Backpacks are making a comeback with travelers — here are some of the best

Backpacks are back.

In a world of shrinking personal space, overstuffed overhead bins and exorbitant airline baggage fees, travelers are rediscovering the convenience and savings of wearing their luggage. For many, the “aha” moment came this summer as they watched a crowd of in-the-know travelers breeze through the terminal unencumbered by extendible handles and the bulk of things they didn’t really need.

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That crowd is growing. The latest Travel Goods Association market report, released in 2016, found that unit sales had surged 22 percent as American travelers bought a record-breaking 176.1 million backpacks.

But the modern backpack is a far cry from that rucksack you strapped on when you were a kid — the one with everything inelegantly wedged into a single compartment. The most innovative wearable luggage allows technology, clothing and food to coexist without making a mess. At times, it stretches the very definition of “backpack.”

They’re being discovered by travelers such as Robby Bearman, an operations manager for a transportation company in San Francisco. He was looking for something to use for short trips and for his daily commute, and a backpack made the most sense.

His choice: the Everyday Backpack by Peak Design ($259), a Kickstarter-funded pack with lots of clever features. The Everyday is filled with innovations, including its magnetic closing system, expandable external side pockets and a modern aesthetic that looks decidedly un-backpacky. (Okay, I just made up that word, but stay with me.) Bearman liked the easy access to the main compartment from both the top and sides, thanks to swiveling shoulder straps and dual weatherproof side zips.

“The main compartment can be reconfigured with Velcro dividers, which is a handy feature, for example, to keep a banana from being squished,” he says.

Some of the new backpacks are built around technology. Take the Razer Tactical Backpack ($119) which has ample room for Jean Paldan’s computer and enough space for a headset, a tablet computer, books, snacks and a change of clothes. “It holds everything,” says Paldan, a web designer from Oxford, England. “Plus, it’s ridiculously comfortable to wear.” The Razer is also cool — which is a bonus if you’re traveling with your family.

Another trendy backpack is the STM Banks ($129), a new release from its Streets Collection, which is tech-friendly and looks good, too. Among its features: a quilted interior lining that protects your gadgets, side pockets with stretch mesh for water bottles and an ergonomic, curved fit to reduce shoulder strain. It’s the backpack my 10-year-old daughter wanted, so if you’re interested in impressing your kids, this is the one to buy.

The newest packs also cater to your power needs. Mobile charging company TYLT offers two backpacks that let you charge your devices while you’re carrying them. The Energi Pro Power Backpack ($149) offers a full charge to your phone, tablet and laptop, thanks to a powerful battery in its front pouch. And the Energi Backpack ($99), billed as a “next-gen” briefcase, backpack and mobile charging station, can route the cables to any one of the five external pockets or two internal Pockets. The TYLT backpacks are a godsend for travelers who keep pushing their electronics to the limit, like my kids, but they also take up more space than the other backpacks I evaluated.

For sheer coolness, it’s hard to match Travelpro’s Platinum Magna 2 Business Backpack ($161). It’s sleek, black and constructed with the frequent flier in mind. A “checkpoint friendly” carry-on, it’s built to Transportation Security Administration specifications so that you can pass through security without removing your laptop. And it also comes with extra safety, including padded corduroy laptop and tablet sleeves and an RFID-blocking interior pocket to keep your ID and credit cards from prying eyes. If you’re thinking of taking your backpack on a business trip, this is the one for it.

There are other backpacks for the security-conscious, too. Take Travelon’s Anti-Theft Urban Backpack ($130), which has a variety of features that will protect your personal property. Those include an interior locking compartment for your tablet, a locking front zip compartment with RFID-blocking card and passport slots and slash-resistant body construction to protect you from slash-and-grab thieves. Best of all, the Travelon backpack wasn’t any heavier than the other luggage I tested.

But sometimes, the best backpack is no backpack. To call the Eagle Creek Converge Weekend Bag ($179) a backpack would be an understatement. It can be used as a traditional carry-on bag, thanks to side handles, but also has a pouch for a large laptop, a tablet computer, a phone and a storage area for your clothes. The best part of the Converge is the fabric, a PU-coated, water-resistant polyester. Spills are inevitable, but at least your gadgets won’t get soaked.

If you’re just interested in carrying a laptop, a charger and maybe a tablet computer, you’ll probably want to leave the clever compartments behind and go with a more minimalist solution, such as the Knomo James ($229), which does that one thing really well.

Oh, sure, you can strap it to your back if you want, but this bag is meant to be carried, as, indeed, most luggage is. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way.

13 thoughts on “Backpacks are making a comeback with travelers — here are some of the best

  1. My 511 hiking pack is one of the highly compartmented affairs described here, and is just the right size to serve as an underseat carryon. As we saw in this weekend’s story of the ejected pax on AA, the airlines are starting a new round of jerking our leashes another notch tighter: soon, it will be routine to be charged extra for stowing our carryons in the overhead bin. Stay ahead of the curve with a compartmented backpack.

    1. And I don’t like the compartmented packs because all that extra material and zippers add weight! I’m a big fan of ziplocks or silnylon packing cubes when I need a little more organization.
      Traveling under seat is quite possible, but it’s more about technique than the bag.

      1. Nobody is more aware of weight than someone starting a 200-mile trek over muddy mountains, as I did in Europe two years ago. Hikers make the calculation that the effort saved in not having to fish everything out of the bottom of a single cavernous space beats one ounce of weight in today’s zippers for a whole pack. And how much do all those little bags weigh in comparison?

        But that’s in hiking itself, where the weight is especially critical. On a flight, knowing exactly where everything is located is an even greater boon.

        1. I’m not sure how a personal sized item can be cavernous? A pack with 1-2 outside pockets and 1 smaller inside pocket keeps the needed things acrssable. The rest, such as clothes and shoes, are in storage until your destination.
          BTW, I’ve found ziplocks much lighter than excessive pockets. I’ll also point out that bags with lots of pockets weigh in at 4 lbs where a bag with less pockets weighs in at 2 lbs. That is a 1 kg difference on a 7 kg weight limit. It makes a difference!
          I too have spent much time backpacking, mountaineering, caving, etc. In the end the pocket issue is a matter of preference to the user. That said, all parameters need to be considered when selecting a pack.

  2. The best backpack is the one you already own, so you aren’t buying Yet Another One. If we Americans are collectively buying 176M of the things every year, we are doing a very bad job picking the appropriate one for our needs.

    I have two backpacks, an Eagle Creek laptop bag I paid $110 for 15 years ago and a Brenthaven day pack that is just under 25 years old; don’t remember how much that one cost, because I bought it in High School.

    I will say that buying a backpack with a built-in battery is foolish. The battery will wear out or your requirements will change long before the backpack wears out, unless it’s a really bad backpapck.

  3. I’ve had two Tumi backpacks, and while I like the design and the pockets, I am grossly dissatisfied with Tumi customer service and will not buy anything else from them. This is one company that absolutely does not understand the online experience. My currently active backpack is from Duluth Trading, and offers a good compromise between space and pockets and underseat fitting.

    1. I’bve never heard that criticism of Tumi before? Usually the problem passengers have with this brand is that Tumi gear is always the first to get stolen.

  4. The Eagle Creek product is the only convertible travel pack mentioned, when there are several out there.
    The rest of the packs mentioned are very heavy and filled with useless features that add even more weight. Ballistics material? Not needed, adds weight. Charging feature, heavy. Buy yourself a power pack that can be carried with you anywhere. RFID pack? Heavy. Buy yourself an RFID wallet and be done with it. Laptop compartment? Adds weight when you are not traveling with a laptop. Consider a laptop sleeve instead, as it is far more portable.
    All of these “features” add cost and weight to the bags. That’s become an issue as more and more airlines start weighing your carry on.
    Backpacks are excellent for travel, but the ones mentioned aren’t it.

  5. I noticed that all of the backpacks named were over $100…………….the FCHO 40L large capacity backpack is available for about $35 CDN on……………..very comfortable to wear as well………and while we are discussing backpacks……………………when you are on public transport……airplane, bus, train………please remove the backpack & carry it in front of you…….or the next person to hit me in the side, head……or anywhere, may get an earful from me for being…….inconsiderate

  6. I’ve got a SwissGear laptop bag that I’ve had for about 20 years and it goes everywhere with me. Holds my laptop along with associated cords, has a separate compartment to hold clothes, books, whatever and a couple of outside pockets. Would fit under the seat if not overloaded.

  7. I’ve been using a backpack for travel since I bought one in Brussels back in 1998, and love it! Mine’s not as fancy and bulky as the ones in the article, but I take it everywhere.

  8. I LOVE backpacks and have several. I still have my first “traveling backpack” – a purple little number from Shopko that cost all of $20. I thought the tiny velcro flap coming out of the top for my walkman headphones was a big deal back then!
    We have a AAA travel store near us in Minneapolis and it’s a great place to see all the cutting edge travel stuff. I have to admit, I prefer my backpack over purse or satchel for everyday.

  9. My current favorite daypack is the Osprey Skarab 24. It’s lightweight, roomy, well balanced, and has room for a hydration bag if you’re using it hiking. That compartment is great for storing papers when you’re not hiking. I’ve been through a number of urban packs with book compartments, computer compartments, etc. but ultimately this one is better built and easier to use than any of them.

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