The Carry-On Backpacks You've Been Waiting For

Cotopaxi
1 / 7 Photos

Good Vibes, Safe Travels

Budget Travel photo director Amy Lundeen put this bag through its paces and found it to be one of the simplest, style-wise, and yet the most protected. The Vibe 40 comes courtesy of Pacsafe, a brand dedicated to anti-theft travel gear, and boasts serious security features like material that guards against RFID skimming and tough, interlocking zippers to deter pickpockets and bag thieves. Inside, the 40-liter pack has a large compartment for your things and a tiny mesh pocket for incidentals, as well as a space for your laptop or tablet. (One thing to note: Unlike most other packs with laptop sleeves, this one isn’t easily accessible from the outside—for safety purposes, you have to open the bag to get to your device.) Outside, Amy notes, there’s a side water-bottle pocket and a “secret pocket at the top of the pack, right behind your neck when you have it on, that’s a great place to stash a passport or wallet.” Other features that impressed? “The shoulder straps tuck away so it can just be a bag, and you can also release one of the straps and wrap it around a pole to catch a quick nap on a layover—no one can run off with it!” All in all, she says, “It's perfectly designed to be the only bag you have to carry.”

Vibe 40 anti-theft 40L carry-on backpack, $140; pacsafe.com.

Courtesy Pacsafe

Pack It All In

Emily Fredette, sales planner for Budget Travel's parent company, Lonely Planet, used Tortuga’s 45-liter Setout pack on a 10-day trip to Greece, and overall, she reports, it got the job done. “I was able to carry every single item I had with me on my back, and it was only gate-checked once, despite its large size,” she says. This is the biggest bag on our list, and, with a generous main compartment opposite two big mesh pockets, as well as a laptop sleeve, a front section with additional pockets and a key clip, and a padded hip belt with even more pockets, it offers no shortage of organizational options. “The two fanny packs on the hip straps are a great design touch—super-useful for carrying items I always need on hand (passport, phone, money, etc.) while traveling through airports,” says Emily. She also notes a few drawbacks: “Because the main section of the backpack is so large, the distribution of items and weight wasn’t always ideal, and it felt extremely heavy after wearing it for more than half an hour,” she says, adding that shorter folks might want to opt for something on the smaller side. “The 45-liter size was a bit tall for a 5' 5" lady, and as a result, the top straps clipped on me awkwardly. I think I could have gotten by with 35 liters since I was able to travel with a 40-liter bag in the past.” Moral of the story? If you have a hard time packing light or if you're going on a longer trip, this maximum-capacity (yet still carry-on compliant!) bag is a great option.

Setout Backpack, $199; tortugabackpacks.com.

Courtesy Jessie Webster

To Timbuktu and Beyond

Perhaps my favorite of the smaller-capacity crop, Timbuk2’s Blink pack doesn’t have too many bells and whistles, but its smart design and simple, intuitive features made the most of my time in transit. I loaded it up for a five-day summer trip, and the 24-liter bag’s main compartment was deep enough for an excessive amount of (admittedly lightweight) clothes, plus toiletries, a change of shoes, and the rest of my miscellaneous essentials. Although I overpacked, everything fit perfectly and the pack zipped easily, even without putting the external compression straps to use. I’d be happy with another internal pocket or two for organizational purposes—there’s just one narrow, zippered mesh panel in the main section that doesn’t really hold much—but the laptop sleeve has room for a power cord and over-ear headphones along with a computer. The sleeve also has a zippered, top-loading pocket with two smaller pockets and a long key leash that’s easy to spot, thanks to its bright-red color, and there’s a small external pocket on the front of the bag that’s big enough for a charger and a pair of sunglasses. For me, storage space that’s accessible from the top is a must—after takeoff, I like to sit with my pack upright behind my legs instead of down by my feet, and I’m always reaching in for something, whether it's eye drops, lip balm, hand sanitizer, or breath mints. I was initially concerned that the Blink wouldn’t have enough places to stash my stuff, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well it all fit. The backpack straps aren’t as thickly padded as some I tested, but they’re still nice and cushy; there’s also a side pocket for a water bottle (another personal must-have), a removable sternum strap, and a top handle for extra portability. I’ll be using this one on many weekend excursions to come.

Blink Backpack, $119; timbuk2.com.

Courtesy TImbuk2

For Far-Flung Adventures

If you’re looking for something that can transition from the jetway to the hiking trail, Osprey’s Fairview and Farpoint 40 packs (designed for women and men, respectively) are an ideal option. I gave the Fairview a spin, and what with the hard wire frame, the external gear clips, the deep laptop sleeve and adjoining pockets, some finicky zippers, and lots of straps (a set each for internal and external compression, not to mention backpack straps that are adjustable from top and bottom, a removable shoulder strap, and adjustable chest and hip straps), I found this one worked best in situations where I didn’t need to get into it much once it was packed. Treat it more like a stand-in for a rolling suitcase than that one personal item—it's not optimal for in-transit use, and at 40 liters, it probably won’t fit under the seat in front of you anyway. But it does have plenty of great features: There’s a cover for the backpack straps and hip belt so you can tuck them away to prevent tangles when you have to gate-check or get it into the overhead bin, and it has two mesh pockets for water bottles as well as an external slash pocket that’s spacious enough for all those things you need to keep at your fingertips. And at just over three pounds, with rugged nylon ripstop fabric, a mesh-covered foam back panel, and that structured frame, which helps shift the load from your shoulders to your hips, it makes a trusty sidekick for outdoor activities of all kinds.

Fairview 40 and Farpoint 40, $160 each; osprey.com.

Courtesy Osprey

Hitting the Mother Lode

Budget Travel content distribution manager Amanda McCadams has only been using this bag for a short time, but between its clever design details and roomy capacity, it’s already become her go-to weekender. Part of the eBags house line, the TLS Mother Lode Weekend Convertible Junior has a plethora of pockets, from a fold-out water-bottle pouch to a zippered top pocket that accommodates a Ziploc full of liquids to an organizer in the front compartment with a key leash and slots for pens, phone, and more. It also offers an array of options for customization, like an adjustable laptop sleeve, a fold-down shelf that divides the main packing section into compartments, backpack straps that tuck in for stowing or for use as a duffel, and removable sternum, waist, and shoulder straps. “The hide-away backpack straps are quick and easy to get out, and they’re actually comfortable, not thin little things that dig into your shoulders,” Amanda says. “When I'm not using it as a backpack, I appreciate the side and top handles—they make putting it in the overhead bin much easier.” Primarily, though, she’s impressed with the organizational details. “I like the many, many compartments around the outside of the bag,” she says. “There's a pocket that's easy to access that can hold my travel documents, and another one that’s great at catching all of my digital devices. Plus, when I’m on crowded public transportation, I always worry that a sneaky thief could unzip the outside pockets and reach a hand in to steal what's on top, and this pack has flat, zippered pockets inside of larger zippered pockets that add another layer of protection against being totally robbed.” One word of caution: The main compartment is large enough for a weekend trip in spring, summer, and fall, but bulky cold-weather clothes might be a tight fit, so you might consider wearing your layers if you’re packing this bag for a midwinter getaway.

TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior, $120; ebags.com.

Courtest eBags

How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)

If you’re often on the go for work or find yourself regularly carrying dressy clothes for formal events, you can forget about the garment bag. This 25-liter backpack comes courtesy of Genius Pack, a company known for its functional engineering and travel-friendly details, and it incorporates a folding suiter that will transport your finery sans wrinkles, with room to spare. I tried it out for a spring wedding and found that it worked best when I packed the majority of my clothes in the suiter (which folds out from the back, where you’d normally find a laptop pocket) and reserved the rest of the space for my Dopp kit and in-flight necessities. The main compartment has designated sleeves for a laptop and a tablet, as well as a laundry compression system, two mesh pockets, and an internal water-bottle holder, but you can only load up the compartment to a certain point; if it's too full, your computer gets buried, and it’s hard to remove it for airport security or in-flight use without unpacking everything else. That misstep aside, the professional traveler will find this pack to be a handy companion, weighing in at just 2.2 pounds (one of the lightest of the bunch), with matte-black water-resistant fabric that wouldn’t look out of place in an office, a mesh-lined foam back panel that should keep you from sweating through your dress shirt, a nicely padded top handle for ease of carry, and built-in spaces for a mini-umbrella and a thin charger (both available to buy at an additional cost). That's what we call good business sense.

Travel Backpack with Integrated Suiter, from $168; geniuspack.com.

Courtesy Genius Pack

Form, Function, and Fair-mindedness 

Not only does Cotopaxi put its money where its mouth is on the social-impact front, earmarking 2% of its revenue for the fight against global poverty, providing grants to nonprofits, and committing to an ethical, sustainable supply chain, the do-good company also equips adventurers with durable, high-quality gear. I trekked around town with the brand's Nazca 24L Travel Pack and found the slim bag to be the perfect size for an overnight or weekend trip. It unzips to lie flat, with two large mesh compartments on either side (one with an additional mesh pocket that’s accessible from the top of the pack), an external laptop sleeve, and a small outer pocket containing a Velcro-fastened pouch and a key clip. The laptop is perfectly cushioned, falling against your back so comfortably that you don't even know it's there, and the sleeve has enough room for reading material and a power cord too; the outside pocket is a good size to hold a wallet, a phone, a charger, and a snack, plus a few other items. With hip and shoulder straps that tuck away into the well-padded back panel when not in use and a long, removable strap that allows it to convert to a duffel, the bag can be customized to fit your needs, while handles on the top and side make it extra-easy to grab out of the overhead bin or the trunk of a car. It doesn’t have a dedicated space for a water bottle, but you can slip one into the main compartment between the two mesh panels, and it'll still be accessible. The bag’s cotton-polyester shell is moisture-resistant, with a durable water repellent coating, but a word to the wise: The New Raven colorway is a pet-hair magnet, so if you have furry friends, go with the classic version in Driftwood or Beech Canopy.

Nazca 24L Travel Pack, $140; cotopaxi.com.

Courtesy Cotopaxi

We found carry-on-size backpacks to suit every need, from business travel to outdoor adventure. You'll never have to check a bag again.

With baggage fees skyrocketing and cabin space at a premium, frequent fliers are facing a lose-lose situation: Check your suitcase and deal with the additional costs, or cross your fingers and hope there's still room in the overhead bin by the time your boarding group is called, risking a mandatory gate-check—and the possibility of lost luggage and complications with flight delays—in the process. As airlines roll out basic-economy seating that doesn't even offer access to overhead storage, smart travelers are looking to lighten their load and keep their belongings close at hand—and we rounded up a selection of carry-on-compliant backpacks to help them do just that. Each of our picks functions as a suitcase, with smart organizational details and a clamshell-style opening for easy packing, and the best part? They all ring in under $200. 

More From Budget Travel

Related Content