Finding the best carry-on backpacks for your next trip is crucial. After three years of full-time travel, we’ve tested a lot of different carry-on backpacks. I’ve traveled with a backpack on countless flights, buses, metro systems, trains, and taxis. In that time I’ve found that the perfect backpack is invaluable.
These backpacks best serve travelers who do not want to waste time or money of checking a bag. The right carry-on backpack means you can breeze through TSA, board your flight, and hit the next destination with ease.
Nothing can make a trip more laborious than arriving at the airport unprepared or having the wrong baggage. These carry-on-specific backpacks are designed for the modern-day traveler. We love that many of the packs on this list feature front-loading designs. With a front loader, you can easily sort your luggage, and it does packing and unpacking a breeze
However, there are loads of different airline-approved backpacks out there, but which do you go with? In this post, I share what to look for in a great bag and reveal the best bags on the market.
Why Use A Carry On Backpack?
We’ve checked a lot of bags over the years, and every time there is that nagging suspicion we may not see the bag again. While we’ve only ever received delayed baggage a handful of times every time you separate from your bag there is some risk involved. With the use of a carry on backpack that risk is zero.
With a carry on backpack, you don’t have to wait to check your bag and you don’t have to wait at baggage claim. On the average flight, this could easily save you an hour of time. Show up the airport already checked in with a mobile boarding card and travel is a breeze.
Every day more airlines charge for checked bags, even on international flights, it’s common now to pay $20-$40 a checked bag. This can really add over multiple flights. And then on top of that, you’re more likely to take a taxi if you have heavy luggage to contend with.
One simple carry on backpack makes life pretty easy when it comes to travel days. Instead of lugging around a heavy piece of luggage it sits comfortably on your back.
Best Carry On Backpacks
Weight: 3 lbs. 5 oz.
Fabric: Nylon 420D
Capacities: 30L, 46L, 65L
Pros: Organization Pockets. Osprey Suspension. Laptop sleeve. Compression Tech. Structure Sidewalls. Multiple Sizes. Great Value.
Cons: Ugly. Questionable Carry On.
Osprey is one of our favorite backpack companies because of their All Mighty Guarantee and great value. The Osprey Porter is their most fitting carry on backpack. The large volume of the backpack will ensure you have plenty of luggage space yet remain under most airline carry on requirements. The pack is well constructed and leaves plenty of room for all of your clothes. The bag is lightweight and easy to throw off your back when you hop on a bus or train. There are several versions of this bag, but the only the 46L and 30L version qualify as carry-on-backpack sized.
The only problem with this bag is it’s not as robust so those who like to walk or cover the distance the backpack will get uncomfortable. The side handle of the bag is an added bonus, making it easy to grab out of an overhead bin and carry it off of a plane. That being said it’s one of the cheapest Osprey backpacks you can buy which means you have more budget for travel.
My recommendation for this pack is the 46L size because the 30L is a little to small for a full travel bag.
Topo Designs Travel Bag
Weight: 3 lbs. 1o oz.
Fabric: 1000D nylon, 400D nylon pack cloth, 210D nylon pack cloth liner
Capacities: 30L & 40L
Pros: Organization Pockets. Multiple Compartments Laptop sleeve. Multiple Carry Points. Carry On Friendly. Style. Heavy Zippers. Theft Deterrent Zipper Loop.
Cons: Smaller Size. Style. No Water Bottle Holder. Price.
Topo Designs launched their latest pack the Travel Bag and it’s a slam dunk for a carry on backpack and I used it on my last trip. The interior features double zipper U-entry, one large compartment, a medium-sized compartment, two small pockets, and two mesh pockets. The exterior features a rear laptop sleeve, a front compartment with organization and U-entry, a vertical pocket with organization, and exterior loops.
The exterior is heavy-duty nylon and the bag uses robust zippers that are the best we’ve seen on a travel backpack, albeit a bit clunky. When it comes to support, it has side handles on both sides of the backpack, a detachable shoulder strap, and backpack straps with a hip belt and chest strap. The support and straps are detachable and can be stored inside a zippered compartment for travel.
It’s a decent size at 40L and should be enough for minimalistic travelers in one season for multiple weeks. If you’re an adventure seeker and like to hike, the support system is lacking when compared to top-loading packs. The colors and style are also better suited for younger travelers, but it all depends on your style they offer a black if you prefer a more neutral bag we have the olive color pictured above.
Altogether this is would be my vote for the best carry on backpacks and I’ll be reaching for it on my next trip. It’s loaded with features, space, and has a lifetime guarantee.
REI Co-op Ruckpack 40 Pack
Weight: 4 lbs. 3 oz.
Fabric: Nylon 210D
Pros: Best Suspension System. Hiking Pack Features. REI Guarantee. U Shape Open. Frame. Compression Straps. Carry On Compliant. Zip Away Straps.
Cons: Heavy, Hiking/Travel
Osprey had a monopoly on the travel backpack market for far too long. However, many backpack manufacturers have caught on and begun developing backpacks suited for the growing trend of travelers. We have transitioned from hiking packs to purpose-built travel backpacks within a few years. We’re longtime fans of REI and love the products they produce.
This pack is loaded with features the Farpoint lacks. Highlights include a more robust suspension system that allows for an impromptu hike in the mountains or up to the top of the local hill. I love the addition of a laptop sleeve, hydration reservoir, rain cover, and straps for trekking poles. Altogether it’s a nice backpack that blur the line as to which category it belongs.
To top it all off the pack has a lie-flat feature with a large zip opening for easy access to all of your belongings. This is the travel bag for those who want a carry on backpack that blends city hopping and adventure travel all in one bag.
Knack Large Expandable Backpack
Weight: 3 lbs. 4 oz.
Fabric: Nylon 1200D
Pros: Best Organization. Style. Decent Suspension. Laptop sleeve. Internal Compression Strap.
Cons: Too Small For Long Trips. Small.
As far as design the Knack Expandable Backpack is one of my favorites in the travel world. It’s a new backpack and company for 2019 and from a number of executives who worked for the luggage company Tumi. The exterior and design of the pack are overwhelmingly positive. Compared to any of the other travel-specific bags we’ve had the chance to take a look at it delivers high quality with nice features.
Everything about this pack has been well thought out, and I’m impressed by the organization of the pockets and the ridiculous amount of features in such a small layout. Serious kudos to the designers of this pack.
It has some surprising features for its size such as a secret compartment and water bottle holder that is capable of holding our large 18oz Hydroflask water bottles.
It’s not well suited for those on long trips, but if you’re making a quick city escape for a long weekend or week to a city like London or Paris this pack would be a tremendous decision. Furthermore, it’s professional enough looking that it can even be used for business travel.
I’d love to see a larger version of this pack the current version is quite small and I can travel for a week with the interior space.
Peak Designs Travel Backpack
Weight: 4.5 lbs
Fabric: Weatherproof 400D Nylon and poly melange
Pros: Organization Pockets. Laptop sleeve. Carry On Friendly. Style. Heavy Zippers. Exterior Water Bottle Holder. Sleek
Cons: High Price.
The Peak Design Travel Backpack is my most used travel bag. Attention to detail is evident throughout the bag. It’s a sharp-looking bag, and its quality is evident through stitches and materials. You won’t look like a “budget backpacker” wearing the pack, and you can comfortably carry it in most environments.
An excellent pocket layout offers organization without consuming the bag’s roomy interior. That roomy interior works with Peak Design’s packing & camera cubes that lock to interior loops. It’s an intelligent system, but it does require further investment in an already expensive travel backpack.
An interior back pocket for a laptop/tablet is well-padded and sits closest to your back, which creates a more rigid, secure, and balanced backpack. It’s got some other slick features, such as a hidden luggage tag, theft deterrent zippers, a lined pocket, stowable straps, two hidden external zip pockets, and compression straps. A luggage pass-through also allows you to secure the bag to a roller bag’s handle.
The suspension on the bag feels robust, and the straps are comfortable for carrying heavy weight. This is needed as the bag is a little heavy because of the bag’s extensive features and durable materials. Its most significant negative is the weight with a non-vented back panel. This makes for a sweaty lower back in heat.
Despite that, the Peak Designs Travel Backpack is great for a minimalist, businessman, or more modern backpacker with a sleek design. At 45L, it’s a little small for extended travel, but with the right packing strategies, it’s very doable. If cost is not a concern, this is my favorite carry-on backpack.
Shop For The Peak Design Travel Backpack
REI Co-op Flash Pack 55 Pack
Weight: 2 lbs. 12 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (420D)
Pros: Lightweight. Manageable. Nice Features
Cons: Too small for any longer than three days
We love to shop at REI and love the gear the design. It’s often great value and we’ve personally used their backpacks for years. The Co-Op Flash Pack is made out of ripstop nylon and is a great 55 L trekking backpack for both men and women. It might not be a traditional carry on backpack, but at 45L it is carry on friendly and I have traveled with the bag.
With 55L it’s manageable for a gear-heavy day hike or even an overnight. The REI compression technology helps keep your belongings up and in to help your balance, stability, and posture while hiking. Its super lightweight frame is great and really appreciated on the trail.
There are attachment loops on the front to allow ice axes, poles, and other tools to be stored as well as snappable water bottle pockets on the hip belt. The mesh back panel allows for airflow keeping you cooler when walking in the sun and the removable top lid offers customizable pack volume.
This pack is perfect for those on a long weekend hiking trip in the mountains or on cross-country trails and has even been named the “Best Women’s Fit” backpack by Backpacker Magazine.
Flight Approved Backpack by Standard Luggage Co.
Weight: 3 lbs. 10 oz.
Fabric: Nylon (1680)
Pros: Robust Design, Laptop Sleeve, Suspension, Side Handles, Water Bottle Holder, Heavy Duty Material, Compression Straps,
This minimalist 35L travel backpack is the perfect carry on for those looking to pack everything needed for their trip. It’s not flashy or complicated, but the simple design is the perfect bag for travel needs. With a clever design, the bag can expand to 45 liters from 35 thanks to an expandable zipper.
My favorite aspect of this bag is that is designed to open like a clamshell suitcase making for easy access. For digital nomads or business travelers, the removable laptop sleeve serves as a great asset. Other great features include a top and side handle, compression straps and two exterior pockets.
Standard has really thought out this bags design and it’s obvious in the finished product. It feels high-quality thanks to nice handles, zips, seams, and a heavy-duty nylon exterior material. They also include some nice features like a rollaboard strap and rain cover that you don’t see in many other carry-on backpacks.
Tortuga Setout Travel Backpack
Weight: 4 lbs.
Fabric: Nylon 900D
Pros: Laptop Sleeve. Multiple Compartments. Superb Suspension. Stow Away Straps. Side Handle. Water Bottle Holder. Quality. Lockable Zippers.
Cons: Difficult to Access Front and Rear Sleeves. Heavy. Style.
Companies have caught on to the demands of travelers these days. The idea of a hiking backpack to travel around is going out of style now we have proper carry-on backpacks — we’re stoked and own five travel bags including the Setout! Tortuga was one of the first bag companies to catch on to the trend and start producing travel-specific bags.
It’s been one of my favorite bags I’ve ever carried and it’s been wonderful with our snowboard season as dealing with a snowboard bag is already a pain in the butt. The bag is about 40 liters in size with a front-loading compartment, a front sleeve with organization, and rear laptop sleeve.
The compartments are well thought out with room for my socks, toiletries, electronics, and essentials. The bags highlights for me include a padded laptop sleeve, detachable straps if you decide to check the bag, and the convenient side handle. The straps on the Setout are also the robust and comfortable straps of all the travel backpacks we tested.
It is a great backpack it doesn’t deserve to be number six on this list, but for only $30 Topo Designs Travel Bag delivers a more robust bag loaded with features and a better design. That being said it does have a water bottle holder that the Topo Designs Travel Bag lacks, a crucial element in the way you use a pack.
Eagle Creek Global Companion 40L Backpack
Weight: 3 lbs. 8 oz.
Fabric: Poly 450 & 600D
Pros: Laptop Sleeve. Multiple Compartments. Rain Cover. Clam Shell Open.
Cons: Ugly. Useless Front Pockets (Too Small. Lacks Side Handle. Permanent Straps.
This is a great backpack from Eagle Creek. They’ve specialized in travel products for a while now. The bag has a plethora of pockets and even a special one for shoes at the bottom of the bag.
It’s another great version of a clamshell-style backpack which provides easy access to your luggage. Other features include lockable zippers and a rain cover for bad weather.
Timbuk2 Wander Pack
Weight: 3 lbs. 11 oz.
Fabric: Nylon 420D
Pros: Style. Price. Laptop Sleeve. Exterior Material. Exterior Compression Straps.
Cons: Quality. Zippers. Suspension. No Chest Straps.
This is a stylish multi-use backpack. The sleek exterior is a nice touch and does a good job at fighting stains and moisture. It’s a well-designed bag that does a wonderful job as a functional travel pack.
I’d recommend it for anyone who cares about the looks of their pack and intends to travel around cities. It could even be used on business travel if it doesn’t require a suit and tie. With a padded rear sleeve designed for up to a 15″ laptop, you can travel in confidence as a digital nomad.
It has a number of drawbacks such as a lack of hip-belt, lackluster straps, and outdoor features. It’s wonderful because of its ability to fit in overhead bins and makes a great carry-on backpack.
Additional stand-out features include the side straps for compression and the various compartments that help with organization. If you combine this bag with packing cubes to protect your clothes you could have a well laid out backpack perfect for a stylish traveler who doesn’t want to look like a “backpacker.”
Other reviews do mention that Timbuk2 runs with some quality issues and the zippers on our pack seem to catch when we pull despite the tough look. It may look like a rough and tumble backpack like the duffel bags from Patagonia and Dakine below, but I wouldn’t expect it to hold up to their quality.
eBag TLS Mother Lode
Weight: 3 lb. 15 oz.
Fabric: Nylon 600D
Pros: Price. Multiple Compartments. Roomy Interior. Nice Front Compartment. Compression Straps. Laptop Sleeve, Water Bottle, Organization, Clamshell
Cons: Really Ugly. Heavy, Meh Suspension
This bag is described as spacious with plenty of organization to boot. It’s an easy contention for one of the best carry-on bags around if not for its comfortability and style. However, as I talked about previously there is no one solution fits all in finding a bag.
This bag is tremendous for those looking to have a great bag to carry on the plane and then onto their hotel. I wouldn’t plan on spending a few hours with the pack on because it may become uncomfortable.
We’ve used eBags extensively for their awesome harside suitcases. They offer well thought out luggage that is great quality. This carry on backpack is no exception with its multiple compartments, organization, laptop sleeve, and clamshell opening.
Cabin Max Metz Backpack
Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz.
Fabric: Nylon 600D
Pros: Price. Multiple Compartments. Roomy Interior. Nice Front Compartment. Compression Straps.
Cons: Really Ugly. No Laptop Sleeve. Lacks Water Bottle Storage. Cheap Straps. Poor Quality.
This pack comes in at 44 liters and is designed for carry-on purposes. The pack was specifically designed to adhere to most airlines’ carry-on baggage requirements. This means it is slightly too big for the American market, but you’ll likely have no problems carrying the bag on U.S. flights since it is not a hard bag. It’s a cheap bag that is well-reviewed and surprisingly well constructed.
The bag is designed similarly to a traditional suitcase, which is its greatest strength and weakness. My only complaint is that it is a hideously designed bag, but it does sell for less than $50. If you care about style or fashion, don’t bother with this carry on backpack.
Features To Seek In A Carry-on Backpack
There are five things to consider when purchasing a new backpack. That is size, comfort, value, organization, and capacity. Size in regards to the exterior size of the bag, which is number one when it comes to adhering to airline carry-on luggage rules. Comfort because you’re going to be wearing this bag, so if you have any plans to be walking around comfort is crucial.
It’s no secret that everyone loves a good value, but with certain items, it pays off to go to the top of the line items. It all really comes down to the intended use and your budget. The organization, by this I mean pockets and compartments. Does it have 30? Or does it have one? Both numbers are a bit exaggerated but can be crucial depending on your travel style and what you plan to carry on the plane, like a drone and electronics.
When it comes to selecting your bag this is rule numero uno. Selecting a bag that adheres to size regulations for carry-on backpacks is all that matters, otherwise, you’re checking your bag. Game Over. The size of your bag goes beyond adhering to airline regulations. You should consider whether the backpack will slide under the seat in front of you, or whether the bag will fit comfortably on your back.
Do you plan to carry your bag around the city or even hike with it? Then you’re going to want a bag that is well designed and fits on your back. I knew a comfortable backpack was crucial for me. However, these bags tend to come with a higher price tag. If your travel plans are more in the realm of off the plane and straight to the hotel then a cheaper bag with less comfort may be ideal for you. Leaves more money for a splashier hotel room too. For example, a camel ride requires a lot of added comfort.
Comfort value is all up to the intended use. How long does this pack need to last? Does comfort matter? Are you going to beat it to death? What are you going to pack for it? Is your boss or a client going to see you carrying this bag? Or does it just need to make it from point A to point B? A cheaper bag typically means fewer features and less durability. While the higher-end bags can break a budget; however, going with a well-constructed product is never a bad idea if you can afford.
As the list of must-have-items continues to grow so do the number of compartments in our backpacks. You should have in mind how you will stay organized with what you intend to carry in your backpack. We knew that a good backpack with sufficient organization to carry a drone, laptop, and camera was needed. It was difficult and ended up costing us more, but at the end of the day, we have everything we need from my carry-on backpack. Had I gone with just the other four points I would have been disappointed.
The capacity of the bag refers to how much you can fit inside the bag. Size should be considered with how long the trip will or whether the backpack is intended to complement checked luggage.
Why We Love Panel Loading Carry On Backpacks
Panel-loading backpacks are purpose-built for the traveler on the go and are a great option. Their design is similar to a traditional suitcase. They fully unzip giving easy access to your stuff. They have a sleek design without all the straps that are likely to get hung up, making it easy to throw them in an overhead compartment or under a bus.
Many of these packs are often designed to meet checked baggage standards. These packs are quickly becoming the traveler’s favorite bag. They’re very well adapted for transitioning between urban environments making them one of the best backpacks for Europe.
Pros of Panel Loading Backpacks:
- Size, not having to worry about having to check your bag is a big plus. The majority of these packs come in a size designed to be carry-on friendly.
- Easy access, with a compartment that fully opens, gives you access to your clothes and whatever else you carry. This is the big one, making packing and unpacking a breeze.
- Side handles, this may seem like such a small thing, but as a frequent traveler, I can attest it is not. A side handle makes hopping off public transportation, running through the airport, or carrying your pack around much easier. You do not need to worry about clubbing that woman behind on the subway with your massive pack on.
- Compartmented, these packs have more compartments built in so you can organize your stuff much better.
Cons of Panel Loading Backpacks:
- Comfort, the design of these packs is both a positive and negative much like the top-loading packs. In order to keep a low profile, the back straps are often thinner and not as comfortable. Ouch.
- Zippers, the biggest weak point on panel-loading packs is the use of a zipper as the main way to access your goods, meaning they run the risk of breaking over time. Especially on a particularly rough trip.
- Weight distribution, these packs are similar in shape to a suitcase and not exactly good for long distances on your back. The ergonomics and weight distribution just aren’t there.
How To Travel With A Carry On Backpack
Whenever you’re traveling with limited space packing cubes are a great way to stay organized and maximize space. Especially if you pick up a set of compression packing cubes.
Always opt for items that have versatility. We do our best to leave as much as we can behind so that only the best items we need to make it to our destination.
In the winter months, we travel wear our winter items on the plane as a way to maximize space in our carry on. We’ve spent a whole ski season living out of two carry-on backpacks in Switzerland, Japan, and Canada. Read our winter packing list.
What Type of Traveler Are You?
At the end of the day, the pack you choose is all about what type of traveler you are. Are you a minimalist? A Techie? Stylish? Are you planning to just use your carry-on to travel with for three days or three weeks?
The biggest piece of advice is to remember what it is you want and search until you find it. I hope one of these carry-on backpacks points you in the right direction for your carry on backpack needs.