Easy Packing: The Best Carry-on Travel Backpacks

Pin Me!

The Best Carry-on Travel Backpacks

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 my Deuter ACT Lite backpack for longer trips when I’m constantly on the move or my Osprey Porter 46 for casual weekend trips.

Yet for my month in Belize, neither of these seemed to fit the bill.

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 all of the travel backpacks on the market, these were the 6 that stood out as the best carry-on travel backpacks currently available.

1) REI Grand Tour 80 Women’s Travel Pack

This is the only women’s specific travel backpack on the list, and it is also the biggest with a capacity of 80 liters. At $189, this bag is a great deal. It has the same type of padding as backpacking backpack to maximize comfort and also has a small removable daypack with a neoprene laptop sleeve.

Shop: REI Grand Tour 80 Travel Pack at REI ($189)

 REI Grand Tour 80 Women's Travel backPack

2) Osprey Meridian Wheeled Convertible Luggage – 22″

This Osprey Meridian travel backpack offers a lot of versatility. First, it’s got wheels, making that long walk to your gate way more enjoyable. But then when you are traveling over rougher terrain, you can throw it on your back making use of its fully padded hip belt. The main compartment, which fits in an overhead bin, is 40 liters with 4 interior pockets to help you stay organized. The detachable daypack which easily unzips is 20 liters and large enough to carry your laptop, camera, and other essentials that you’ll want access during your flight or take with you on day trips. The only downside with this bag is when it is stuffed full, you are going to have a tough time zipping the detachable daypack back in.

Shop: Osprey Meridian at REI

osprey meridian 22 travel backpackosprey meridian 22 travel backpackosprey meridian 22 travel backpack

3) GoRuck GR2

This 40 liter travel backpack was inspired by the packs used by the military. It’s made of super durable, water-resistant materials and is perfect for people who tend to be tough on their gear. While the pack itself is compact, it has exterior compression straps and webbing allowing you to strap additional gear to the outside if needed. It’s got a hefty price tag, but it comes with a lifetime guarantee.

Shop: GR 2 at GoRuck ($395)

GoRuck GR2 travel backpack

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 at Amazon ($99)

ebags TLS MotherLode travel backpackebags TLS MotherLode travel backpack

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 it’s 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 ($139)


6) REI Stratocruiser 26″ Wheeled Backpack

This bag is similar to the Osprey Meridian but slightly bigger at 71 liters. The detachable daypack also just slides into the front pocket, rather than being zipped in. Despite being lighter than the Osprey, the bag seems to be well made and able to withstand a thrashing. Several interior pockets aid in organization and an outer pocket provides quick access to liquids when you are going through security. There are two downsides I see with this bag. The first is the detachable daypack is so small that you won’t be able to fit much in it besides a laptop, a small camera, and a couple of magazines. Second, this travel pack is slightly bigger than the legal carry-on size. The sneaky traveler may be able to finagle their way onto the plane with it, but you’ll have to be ready to throw it under the plane if you are caught by a flight attendant with a good eye.

Shop: REI Stratocruiser 26″ Wheeled Backpack ($299)


So which one am I sporting down in Belize? After much thought, I settled on the REI Stratocruiser.  It was a bit of a risk since there was a chance I would be forced to check it, but the wheels and the little bit of extra space are what sealed the deal for me. I did end up ditching the detachable daypack in lieu of something bigger since I’m lugging around a few more electronics than I typically travel with. So far, the bag is working out great, but stay tuned…I’ll be posting a full review once I’ve put some more miles on it.

What kind of luggage 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 17 comments on this post.

About the author

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.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  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.

A little Instamagic