Easy Packing: The Best Carry-on Travel Backpacks

The Best Carry-on Travel Backpacks

**2018 Update: Some of the original bags listed in this post are outdated so we’ve updated to include the best current carry-on travel backpacks available.**

As I was planning for my Belize trip, I decided it was time to invest in a new travel backpack. Up until now, my go-to pack has been a Deuter backpack for longer trips when I’m constantly on the move or my Osprey Porter 46 for casual weekend trips. I’ve included the Osprey Porter 46 in my round-up of the best carry-on travel backpacks as it is a great, durable option. Yet for my month in Belize, neither of these packs fit the bill so I set off to research more travel backpacks.

While my Deuter served me well on the John Muir Trail, traveling with any backpacking backpack is just plain frustrating. It’s always disorganized, and I’m always pulling everything out just to find that clean pair of socks (which always happen to be at the very bottom). It’s the worst. Plus, you usually have to check this type of pack because of its size and with the multiple access points to the bag’s interior, it’s nearly impossible to keep the contents locked up if that’s something you are worried about.

I’ve also loved my Osprey Porter 46 since I first got it several years back. It’s perfect for a casual weekend getaway, and I’m always amazed at how much stuff I can cram inside. My only complaint about this bag is that it can become quite taxing on the shoulders with a heavy load. It’s not the type of bag you want to be carrying around when you are moving around frequently or have long distances to walk in the airport.

There were several things I wanted if I was going to make a purchase. My new travel backpack had to:

  • be large enough to carry a month’s worth of stuff, but small enough to carry-on
  • be front-loading and have pockets to keep things organized
  • be comfortable to carry when packed to the brim

After researching tons of travel backpacks on the market, here are 6 that stood out as the best carry-on travel backpacks currently available.

1) REI Ruckpack 40 Pack

The REI Ruckpack is now my go-to travel backpack when I want to carry on. I have the 40-liter version, and I can’t believe how much stuff I’m able to fit in there while still staying organized. I’ve used the pack for three-day weekends and love that it easily fits in Southwest’s overhead compartments (note that it is slightly bigger than the dimensions of an allowed carry-on, but it should fit on all but the smallest planes).  The Ruckpack also comes in a Men’s version.

There are a few features that make this travel bag different from other carry-on backpacks I’ve used.

  • The zipper for the main compartment fully unzips allowing you to access stuff at the bottom of the bag without taking everything out.
  • Organization: The side pocket has tons of organization where you can stash your phone, ID, boarding pass, point and shoot camera, and other small items. There is another pocket on the top of the bag and two mesh pockets on the inside panel, allowing you to separate your different travel items.
  • When you get to your destination, this bag is equally good on the trail as it is in the airport. It has a laptop sleeve that doubles as a hydration reservoir, a built-in rain cover, a sturdy hip belt, two expandable water bottle pockets, compression straps, and loops to attach your trekking poles.

Shop: REI Ruckpack 40 Pack


Read more about REI’s new line of travel bags & accessories.

2) Pacsafe VentureSafe X30 Travel Pack

Pacsafe is the leading company in anti-theft travel accessories. The Pacsafe VentureSafe X30 Travel Pack is perfect for those traveling with loads of technology or through areas with increased security risks. Lightweight yet durable the pack features a hidden slashguard, made of stainless-steel wire mesh, to protect from someone cutting your pack. Your credit cards and ID will be safe in the front pocket of the pack with RFIDsafe blocking material to ensure nobody can steal your information. There is a built-in laptop sleeve to cushion your computer or if you’re out hiking this sleeve can hold a 3-liter hydration pouch. There is even a built-in rain cover. The bag features numerous security hooks and buckets to keep your vacation worry-free.

Shop: Pacsafe VentureSafe X30 Travel Pack

3) Osprey Porter 46 Travel Pack

This 46-liter travel backpack is incredibly versatile for all types of traveling and exploring. The Osprey Porter 46 pack has a removable padded hip belt and shoulder harness with a chest strap.  To make pulling your technology out at security checkpoints there is a slim back-panel laptop compartment. There are compression buckets on either side that allow you easily reduce or expand the size of the bag. For added security, while traveling there are lockable zippers. You can even attach a lightweight Osprey Daylite daypack to the bag via reinforced cord loops. If you need something larger, the Osprey Farpoint 55 or Osprey Farpoint 70 are both great larger travel backpack options.

Shop: Osprey Porter 46 Travel Pack

4) eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender

This 54 liter, lightweight travel backpack that comes in 6 different colors is the ultimate steal. While it packs just like a suitcase, this bag has a myriad of pockets, an adjustable laptop sleeve, and a full expansion zipper that adds extra volume when you have a large load. The waist belt is a little flimsy, but for $99, you’re not going to find a better travel backpack.

Shop: eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender

ebags TLS MotherLode travel backpackebags TLS MotherLode travel backpack

Read our 10 travel tips for flying like a boss.

5) Tortuga Backpack

The Tortuga Backpack was first incepted in 2009 and has quickly turned into one of the most popular travel packs out there. Even with its sleek design, this 44-liter pack holds enough that many travelers report using it on a year-long round the world adventure. The Tortuga is made of top-notch components for long-lasting use and has quick access pockets for travel documents, toiletries, a water bottle, and a laptop.

Shop: Tortuga Backpack


6) North Face Surge Daypack

This bag is similar to the Osprey Porter but slightly smaller and we love the sophisticated heather gray color for the modern business traveler. The straps are padded and cushioned for all-day travel. The Surge daypack holds 33 liters and has two large padded, fleece-lined compartments–one for your laptop and one for your tablet. This pack is all about keeping your essentials safe and scratch free with plenty of additional fleece-lined pockets for your GoPro, sunglasses, phone and more. The main compartment is large enough to hold clothes for a three-day weekend of exploration.

Shop: North Face Surge Daypack

What kind of luggage or travel backpack do you like to travel with?

For more products that will help make your travels easier, follow my Pinterest board below!

Follow Bearfoot Theory I Kristen Bor’s board AWESOME TRAVEL GEAR on Pinterest.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate or sponsored links. An affiliate or sponsored link means that if you make a purchase, I receive a tiny bit of compensation at no added cost to you. I only recommend products that I truly love, and any purchases you make help keep this blog going. Thanks for all of your support, and if you ever have any questions about any of the products featured on my site, please email me. Thanks! Kristen

There are 18 comments on this post.

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Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

18 Comments on “Easy Packing: The Best Carry-on Travel Backpacks

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  1. Thanks for including Tortuga, Kristen. Though we didn’t start as a Kickstarter. We’re a bootstrapped business.

      Fred – Thanks for the clarification…I went ahead and fixed that in the post. Cheers, Kristen

    Great List! I’d love to get your recommendation for a bag like this with compartments specifically for camera gear….I’m always most worried about my “babies” when traveling! Also, what’s your management system for all your carry-on goodies, like toiletries, passports, chargers, etc. I always feel like a hot mess at the airport!

      Thanks Johnie! For my camera, right now I’m just using a basic camera insert like this: http://www.amazon.com/Timbuk2-Camera-Insert-Gunmetal-Medium/dp/B005HEVNM8/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1426880777&sr=8-6&keywords=camera+insert. It’s pretty easy and I just toss it in my backpack with the rest of my stuff. I don’t have enough camera gear at the moment to warrant a full blown camera bag. Maybe soon though!

      For my toiletries, I use this: http://www.amazon.com/eBags-Pack-it-Flat-Toiletry-Kit-Black/dp/B0009K5WFO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1426880958&sr=8-1&keywords=ebags+toiletry. It holds a TON of stuff (more than I generally carry) and it packs flat, which is really nice because you can just throw it right before you zip up your bag. For the amount it holds, it takes up very little room.

      For chargers, I use this: https://bearfoottheory.com/grid-it-travel-organizer-review/

      Hope that’s helpful! -Kristen

      Look up fstop bags. For a compartment style bag and a wonderful backpack. This can’t be beat for your babies!

        Yeah I love those bags. They are pricey, but great for outdoor travelers like us.

    I love the look of the REI backpack, but isn’t it too big for a carry on? Im new to backpacking, but I’m going on a 6 week trip to Southeast Asia and would like to bring only a carry on backpack. I’m on the search for the perfect one!

      Hey Ally – I looked up the dimensions and its 26 x 14.5 x 10 inches. On Delta, the legal carry-on limit is 22″ x 14″ x 9″. So the bag is slightly bigger, but you should be able to get away with it, especially if you remove the detachable daypack. Your trip sounds amazing btw!

    Hi! I’m looking for a backpack for a 6 week trip in Europe this coming summer and I am in LOVE with the REI Grand Tour 80. However, to save money, I want to get a bag that I can definitely carry on to planes. I’ve seen conflicting reviews about whether or not this bag can be carried on so I’m trying to see if any one has actually had success with it! Did you actually get it past security to bring as a carry on? I love clothes too much to dream of buying a 65 L backpack haha!


      Marilyn – I don’t actually have this bag….I just did some research to figure out what the most popular carry on bags are. But I don’t think you should have a problem if you detach the smaller daypack and put it under your seat and the larger bag in the overhead bin.

    Hey check out the Minaal backpack. I have one and have never looked back. Extremely convenient with lots of compartments. 🙂

      Someone else was telling me about this pack the other day. I’ll have to check it out for sure!

    Did you actually use these packs? Most of them seem like awful recommendations for travel packs (Wheels? Really??), except possibly the Tortuga… although 44 L is a bit much unless you’re planning on taking a kitchen sink. Not to mention the 80L monster you have listed for #1… my god, how will anyone even be able to pick that up when it’s full?

    What about Tom Bihn or Minaal packs? I think the Bihn Synapse or the Minaal 2.0 would blow away any of those you listed.

    I don’t mean to be critical, but wowee IMHO these recommendations are leading people down the path of having a miserable travel experience by having to carry around so much unnecessary stuff. Traveling light is the way to go, then you’re not chained to your luggage when you’re moving around, and it’s much more fun because you can be flexible instead of being like “Arggh, this f—– luggage is heavy” or “Where am I going to put this beast?” If you forget something that you just can’t live without, you can just buy it at your destination. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can’t find the same things you have at home. And like they say in the woods, it’s true for world travel too: THE TRAIL PROVIDES!

      Thanks for your thoughts and your additional suggestions. All of these packs are very popular…even if they aren’t the right fit for you, they might be for someone else which is why they were included on the list. As for wheels….I took one of these wheeled backpacks to Belize last year and really liked it. I’ve looked at the Minaal but haven’t tried it. Perhaps one day I’ll add it to the list. Thanks

        Kristen I love your gear reviews, but I’m with Ben on this one. Maybe you would think about giving traveling light a try.

        What’s not to love about arriving in a new city too early to check in and having a backpack light enough that you don’t mind sightseeing with it? That’s what happened to me last spring on my tour of Iceland.

        I love my wheeled carryon bag for domestic travel, but took my Tom Bihn Synapse 25 and had everything I needed for a fun week touring Reykjavik and day trips out of town. It was so much more manageable than my wheeled bag on the flights of stairs up to my room. Next fall I head to three weeks in Central Europe with the same bag.

        You really only need something to wear during the day, something to change into at night, and some layers and outwear to be prepared for whatever the weather may be. And I love only carrying 17 pounds around.

    The best article i love it thanks

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