How to Choose a Travel Backpack in 2021

opens like a suitcase


If you’re hopping from city to city on a trip, rolling luggage is less than ideal. Have you ever dragged a heavy suitcase through cobblestone streets? We have. And once you struggle with carry on travel, you’ll understand why a non-rolling, hands-free bag makes more sense.

Hiking backpacks aren’t much better. You pack the top-loading, enormous caverns like a garbage bag, not a suitcase. They aren’t carry on sized. They aren’t organized. And they’re annoying to pack and unpack—nothing like dumping out your entire bag just to find one wrinkled T-shirt.

City travelers shouldn’t have to compromise. You deserve the best of both worlds: a suitcase’s carry on size and easy packing mixed with the ergonomics and portability of a backpack.

That’s where Tortuga travel backpacks excel.

What to Consider When Comparing Travel Backpacks

If you’re ready to upgrade your luggage you should consider:

  1. size
  2. organization
  3. ergonomics & fit
  4. materials
  5. the bells and whistles



    Carry on Size

    The right size for a travel backpack is carry on size.

    If you have to check your backpack because it’s too large to carry on, you’re facing high baggage fees, delays at baggage claim, and lost or damaged luggage. 

    The maximum carry on size for most US airlines is the following dimensions: 22 x 14 x 9”, which translates to about 45L. If your bag is larger than that, even by a little, it technically doesn’t qualify as a carry on. The airline could make you check it for a fee. 

    No thanks. 

    European and budget airlines have even stricter restrictions for carry on baggage AND are more strict with enforcing those restrictions. If you plan to fly budget or European airlines, it’s best to look for a medium-sized carry on—about 30-35L.

    Consider your packing style, too. Are you a “pack just enough” person or a “pack extra just in case” person? If you’re the latter, a 45L carry on might be the best carry on for you. That way, you’ll have ample space for extra outfits or another pair of shoes.

    It might seem daunting to pack for a long trip in just a carry on backpack, but don’t fret: with a little preparation, it’s totally doable. 




    Packs Like a Suitcase

    Packing and unpacking doesn't have to be a nightmare.

    Packs like a suitcase

    If a backpack is frustrating to pack and unpack, it’s not the right bag for you. For travel, you want something that opens from the front, like a suitcase. This gives you ease of access while on the go. 

    If you buy a top-loading travel backpack, your clothes will be wrinkled and you'll have to dump out your entire bag to find anything. Make sure you pick a bag that packs like a suitcase, but carries like a backpack.





    Keep everything neat and tidy.


    Your travel backpack should have enough compartments to separate items so you can find things easily, but not so many compartments that you can’t remember where you packed your phone charger when you’re hovering at 10%. 

    Look for a main compartment with enough room to fit what you need. Again, carry on-sized is the name of the game. 

    Then look for a main compartment design with lots of zippered pockets. This includes a laptop sleeve, but don’t forget a pocket for all your other essentials. Small electronics? Toiletries? Socks? Trust us, packing is a million times easier when you have a pocket for everything.

    You should also look for zippered pockets specifically. That sleek design might look nice inside the compartment, but nothing’s worse than opening your luggage to find travel turned your bag into hurricane wreckage. Look for zippers that are sturdy throughout. 

    Think about ergonomics in regards to layout, too. The heaviest items you carry, like your laptop, should be close to your back to disrupt your center of gravity as little as possible. Pack lighter items closer to the outside of the bag.




    Comfort and Ergonomics

    Save your shoulders.

    Comfort and ergonomics

    Don’t dump your bag’s weight on your shoulders. A comfortable carry depends on three factors:

    1. the right fit
    2. a weight-distributing suspension system
    3. and appropriate padding

      The Right Fit

      The shoulder straps’ curvature should work for your frame. Some straps are unisex and work well on broad and narrow shoulders, and others have straps designed for different bodies.

      The hip belt should be padded to distribute a backpack’s weight onto your stronger leg muscles. Picture a hiking backpack hip belt and you have the right idea. A non-padded strap brings a bag closer to your body, but it doesn’t distribute any weight and the ergonomic benefits are minimal.

      The hip belt should be snug enough to distribute the load. Make sure the hip belt extends and tightens enough for your frame. 

      Suspension System

      The suspension system should adjust to fit your torso length. Here’s how to measure your torso and compare it against fit guides on product pages.


      Though padding can’t make up for an improper fit, a properly cushioned bag is crucial for comfort.

      Put it this way: your travel bags might be carry-on-sized, but you shouldn’t feel them digging into your shoulders. 

      On larger bags that will be heavier when fully packed, look for thicker padding in the shoulders to avoid straps that dig in. Make sure the back panel is cushioned with something that breathes, like wicking foam or air mesh.

      You need a little padding on the hip belt, too, or else it won’t distribute weight.




      Extra Features

      These can add a little something extra, but don't prioritize them over size, organization, or comfort.

      extra features

      Once you’ve established if a backpack is the right size, organized to suit your needs, and fits correctly, move onto comparing additional features like weather resistance, lockable zippers like YKK zippers, and stowable straps.

      It’s easy to get distracted and excited about something like waterproof sailcloth or built-in jet packs (okay, we’re making that one up), but those features won’t be exciting anymore if your bag is uncomfortable or disorganized.

      Over To You: Time to Compare Your Options

      Compare Travel Backpacks

      Ready to hit the road? Don’t let luggage bags slow you down. Tortuga’s collection of Setout and Outlander travel backpacks hit the road with the style and grace of a seasoned nomad. Because travel should be a joy, not a chore. 

      If you have any questions or need help packing, don’t hesitate to contact us.