Traveling isn’t just about the destination. Carry On is our series devoted to how we get away in the digital age, from the choices we make to the experiences we share.
Whether you’re traveling for work or pleasure, a decent backpack can make all the difference. While you’re worrying about catching planes and trains, getting through security, the security of your stuff, getting to places on time, and trying to stay as comfortable as possible in the meantime, the last thing you want to be worrying about is your carry-on kit. If you care about your back and enjoy having your hands free while you travel, having a secure and well-designed backpack to keep all your essentials at hand is a must. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if the backpack looks good too.
How we compiled our collection
Choosing the right travel backpack to suit your needs will depend on a variety of factors, not least whether or not you like the look of the thing. Because everyone’s needs are different, here is a handy list of key backpack features, functionality, and practical qualities we took into account when making this list.
We’ve shared details, including which backpack is the best for different needs, below, but if you want a cheat sheet, here are our top picks:
Best overall: Matein Travel Laptop Anti-Theft Backpack
Best for daypack use: The North Face Jester Backpack
Best for easy airport security check: SwissGear 1900 Scansmart TSA Laptop Backpack
Best basic backpack: JanSport Right Pack
Best for urban exploring and style: LXY Vegan Leather Vintage Laptop Backpack
Best for protecting your valuables: Korin Anti-Theft ClickPack Laptop Backpack
Best multi-functional option: KAUKKO Daypack
What size do you need?
Backpacks’ capacities are often described in liters, which can be confusing, as who knows how many liters a laptop, toiletry bag, smartphone, water bottle, and snacks take up? Most of us are better off considering the dimensions of the bag to find one to suit our needs and frame. Once you’ve found the dimensions in the product description, it can be useful to whip out measuring tape and compare it to an existing bag you already have to get a sense of scale. If you’re planning to take your rucksack on an airplane, it’s also very much worth checking that it’s a safe carry-on size, though the vast majority of non-hiking backpacks are.
Could your backpack get wet?
You’ll likely pay more for a backpack that is made of waterproof or water-resistant materials, but it’s a super-useful quality to look for, especially if you’re headed to a place where it’s likely to be rainy, and/or if your bag is going to contain electronics. Most waterproof backpacks are made of polyester, and this fabric gets a “denier” rating that relates to the fiber thickness of individual threads. So, you could see a backpack’s material described as 800D or 1,200D. The higher the number, the more water-resistant it will be.
How heavy are we talking?
While it’s a consideration that’s more important when you’re shopping for a hiking or camping rucksack, it’s still a factor to think about if you’re going to be wearing your backpack for extended periods. Most product descriptions will provide weight information, and we aimed to choose lightweight options here.
Are you bringing a laptop or tablet?
This is a very important feature to consider. Most backpacks we’ve selected have compartments for up to 15.6-inch laptops, but obviously others cater to larger versions. Many backpacks these days also have a separate pocket suitable to safely store an average-sized tablet.
Love flying through the TSA line?
Traveling by air with a laptop? Then it’s worth investing in a TSA-approved laptop backpack. These meet the Transportation Security Administration’s criteria for a designated laptop compartment that, when unzipped, lays flat with the laptop completely visible. This means that as long as nothing major is blocking the TSA official’s view of the laptop, you can usually keep it in the bag, meaning a faster trip through security for you.
How organized do you need to be?
If you know you’re going to be in hectic or busy situations, choose a backpack that has lots of little compartments and pockets so you can be super-organized. For example, if you’re traveling abroad, a dedicated pocket for your passport and travel documents will prove useful. If you’re sightseeing, then knowing exactly where your guide- or phrase-book is will be handy. Other details to think about are key fobs, headphone ports, and USB-friendly designs.
Worried about your valuables?
The final point to think about is security. A lot of travel backpacks these days feature a useful, hidden, zipped pocket on the back of the bag that is obviously difficult for thieves and pickpockets to access while you are wearing it. Other products take this a step further with extendable wires that allow you to secure your backpack to tables, chairs, etc. If you’re headed somewhere that could be a bit dodgy, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
1. Best Overall
This affordable, contemporary choice comes in a variety of colors and is designed to hold a 15.6-inch (or smaller) laptop or tablet with a separate compartment towards the back of the bag. The middle has a roomy zipped area for larger items and the front zipped section has phone and pen pockets, as well as a key fob hook. There’s a luggage strap around the back to hook this bag onto airport trolleys and an anti-theft back pocket for valuables that thieves would struggle to access while you’re wearing it. Finally, we like the built-in external USB port that, with additional purchases, can offer phone charging from a power pack stored safely inside the bag.
2. Best for Daypack Use
The North Face Jester Backpack — $68.95
The Jester is a The North Face classic. Available in around 30 different colorways, it’s popular with students, but it’s nonetheless suitable for travelers too. There’s a top-loading large main compartment that’s big enough to fit binders, a padded laptop pocket that fits devices up to 15-inches, a front accessory pocket and an organization panel for smaller items. With two side mesh pockets ideal for water bottles, there are other clever details like a removable hip belt for added support, and an LED light loop. As you’d expect from a respected brand like The North Face, the backpack’s injection-molded shoulder straps distribute weight evenly and are comfortable, even for longer periods.
3. Best for Easy Airport Security Checks
SwissGear has always been a strong brand presence in the tech-friendly travel backpack marketplace, and the carry-on size 1900 Scansmart continues this heritage. Made from durable, weather-resistant ballistic polyester, this rucksack offers “ScanSmart” lay-flat tech to protect up to a 17-inch laptop, opening quickly and easily at airport security for hassle-free TSA scans. The front pocket will keep all your pens, keys, and notebooks organized and you’ll get two mesh side compartments for water bottles, umbrellas, or whatever else you may need. On the tech side of things, there is also a “floating” tablet pocket and a headphone port to feed your ‘phones through.
4. Best for Occasional Use
This option is a little different from the others, as it’s a packable daypack that will provide up to 35 liters of portable storage when you need it, but can be packed down into a small zip-up pocket that weighs just 0.7 lbs when you no longer need it. Pretty cool, right? When in use, this offers one main zipped compartment, two zipped front pockets and two side pockets. There are breathable, adjustable mesh shoulder straps with sponge padding, heavy duty two-way SBS metal zippers and a whistle buckle should you feel the need to draw attention to yourself.
5. Best Basic Backpack
JanSport Right Pack — $59.99
Another design classic in the backpack arena, JanSport’s Right Pack is a simple solution for anyone who values good, clean design and quality workmanship over the bells and whistles of more fussy options. This version has the signature suede leather bottom while the rest is made from heavyweight Cordura fabric. There’s a main compartment that boasts a 15-inch laptop sleeve, a zippered pocket with an internal organizer, and a front “stash” pocket. JanSport is so confident the Right Pack will have your back that it comes with a lifetime promise: If it breaks, it will be replaced with no questions asked.
6. Best for Urban Exploring and Style
This option is more fashion-forward, suitable for shorter or city-based trips. Made of vegan leather, it has lovely vintage styling for anyone who really can’t do polyester. On the practical side of things, there is a compartment for up to 14-inch laptops, a metal button on the side that can extend or reduce the capacity of the bag, and smart pockets for items you want quick access too. Another reason this qualifies as a travel backpack is its clever zipped anti-theft pocket on the back of the bag that would be ideal for keeping money, passports, and travel docs away from pickpockets.
7. Best for Protecting Your Valuables
Exuding minimal urban style, Korin’s ClickPack is perfect for security-conscious travelers, thanks to its award-winning safety features which include a retractable, telescopic steel wire lock that can be pulled out to secure around chair arms or the like to stop opportunistic thieves from grabbing your bag. Elsewhere, there are compartments for up to 15.6-inch laptops and up to 10-inch tablets, and plenty of smaller pockets. The final feature of note is an “EasyCharging” system that, with additional purchases, gives you a built-in and easy-to-access USB port to charge phones and other small electronics.
8. Best Multi-Functional Option
KAUKKO Daypack — $40.99
Available in 10-plus colorways, this choice from Kuakko manages to combine style and practicality, and can be used for everything from air travel to day hikes. Made of water-repellent 600D durable polyester with a drawstring-closing nylon lining, this one has contoured, adjustable shoulder straps while the back is slightly padded for comfort. A more compact option, this will give you a 22-liter capacity with space for an up to 15-inch laptop. This backpack comes complete with an additional clutch purse, so you can keep smaller items like cosmetics or cables separate for quick access.