If you’re a frequent traveler, you know the gear you take with you can make or break your trip. And nothing is worse than having your travel backpack give up the ghost in the middle of a trip.
That happened to me this month when the strap of my beloved Swiss gear multimedia travel backpack broke as I landed at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). I’ve had this backpack for 14 years and it’s like my travel security blanket.
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However, backpack construction has changed by leaps and bounds, and there are so many great brands out there since I bought my Swiss Gear — so how do I choose what to buy, especially since my needs are very specific?
I need a backpack that has separate compartments for my MacBook Pro (and bonus if there’s a strap to keep it in place) and my iPad. I really want a luggage sleeve, since my old backpack didn’t have one. I’d love to have a pocket for my Bose QC II noise-canceling headphones, along with a secret pocket to hold my wallet, passport and a copy of my COVID-19 vaccine card.
I need space for my small medicine/toiletries bag, my cords and plugs, my personal items (tissue, lip balm, hand lotion, hand sanitizer and Evian face spray. I also need places for my portable essential oil diffuser, my gourmet teas and Splenda, a TSA-friendly can of Lysol, a first aid kit, sewing kit, my business cards, ink pens and a notebook, a corkscrew and extra earbuds. I need side pockets to hold my travel surge protector, sunglasses and water bottle. I need a leash to hold my keys — and the bag must fit under the aisle seat of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 (the aisle seat is narrower than the middle and window seats).
I know this is a lot. But I’m a former Girl Scout, so all these decades later, I still live by the motto, “Be prepared.” While I’ve had friends and family mock me for all the stuff I carry, they always come to me when they need these and other things.
To get help making my decision, I tapped the TPG Lounge and TPG Women Facebook groups to help me choose my new backpack. I knew both groups would come through for me, offering more than 150 suggestions across all price points. I (painfully) whittled down the list to 11 travel backpacks, then three and finally made my pick.
But before you press that “confirm purchase” button, make sure you check out TPG’s guides to airline and shopping portals, as well as the best credit cards for online shopping. That way, the gear you’re buying for your next trip can also help you actually get there, too.
The best travel backpacks
- Hap Tim Laptop Backpack
- Mother Lode Jr Travel Backpack
- Everki Atlas Travel-Friendly Laptop Backpack
- Dagne Dover Dakota Backpack
- Briggs & Riley Medium Cargo Backpack
- REI Pacsafe Venturesafe 25L GII Anti-Theft Travel Pack
- Tom Bihn SYNIK 30
- Timbuk2 Custom Prospect Laptop Backpack
- Swissgear 6677 ScanSmart Laptop Backpack
- Ogio Alpha 25L Backpack
- Tumi Alpha Bravo Nellis Backpack
Hap Tim Laptop Backpack
Why this backpack: Shoshana Suzanne Schiller said this was “inexpensive but sturdy, with good pockets and plenty of room. I was slinging it over my shoulder daily before COVID-19, and about twice a week for the past year, plus travel, and it still looks as good as new.” I was skeptical that I could get a really good backpack at the bargain price of $36.99. It has a section that wraps a laptop and a water-resistant exterior. But what really excited me was the amazing number of pockets and sections to hold all my stuff. I also appreciate the quick-access exterior pockets and the large opening so I can see what’s inside. Although I use wireless headphones and earbuds, there is a cable pass-through that I can use to charge my iPhone. I’m old, so I like that there are shock-absorbing straps and back padding, along with a top handle. It also comes in five colors, but I prefer dark gray or black to hide scuffs and stains.
Sizing: 16.53 x 9.44 x 11.81 inches, 1.80 pounds
To buy: The bag is available at Amazon.com.
Mother Lode Jr Travel Backpack
Why this backpack: Michaela NobleI bought this to replace her 20+-year-old backpack for weekend trips and says it’s been great so far. I see what she means. Need a padded laptop sleeve? Check. Need to grab something from an accessible front pocket? Check. Want to stuff as much as possible with compression straps? Check. It also has the following:
- Interior zip-around mesh panel pocket
- Easy access front zip compartment with several interior pockets and key leash
- Two exterior quick-grab zip pockets
- Side zip water bottle pocket
- Zip expansion for an extra 1.5 inches
- Four exterior compression straps
- Stowable backpack straps
- Top, bottom and side carry handles
- Breathable back panel
It meets most airline carry-on requirements and comes in six colors, including a gorgeous eggplant. The bag is usually $109.99 but was on sale for $79.99 at press time.
Sizing: 19.5 × 14 × 9 inches, 3 pounds
To buy: The Motherlode Jr is available at eBags.
Everki Atlas Travel-Friendly Laptop Backpack
Why this backpack: “I’ve schlepped this around the world a few times as well as carrying it daily. It still looks new and holds a lot,” said TPG reader Keeley Moore. I get my dedicated padded pockets for my Mac and iPad. My back is saved by the backpack’s 5-point balance strap system with two soft straps adjustable at the shoulders, padded lumbar support with mesh padding and chest straps for extra security. There’s also a quick-access top pocket for a boarding pass or phone, dedicated spaces for business cards, headphones and accessories, a quick-access magazine slot at the front of the backpack and an interior clip to hold keys.
There’s a trolley handle pass-through on the back of the Atlas that slides onto a luggage handle and a strap clip to keep them from dangling. The interior is bright orange, making it easier to see everything. The backpack costs $169.99
Sizing: 18.9 x 13.4 x 9.1 inches, 4 pounds
To buy: Buy the backpack on Amazon, where you’ll pay only $142.99 for the 17-inch version.
Related: Is expensive luggage worth it?
Dagne Dover Dakota Backpack
Why this backpack: Grace Chu Jens loves this backpack because the interior storage pockets are useful and it doesn’t scream “I’m a tourist!” It’s also a TPG editor and reader favorite, and it’s no wonder why: It’s stylish yet practical, and easily transitions from the gym, to the office and to the airport without breaking a sweat. The neoprene bag boasts adjustable shoulder straps, interior mesh pockets and even an exterior shoe bag, although the latter is only available for medium- and large-sized backpacks. One of our favorite features, though, is the luggage trolley sleeve that slides seamlessly over our carry-on handles. It comes in five colors. We love the classic onyx (black), dune (a dusty rose) and heather gray.
Sizing: The Dakota Backpack comes in small, medium and large. The small measures 9.5 x 5 x 13 inches; the medium measures 11.5 x 5 x 17 inches; and the large measures 13.25 x 5.25 x 17.5 inches.
Briggs & Riley Medium Cargo Backpack
Why this backpack: Justin Bray has several pieces of Briggs & Riley gear, including this backpack. “Two years ago a strap on my messenger bag broke (the bag was 10 years old and had been heavily used). They have a lifetime warranty and the process to get a replacement couldn’t have been easier,” he said. The bag costs $395, and that lifetime replacement is very tempting. The backpack has an interior organizer, main and laptop compartments, a durable fabric lining, an RFID blocking pocket with two hidden credit card pockets that hold a wallet and passport, and it has three elastic slip pockets with leather tabs to organize smaller items such as cords and USB drives and two more slip pockets to store other items.
There’s a top cargo pocket on the front panel to hold travel accessories, two elastic pen loops, a large main compartment, a full-length slip pocket in the main compartment for storing folders or files, two elastic pockets in the main compartment for storing cables and chargers, a laptop compartment with a padded sleeve, plus a padded tablet pocket in the laptop compartment. The exterior is 1600D ballistic nylon that resists wear, moisture, dirt and abrasion, a leather nameplate on the front panel that can be monogrammed, a deep zip pocket on the front panel for easy access to items such as sunglasses or a smartphone, top-grain leather carry handles and a gusseted side u-zip pocket with an elastic band for a water bottle. The backpack has adjustable padded straps, an aerated mesh back padding and a slip-through back panel that allows the backpack to slide over a luggage handle and bottom corner guards to protect the backpack from wear and tear. It comes in black and dark grey.
Sizing: 18 x 13.5 x 8 inches, 2.6 pounds
To buy: Get this backpack at the Briggs & Riley website. If $395 is too rich for your blood, you can buy it with four interest-free payments at Klarna.
REI Pacsafe Venturesafe 25L GII Anti-Theft Travel Pack
Why this backpack: Wendy Marshall bought this before a solo London trip last fall. “I don’t travel with my laptop, but it was great with my iPad Pro,” she said. “I bought a different color for my teen son for an upcoming trip to Europe.” This travel pack is great for hikes, adventures abroad and as a handy carry-on.
The backpack comes with an RFID-blocking pocket that helps protect a passport and credit cards, eXomesh® slash guards that protect valuables against cut-and-run theft, a zip clip to lock zippers down and protect against bag tampering, two lockable zipper compartments (locks not included), a padded laptop sleeve, two zippered interior pockets, two side pockets for water bottles or an umbrella, an internal attachment point for wallets and keys and a pen loop.
There are padded and adjustable shoulder straps, a height-adjustable sternum strap, honeycomb fabric back support and an adjustable, removable hip belt for stability. It was on sale for $83.73 (normally $119.95) at press time and comes in navy and black.
Sizing: 19.7 x 11.4 x 7.9 inches, 1 pound and 9 ounces
To buy: The Venturesafe is available on the REI website.
Tom Bihn Synik 30
Why this backpack: Ruben Bomar said if you want just a backpack, this is the bag.
The $300 Synik 30 has removable internal tie-down straps, a two-point access laptop compartment, a pocket that’s great for an iPad, comfortable Edgeless EV50 half-inch shoulder straps, a fully integrated yet removable internal frame with aluminum half-stay, a rolling luggage handle pass-through and grab handle, a padded bottom and 11 O-rings that hold everything from keys to hand sanitizer. The water bottle pocket is on the inside for better balance. The backpack comes in three exterior fabrics: 400d Halcyon (light), 525d High Tenacity Ballistic Nylon or 420d HT Nylon Classic Parapack. I’d choose the ballistic, because it’s soft and supple yet tough as nails and doesn’t collect pet hair or hurt your clothing.
Sizing: 13.4 x 20.0 x 8.0 x 10.8 inches, 3 pounds and 0.7 ounces
Timbuk2 Custom Prospect Laptop Backpack
Why this backpack: Nicole Lerner loves her Timbuk2 backpack. It’s nice that you can have them custom made if you want fun colors. “Mine has two padded sleeves with plenty of room for anything else I want, but also slim enough to not resemble a pack for a trip on the Pacif Crest Trail,” she said.This model was really appealing because for $134, you can customize the backpack with two exterior colors (black and gunmetal), 12 accent colors (for the top, flap, body, boot, side and binding, along three types of rain resistance.
It comes with a roll top with buckles and a velcro flap closure for quick access. A rear zipper gives you access to the main pocket without opening the flap. There’s an internal organizer for pens, phones and other small stuff, a large main compartment that fits books, lunch and a light jacket. For $5, you can add a side pocket for a water bottle.
Sizing: 18.5 x 11.8 x 5.3 inches, 2.3 pounds
To buy: Customize your Prospect backpack on the Timbuk2 website.
Swissgear 6677 ScanSmart Laptop Backpack
Why this backpack: I would have been remiss if I didn’t include something from Swiss Gear, and several TPG readers suggested different styles. My original backpack is no longer made, but this Scansmart at $89 was the closest I could find.
This four compartment backpack has a dedicated laptop computer compartment. The large-capacity main compartment has a built-in tablet pocket, a full-featured organizer compartment and a quick-access zippered front compartment for more frequently needed items.
There’s also an internal cord and cable pocket, external water bottle pockets and a fleece-lined top pocket perfect for a pair of glasses or a mobile phone. Carry the backpack by its padded, wire-reinforced top handle, use the carabiner to attach gear, and use the adjustable side compression straps to fit more gear.
Comfort is key, and this backpack has a heavily-padded back panel with airflow ventilation technology; padded, contour-shaped shoulder straps with mesh fabric and built-in suspension and — yes!! — a pocket you can slide over a luggage handle. It has side water bottle pockets, a quick-access front zippered compartment for frequently needed items and a built-in headphone cord port.
Sizing: 18 x 12.5 x 8 inches, 3.05 pounds
To buy: The backpack is available on the Swiss Gear website.
Ogio Alpha 25L Backpack
Why this backpack: This $129.99 backpack that was very popular with TPG readers, and I understand why. I can hold all my gear, thanks to its 25-liter capacity. I get a dedicated 17” laptop pocket with a padded tablet sleeve, a back panel security pocket, two large-volume water bottle pockets, a front zippered pocket for valuables, an internal zippered small accessory pockets and an internal organization panel with a key clip.
The backpack has a 600D recycled polyester body and 1680D ballistic bottom, which gives it abrasion resistance and tear strength. There’s two rows of MOD webbing that’s compatible with an OGIO MOD case or pouch, adjustable shoulder straps with sternum strap, a padded comfort top handle and luggage pass-through, and reflective trim, webbing and zipper pulls. It comes in five colors and you can customize your backpack with your choice of 40 icons, three lines of personalized text or a monogram in five fonts and 12 colors, and your choice of 47 icons with a line of text or a player number.
Sizing: 9 x 13 x 20 inches, 2.4 pounds
To buy: Customize and buy the Alpha 25L on the Ogio website.
Why this backpack: Tumi was very popular with TPG readers, and this was one of several backpacks chosen. The interior features a 15-inch laptop compartment, an iPad pocket, three open pockets (one with a protective lining), two card and one zip pocket, a pen loop and a key leash. The exterior, made of ballistic nylon, has a zip entry to main compartment, a front U-zip and front straight zip pocket, two side zip pockets (one with a waterproof lining), a quick-access back pocket with a hidden magnetic snap, webbed top carry handles with leather accents and a luggage handle sleeve. The backpack, at $425, comes with a free monogram, and you can pay for a custom luggage tag, a handle wrap and zipper pull ties.
Sizing: 14 x 6.5 x 16 inches, 3 pounds
To buy: Get the Alpha on Tumi’s website.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I look for when shopping for backpacks?
No matter what type of traveler you are or where you’re headed, you’ll want to make sure your backpack, above all, is practical. This is an item you should get a lot of mileage out of, and it’s important that it fits and organizes all of your essentials. You’ll also want to make sure it’s an item you enjoy taking with you on trips. Ideally, it fits your style and preferences, and is versatile no matter the situation.
What are the benefits of traveling with a backpack?
Traveling with a backpack means you’ll always have your go-to items at your disposal. As it’s smaller than a suitcase or your typical rollaboard, you’ll always be able to take it on the plane with you, instead of checking it underneath. Once you get to your destination, it’s easy to take with you for a day of sightseeing, as well.
What is the backpack’s weight, dimensions and volume?
You saw my list of things I must carry in my backpack. Measure your current backpack and compare it to ones you’re considering buying to make sure it can carry all the things you need on your trips. If you can adjust the volume between shorter and longer trips, all the better.
Are the backpack straps and handles comfortable
You’re going to be hauling this thing through airports and destinations, so it better feel good. You want adjustable, padded straps, a padded back that is ventilated (no sweaty shirt clinging to your back) and an extra handle to carry it if necessary (what I had to do when my straps broke).
Does the backpack have enough pockets and compartments?
Think about all the items you pack in your backpack for your trips. I know I need laptop and iPad pockets. I want a secret compartment for my wallet and passport if I’m traveling outside the U.S. I need a key leash, water bottle holder, sunglasses, my surge protector USB/plug outlet and all my personal items.
Does the backpack fit properly?
I’m a 5-foot, 3-inch Rubenesque woman. I am too short to carry one of those monster-sized backpacks. I don’t want to feel like I’m tipping over every time I put it on.
How does it look?
I go with basic black because it hides stains and scuffs. But looking at my options, I wouldn’t mind adding a secondary splash of color to make it stand out.
Does it work as an airplane carry-on?
Because Southwest is my airline of choice and I must have an aisle seat, my backpack must fit under a narrower seat. I can’t hope that there will be overhead bin space for my backpack and my carry-on luggage.
It would have been very easy for me to just upgrade to the Swissgear 6677 ScanSmart Laptop Backpack. After all, I’m a fan of the brand, my old Swiss Multimedia was able to hold everything I put in it and it still felt familiar. But I felt it was time to mix it up and see what else was out there.
After wading through 150+ options suggested by TPG readers, I managed to whittle my picks down to the 10 backpacks, above. I watched videos of all 10 to get a better feel of how they would work for me while traveling. I liked all of them for different reasons, but I (painfully) whittled the list down to my top three:
- Everki Atlas Travel-Friendly Laptop Backpack
- Briggs & Riley Medium Cargo Backpack
- Ogio Alpha 25L Backpack
In the end, I went with the Everki Atlas. To me, it was an upgraded version of my now-deceased backpack. I like that there are separate pockets for my MacBook, iPad and Bose headphones, along with four separate compartments that are more than enough to hold all my gear.
The luggage handle strap is a welcome edition, since I need relief for my back. Speaking of which, I’m impressed that the backpack has a 5-point balance strap system, that includes chest straps for security.
When it comes time to buy a new travel backpack, check out TPG’s FAQs and do your research. You want to have a backpack that meets all your needs and will get you the biggest bang for your travel buck.
Additional reporting by Samantha Rosen
Featured photo by Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock