7 Things Every Travel Backpack Needs
Enter a Google or Amazon search for 'travel backpack' and you'll eventually get so overwhelmed with the options that making the best decision seems impossible. At least, that's what happens to me every time.
I love travel gear. There's nothing that makes me more excited than packing up a new suitcase or backpack with gadgets and hacks that help make my trip go easily and smoothly. I've become a pretty big fan of the travel or carry on backpack since I like to have my hands free, and after a lot of trial and error I've learned that there are certain things I will always check for when making a backpack decision.
Stay tuned for my recommendations on backpacks at the end of this post!
This isn't meant to be a complete guide to choosing a backpack, but I'm hoping it will give you some tips and help you make a good, comfortable decision that you can be happy with for many trips. There are a lot of things that can set a backpack apart from its comrades, and something that works for me isn't going to be the perfect solution for everyone.
With that in mind, here are a few of the things a backpack MUST have in order for me to consider it:
One of the most important things to remember when picking a backpack is that not all straps are equal.
There is almost nothing that will be more annoying than uncomfortable straps digging into your shoulders or sitting awkwardly. Trust me - I learned this the hard way when I chose a pack that had straps made of the same material as seat belts. Ouch.
Look for straps that are well padded, adjustable, and maybe even have an extra storage pocket or two. This will save your shoulders and back, make the weight distribution a little more even, and the extra little pocket can be the perfect place for your cards, keys or passport.
If you're one of those people who can get away with traveling with only a tablet or nothing at all, I'm very, very jealous! But if you're like me or my friends, then having a laptop to get some work done is a must.
The location of the laptop sleeve in a backpack is actually pretty important. You probably don't want it to be easily accessible. A lot of the best backpacks will have a dedicated laptop sleeve that has its own access and lays against your back. This is the option I like best since it's a space that nobody can easily access, and because it allows a lot more room for storage in the main compartments of the bag.
The traditional laptop sleeve in the back of the main compartment of a bag can be a good option, too - as long as it's well padded. A thin piece of fabric or not having enough padding on the bottom and back of the bag isn't going to protect your electronics very well, so make sure that the sleeve is something you feel comfortable keeping your computer in!
Water bottle Sleeve
At this point a bag without a water bottle pocket on the outside is an absolute no-go for me. In all honesty, I have to wonder why a backpack - especially a day pack - wouldn't have one! It's the most practical part of any backpack because everyone needs water, and everybody needs a place to store it.
I've lost one too many pieces of gear thanks to a leaky water bottle or drink that had to be put in with the rest of my things due to a lack of a good water bottle sleeve.
Even if you aren't like me and don't bring a water bottle everywhere, you'll find a use for it and you'll always be glad it's there.
Weatherproof Coating / Cover
Picture this: You're on the trip of a lifetime and so far you've gotten lots of incredible pictures, collected memories and can't wait to share with everyone back home. And then you're caught in a rainstorm. Your backpack gets soaked, and so does everything in it. I don't know about you, but that's not a situation I want to be in....but I kind of have. I didn't lose everything, but I learned my lesson.
If the bag itself isn't waterproof, make sure there is a waterproof rain cover included. If there is, it usually has its own quick-access pocket on the bottom of the bag or close to it. Having one of these available will come in handy a lot more than you think! If water is strong enough to carve out the Grand Canyon, it can ruin your belongings in a backpack!
If you've read some of my other posts, you'll know that I am passionate about organization while I'm at home and abroad.
When it comes to a backpack, having lots of organization will help make sure there isn't any wasted space. Organizational pockets and sleeves means you can know exactly where things are and have access to them quickly without spilling out the contents of your bag.
Compression straps to keep things in place, front pockets with spaces for small items and a passport, a key tether and different sized compartments are all things that I like to look for. While a bag doesn't have to have every single one of those (but I won't complain if it does), I always like to check and see how organized and thought out the compartments are.
Other things that are popular now include RFID pockets for your credit cards, side access pockets and somewhere to store your headphones.
Side Straps / Grab Handles
I cannot stress how important it is that your backpack has a way to be carried other than just being on your back. Trust me when I say that you will not always be able to - or even want to - carry it on your backpack. Having straps on the sides, top, bottom and possibly even an attachable messenger strap will make your pack far more useful and usable.
Not only will you be able to carry it like a suitcase, but you need a good grip to lift it up into the overhead storage and take it down again on the plane. Dropping it or having to struggle for five minutes to get a good grip isn't fun for you or anyone around. And if it so happens that one of the back straps breaks? It's much better to have to carry it around like a duffel bag instead of hold onto it with two arms all the time.
Every bag you get should have more than one way of being carried, whether it's a backpack or not. Carry on sized suitcases have to be lifted above your head as well, and doing that without any extra handles is a risk I don't want to take.
Make sure the straps are well secured and sturdy!
One of the worst feelings in the world has to be a heavy backpack pressed up on your back all day preventing any airflow. A close second would have to be the feeling of taking the backpack off and realizing how sticky, wet and uncomfortable you truly are.
That's why it's important to choose a backpack that sits comfortably on your back but also allows the air to move and let you breathe a little bit.
Some backpacks are specially designed for this, but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll work for you. When trying on a bag, make sure the back is padded and that you can feel the air moving a little bit instead of trapping it against your shirt and creating a vortex of heat and discomfort.
This isn't as important in a bag you won't be carrying around all day, but it's something to be especially conscious of in a backpack you plan on using as a day pack or lugging around a city with you.
Ebags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible (regular and Jr. size)
The cult classic that I definitely love myself. There are some drawbacks, like the waist strap isn't that comfortable and it can be a bit bulky, but overall it's a solid, well made bag that won't disappoint.
There are a lot of things to love about the Mother Lode. The key tether, suitcase-style design and deep pockets are all fantastic features. Plus, the bright interior makes it easy to find things in a rush!
It also comes in a wheeled duffel version if you prefer wheels!
Osprey is a big player in the world of travel and backpacking packs. Their bags are high quality, well designed and will last you basically forever. One of the cool things about the Porter is that you can attach one of their daybags to it, so you have additional storage and also don't have to worry about packing a day bag!
This bag is also extremely well padded, so your belongings will stay safe throughout your entire journey. If you're a giant klutz like myself, this is a great thing to look for because you will inevitably drop the bag at some point and get that cringey feeling of dread when you think about all the breakable things you have inside.
This is a great all-around bag and this size is perfect for everyone, in my opinion.
I'm a pretty big fan of Cotopaxi (I even took one of their new bags to Iceland on a relay), but I'll be the first to admit that this bag doesn't have everything. No water bottle pocket (gasp), and a very simple design with almost no outer organization - all things I'd normally stay away from.
But for quick getaways and weekend trips? This bag is pretty ideal. It's smaller that the two previous bags, which makes it great for shorter trips, and it's low profile while still looking sleek. The inside is also well organized with different compartments that will be a big help for packing.
And it's water resistant. So that's a bonus.
This is one of the packs that's on my list to try out. While I don't love that the laptop sleeve is on the inside of the bag, which means exposing all your belongings whenever you want to get it out, I do love the amount of space and features. The Redwing has been a classic hiking and backpacking pack for a long time, and I'm hoping to get my hands on one for a backpacking trip I'm planning for next year.
Another nice thing about the Redwing is that their unique fitting system means you can get a perfect or near perfect fit no matter your size. There's also some great side zippered pockets for extra storage on the side, and is hydration pack compatible, if that's something you enjoy having.
I haven't personally tried this one, but I'd be more than willing to for the killer price of just less than $50. It has hundreds of positive Amazon reviews and lots of space and storage - two of the most important things
One bonus of choosing this bag? There are so many different colors and designs to pick from! So basically every member of your party can have a different looking bag, which is always nice.
The outer compression straps are also a nice touch and make the bag a little less bulky than some of the other options.
If you're on a budget, it doesn't look like you can go wrong with the Cabin Max bag!
I've said it before, but I love trying out new travel gear. I'm always looking for ways to improve my least favorite part of traveling - the traveling part (planes, airports, long layovers...).
So, if you have a favorite travel backpack that you think I'd like, holler at me and let me know!
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