After spending over two years traveling the world via dozens of planes, trains, cars, and boats, plus testing 11 packs on the backs of five men and five women ranging from 5 feet 2 inches to 6 feet 2 inches tall, we’ve found the best travel backpacks for most nomads: Men (and tall women) will love the Osprey Farpoint 55 M/L and shorter to average-height women will like the highly adjustable REI Grand Tour 80. Both of these bags are big and supportive enough to comfortably carry everything you need to travel across Australia, yet small enough to be manageable navigating the narrow streets of Florence. They have great removable daypacks, are comfortable for the long walks between a train station and a hotel/hostel, are well made, and fit a wide range of body sizes. The other packs we looked at may have excelled in one or two categories, but did poorly in others. These two did the best across the board.
Travel backpacks shouldn’t be confused with those meant for extended hiking or camping trips. The former are designed for easy navigation in cities, say walking between transportation and the night’s accommodation. Travel-backpack designers emphasize features that travelers appreciate rather than light weight. These backpacks still have an internal frame (usually made of aluminum) for ergonomic support, but the bags themselves are made from heavier, tougher material that can withstand abuse from luggage handlers. They’re designed for you to pack and access them like you would a suitcase, as opposed to loading them from the top like an outdoors-oriented backpack, and they have lots of zippered compartments to make them easier to live out of when you don’t know what kind of adventure you’ll have that day.
We like the Osprey Farpoint 55 M/L because it does most things right and almost nothing wrong. Most of the other packs we considered had one or two serious flaws. The Farpoint 55 M/L delivers on all the core features that travelers find important, but doesn’t overreach to create new problems. It has a great 15-liter daypack that zips onto the back of the 40-liter main pack so you don’t have to deal with carrying two bags when you’re on the go. It also has a zippable cover for the straps so you can check it as luggage without additional hassle from the airlines. And it’s comfortable and well built. I’ve personally used it for the past two-plus years, putting over 100,000 miles on it, and has suffered only a few minor signs of external wear. The one place where the Farpoint 55 M/L falls a bit short is in adjustability. It has all the adjustments you’d find on a typical backpack, but lacks torso length adjustment, so those with shorter torsos might not find it comfortable (though every tester who could find a good fit said it was great). If a pack doesn’t fit, you’re not going to like it, no matter what features it has. More on this below.
Adjustability is one of the main reasons we picked the REI Grand Tour 80 as the best for most women. Unlike the Osprey, you can adjust the shoulder straps up and down the back panel to accommodate a wide range of torso lengths. This is key for comfort (or being able to wear the pack at all). It was the only pack that got universal praise from all five of our female testers, with several wanting to buy one that day. Though it is pretty large, all the women I spoke to—most of whom are seasoned travelers—wanted a bit more space than the Osprey Farpoint 55 M/L offered. The detachable daypack and integrated pack cover—that does double duty as a rain cover and as a wrap so you can check the pack as luggage—round out a great backpack. With many other excellent features, it’s clear that women were heavily involved in the design process.
If our top picks aren’t available, we recommend getting either the REI Grand Tour 85 (the men’s version of our women’s pick) if you’re a man or tall woman, or the Osprey Farpoint 55 S/M (the smaller size of our men’s pick) if you’re a woman of average height or shorter. The reason the Grand Tour 85 isn’t our top pick for men is that it’s simply too big. If you have the space, you’re gonna use it, and in this case, that means you’ll end up overpacking and have a bad time. The reason the Osprey Farpoint 55 S/M isn’t our pick for women is just that it’s not adjustable enough. A few testers, and the wife of one of our editors, found a great fit and loved it, but several other testers were unable to get a comfortable fit, which was a dealbreaker for them. The Farpoint 55 S/M is a little smaller than our main REI pick, but this isn’t as big of an issue as the fit.
If you’re not sure about this whole “traveling with a backpack instead of rolling luggage” thing, the sub-$100 Highlander Outdoor Explorer Ruckcase 45+15 offers a great opportunity to try out the concept. This highly adjustable, unisex bag has all the features we’ve liked in our other picks, such as a detachable daypack, stowable straps, and a front zipper that lets it open like a suitcase. But it’s made of cheaper polyester fabric, which isn’t as durable as the nylon in our other picks, and it lacks any sort of official warranty support. The daypack is also a little small and therefore incapable of holding most laptops. This bag has all the features you could want and need from a travel backpack, but you may end up having to replace it sooner than later.
Though it’s possible to get these picks into an overhead compartment, they’re really designed to be checked luggage. If carry-on is your only intended use, we have a recommendation below. But because a frame takes up a lot of space in a pack, you might want to consider a duffel-backpack hybrid like the one we recommend in our guide to the best travel gear instead—they won’t be as comfortable over longer distances, but that’s the tradeoff for packing a month’s worth of clothing and gear into a carry-on-friendly package.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust me
- Who this is for
- How we picked
- Fit is key
- How we tested
- For men (and tall women)
- A (too) big alternative
- For women
- Long-term test notes
- Carry-on regulations
- Carry-on size(-ish) or no daypack
- A budget option
- The competition
- What to look forward to
- Wrapping it up
Why you should trust me
I’ve spent the majority of the last 2.5 years traveling the world. I’ve lived and worked in 21 different countries across five continents, including spending seven months all over Europe, five months in Australia, a month in Brazil, plus time in Southeast Asia, and more. That whole time I lived out of a backpack. And I’d still be doing so instead of writing this review if not for the fact that I slipped and broke my leg in Chile early this year.
Before I started traveling basically full time, I had traveled in Africa, China, and throughout Europe with a variety of terrible backpacks and luggage, so I know what’s best to avoid. I’ve also met dozens of travelers from all over the world and have talked about backpacks with them, some of whom were also testers for this guide.
Because I am but one average-sized man, I recruited some help testing out the packs. Most of our testers were experienced travelers. More important, they were all different sizes and shapes. Five women, ranging from 5 feet 2 inches to 5 feet 6 inches, and five guys, ranging from 5 feet 6 inches to 6 feet 2 inches.
Who this is for
A travel backpack is for people who want to travel around the world unencumbered by heavy, slow-moving wheeled luggage. An internal-frame backpack in the 40- to 60-liter range has more than enough room for all the possessions you need to travel anywhere in the world for an indefinite amount of time—as long as you’re okay with doing laundry once you get there. Whether it’s clothes, a camera, and a laptop to work as a digital nomad (like me) or clothes, shoes, and gear to enjoy the daylife and nightlife everywhere you go, you can fit it—though not your entire wardrobe and office—in one of these packs. (If you want to carry heavy jackets, going-out clothes, multiple pairs of footwear, or other bulky gear, you may want something a tad bigger). It’s perfect for someone backpacking through Europe for a few weeks or months. Someone who wants the freedom to walk from the train terminal to their hostel without hating life. Someone who wants to be able to explore a city without having to find a place to stow their luggage, and doesn’t want to be miserable lugging it across cobblestones and down tiny alleyways. It is not for business travelers who want to maintain appearances, nor is it for outdoor enthusiasts looking to spend six weeks in Patagonia.
However, a backpack can be a very personal choice, like picking out a wallet or a purse: You know what you want, and that might be different from what someone else wants. That’s fine, but please take a moment to read through what we were looking for. A lot of you probably want very similar things to what we want, which is why this guide is so specific. So in order to come up with a guide that’s even remotely useful, we had to come up with some specific rules as to what we were looking for. I used what I learned in my years of near-constant travel, plus what I found out from other travelers I know, to come up with what we think most people would want in a travel backpack. Some aspects might seem obvious, others counterintuitive, but living out of something you carry with you fine-tunes your sense of what you want and need rapidly.
If you’re not sure if traveling with all your stuff in one bag is for you, check out my column on why you should always pack light. More than any other travel advice, packing light is by far the most transformative and life-changing. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself, other than the actual travel. Travel gets easier and better with minimal luggage. I can’t overstate this.
If you want something that rolls, check out our guide to the best carry-on luggage.And if you want something that you can carry on your back for shorter periods of time and is business-casual-friendly, check out our review of the best carry-on travel bags.
How we picked
There were at last count at least 80 trillion different types and styles of backpacks. No one guide could possibly cover them all. To make matters murkier, there are no hard lines between what constitutes a travel backpack and what constitutes a backpack you can use for travel. But if you look into reviews and articles about traveling the world with backpacks, it’s pretty clear what is not a travel backpack, so that’s a good starting point.
First off, a travel backpack is not a “spend several days away from civilization” backpacking backpack for the wilderness. Those packs are similarly designed but place greater emphasis on ease of access to things you’d need on a trail (like tools and snacks), weather protection, and lighter weight. They minimize use of heavy-duty materials and zippers and have a host of external straps and pockets that make them less likely to survive being checked and abused by baggage handlers. They also tend to be expensive because lightweight, water-resistant materials don’t come cheap. For extended-travel use, other annoying things about backpacking backpacks are that they tend to load only from the top and are sealed with a drawstring. This design saves weight and means one less thing to break, but is a total hassle to deal with in the event you want something from the bottom, because you have to unload and then reload the entire pack. That’s not to say that these can’t be used for international travel, but they’re not worth the trade-off in weight or durability.
Similarly, a travel backpack is not a shapeless duffel bag that offers no support. A duffel is the cheapest way to haul a bunch of stuff onto a plane, but the ergonomics are ill-suited to walking around a city. A fully loaded backpack, even a small one, easily weighs more than 20 pounds. My Farpoint 55 usually hovers just north of 30, though that includes a DSLR, two lenses, battery pack, laptop, GoPro, and other work-related gear. Regardless, that’s a lot of weight to put on one shoulder.
Adding backpack straps to a duffel can help, but that’s still inferior to a fully supported internal-frame pack that distributes the weight onto your hips, which are much stronger than your back and shoulders. Frameless bags can pack more gear into a smaller space and are more likely to fall within carry-on size restrictions, but if you’re going to be doing a significant amount of walking, you’ll want something with a frame.
Here’s what I bring (i.e., our standard kit for testing):
- Osprey Farpoint 55 M/L main pack (the command module or CM, if you will)
- Osprey Farpoint 55 daypack (the lunar excursion module or LEM)
- Dress shoes and walking shoes (not shown because I wear them when fully packed)
- Five shirts, one pair of shorts, one pair of jeans (not shown because I wear them in transit), one merino wool underlayer
- Hat (because my head lacks insulation)
- Five pairs of underwear, five pairs of socks, one extra T-shirt for laundry day, one bathing suit (I really recommend travel cubes)
- Rain jacket in an Eagle Creek bag
- Various adapters, camera batteries, chargers, etc.
- Various toiletries, vitamins, etc.
- Osprey rain cover
- Razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.
- Well-worn flip-flops (bought on my first trip where they’re called “thongs”)
- Travel towel
- UE Roll portable Bluetooth speaker
- Prescription dive mask
- Merino wool jacket
- Inflatable pillow
- Smartwool half-zip midlayer
- Hat (because my head hates sun)
- Extra travel adapter for daypack (daypack is a carry-on)
- Pen (vital!)
- Asus T100 Chi (a 15-inch MacBook also fits in all our picks)
- GoPro batteries and filters
- Earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones
- Writer Emergency Pack
- USB Battery Pack #1
- USB Battery Pack #2
- Backup headphones
- iPod Classic (because you can’t always stream music)
- USB charger
- Sigma 30mm f1.4 (with a wireless mouse to its right)
- Canon DSLR
Finally, we believe that traveling with a minimal amount of stuff helps you enjoy the trip more, but that you shouldn’t feel like an ascetic if you don’t want to. A bag in the 40- to 60-liter range has room for all your essentials, leaving some breathing room for souvenirs, creature comforts, and personal gear. For any extended travel, the key is this: You can’t bring it all with you. So don’t. You’ll have to do laundry, so bring a week’s worth of clothes or less. Literally no one will notice if you wear the same shirt twice in one week. Nearly every place you go will have laundry.
If you’ve never traveled this way, that can seem daunting, but it’s actually easier than you’d think and the benefits of doing so are legion. I’ve done all my travel in the last 2.5 years with a 40-liter backpack (and a 15-liter daypack, but that’s all work stuff). I tend to overpack a bit, but 40 liters lets me carry everything in the list above. This varies a bit depending on where I’m headed, but not by much. Some travelers can get away with a more daypack-size 25- to 35-liter bag, but at that point, they’re doing laundry basically every few nights, which isn’t ideal.
Speaking of daypacks, a feature we considered crucial for our main pick was an integral daypack: an LEM to the main pack’s CM. I have found this to be incredibly useful and convenient in my travels and I wouldn’t buy a travel pack without one. Many of the travelers I’ve shown this feature to liked the idea, though most didn’t know it was an option. Basically, your clothes and such stay packed in the big bag at the hostel and you take your camera, laptop, and other necessities out with you for the day—all without having to repack. When you’re in transit, you have the option to wear the daypack in the front (which personally I can’t stand), or attached to the main pack and out of the way.
Two reasons why you might not want a travel backpack that comes with a daypack:
- You have a daypack or purse you really like. No worries, we have a pick without a daypack.
- You like using a crushable/packable backpack.
I’m not a huge fan of the latter, as they don’t usually offer much padding for the contents and most won’t hold a laptop. (But if you are, our pick in our travel gear guide is better than most in both regards.) If you want those features, consider our carry-on pack.
Fit is key
One of the most important aspects of choosing a backpack is getting one that actually fits your skeleton. This doesn’t have a direct relation to your height, though in a general sense, most tall people have longer torsos than most short people. Then again, I’m 5 feet 11 inches, and my torso is 21 inches. Our own Tim Barribeau is 6 feet 3 inches, but his torso is 17 inches. Hollie, one of our testers, is 5 feet 4 inches with a torso height 1 inch shorter than that of Carolina, who’s 5 feet 2 inches. REI has a great guide on how to measure your torso height, if you don’t know yours.
Which is to say, measuring your torso and making sure the bag you want can fit someone your size are vital. Even then there’s no guarantee the pack you want will fit and be comfortable.
However, we did find out a few things. Every woman who tried the Grand Tour 80 loved the fit, not least because we could adjust it to their torso height. Every guy who tried the Farpoint 55 M/L (despite it not adjusting as much as the REI models) found it comfortable. Basically, if you’re a guy around average height, pretty much every pack is going to fit you.
How we tested
Once we narrowed down our choices, we were left with 11 possible contenders across our three main categories. For our first round of testing, I poked and prodded the different packs to sort out if they had any obvious flaws or issues. The lack of water bottle holders disqualified two of the packs, though I kept them on the list in case other testers didn’t feel this was a dealbreaker. (Spoiler: They all thought it was.)
Next, I hijacked a friend’s party to have everyone there test the finalists (thanks, Stephen and Carrie!). This coincided with another friend visiting from London. So, all told, we had 10 people: five women, ranging from 5 feet 2 inches to 5 feet 6 inches, and five men, ranging from 5 feet 6 inches to 6 feet 2 inches. Two of the men and two of the women were not heavy travelers. The rest have traveled a lot using a mixture of luggage types.
We tested each backpack for overall fit and comfort. If anything annoyed or excited a tester, I made a note of it. We didn’t do any long walks or hikes with the packs, as this was deemed less important given the nature of these packs. Also, if the fit is right, all these packs have all the features to be comfortable (padding, wide straps, and in most cases, a suspension system).
Tallying up the winners was mostly a matter of disregarding the ones most disliked.
For men (and tall women)
The Osprey Farpoint 55 M/L is a lightweight, easy-to-carry, full-featured travel backpack that you can live out of for as long as you want. It is not perfect—no pack is—but it is the best all-around travel backpack.
The Farpoint is made from thick, sturdy-feeling 210-denier mini hex diamond ripstop nylon. Its big zippers are lockable. Its shoulder straps and hip belt are wide, but not as padded as those of some competitors. A cover, which stores in the bottom of the pack, zips up to cover the straps so you can check it as luggage. Thick padded handles on the top and side let you carry it as hand luggage in a pinch.
The whole front of the Farpoint zips open, allowing access to nearly the entire interior. It doesn’t have many organizational pockets (an Osprey shortcoming), just a single pocket behind the lid.
The daypack is the Farpoint’s best feature. Though it’s also a little short on organizational slots and pockets, it is the biggest integrated daypack we found. It easily fits a 15-inch MacBook and is comfortable to wear over long treks. It zips onto the main pack, and is doubly secured by the main pack’s compression straps. Alternately, you can clip it to the shoulder straps and wear it in the front.
I found the older Farpoint’s smaller straps to be fairly comfortable over long stretches. One example, I had a five-hour layover in London. I took the Heathrow Express into town, got lunch and wandered around a bit, then headed back to the airport. All with my fully loaded pack. I did wish the straps were wider. This year’s Farpoint has wider, 3-inch straps, the same as its competitors. All of our male testers (from 5 feet 6 inches to 6 feet 2 inches tall) found the M/L-size Farpoint 55 comfortable to wear. (If your torso is on the shorter side, Osprey also makes a S/M size.)
What is perhaps the Farpoint’s best feature is something really rare: a lifetime warranty. Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee states, “Osprey will repair any damage or defect for any reason free of charge – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday. If we are unable to perform a functional repair on your pack, we will happily replace it.”
The Farpoint 55 has also been thoroughlytested, being the pack I’ve used for all my travels for the last 2.5 years. You might have thought this would have biased me, and you’d be right, but not in the direction you think. A lot of things bothered me about the Farpoint, and I was excited to write this guide to find something to replace it. No one is more motivated than me to find the best travel backpack—I live out of these things! In the dozens of hours of research and hands-on testing I did for this guide, I found that many of the issues I had with my pack have been fixed on the model you can buy now (namely, wider straps, lockable zippers on the daypack, and better back-mesh material) and that despite the Farpoint 55 not being perfect, it’s still the best option.
In those 2.5 years, my Farpoint has worn a little on some of the hard edges, and has one small airline-inflicted tear on the cover for the straps (not significant enough for me to send it to Osprey). Otherwise, it’s in great shape and ready for more adventures.
Who else likes it
Outdoor Gear Lab gave this pack five stars (out of five), and it is a two-time pick as best travel backpack: “Once again, the Osprey Farpoint 55 walks away as our Editors’ Choice winner. This pack has the travel-specific features that you want and the space that you need to maximize your experience. It is one of the best travel packs we’ve put our hands on and it scored near the top in the areas of comfort, features, ease of packing, and durability.”
The Savvy Backpacker really liked it too, saying “The Farpoint is one of the best travel backpacks I have used — it might even be my favorite.” The site’s review went on to say the Farpoint was “comfortable to wear — which is great on those long walks to hostels. The shoulder straps have good padding and can be adjusted easily” Savvy Backpacker’s conclusion? “Yeah, the Osprey Farpoint is a great backpack. It’s comfortable, it’s durable, it’s functional… it’s just an excellent travel backpack.”
And the Goats on the Road blog also loved it, saying, “This bag performed beautifully throughout our entire 5 month trip through Mongolia, Central Asia and Iran. I carried it on long treks, over mountains, on planes and buses and it is incredibly manageable, comfortable and durable. With coverage like the Osprey ‘All-Mighty Guarantee’ you really can’t go wrong with this bag.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Farpoint 55 doesn’t have all the cool features the REI Grand Tour does. It doesn’t have hip-belt pockets—a feature borrowed from REI’s wilderness backpacking packs, which can be handy for snacks and other small items. The straps aren’t as cushioned, and it’s not nearly as adjustable, though our male testers had no problems with fit. It has far fewer organizational pockets in the daypack and main pack, and this, more than anything, I wish Osprey would improve.
The Farpoint 55 doesn’t come with a rain cover, but you can buy one for around $26 (large is the correct size for the 55 M/L).
My Farpoint 55 is over two years old and features a slightly different mesh back-panel design than the current model’s. This older design caused pilling on the lower back of many shirts. The current Farpoint 55 has a different, smoother design that likely won’t have this issue, but we’ll test it over the next few months and see.
Also, the hip belt isn’t as generous as some other options. Jonathan, our largest tester, found that—and I’m quoting exactly per his request—the straps didn’t fit his “big fat tummy.” If your belly is on the plus side of plus-sized, this might be an issue if you’re considering the Farpoint 55. The REI pack, however, fit him fine.
The Farpoint 55’s main pack is technically too large to be meet carry-on requirements. However, it’s close: 25 by 13 by 13 inches (US carriers specify 22 by 14 by 9 inches). If airline personnel ask you to put it in the size checker, it’s not going to fit. It’s unlikely anyone will call you on it unless you’ve got the daypack still mounted (which makes it look huge). I’ve brought it as carry-on a few times, and it wasn’t an issue. It’s not like a hard suitcase; it can squish quite a bit (though the frame is fairly rigid). If they do call you on it, zip up the straps if they weren’t already and it’s checked luggage (which is what I do most of the time). Because foreign carriers don’t have a standard carry-on size, even carry-on–size backpacks won’t fit every airline’s limits. Check out our section about carry-on regulations below for more.
A (too) big alternative
Don’t buy the REI Grand Tour 85. Seriously. Unless you are absolutely sure you need the extra space (and you probably don’t), this backpack, fully loaded, will be an endless source of misery. It’s human nature to fill up available space with “well, I might need this” stuff, and with a pack this size, that means tremendous weight. Unless you’re bringing bulky items like ski parkas, dive gear, or multiple climates’ worth of kit, don’t get an 85-liter backpack.
That said, this is still a great pack. We even like it better than the larger Osprey Farpoints (the brand also makes 70-liter and 80-liter versions) and the 80-liter Osprey Waypoint. If the REI Grand Tour 85 was sized in the 55- to 65-liter range, it’d absolutely be our top pick. The straps are wide and well padded, and—best of all—adjustable vertically, so it will fit a wide range of torso sizes. The daypack has lots of pockets and can fit a 15-inch MacBook. It also has tons of pockets and organizational slots, including hip-belt pockets—something all of our testers liked. The included rain cover doubles as a zip-up duffel for the pack when you want to check it at the airport, or just as extra carrying capacity elsewhere.
And, to be fair, the Grand Tour 85 doesn’t look like an 85-liter pack. Like the Farpoint, some of the total capacity is the daypack. REI doesn’t specify how much of the total capacity the daypack makes up, but the daypack is a bit smaller than the Farpoint’s, so the Grand Tour 85’s split is probably something around 73 liters and 12 liters. The Grand Tour 85 is a little taller, a little wider, and a little deeper than the Farpoint when fully loaded. It is also over 30 percent heavier unloaded—nearly 2 pounds heavier, in fact.
Other than its size, the Grand Tour 85 has a few other minor issues. The handles on the top and side are downright flimsy compared with the beefy ones on the Osprey. Not so much that they feel like they’ll tear, just that fully loaded you’re not going to want to carry the pack with these more than a few feet (I’ve regularly carried the Farpoint through airports like hand luggage). The included rain cover/duffel is great, but when you use it as a duffel you can’t fully close it. It has a zipper for half the opening, leaving two holes (where the straps go when using it as a rain cover) that you can cinch mostly—but not completely—closed. Not a huge deal; it just seems like a bit of a miss given the dual purpose of the thing.
The daypack has a strap to connect the two shoulder straps across your chest. When not in use (and you wouldn’t normally use it), it constantly gets in the way and swings around wildly. Though you can technically add a lock to the daypack, you can secure the rope leads only to the metal zippers, not the zippers themselves (like you can on the Farpoint). Not quite as secure, but again, it’s a backpack, so it’s not exactly Fort Knox, even when locked.
Lastly, the back of the daypack is flat, smooth nylon, which can make your back sweat a lot in hotter climates. This is a bit of an odd oversight, considering the straps are well ventilated. The Farpoint’s daypack has a more breathable mesh.
The REI packs have only a one-year satisfaction guarantee: “If you are not satisfied with your REI purchase, you can return it for a replacement or refund within one year of purchase. REI’s guarantee doesn’t cover ordinary wear and tear or damage caused by improper use or accidents.”
Again, we like the REI Grand Tour 85 a lot, but it’s just too big. If REI came out with one that was 55 to 65 liters, I’d buy one in a heartbeat. But unless you’re positive you need the extra space, the Farpoint 55 is a better option.
The REI Grand Tour 80 was the only backpack of any type that got universal praise among our testers. Not just praise—love. Four out of the five women testers wanted to buy this pack immediately after trying it (the fifth rarely traveled, but loved it anyway). None of the other backpacks even approached this unanimous adoration. The biggest factor, by far, was the fit. Because the Grand Tour 80’s shoulder straps are adjustable, we could find a setting that fit our testers Carrie (5 feet 2 inches) and Angela (5 feet 6 inches) equally well. No other pack could do that.
Otherwise, everything the guys liked about the Grand Tour 85, the women liked in the Grand Tour 80: comfortable straps, hip-belt pockets, a great daypack, lots of compartments, and so on.
Though I have met female travelers that pack even less than I do, most pack a bit more. So the extra size of the Grand Tour 80 was quite welcome. I asked women travelers what, in addition to what I’ve packed, they would add to their own pack. The consensus additions were a makeup bag and a pair of real dress shoes. As you can see below, those fit in, along with a jacket and a full-size beach towel. Given that my shirts are larger and bulkier than most blouses, far more than five-days’ worth of clothes could fit, if desired, without taking up additional volume.
Again, everyone who tried the Grand Tour 80 loved it. No other pack we tested could make such a claim.
If the Grand Tour 80 isn’t available, or you want something with less volume, the Osprey Farpoint 55 comes in a S/M size that might fit. Osprey recommends the S/M size for people with torso heights between 15 and 19 inches. Two of our testers, one 5 feet 2 inches and the other 5 feet 4 inches, couldn’t get a good fit even with the S/M size. The wife of one of our staffers is 5 feet 3 inches, and it fit her fine, so if you’re curious about this pack you might want to check it out at a local store before you buy. (Also check out the Fit is key section for more on the difficulties of finding a pack that fits).
The Farpoint 55 S/M is slightly smaller than the M/L—it’s 52 liters instead of 55. Otherwise, we felt as positive about the Farpoint 55 S/M as we did about the M/L, considering they’re basically the same.
Long-term test notes
What’s a travel-backpack pick without some serious long-term testing? Since we first published this guide, I’ve done two extended tests with our two main picks, and I’ve had two of our testers check out the REI GT80 for some long trips.
Carolina used the GT80 on a two-week trip to Guadalajara and multiple shorter trips to Tijuana. She had only positive things to say, finding that she could fit plenty of the things she needed while having leftover space for gifts. She liked that it adjusted to fit her body well, that the padding was soft, and that the daypack fit everything she needed as a carry-on (laptop, book, iPad). “Even when I was carrying too much, it never felt too heavy,” she said.
Maureen used the GT80 for three weeks around Japan and liked the size of the pack, as well as how it was customizable to her shorter, smaller stature. She also loved the size of the daypack and how easy it was to attach and remove from the main pack. “For my trip there were times the backpack was very helpful. For instance, walking up and down steps to navigate train stations and boat transfers throughout Japan. I appreciated the freedom of having something compact that was connected to my body. However, while walking longer distances (on well-paved streets, for instance), I began to envy my husband Phil’s carry-on-sized rolling suitcase.”
Her takeaway after her time with the GT80 was that it’s a good, customizable, all-purpose travel backpack that’s especially great if you are venturing outside of big cities. However, she also noted one drawback: “No matter how convenient and well-fitted a backpack is, if you pack it even close to full and walk around with it for a decent amount of time, you WILL start to feel its weight.”
I spent five weeks in Japan with the REI GT85 (and even met up with Maureen and Phil in Tokyo). Its main issue remains its size: It is big. At home, loading it with stuff and walking around, it doesn’t feel that much larger than the Farpoint 55. In practice, however, it definitely is. I wouldn’t call it unwieldy, but it was often in the way. It rarely fit above the seats on trains, for instance, whereas the Farpoint usually did. It’s just bulky.
Judging from the comments on this guide, it’s clear that many Wirecutter readers want a larger bag, but I’ll say again: Unless you need to carry a big parka, dive gear, or something else that takes up a lot of space, you are far better off using a smaller bag and bringing fewer clothes. You’ll never regret packing less.
After two weeks home, I set out for four and a half months with a brand-new Osprey Farpoint 55. Osprey had originally sent one for review, but I didn’t like the color, so I bought my own. I stand by my recommendation here with my own money.
Over 18 weeks, 12 countries, and three continents, the Farpoint was a constant and fantastic companion. The main pack fit in storage lockers at hostels and above the seats on trains (most of them, anyway), and it was small enough to allow for walking medium distances across towns and cities. The daypack fit all the kit you saw above, plus, by the end of my adventure, several items from the main pack like the wool pullover and travel pillow (with my having accumulated more than a few gifts for friends and family back home). Even after I stuffed the main pack to the brim with these new items, the zippers never faltered and the fabric never tore.
I saw some very slight wear on the harder corners, but the only really noticeable “issue” was that the daypack faded from the sun: It’s now a slightly lighter gray than the main pack. When I say “noticeable,” I mean I noticed it; not sure others would. I would barely classify this as a problem, since most things taken out all day in the summer sun of Greece, Dubai, and elsewhere would also fade. Or in my personal case, burn.
And if that weren’t enough, I gave my retired dad a hand-me-up of my old Farpoint for him to check out on a two-week road trip around Ireland. He said, “Having always traveled with cumbersome solid luggage, I was somewhat apprehensive about using a smaller backpack style. After traveling for three weeks all around Ireland, I am a true convert! What I liked best was that it was designed like a suitcase so I could easily find items, especially since I also used some ‘packing cubes.’ When walking with the full pack, I found it to be very comfortable with many adjustments.” He also liked the daypack, and his only complaint was that he wished the shoulder straps were a bit more adjustable.
Many airlines now charge you for checking luggage, depending on the length of the flight. One of the considerations we had putting this guide together was whether or not to consider carry-on size as a requirement for our picks. Turns out, the answer is more complicated than we expected.
First of all, there’s no standard carry-on size. The “big three” US-based airlines (American, Delta, and United) use one size, smaller airlines use another, and non-US airlines have any number of combinations of sizes. Travel Made Simple has a handy chart (most recently updated in September 2016) that gives some idea of the problem. The average vertical size is 22 inches, but though some airlines allow luggage as large as 26 inches long, others max out at 17! Width and depth can vary as much as 5 inches as well. Consumer Reports has a great article on this called What’s the right size for carry-on luggage?
So where does that leave us? Our main pick is 25 by 13 by 13 inches and has soft sides (the other picks are larger). I’ve brought it onto airplanes as a carry-on several times. Most airlines’ staff probably won’t notice (or care) that it’s an inch or two over the limits. If they do, and you have to check it, how much money is this going to cost you? How often, even on an extended adventure, are you going to fly? Even in the worst case, the times you can’t carry on might cost you a couple hundred dollars a year. In our opinion, having the perfect bag that holds all your stuff comfortably—a bag you’ll use every day—is worth the potential expense.
Carry-on size(-ish) or no daypack
If you don’t need a daypack, or if you want something that’s closer to average carry-on size, and you still want the other conveniences we’ve discussed, the Tortuga Outbreaker is the best carry-on travel bag for travelers determined to never check luggage again. After researching 30 bags, testing seven, and flying across the country with two of them, we found that the Outbreaker is easy to pack and cleverly organized, and it’s one of the most comfortable bags we’ve ever traveled with thanks to its highly adjustable, padded shoulder straps and waist harness. It has the easy packability of a suitcase with the comfort and support of a backpacking backpack, yet it avoids most of the shortcomings inherent to both luggage types. If the weight or cost of the Outbreaker is an issue, or if it’s unavailable, check out the other picks in our full review of the best carry-on travel bags.
A budget option
The Highlander Outdoor Explorer Ruckcase 45+15 didn’t show up in our initial research, but I spotted this pack on another traveler this year, and it looked to be a serious contender. And it is. While it lacks warranty support of any kind and might not be as comfortable or durable as our other picks over time, its sub-$100 price and highly adjustable fit make it the perfect entry point if you want to see whether this type of packing fits your traveling style.
First of all, this Highlander Outdoor model matches the Osprey in all the main features we like: It has a removable daypack, it has stowable straps so you can check the main pack as luggage, the straps themselves are well padded, and perhaps best of all, the shoulder straps are adjustable, so it can fit a wide range of torso sizes. It fit Carolina and me just fine, with adjustability to spare (though it didn’t fit as nicely or feel as comfortable as the REI or Osprey). All that, for around half the price of our main pick.
So why aren’t we recommending it for everyone? Well, the daypack is just a little too small. You can’t fit a 15-inch MacBook in at all, and trying to get my standard daypack kit inside was a tight fit; I didn’t have much room left over, as I did with the Osprey Farpoint.
If you read that last paragraph thinking, “But I don’t need to carry all that stuff with me,” awesome. Maybe this is the pack for you, if you want to save some money. But it makes other trade-offs, too.
While the Explorer Ruckcase 45+15 feels sturdy, it also feels … rough? Cheap? It’s hard to explain. The pack straps have a coarser texture than the Farpoint’s, and the zippers feel lower quality. And its 600D ripstop polyester exterior fabric won’t hold up as well over time compared with the nylon exteriors of our other picks. A lot can be forgiven at this price, but it’s clear where the extra money goes with the Osprey or the REI.
Highlander Outdoor also doesn’t offer any sort of official warranty: “If you have purchased a product which has a manufacturing defect or has broken and needs to be repaired, please refer back to the retailer you bought it from in the first instance. If they cannot resolve your problem then please use our Contact Us page to get in touch with us.” But as the company is based in the UK, it may cost non-UK/EU customers more to ship the bag over there for service than the bag itself is worth. Not quite as simple and comforting as Osprey’s “All Mighty Guarantee.”
Lastly, Highlander doesn’t seem to have any US distribution (other than online), so you can’t go to a store to see if you find this bag comfortable. Yes, you can return it, but that’s an extra level of hassle for most people.
So, it’s a good backpack at a great price, though we think for most people the Osprey Farpoint is a bit better.
In our research stage we checked out a number of companies that make great packs, but none of those packs met all our criteria. In most cases this was because the company specialized in top-loading bags, bags with wheels, bags that were too big, or big bags without a daypack. These brands included Black Diamond, Berghaus, Dakine, eBags, EMS, Ferrino, Gregory, High Sierra, Kathmandu, Kelty, Minaal, MEI, The North Face, Ortovox, Outdoor Research, Patagonia, Rick Steves, Timbuk2, and Victorinox.
Several others came close to making the cut:
Deuter Transit 50: A really nice pack overall. Strong zippers, good material, and the bottom section has a divider for shoes and such, which is great. The daypack is really small though, and won’t hold a 15-inch MacBook. Also—and this is a dealbreaker—it doesn’t have water bottle holders on the daypack. Okay, maybe you could fit a small bottle in the front pocket, but if the bottle is cold it’s going to get everything inside the pack wet.
Eagle Creek Deviate Travel Pack: On paper this pack has a lot going for it. It’s roughly the same size as the Farpoint 55 and has a removable daypack and a removable “brain” (top portion). So, combined you get around 62 liters, but the main pack is small enough to be carry-on size. Very cool. However, in person it’s not quite as exciting. It feels far flimsier than the other packs we tested. The daypack mounts strangely, with thin cloth straps and plastic clips (most others zip on). The real dealbreaker though is that it doesn’t have water bottle holders on the daypack. This pack is also a lot more expensive than our main picks.
Pacsafe Venturesafe: This is an interesting pack. It’s main claim to fame is a reinforced shell called the “eXomesh Slashguard” that Pacsafe says is useful because, “Bag slashers often like to target outside fabric panels of bags (front, bottom or side), which cause valuables to fall out and into the palm of their hands.” Maybe that happens, but in two years of travel I’ve never met anyone who has heard of that happening. It’s far more likely that a thief is just going to take your pack, and even that’s not very likely. Given the higher cost of this pack, the fact that it’s not well-reviewed, and the dubious usefulness of security features in a backpack, we skipped it.
Osprey Ozone Travel Pack 46: This is a great pack, and was tester Carolina’s favorite of the carry-on–size packs. It fit her well, and she loved the design. However, it didn’t fit tester Hollie at all, and the other female testers didn’t love it or hate it. The real issue is that this is really just a big “regular” backpack. You can’t fully open the main section like you can those of the others we tested, so it’s more of a half-top-loader-half-clamshell. We felt the Farpoint 40 and REI Vagabond Tour 40 were better options at this size.
Osprey Porter 46: This pack got nicknamed “The Turtle” even though our sample was gray (we found out later it’s even available in bright green). The reason is its semirigid outer shell. Osprey calls this “StraightJacket compression with padded wings,” which “enables you to minimize your packed gear so you can take more or slim down your pack when the bag isn’t fully packed, securing any size load.” None of our testers saw much advantage to this, though none saw anything wrong with it either. You can add an Osprey Daylite daypack and mount it to the front (it all gets squeeeeezed in with the wings). Not a bad pack, but we just liked the Farpoint 40 better.
Thule Versant 50L: This pack is tied with the Eagle Creek as the most expensive we considered. It has some interesting features, like a waterproof bottom and lots of adjustability. Instead of a daypack, the top of the pack comes off and converts into a sling/shoulder pack. Personally, I find sling/shoulder packs annoying and uncomfortable, especially loaded with 15-plus pounds of camera, laptop, batteries, and more. If you prefer a sling to a daypack, however, the Versant is worth checking out.
Tom Bihn Hero’s Journey: You’ll need 48¢ for each of your thousand faces to afford this bag. It looks fantastically well-made, but at $480 it’s just too expensive. Also, although we like that the daypack integrates seamlessly into the top of the main pack, it’s fairly small and probably won’t fit a full-size laptop.
What to look forward to
Tortuga has updated its packs, now calling the design the Outbreaker Backpack. It’s available in two sizes: 45L and 35L. The company did a great job updating, with adjustable shoulder straps, a hip belt, a suspension system, and more. The 45L size should fit as a carry-on with most airlines (22 by 14 by 9 inches), and the 35L size should fit with pretty much all of them (20.3 by 12.9 by 8.2 inches). The Outbreaker packs are beautifully made, with big zippers, strong-feeling waterproof materials, and padding in all the right places. The interior is a bit strange, with countless pockets and cubbies but smaller main areas—sort of like a house with small rooms but tons of closets.
We’ve done some limited testing of the Outbreaker, and it seems promising as an alternative to the Osprey Farpoint 40. However, the rigid sides and boxy shape make it feel bulkier than it is, and the interior space seems rather limited, due to the design. We’ll be testing it a bit more in the coming weeks.
Wrapping it up
A backpack is a very personal choice. If a pack you like wasn’t listed here, or you like one we didn’t, that’s okay—go for it. If you’re unsure of what to get in this crowded category, one of our picks is almost certainly going to work for you (presuming it fits). The Osprey Farpoint 55 M/L is a great all-around pack for guys and tall women. The REI Grand Tour 80 was the only pack beloved by every woman who tried it. And the Osprey Farpoint 40 is a versatile choice for someone looking for something that’s carry-on size but still comfortable to wear walking around.
See you on the road (and post pics of you and your pack in cool places)!
- Why You Should Always Pack Light, Forbes, August 24, 2015 ,
- Backpacks: Finding Your Torso and Hip Size, REI, August 12, 2015 ,
- Osprey Farpoint 55 Review, OutdoorGearLab, June 8, 2015 ,
- Osprey Farpoint 55 Review, The Savvy Backpacker, May 27, 2015 ,
- Backpack Review: Osprey Farpoint 55L, Goats on the Road, August 20, 2014 ,
- Carry-On Size By Airline, Travel Made Simple, July 2015 ,
- What’s the right size for carry-on luggage?, Consumer Reports, May 26, 2015 ,