How to Choose a Carry On Backpack

Most frequent travelers have had their luggage soiled, broken, or lost because they chose to check it, rather than carry it onto their flight. Putting your luggage into the airlines' hands is risky.

Using carry on luggage is a better, safer choice.

To ensure that you're never forced to check your bag, use a carry on backpack rather than a suitcase. If your flight is full, overhead bin space will fill up quickly, and passengers will be asked to gate check their bags.

Passengers with wheeled luggage are told to check their bags, while passengers carrying backpacks or duffle bags are often exempt.

What Size Carry On Backpack Should I Buy?

The most important factor when choosing a carry on travel backpack is its size. Each airline sets its own guidelines for the maximum allowable size for carry on luggage. Most airlines allow bags up to 45 linear inches (length + width + depth) or 22" long, 14" wide, and 9" deep.

To prevent problems at the airport, your bag should be no larger than these dimensions. Just because it's advertised as "carry on sized" doesn't mean it will actually qualify -- so make sure to read the dimensions on product pages before you buy. And before flying, check your airline's website for their carry on luggage size and weight guidelines. Budget airlines often have stricter requirements.

All Tortuga travel backpacks fit within the dimensions quoted above (22"x14"x9"), so you'll stay carry on compliant every time. 

The maximum weight for carry-on-sized luggage also differs by airline. When packing, use a luggage scale to weigh your bag so that you are within the carry on luggage weight guidelines set by your airline.

Will it Fit?

Humans come in all shapes and sizes. If you're particularly tall or particularly small, make sure your carry on backpack will adjust to fit your body. The right fit makes a huge difference in comfort.

The Outbreaker Backpack has a height-adjustable suspension to fit almost any torso. It's the first travel backpack to use this technology. 

Adjust the shoulder straps up and down to fit your torso. Make sure the chest strap and hip belts are snug. The hip belt should rest on your hips in order to transfer weight away from your shoulders. If it’s too high, or too low, adjust the shoulder straps accordingly.

The secret to a comfortable carry is the right fit. Don’t sacrifice ergonomics.

Pain-Free Packing Requires Organization

The main compartment should allow you to organize your stuff quickly and easily.

A carry on backpack should open like a book and pack like a suitcase. Backpacks that open from the top, rather than the front, require you to dump everything out to find that one thing lodged at the bottom.

Take stock of the internal pockets and packing cubes and use them to your advantage. If everything in your backpack has a dedicated place, then your stuff will stay organized and you’ll quickly find what you need.

Breeze Through Security

The biggest potential hassle with carry on backpacks is taking them through security. You should have a bag designed to help you move through the security line quickly and efficiently.

The TSA allows travelers to leave their laptops inside of their backpacks if the bag has a separate, lie-flat compartment. Unzip the laptop compartment of your travel backpack to save time in the line.

Most people carry a one quart, plastic toiletry bag which must be removed from your bag and placed in a small bin for inspection. To simplify this process, choose a bag with an easy-access pocket to stash your 3-1-1 compliant bag. Don't be that person holding up the line at TSA as you dig through a jumbled bag, searching for your toiletries. 

Good carry on luggage will also have pockets to hold your boarding pass, ID, and anything else emptied out of your pockets while going through airport security. These pockets should be easy to reach when you're wearing your bag, zip closed so that nothing spills out, and be solid so that no one can see what's inside.

We've placed these pockets on the hip belt of the Outbreaker and Setout backpacks so that they're within reach when you need to empty your pockets in the security line. Just place your wallet, cell phone, and any other personal belongings in the zippered hip belt pockets before placing your bag on the conveyer belt. When your bag comes out the other end, put it back on and your personal belongings will be back at your fingertips.

Which Carry On Backpack Should I Buy?

The right carry on backpack for you depends on your packing style.

The Outbreaker Backpack combines the ergonomics and portability of a backpack with the obsessive organization and easy packing of a suitcase. With the Outbreaker, you have a place and a compartment for everything. It's our most ergonomic, most organized, and most adjustable backpack. 

For Light Packers

The Homebase Backpack was designed with the minimalist traveler in mind. For light packers, a maximum-sized carry on is too much bag. Work bags are the right size, but aren’t built for travel.

The Homebase is an ultralight backpack that's ideal for minimalist packers and short trips. It's a mid-sized carry on, which is perfect if you're not a fan of packing more than the minimum.

The Best of Both Worlds

If you like internal organization, lots of packing space, and a hip belt but still prefer a lightweight bag, the Setout Backpack is your holy grail. It has most of the organization and packing space of Outbreaker in a lighter weight package. It's also our most affordable travel backpack. 

Compare travel backpacks here and find the right carry on for your trip.