t sufficiently thrilled with my Osprey Meridian to convert to a trolley. But everything about the Kathmandu removed those issues.
It’s super light, despite the wheel system, the sides manage to hold enough shape to pack your kit inside when it’s open and the wheels are as rugged as you’d ever need. I’ve dragged this backpack with wheels across sandy beaches in Thailand and through a bush camp in Kruger National Park (that was more bush than camp), all because I’m too lazy to pull out the straps. And the Kathmandu Hybrid withstood it all.
There are just the right number and location of pockets, the compression straps inside and out help when I stuff it full, and thanks to the thoughtful zip placement, you can partially open this backpack and use it almost like a top-loader to access your most frequently used things (or a raincoat in a downpour). There is a cute, attachable Gluon Daypack which you can buy separately. I’d love to try it but haven’t yet been able to justify buying yet another daypack when I have so many already. Maybe someday I’ll treat myself. If you don’t already have a daypack, it’s a neat option.
I bought this backpack years ago and they’re still making it to the same design – it works that well. Available in both the 50 litre and 70 litre, I have the 50 litre but this is one occasion where I’d say you could go large with a 70 litre if you’re not yet ready to pack light. It will be one of the easiest ways to travel with that much weight.
Osprey Sojourn 60 litre
This was my first wheeled backpack and I really wanted to love it – my Osprey Kyte had become my best loved toploader, so I really like the Osprey brand, but this backpack just missed the mark for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad backpack trolley option. Osprey has one of the best designed handle and wheel frames, but it just seemed to take up too much space and added too much weight. Despite it being a 60 litres size, I couldn’t get the usual 60 litres of kit in it. I thought at first I was losing my packing skills so I did a comparison and I could only get in the Osprey Meridian the same items as my 46 litre Osprey Kyte.
If you’re ok with packing a smaller amount of stuff and a bit of extra trolley-frame weight, the Osprey Meridian is one of the best wheeled backpacks out there – the wheels are indestructible (I know, I tried) and can definitely take a bit of off-roading; there are clever inner sections for separating your items, as you’d expect from Osprey’s designers and there is a zip-off daypack that has all the right spaces for a laptop, water bottle and sunglasses. As an added bonus, the dimensions are within range to use this as cabin-luggage for some of the ‘better’ airlines like British Airways – very impressive for a bag of its size. Personally, I prefer my Kathmandu which is lighter, roomier and cheaper.
I tried the Osprey Meridian which is no longer available. The Osprey Sojourn is the current name of Osprey’s updated version, but it looks like the same pack to me.
Suitcase versus Backpack?
If you’ve not been on a long-term trip before, you’re probably struggling with the suitcase or backpack conundrum.
Once upon a time, the decision was simpler – a suitcase was the staple packing item for holidays and backpacks were the preserve of those heading to India on the banana pancake trail. However, as airlines have started to charge for heavier, bigger suitcases and backpacks have become sleeker and smarter, there is a lot more choice. Here’s a list of the pros and cons of each to help you decide:
Benefits of travelling with a suitcase
- Looking smart: Suitcases look much better when you’re turning up at a 5-star resort (if that’s something you care about).
- Packing heavy: Should you want to pack the kitchen sink, or similar, you’ll have a lot of space.
- Protecting your stuff: The hard sides offer better protection, particularly when they are being tossed around at the airport and you can usually lock a suitcase.
- Travelling over flat surfaces: wheels are incredibly handy when you’ve packed over 10kg of possessions and have some (flat-surface) distance to cover.
Benefits of travelling with a backpack
- Light packing: with a smaller shell to start with, you’re more likely to pack what you need than throw 23kg worth of stuff into a suitcase.
- Stairs and cobblestones: With the ability to sling it on your back, backpacks are much more stair friendly. Likewise, if you’re spending any time in Europe you can avoid the painful vibrations you’d get from pulling a case over cobblestones.
- Fitting into smaller spaces: under bunks on sleeper trains, in lockers and in overhead compartments on buses – you’re going to have more flexibility when travelling with a backpack
- Low cost airlines: avoid the fees of checked baggage by taking a carry-on backpack. Even if you check your backpack, it’s likely to be lighter (and therefore cheaper) than a suitcase.
Overall: suitcases are great if you’re going to one or two destinations or somewhere upmarket where you need to pack a large range of items. Think: package holidays. Backpacks, on the other hand are best if you’re going to multiple destinations travelling on a budget.
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