The Best Backpacks for Long-term Travelers

best backpacks for travelers

This blog has been quiet the past week because I’ve been checking out new travel gear at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Utah, seeing what’s on the way from all the top brands in the industry. There are more than 1,000 companies there showing off everything from skis to shoes to solar lanterns, but I spent a good amount of time checking out new backpacks.

If you’re in the market for a backpack, or will be soon, I’m going to provide a good cheat sheet that will make it very easy for you to get what you need. I’ve used $90 backpacks and $400 ones, tried them on year-round journeys, 3-week vacations, and biking trips, so I’ve got a more rounded view than most reviewers.

Here’s what you need to know about the best backpacks for travelers, from the general things to remember to the advantages of specific brands.

Get a TRAVEL backpack

If you go looking at backpacks, you’ll find a lot of pretty, lightweight, comfortable packs that load from the top. They are meant for backcountry hikers, backcountry skiers, or people planning to summit a peak of 8,000 meters. That’s not you.

What you want is a pack meant for travelers. Easy to zip open, easy to find things, meant to be loaded up with lots of clothes and gadgets in different pockets. Preferably one that can be carried with a handle on the top and side if needed. If the straps can be zipped up inside a flap for checking at an airport (or looking more respectable when entering a nice hotel) even better.

Buy a pack meant to last

Yes, you can find some piece of crap no-name backpack for $75 if you look hard enough, but there’s a good chance  you’ll be looking for another one six months from now. And you may not be somewhere with a good selection, so you’ll make the same mistake again—or pay twice as much as you would have at home. If you’re really short on funds, look for a pack from Kelty (more on that later) or keep an eye on the outlet section of the online gear sites to get last year’s model for half off or more. Ideally, you want something that comes with a lifetime guarantee, or close to it. You may not need it, but that shows they believe in their durability.

Gregory packs

Buy a rain cover or get one with a cover built in

Most backpacks are made of ripstop nylon or something similar that wards off a drizzle, but they’re not seam-sealed, so water can get through the zippers. Many good packs have a built-in rain cover, others require you to get your own. But when your bag gets thrown on top of a bus somewhere and then a rain storm comes, you’ll be very glad you had this on.

Ideally, try it on

I’m all for shopping the discount section at the likes of Sierra Trading Post, Backcountry, and REI Outlet because you can get a quality pack for half the list price sometimes, but if you’re new at this or have an odd body size/shape, you may need to try a few on in a real retail store with someone who can help. Walking for a year with a pack that doesn’t fit properly is no fun.

Be very sure you want a pack with wheels

When you hear someone rave about their backpack with wheels, ask them how they travel and what their budget is like. As I’ve mentioned before here and here, wheeled backpacks are great if you’re mostly moving between airports, hotels, and train stations via taxis. I gladly take one in those cases. They’re not so great if you have to walk a half mile down a dirt road or up 220 steps in my sometimes home of Guanajuato, Mexico though. Wheels and a handle double the weight of your pack and the way most of them are designed, the (dirty) wheels are hitting your back. This year at the OR Show though I saw some with straps on the front instead, so look for this option to avoid the wheels in back problem.

Watch the size

You can find backpacks that hold 90 liters, but unless you’re a very hefty man, you probably don’t want to carry that much once you fill it. For most people 65 or 70 liters is the max. If you’re going to mostly warm places, you should easily be able to get by for less if you’re packing the right kind of lightweight clothing and quick-dry underwear.

Who makes the best packs?

There are probably 100 companies out there making backpacks, but a lot of those you can ignore because they’re not making travel packs. Based on my 20 years of travel and testing loads of them for Practical Travel Gear, here are my “don’t have to think about it” picks for brands you can trust. Many come in versions for women.

hard shell suitcase backpackEagle Creek – lifetime “no matter what” warranty, sterling reputation for quality, constant innovation. Check out the Loche or Rincon models for long-term travel. If you want wheels and the ability to check one bag when needed, the Morphus model pictured here is pretty cool.

Osprey – long one of the most popular brands for round-the-world travelers, with the widest selection, Osprey packs have a lifetime warranty, are super-light, and are well-designed. Look for the Aura, Waypoint, or Porter styles, or four different lines with wheels. The Porter is great if you already have a daypack you like as it’s only about $130.

Gregory – Another one with a lifetime warranty making durable, well-designed packs. I especially like their Savant packs that are light as a hiking pack, but open in the front in a U shape to get to your stuff.

Deuter packDeuter – You don’t see this brand in the U.S. a whole lot, but this German brand is all over the backs of Europeans. I like their Transit 65 pack if you’ll make use of the detachable daypack and it’s under $200.

Kelty – The cheapo traveler’s best friend, Kelty packs are well-made and rugged, but retail for $100 or more less than many competitor’s models. Find the beloved Redwing one at close-out prices or check out the more expensive Lakota line.

What backpack have you taken around the world, across cobblestones, through crowded markets, up stairs, and down dirt paths? How did it do?

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Comments
  1. Andreas Moser

    I was lucky enough to get a 50 litre backpack from my Dad which was still in good condition, plus a rain cover which has been really useful (especially on my hike through England: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/hadrians-wall/ ).

    It has lots of straps, but I have never had a problem with any airline when I wanted to check it in, not even from the cheap airlines. (But I never had anything strapped to the outside when I checked it in as luggage.)

    I would never get a backpack with wheels. That looks gay.

    • Max

      A backpack with wheels would make you look gay? A gay person wouldn’t be caught dead with one either. You’re a douche.

      • Fez Miester

        What??! I’ve had a wheeled backpack since 17 and I’ve been from Asia, All over EU, S. America. – You guys are crazy. If you want/like mountain trekking or laying around on beaches all day I can see the point that they would not be that useful for the weight.
        however if you travel from city to city to city for years on end, it’s the only way I’ll ever go. I’ve lived out a bag many years of my life and my back is fine, i intend to keep it that way. if you don’t travel enough, or you think traveling is a vacation, go ahead and haul all your shit around on your back all day. GO FOR IT! What ever you call having fun!- if you live on the road, it’d be asinine to do so. just get a high wheel /axle or you will be frustrated constantly going over to rough terrain for small wheels.
        I had my original wheels taken off my bag after 10 years they broke and roller blade wheels installed on it.

        Looks GAY? that’s wtf your worried about??? IF and HOW other people look at you dudes?? like a travel site or a teenage chat room here? IF I’m looked on as gay why would i care at all anyway? because I was unsure and other people’s opinions might push me in one orientation or the other?

        Be Well

      • D.J.

        How insulting! You should be ashamed. I have a permanent injured hand in capable of carrying a regular backpack and wheels help me travel when I could not before. Why don’t you think about the handicapped who still love to travel before calling them a douche. Mark my words, your day will come.

        • Jones

          Lol “your day will come” all over a backpack with wheels..

          • PW

            👍 lol

        • Brian

          I think he was calling the kid a douche for using “gay” as an insult.

          And pointing out that gay men tend to be a little more fashion savvy… And let’s face it, useful or not, they don’t look as nice.

          Further just trying to point out that using “gay” when you mean “stupid” or “weird” doesn’t make any sense.

  2. Chris Edwards

    Not all of us want to travel with a backpack. I love my Red Oxx Boss Carry-on- it is the best bag I have ever owned, and I have been around the world several times. (60 plus countries)

    http://www.redoxx.com/air-boss/91018/product

    Full disclosure: I don’t work for them and am not being paid nor did I receive a comp bag for my current trip.

  3. Juliana

    You mentioned women’s models in passing, but I think it’s important to note that the sizing is different, most are narrower. If you’re a larger girl like I am, you might be better off with a men’s one. Like you said, try a few on and see. I’ve got an Osprey one I’ve had for five years. I got it for about $150 and it’s still going strong.

  4. Tom Miller

    Backpacking is really fun. To enjoy it the most, you need to have a sturdy bag that can hold everything you need to bring. Plus, light enough to carry on your back at all times and provides a good support.

  5. Kiefer

    backpacking should always be good, consisting all the needs in it. very much comfortable when to carry. and should look decent enough to handle allt he dust etc. should also protect from water and some other security issues etc

  6. Mike

    great stuff here. honestly, I am not very particular with the backpacks I use when I go for a travel…but you got good points here.

  7. Jeff | Planet Bell

    I’m glad you featured the Dueter Back. My wife bought one when we were in Cape Town when her Osprey pack broke. It is a great pack, designed to open like a suitcase.

    I plan to get one soon. I’ve had an Alpine Lowe for 10 years but it is time for a new one. I had it for 10 years, 41 countries, 8 trips – built to last is also a key like you said. My pack probably cost me $25 per trip. Not bad.

  8. Backpack freak

    Really a great list. I have a Deuter Backpack and I have been using it for around 2 years and its still working fine. Durability is an important factor when looking for quality backpacks, atleast I think so. Thanks for a wonderful list.

  9. Ranjodh

    Thanks for that. That is great. I was wondering if you could list some good options specifically for the bikers? I plan to go biking in Spain and Portugal soon for around 3 weeks and was wondering what would be specifically good when I bike with a heavy backpack around. Any that you suggest?

    • Tim Leffel

      Ranjodh,

      That depends greatly on how much you’re carrying. Most backpacks meant for cyclists are hydration packs without much space. If you keep it at 45 liters or less though, you should be fine with most packs out there whether meant for bikers or not. I rode for days with a Kelty Redwing one and know others who have done the same with Osprey ones. Camelbak makes some good ones for active people, though I’m not sure how large they go.

  10. Utel

    The Deuter pack rules. We had some German friends turn us on them, and we couldn’t be happier. Here in Colorado, we need something durable that can withstand frequent use.

  11. Kayle Baldie

    I just picked up a new version of the Kelty Redwing 50. My stepson got my older version of the pack cause he needed one to. These packs are great. The newer version gives you the ability to top load or front load. I like that a lot. They have good capacity for a long weekend or used as a Bug Out Bag.
    I am a big guy and Kelty is one of the few companies that make packs that will fit me. This pack rides well and transfers the weight to your hips.

  12. Kerry Dexter

    My Eagle Creek pack has served me well as I travel most of the time to colder climates with computer, camera, notebooks and such wrapped up in some of my cold weather clothing. One of the things I like about it is that the shoulder straps are wider than many other models, makes for comfort to both shoulders and back on long hauls and stability when climbing, running, balancing with lots of gear, and such. After all these years has developed a few small tears through — I am going to have to check in to that lifetime guarantee…

  13. Izzy

    Looking for a travel pack that can be used for air travel as well as mountain biking what would you recommend? If possible I would like the 1 does it all but I know I am asking for a whole lot.

    Thank you.

  14. Mary

    My fiance and I are going to Europe for 10 days. Because we’re trying to squeeze in as much as possible, it’s going to be a lot of planes and overnight trains. He wants a large backpack because he thinks suitcases in tourist spots are tacky. Since we don’t get free carryon, we paid for one checked bag up to 44lbs. I really want to get us a 65-70l backpack with wheels but am having close to no success. The only thing I’m finding is the osprey sojourn or osprey meridian for $300-350. Since this is our only trip of the type probably for a looong while; we don’t need durable we just need one that can carry both of our stuff and last 10 days. We’re hoping for something closer to $150. Can you help us? Thank you!

    • Tim Leffel

      Drop the wheels requirement and you’ll find something much lighter and cheaper. The big question is, why so much luggage for just a 10-day trip? Pack well and you could go with two carry-ons (though on international flights you usually get to check one bag without a fee). There aren’t many huge backpacks with wheels because they really just aren’t very practical. Lots of compromises.

  15. Drew

    Hi, I have been doing a lot of research on what’s the best type of pack to get. This has probably been on the most practical articles I have seen. It touches on all the key points one would consider when making that purchase. I especially like your take on wheeled bags etc, as I am trying to get away from a TNF one that I have, yes the wheels and handle does make it very heavy. I think I will be going with the Osprey Wayfarer. However I do find with Osprey they tend to include the litres/volume with the daypack and don’t really give you the exact volume of the main pack. Thank you again for this article.

  16. Jessie Jones

    I believe that wheels on luggage are outlawed in Venice. Be careful.

  17. jaison

    what kind of backpack is good for camping & hiking out there. for caring my computer too. Are they comfortable to wear & made with good material? Just would like to now. Thank you…

  18. Jocelyn

    I am thinking about an osprey kestrel 48 pack for a 5 week trip to Europe. Any thoughts??

  19. tas lipat arcteryx

    Hello There. I found your blog the use of msn. This
    is an extremely smartly written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post.
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  20. pat kerr

    One more tip. Ones you found that pack you like, put some weight in it and see how it holds up. Almost any pack will feel comfy when empty, but it’s not till you add 30lb you will really feel how all those straps and backsupport will feel on you. Most stores have sandbags they can add.

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