To some of you this may seem crazy, but I’ve spent around 10X the amount of time researching and choosing a perfect travel bag than the time I spent looking for a new car.
An investment in a versatile backpack designed for travel is an important one. It goes everywhere with you. You're going to unpack and repack your bag wherever you travel and it will follow you on your life's most important journeys. You need to love how it’s organized, how it performs, and how it looks.
There are a TON of options out there, and it seems like more backpacks are coming out every day. We put together this guide to help make your process of searching for the perfect bag a little easier and to arm you with what to look for and what to avoid.
Disclaimer: We recommend a couple specific bags in this post. They are our favorites. They didn’t pay us to mention them. We don’t get any money from any affiliate links or anything like that. These are genuinely our favorite choices from our experience. But like anything - it’s subjective. Shop around and look for what’s right for you…Or take our word for it if you trust us. We’ve done a lot of thinking on the topic!
So let’s dive in.
The first place to start is to figure out the size of the bag that works best for you.
So, what size is right?
Picking a size really depends on your packing habits, and travel plans. If you apply the principles of Unbound Merino to minimize your packing, you can stick to a smaller travel backpack that you’ll still be able to carry-on or even stow under the seat on an airplane. Look for something that is no more than 40L on the larger end and around 26L if you want something a little more compact and versatile but still functional for long haul travel. The bag that’s right for you will fit everything you need, have extra room left over just in case, and will feel comfortable on your body.
Panel loading main compartment: This feature means the bag opens up just like a suitcase. This will have a huge impact on accessing your things and keeping your bag consistently organized while on the move.
Multiple Compartments: The ideal bag will have more than just one large compartment. This will help you access your belongings quicker and keep things organized and separated.
Streamlined and Simple Design: Look for something that isn’t two wide and doesn’t have too many straps or buckles hanging off it. If a feature of the bag seems gimmicky, it probably is and you won’t likely benefit from it. In our experience any feature of a bag that isn’t a seemingly useful and easily accessible pocket or compartment is just a waste of space.
Accessibility: Having easy access to your things while on the move is critical. Avoid a bag that will require you to take it off and open the entire thing up just to access your most frequently used items. Look for extra compartments that you can access easily while still wearing the bag. The key is to know what you need access to regularly and seeing if the exterior compartments will accommodate those needs. For example, you may want quick access to your cellphone charger, notepad/pen and a water bottle. Does your bag have the right compartments for those things that you can access while still wearing it?
Durability: Most quality bags will display their “D” Rating. The D stands for denier. Denier is a unit measures the fiber thickness of individual threads in textile manufacturing. A material with a high denier count tends to be thick, sturdy, and durable. Fabrics with a low denier count tend to be sheer, soft, and silky. However, a higher denier rating does not always mean a more durable. For example, 600D Nylon is more durable than 900D Polyester. As a rule of thumb, don't settle for anything less than 400D and always double check if the D rating on the specific fabric used in your backpack of choice is a high one. Also, inspect the bag’s stitching, and zippers. Both should feel rugged and tough. If a brand offers a full guarantee of the bag, you’ll know you’re getting a quality product.
Breathable Back Panel: This is the part of the bag that will be in contact with your back whenever you’re on the move. Although thick foam padding might seem ideal, this will likely make you hot and sweaty. Look for a back panel that allows airflow and doesn’t press up entirely flat against your back.
Quick Access Pocket: This is where you can keep your most frequently needed items when traveling. Itineraries, phone, sunglasses, boarding passes. You’ll want this at the ready and separate from all of your other stuff.
Water Resistance: For most travel needs, your backpack will not need to be totally waterproof. However, some water resistance is ideal just in case you’re caught in the rain.
Lockable Zippers: Each compartment has two zippers that can be locked together.
Attachment Points: This will let you use carabiners to attach extra load to your bag. You won’t always need them, but it makes the bag a lot more versatile and carabiners come in handy in odd places. I didn’t know I would ever need carabiners until I had them and Macgyver'd all sorts of handy solutions.
Laptop Protection: This is a standard feature on most travel bags these days, but look for a compartment that will keep your computer secure, separated from your stuff and easily accessible. If you’re flying, it should be external or you’ll have to open your bag to pull it out for security which is a pain.
A Good Warranty: A really long warranty is always a good indicator of quality and gear that will stand up to punishment.
Top Loading Bags: When shopping for a bag, specifically at camping supply stores, you’ll come across a lot of tall hiking backpacks that load from a big opening at the top. These are way more popular than a panel-loader. Avoid them. These make accessing your things very difficult – you’ll literally need to unpack the entire thing just get a pair of pants from the bottom. By the end of your trip, your bag will be an unorganized disaster. Skip the headache and always go with a panel loader.
Too Many Bells and Whistles: We said this already but it deserves to be emphasized. You do not need a travel bag that is overloaded with features and pointless compartments. At the end of the day, these bags are trying to predict a variety of needs and situations. In our opinion, the features will get very complicated to manage and are not very adaptable. Your bag doesn’t need a huge learning curve. It needs to fit your things in a nice way.
Flashy Logos: Opt for a bag that is understated to avoid drawing attention to yourself. There’s no reason to advertise that you have something of value on you at all times. Unless you’re like Kanye - then go for the Louis Vuitton.
Florescent Colors: Same goes for colors. Not only will a brightly colored bag attract more unwanted attention – it will be more prone to scuffs and will not age gracefully.
Backpacks That Are Too Wide: Look for a bag that is no wider than your body. This will make sure you’re not bumping into things when on the move in tight quarters like a bus in New Delhi or a crowded night market.
After testing many bags while living abroad, here are two that we feel exemplify the features and benefits that we’ve outlined.
GoRuck GR2 and GR1
After traveling with a number of bags, the GR2 is the ultimate backpack for long term travel.
It’s streamlined, minimal design will have you looking understated while on the move, and it pretty much keeps everything you need well organized and easily accessible at all times. The quality of construction is second to none, and you can tell when wearing it that this thing will stand up to just about anything. In fact, they back the thing with a lifetime guarantee. If it’s good enough for the US military, it’s tough enough for your excursion to sip margaritas and eat pad thai from a food truck.
Here’s what we love about the GORUCK GR1 and GR2
Perfect Main Panel Compartments: Both the GR1 and GR2 have great panel loading compartments. The larger GR2 has two of them. Having two main panel compartments rather than just one is a great way to keep your stuff organized. You can separate items and quickly access each instead have to sort through all of your stuff. Since both open flat, you can pack each efficiently and not have to dig to access something on the bottom.
Sleek Tapered Design: No joke, the GORUCK bags are an optical illusion. On the one hand, the bags are a beast! On the other, even when fully loaded, they still look like nice, sleek, normal looking backpacks. It doesn’t look like you’re hauling a suitcase on your back like some of the other travel packs of similar size on the market. This is all thanks to the ingenious tapered design that still has the same form as a traditional backpack.
Comfy Padded Shoulder Straps: Something about the way this bag sits on your body just feels right. The shoulder straps are well padded and contour perfectly against your shoulders and chest. This makes even the heaviest packign jobs comfortable to haul from one adventure to the next.
Zippers: The GR2 and GR1 use heavy duty YKK zippers. The best in the industry. Plus, the parachute pulls make opening them a breeze.
Vented Back: The padded back has contoured vents to keep your back cool and dry. It's not the best vented back out there, but does the job and has never stood out as uncomfortable, even on long treks.
Molle Attachment Points: In true military fashion, this bag is loaded with additional attachment points so you can customize to your needs.
Interchangeable Patches: The velcro patch lets you customize the look of your bag so you can pretend you’re Canadian.
Important Note: To some the downside of this bag is the weight. It’s not light. It’s built to last, and as a result, it’s robust. But to GORUCK, this is considered a feature. Rucking literally means to pack a bag with lots of weight and trek long distances with it. GORUCK even sells weight plates to make the bag heavier. It makes you stronger and healthier to carry an extra load. Even without the metal plates, the bag is still a bit heavy, so if you want something super light, this isn’t the top choice. If you don’t mind hauling the extra weight, this could be the best bag there is for you.
The Aer Travel Pack
The Aer Travel Pack is a great option for those who do a lot of work on the go. It’s stylish enough to have with you in a conference or boardroom setting, while being versatile enough to take care of all your travel needs. Aside from being nice looking, it’s incredibly robust and super functional. All the pockets are easy to access and organizing everything from notebooks, cords and cables to your clothing and shoes is really well laid out.
Here’s what we love about the AER Travel Pack
The Front Compartment: If you work from your laptop while on the go, this bag was built for you. Just flip the front compartment open and anything you could ever need on a work desk has a home that clearly visible and accessible. All bags will have room for notebooks, pens, cords, etc - but very few are laid out as elegantly as the Aer bag. Without having to dig into your main compartment, your whole remote office is just a zipper away.
Ventilated Shoe Compartment: If you need to bring an extra pair of shoes other than the ones on your feet, you should always bag them or separate them from the rest of your things. This bag has a built in shoe compartment which is great whether you’re bringing shoes or not. If you have to pack shoes, the benefit is obvious. If you don’t need to, the compartment is a great way to tuck away dirty laundry.
Front Access Pockets: This bag utilizes the space on the entire front surface better than any other bag we have seen. Quick access to any pocket is always great to have, and having 3 front facing pockets is super convenient. When travelling this makes life easier because most of the things you would need for travel days can all be placed and organized in one of the 3 pockets.
Expand / Compress - The compression straps on this bag allow you to reduce the size from a carry-on size to a more appropriate, smaller size for regular day use.
The ability to carry all your stuff on your back means that you can stay hands free whenever you’re on the go.
No matter what you decide, just remember that traveling should feel freeing. The best option will integrate easily into your life abroad and let you always feel like you’re able to move comfortably fast and free.
Got a favorite bag? Let us know in the comments!