Best backpacks for travelling (or, five backpacks I haven’t bought)

Since we left New Zealand in 2006 with over 50kg of baggage, we’ve been trying to pack light. In fact, we’ve been trying to pack lighter and lighter with every jaunt. Lightweight travel is good travel.

My current set-up is a two-bag Berghaus wonder: a red and grey 45+8lt Antaeus along with a black Remote20 with my laptop, microphone and plane or train reading material in it. The goal, however, is one that Linda has already achieved: the one bag.

Linda’s currently carrying a 35lt Backfavour from the small New Zealand manufacturer Aarn. This is one of the most amazing backpacks I’ve even seen or worn, but I don’t want to get the same pack as Linda. This couple thing can only go so far!

Picky as I am, here are five backpacks I haven’t bought.

1. Mountain HardWear Enterprise

The Mountain Hardwear Enterprise Backpack

was one of the first real contenders in my search for the ultimate travel backpack. At the moment it’s still the most likely contender, but it’s really quite expensive and I could do with an extra five litres.

The bag has excellent external pockets, including a lined one for electronics or sunglasses. It also has expansive side pockets, which appeal to me. The laptop holder, inside the bag, is suspended, meaning the computer won’t hit the bottom of the bag and get crushed and would also be quite easily accessible from the main backpack opening. I loved the duffel bag-style grip handle, but thought the harness was a bit on the light side.

2. North Face Angstrom

The The North Face Angstrom Backpack

 was recommended to me at the same shop as the Arcteryx pack below. I thought it looked really, really ugly. It was OK, but certainly didn’t excite me. A badly stitched area on one zip meant I didn’t really look at it further.

3. Arcteryx Blade

I loved the Arcteryx Blade 30 Backpack

at first glance. It had all the pockets and technical bits and pieces I wanted. It had a suitcase opening, which I’m considering after years of top-loading hiking backpacks. The external laptop pocket was excellent (and would have additional room for paperwork and notes).

I didn’t buy this one because when fully packed (and yes, I took everything I own down to the outdoors store) it looked like I had a suitcase suspended on my back. The weight distribution was all wrong and the harness didn’t really help that much, being a little short for my back.

4. Deuter Futura

From there I turned to the Deuter Futura 32 Backpack.

I’ve been a long-term fan of the build quality of Mountain Hardwear, Deuter and Berghaus, so I was really positive about this one. It would be a great hiking backpack: lightweight, tear-resistant, lots of connection points and excellent harness support.

Unfortunately, it would be a terrible backpack for a digital nomad: not many internal pockets, absolutely no laptop access. Notes, sketches and receipts would end up like they are in my current pack: scrunched and destroyed.

5. Kathmandu Litehaul Pack

The Kathmandu Litehaul Pack really had me excited when I first saw it. I used to use Kathmandu gear a lot, but they seem to have become more fashion-conscious than hardy recently. The price doesn’t quite reflect the build quality.

This bag, however, was innovative and seemed well-constructed. The amazing thing was that the duffel-bag style shoulder strap unclips and becomes a waist harness, meaning the bag is an excellent convertible travel backpack.

I didn’t buy this one because I was unsure how long the plastic clips that control this would last. I bet it would be less than three months with our lifestyle. It also didn’t quite seem to sit right on my back when we loaded it with a few tents for weight. Also, I am really hanging out for an external laptop pocket now; as my only bag it needs to be good for quick laptop access while we’re out and about.

The perfect bag …

My perfect travel backpack will:

  • be around 35 litres
  • be good for carry-on travel on most airlines
  • have an external laptop access point
  • have a proper harness system
  • have a few external pockets, including space for a waterbottle
  • have lockable zips
  • be sturdy enough to handle hiking, suave enough to suit a hotel lobby
  • not look stupid
  • not cost the earth

Can you help me?

Didn't find what you're looking for?

49 Responses to “Best backpacks for travelling (or, five backpacks I haven’t bought)”

  1. Scott July 27, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    This may be a little on the small side but the bag I used for my week in New York far exceeded my expectations. I really hope PacSafe comes out with a 35-40L one. The best feature of the bag are the zippers that tuck really far into the protective cover and clip hooks to latch the zippers to besides. I would expect it to be near impossible for anyone to discretely get into the bag without you knowing it.
    not an affiliate link

  2. Craig and Linda July 27, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    Thanks Scott, that’s a good looking bag, but yes – a bit small. 35-40lt is the sweet spot.

    I’ve always found PacSafe to be on the heavy side. How did you find it in that regard?

  3. Erin July 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    It’s so hard to find the perfect backpack! We spent far too long looking for ours. Simon uses a North Face Overhaul 40 litre bag that meets all your requirements except for the proper harness system. The back is not that well padded and there is no waist strap (which is the reason I went for the Vango Transit 30 litre instead) but Simon has had no problems with it and finds it perfectly comfortable.

  4. Craig and Linda July 27, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    Hi Erin, thanks for the recommendations. Unfortunately, I’ve looked at the Overhaul as well, and I really think I need the harness. Because my pack usually weighs in around 10-12kg and I’m carrying it 2-3 times a week (plus on any hiking adventures) it needs to do more than most people would expect from an “urban” pack.

    I found a good compromise from a German brand yesterday: A Jack Wolfskin Mountain Trail 40. They put one aside for me, then sold it before I returned to the shop this afternoon! It seems they put the 45lt aside for me and the back was a little long.

  5. Brendan July 27, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    I traveled around South America with a Kathmandu Nowaki_XT as my day pack. When I did a multi-day hike (4 day inca trail, 3 day colca canyon), it was the only bag I took. I liked how it had a small pocket at the top for camera and tickets, but most of the stuff was the internal compartment which would be hard to pick pocket (nice thought when on overnight busses).

    – be around 35 litres: 32L
    – be good for carry-on travel on most airlines: yes
    – have an external laptop access point: ???
    – have a proper harness system: yes, nice and comfortable.
    – have a few external pockets, including space for a waterbottle: one compartment on top, two drink bottle compartments.
    – have lockable zips: no. clips and draw string.
    – be sturdy enough to handle hiking, suave enough to suit a hotel lobby: yes.
    – not look stupid: yes.
    – not cost the earth: 89 kiwi.

    My bro got the same bag, and is over in South America at the moment.
    I’m not sure what you mean by have an external laptop access point, but my bro has an HP Mini (super small notebook) that he keeps in a small pacsafe shoulder bag (which just looks like a normal bag but it slash proof)>

  6. Dave July 28, 2010 at 5:29 am #

    Hey Craig,

    I’m not basing this on having used the pack in question, but I’m totally loving my 55+10 Macpac Orient Express on my current trip – ticks all of your boxes except the size, obviously. Maybe something like this – – could be worth checking out? Design spec looks good, and if they are using the same harness as on my one, it feels like you could cart the damn thing up Everest.

    For what it’s worth (not much, probably). 😉

  7. Craig and Linda July 28, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    Brendan, thanks! I think I looked at that one at the same time as the Lighthaul. It’s a bit small when the laptop is in it, and the idea is to get down to one bag, so it counted it out. It looks good on spec, but I’ve found some bags with the same cubic volume actually fit differing amounts of stuff into them … this one’s on the small side.

  8. Craig and Linda July 28, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    Dave, that looks like an interesting pack. I’ll try and find myself a MacPac outlet over here in Europe.

    Seems like we’ll be meeting up for La Tomatina in a few weeks – looking forward to it!

  9. Francoise July 28, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    I also feel like I’m on an eternal quest to find the perfect traveling backpack. Last year I downsized from a 60L to a 48L pack and hopefully will be able to eliminate another 10L on my next trip.

    The only pack I can think of that meets most of your requirements (and that I’ve tried on myself), is the Pangea 40 from Canada’s mountain equipment co-op. Probably not convenient seeing as you’re in Europe but here’s the link anyhow:

    The 1 thing it doesn’t have is external laptop access and I’d say it’s closer to 35L than the advertised 40.

  10. Craig and Linda July 28, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Thanks Francoise, it’s in my notebook now. Looks good on the website, if I can find one I’ll see if it fits.

  11. Brendan July 28, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    A few years ago I did a 4 months ski trip around canada with skiboots, ice skates, helmet, body armor, ski jackets/pants, hiking boots etc.

    My girlfriend & I each managed to achieve the elusive “1 bag”, but cheated – I had a 220L ice hockey goalie bag and she had a normal ice hockey bag (about 150L). With wheels on one end and a handle on the other, was just like an oversized cabin crew bag. :)

    Of course, that was back in the days when you were allowed several 32kg bags.

    • Craig and Linda July 29, 2010 at 2:29 am #

      lol! That’s where I’m going wrong :) Good stuff mate.

  12. Em July 29, 2010 at 8:01 am #

    My first attempt at this didn’t post… :-(
    Here goes again:

    The North Face Overhaul

    Lowe Alpine TT 40 Carry on

    GoLite TraveLite Convertible Carry On

    High Sierra Passport

    I made some suggestions on ‘locking’ soft bags at the Tom Bihn forums here:

  13. Craig and Linda July 29, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    Sad to hear it didn’t post, Em! We can’t find it in the logs, so no idea what happened. Thanks for re-posting, though.

    I’m checking out all these links now…

  14. Rob July 29, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    Love my Eagle Creek Switchback 22.

  15. Em July 29, 2010 at 7:46 pm #

    I had the ‘Notify me of followup comments…’ box checked and it took me straight to the sign up page. Oh well.

    Here are a few more that have appeared on the One Bag One World pages. As these are largely designed as carry-on only bags, they’re often not designed for loads heavier than say 10 kg (which is perhaps why most do not have solid harness systems or hip belts) nor to withstand the rigours of airline baggage systems.

    LL Bean Quickload

    Blackwolf Skedaddle
    Apparently this one is very like the older versions of the Patagonia MLC (Maximum Legal Carryon).

    First Ascent Maximus 40 Carry On
    (It’s on the first line, second from the right)

    And finally, here’s the OBOW thread that started my own (neverending?!) search:

    As you’ve already commented, bag volumes specified by the manufacturers are all over the place. There is no standard for how these are measured – some take the time to measure the actual internal volume / packing space, others just take the largest external linear measurements (including the space occupied by the harness) to calculate a volume, others calculate a volume without the harness, others, well, I can’t for the life of me work out how they calculated a volume!

  16. Craig and Linda July 30, 2010 at 4:05 am #

    Yes, those volume measurements never seem to mean anything. If I’m seriously looking at buying a pack, I carry everything I currently own down to the shop and put everything in the potential pack. That way I get to amuse the shop staff and see what the weight distribution and pack size is really like.

    Rob, Em – Thanks for the recommendations.

    I really need that 35-40lt space (some 32lt have this) and I’m also after a good harness system. Sometimes I’ll be using this for hiking, other times the weight of electronics means I must have that weigh distributed away from my shoulders.

  17. Em August 2, 2010 at 8:42 am #

    Hi again!
    The OBOW forums has a(nother) thread compiling known bags in this size range. These aren’t really recommendations, just an attempt to get a list together in one place. I’m posting new brands / models as I find them online.

    Happy searching!

  18. Gavin October 26, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    I too have been on this merry-go-round. Currently I have a OnePlanet Ronald: which lacks (useful) external pockets and laptop storage. Although it does have a decent harness.

    For carry-on you’re limited to 56cm length which precludes most top loading backpacks. I’m a fan of the panel loading versus rummaging through a garbage bin to find what you need en-route.

    Bachpacks make this: if you can find it – UK/Europe only distribution.

  19. Chris Burlton August 16, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    So what packs are you Guys using now?

  20. Craig and Linda August 17, 2011 at 6:15 am #

    Linda’s still got her Aarn 35, I (Craig) have a new North Face Overhaul 40 (which I nickname the Overpacked 40). Will have a review on it sometime soon.

  21. Chris Burlton September 6, 2011 at 12:56 am #

    Thanks Craig. Will be interested in what ovthers you considered too. Wiould prefer a bigger hip belt than the Overhaul has. Was wondering about the Kathmandu Litehaul too.

    • Craig and Linda September 6, 2011 at 5:30 am #

      Yeah, I was very skeptical about the hip belt on it … and I’m still not 100% happy on that side of things: almost 100% of the weight sits on my shoulders. I looked at the Kathmandu, and it seemed quite a heavy bag for what it was.

  22. Jean Bullington November 8, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    Awesome topic. But i would love to choose this bag for traveling “Mountain HardWear Enterprise”. Would it be ok to a small lady like me guys?

    • Craig and Linda November 8, 2011 at 7:56 am #

      It’s really hard to say, Jean: fitting a backpack is quite a personal thing. Your best bet is to try it on in a store, or order it online at a place where you can send it back if it doesn’t fit.

  23. Robin November 10, 2011 at 1:03 am #

    The bags are cool. If I were to buy, I will choose Deuter Futura because I like the color and it’s big.

  24. Manuel Alcantar November 10, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    @ Jean: I agree with craig and Linda reply to your post. Or the best thing that you can do is to visit on the store personally too. That would really help.

  25. ErlindaDolphin November 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    I like Arcteryx Blade because it has external laptop pocket and I always bring laptop all the time. Thank for the information.

  26. Marna November 10, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    @Manuel : I agree with you all she can do is visit the store , cause im sure they would really help her.

  27. Alma Myers November 10, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

    I will choose Kathmandu Litehaul Pack when it comes to mountain climbing adventure together with your friends. and also it can use for traveling for vacation. ^_^

  28. Kathleen November 10, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    I love mountain hiking but the bag that I have is too small for me, I want a big one.
    Thanks for the info.. I will visit that store personally so that I can choose the best.

  29. Joan Washington November 11, 2011 at 1:03 am #

    I use to prefer Kathmandu Litehaul Pack, because it is more capable to use during travel. I usually travel to other place every month so I need to used more comfortable bag.

  30. lenny November 11, 2011 at 1:15 am #

    I love adventure activities like mountain hiking its really fun.Me i use what ever bag i have as long as i enjoy the trips it doesn’t matte of me.

  31. Pat November 14, 2011 at 5:33 am #

    I would prefer to choose a comfortable bag like Mountain HardWear Enterprise because it easy to carry and useful :)

  32. Alena Mitchell November 14, 2011 at 6:37 am #

    Did anyone knows what is the best bag that good for female customers?

  33. Zoe November 14, 2011 at 7:40 am #

    Arcteryx Blade is nice. The design is very simple. I will definitely choose this bag. :)

  34. Barbara November 15, 2011 at 5:31 am #

    @Alena: As far as I know, female don’t look for best bag, they actually look on the style and they easily get attracted to the colors. So I advice you to sell bags that has a nice style and especially the colors.

  35. Alice Owen November 15, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    @ Elena: I strongly agree with your post. I am very particular with the style of bags and specially the colors.

  36. Kathy November 15, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    @Pat, Same as I, I would preferred to choose a very useful, easy to carry, and affordable price.

  37. Robert Key November 17, 2011 at 6:20 am #

    @ Kathy i strongly agree with your post. Thanks for sharing this to us.

  38. Craig and Linda January 15, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    Lynne emailed in with:

    Check out Traveller backpack – extra light weight but a bushwalking type backpack.
    – ticks the boxes including the harness
    – not sure about a lockable zip though

    Another suggestion re carryon backpack after more searching…

    I have just bought an REI Vagabond 40Litre carry-on size pack and am pretty happy with it. ( search for vagabond otherwise very difficult to find). It cost $139 US (to Australia add $60 postage) ticks most boxes as
    it has a decent harness, is lockable, meets smaller carryon size (105cm) but is longish and narrow (good for crowded trains perhaps). Seems well made but a smallish 40L. Has a duffle-bag included in a pouch in the bottom of the
    pack which is also the rain-cover. It serves as a duffle bag for the pack if you need to check it in. The pack (complete including the duffle bag-cover) weighs 1.6 kg. Also there is a flat plastic insert in the back of the pack
    to make it more rigid. I have removed this in my pack as it made the pack back support stick into me a bit (easily removed) -The pack is more comfortable with out. With the rain cover and plastic insert removed my guess is it weighs only about 1.2 kg.

    I also checked out the Northface Backtrack 50. Looked good and had a daypack. I didn’t want the daypack though so didn’t purchase – it was also expensive and out of stock in most places. Gearguys in Aus had it for $319.

    Thanks, Lynne!

  39. Barry - Luquina Homestay April 5, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    Thanks for your tips guys, without it we would have probably looked like newbies with our massive backpacks! Have seriously changed our thoughts after going through this so thanks!

  40. Larry April 6, 2012 at 3:36 am #

    Good day to All.

    I have a Jack Wolfskin which I used in 2001, 2003 and from 2007 to date and I have travelled in many countries and in all kinds of conditions (monsoon, hail, snow) not to mention the “rough” handling on board airlines, buses, back of trucks and those vehicles that run around Asia (Tuktuk and similar).

    I had it fall off a truck a couple of times, covered by a dust storm in Australia and rained on so many times.

    Good side pockets as well as on the cover, both inside and outside. Strong metal bracing and a solid waist strap along with a smaller chess level one. Also pockets at either side where I place a water bottle and a walking stick on the other.

    Great companion over 8 years of use. The only respite it has had since 207 was a few months in 2010, 2 in 2011.

    Considered changing it as it is the larger model but cannot leave go as I cannot find a better bag; maybe a tad sentimental about it also.

    As for a laptop I did carry one in 2009 to 2010 but now I travel with a Netbook which is more convenient, light weight and easy to protect as I use my sleeping bag to wrap it up and it is placed to the back of the backpack where the strength is. Never had a problem and as to having a separate lining for it would not be a real advantage as it is very easy for me to access it as it lays on-top of the bottom section of the bag some 6 to 8 inches from the bottom giving it additional protection.

  41. Vicky May 13, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    Cheers for the tips guys! I’m looking to buy a new bag for my trip to Tanzania in a few weeks so reading this has come at a good time :)

    • Craig and Linda May 14, 2012 at 3:36 am #

      Excellent – have fun! (And let us know how your chosen backpack performs.)

  42. Jamie October 16, 2015 at 1:15 am #

    I would love to know what you guys think of the Tortuga backpacks!

    • Linda Martin October 16, 2015 at 6:10 am #

      Hi Jamie! We haven’t tried them, they look pretty good though! I (Linda) am on the lookout for a new bag now, my Aarn Backfavour is getting past its best and I’ve found it sits too low on my hips. Might have to consider a Tortuga! I like the idea of being able to pack it like a suitcase, that’s something that’s been a bit frustrating with other bags, but I don’t really like the look of the side pockets.

  43. Steve C November 6, 2015 at 9:03 pm #

    Hi guys; Just saw your take on packs. I speak from experience as I traveled around the world for 2 years quite a few years ago. I had an 80 liter pack along with a day pack. As I will not travel without my trusty Swiss Army knife, a carry-on is of no use to me. We regularly bought “stuff” but boxed it up and sent it home so it wouldn’t have to be carried. Even though my pack wasn’t carrying souvenirs, it still was 45 to 50 pounds, and my day pack was another 8 to 12 pounds.

    That said, I never thought I was carrying too much stuff and it was never a problem. There were few times when I actually had to carry it. I never hiked with it or did any sight seeing with it, just my day pack. I’ll be back on the road again in a few months and am shopping for a new pack. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but it must have wheels! That’s the trick to not carrying a bunch of weight. Like technology, there are new and better products on the market every day. I’m going to wait until a month or so before I make the plunge in buying my new pack. It will have both straps and wheels. And it will probably be in the 70 liter range. Utility will be the determining factor, not it’s beauty or looking stupid. Cost is not so much a factor as I’m retired and plan on traveling for the rest of my life, until either my head or body gives out (probably both). My laptop and camera gear will always be in my day pack so that’s not a requirement for my main pack.

    I know the mantra of long term travelers is generally “travel light”. Yeah, yeah; but I enjoy having my “stuff” along with me as it’s my life and I don’t like to be caught without it. My mantra is more: “slow travel”. I’ll move on when it feels like it, not when a schedule demands it. The only time my pack is used is when I move from point A to point B. The rest of the time it’s unpacked and pushed under my bed. While traveling, it’s out of my room, down some stairs sometimes, out the door to the curb. Then, from the taxi, bemo or tuk tuk to the check-in desk at the airport or train or bus station. When I get to where I’m going, it’s the reverse. So, what I’m saying is there are very few times when I actually have to carry my pack on my back. That’s why they invented the wheel. Pull it! And, 50 pounds is no big deal for short spurts.

    Every traveler has their own way to do it. That’s mine. Happy Trails!

    • Linda Martin November 10, 2015 at 10:20 am #

      Hey Steve! I completely agree, each traveller has find the luggage option that suit them. I’m starting to consider wheels myself actually! We travelled with a Swiss Army knife for a long time and found it really useful, and for slow travel having more stuff definitely makes sense. Thanks for your comment.

Leave a Reply

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This