Finding The Travel Backpack We Call Home
Finding the best travel backpack is important. It’s even more important when you travel frequently, are a digital nomad, minimalist, or simply prefer traveling with ‘onebag’ (a single carry-on bag). The perfect travel backpack is different for everyone, but to help you on your search, we’ve outlined some of our process and method in finding the travel backpack we chose and what features were important for us to have (and not have).
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One of our most important decisions is what type of bag we’ll travel with. Our travel backup will be the closest thing we have to a home. So, just like we've had important criteria for the places we've chosen to live, we have just as important criteria for our travel backpack.
Read on to see our criteria, the finalist travel bags, and what we decided to purchase.
Once you’ve chosen your travel backpack you’ll need to decide on what to pack!
We’ve got you covered with our men’s and women’s lightweight, minimal, and ‘onebag’ essentials for continuous, long-term, and digital nomad travel.
Check out our Ultimate Gear and Packing Lists!
Travel Backpack Criteria: Must-Haves
Fit the Smallest Airline Carry-On Bag Constraints
Ryan Air: 10 kg (22lbs) with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm (21.65in x 15.74in x 7.87in)
Tip: Ryan Air has updated their carry on baggage policy so that all non-priority boarding passengers (extra €5 per passenger) will be forced to check-in their 10kg bag!
Lockable Zippers, Including a Way to DIY Lockable Zippers
We’re going to be in places, especially in urban centers, where theft is possible. We know that if someone wants to take our travel bag or get something out of it, they'll find a way, no matter how many locks we put on it. However, locking our travel backpack is a deterrent.
We ultimately outfitted our travel backpacks with lockable zippers using a DIY (do it yourself) option. It’s easier than you may think!
We've heard from many people who said that at our ideal travel bag weight, 15-20lbs, a hipbelt isn't really needed. But we know ourselves well enough to know that we’ll be walking everywhere. We’re the travel couple you see walking 2 miles from the airport to their hotel, even when there isn’t really a sidewalk.
So, not only is a hipbelt a must, but it needs to be padded. This'll give us the most comfort carrying our backpacks on those long walks and hikes.
We take really good care of our stuff, but at some point, something is bound to go wrong. We want to be able to get a replacement if a zipper or strap breaks. Most well-known travel bag brands have a warranty, so it'll come down to the specific terms of each warranty to judge how good it is.
We both have long torsos, so finding a travel bag that fits correctly is going to be difficult. We need it to rest on our hips so that it takes the weight off of our shoulders. Many smaller capacity travel bags aren’t as long and don’t adjust like larger travel backpacks do.
Tip: If you’re unsure what a good fit is, go to a good backpacking store (we went to REI) and ask for help. Someone will be available to help you try on backpacks and find a great fit!
Backpack Capacity: 32-38 Litters
We originally set a 25-30 litter travel backpack requirement but increased it after looking at bags in person.
The downside is that larger travel bags are usually heavier, but the upside is that they tend to have more features, and in a pinch you can stuff more in them. However, we don’t plan on filling our bags to capacity as they’re rated to about 30-35 lbs.
Backpack Shoulder Straps: Curved
Shoulder straps that are curved to fit your body will be comfortable through the last mile. Travel bags that don’t have this feature can begin to rub and dig into your shoulders over time.
Backpack Back: Padded
A travel bag without plenty of padding to protect our bodies is simply out of the running.
Travel Backpack Criteria: Like-To-Have
Panel Style Opening
A panel opening, as opposed to a top loading backpack, makes it easier to get to your precious items and find exactly what you’re looking for.
Imagine needing something at the bottom of your travel backpack and having to unload everything to get to it. That’ll get old very quickly!
There are two types of panel openings; both are “U” shaped but one is smaller and doesn’t open down to the bottom of the backpack. We prefer a full panel opening, but we’re okay with a smaller one.
Same Bag for Both Of Us, So They're Interchangeable
We want to be able to carry either bag. We don’t know what type of situations will arise, but we're sure there are times where we may end up wanting to carry the other person’s bag. With a few adjustments to straps, we want to be able to pick up either one of our travel backpacks and go.
Lots of Compartments
Suspension systems on a travel backpack are key to comfort. They distribute weight evenly and very from foam padding to aluminum frames with ventilated mesh.
Travel Backpack Criteria: Deal Breakers
Top Loading Cinch Top
As noted above under ‘panel opening’, top loading travel backpacks make it challenging to get to things at the bottom of your travel bag. But worse than that, a cinch top means that the bag uses a drawstring to close up the main compartment.
We see this as a huge security issue as it’s nearly impossible to secure with a lock.
A Bad Fit
Even if the fit could be ‘hacked’ in some way, we didn’t want to take the chance of it being uncomfortable because of a DIY solution. If it didn’t fit correctly, back on the rack it went.
Light and Bright Colors
Neon bags stick out like a sore thumb. Not only do we want to fit into the crowd (relatively speaking, we’re tourists/backpackers after all), but we also want to have a bag that'll camouflage dirt.
The heavier the bag, the less we can carry to stay within our target of 15-20 pounds each.
Travel Backpack Finalists: The Best Travel Bags
REI Trail 40 ~$110
Tortuga Travel Backpack ~$200
Osprey Farpoint ~$160
A Travel Backpack Versus A Hiking Backpack
As we narrowed our list of best travel carry on bags we realized we had two types of bags we were considering. We had the suitcase travel backpack hybrid and we had a more traditional backpacker’s backpack.
Suitcase Travel Backpack Hybrid
The benefits of the suitcase travel backpack hybrid are very alluring. Here’s what we loved most about these types of bags:
Hide-able shoulder straps – great for plane travel
Usually come with an optional ‘sling’ shoulder strap
Side and top handles for traditional carrying
Full panel opening
Inner and outer compression straps to hold items in place
Usually have a dedicated laptop compartment
No bag is perfect. Here are the typical drawbacks of a suitcase travel backpack hybrid:
Lack padding throughout the back and hipbelt
Not contoured to fit well against the body
Lack a robust suspension system
No place for a hydration pouch
Traditional Backpacker’s Backpack
Looking at a traditional backpacker’s backpack, these are the benefits we loved about them:
Contoured to fit the body
Great padding for extra comfort
Hydration pouch included or designated hydration pouch area
Curved shoulder straps
More ‘traditional’ look
Usually heavily padded hipbelt with pockets
And of course there are also drawbacks to a traditional backpacker’s backpack:
Full panel openings are rare
Zippers are usually designed for opening comfortably instead of locking
Lack a laptop compartment
Typically not designed with airline carry on dimensions in mind
Our New Home, Errr We Mean Travel Backpack Is...
Osprey Manta AG 36
After hours of online research, several trips to retail stores, a purchase and return to Amazon, and for good measure, more research, we finally settled on our travel bag!
It’s a great combination of all of our musts and most of our preferred criteria. We chose the Osprey Manta AG 36 (not to be confused with the Osprey Manta AG Hydration).
Be sure to check out the video review/unboxing below!
Here are the main reasons we’re lovin' this bag:
The fit is great for both of us.
Reasonable bag weight (2.87lbs, Medium/Large) that won’t take much away from our total carrying target weight of 15-20lbs.
Comes with a hydration pouch. (Sergio here! We ultimately decided to forgo carrying the hydration pouch to save about half a pound each!)
Assortment of compartments, including pockets on the hip-belt and sides for water bottles and snacks.
Comfortable with solid padding and a great suspension system.
DIY lockable zippers. Watch our video tutorial.
Deep “U” panel opening.
Fits airline carry on dimension requirements for the strictest/budget airlines.
Trekking pole attachment
Great warranty, Osprey’s, ‘All Mighty Guarantee’