A smart traveler knows the value of a good, reliable carry-on backpack, one that can handle anything and is ready for any destination. Whether the mission is a holiday excursion to grandmother’s house or a whirlwind European tour while on leave, the right backpack can transform a frazzled foray through the airport into a smooth campaign to any location around the world. The perfect backpack is comfortable and big enough to accommodate multiple days worth of clothes and gear yet is laid out with compartments, pockets, pouches, sleeves, and more to keep everything in its place for quick and easy access. On the flip side, a carry-on backpack must be small enough to fit in the overhead bin or even under the seat in front of you.
Know your objective, then grab the right gear for the mission.
Osprey Farpoint 40/Fairview 40
When it comes to outdoor adventures, Osprey sure knows how to nail it, but the Osprey Farpoint 40/Fairview 40 shows they can handle air travel just as well. The equally sleek men’s Farpoint 40 and women’s Fairview 40 are 40-liter packs built with high-quality materials and workmanship, making them some of the best backpacks on the market. The integrated aluminum frames make them perfect for backcountry adventures or long excursions on foot through urban terrain. Both styles come with semi-custom frame sizes designed specifically for each gender, while the rest of the pack boasts plenty of access points and organizational features both inside and out, including a padded laptop sleeve. The main compartment employs lockable U-zippers to increase security, while the generously padded shoulders straps and hip belt can be stowed inside the back panel, perfect for eliminating the frustration of tangled straps complicating storage in the overhead bin. [Buy]
The North Face Surge
Once again, outdoor enthusiasts need not have two packs for hiking and travel, thanks to The North Face Surge. This 31-liter backpack was designed with minimalists in mind, but as is to be expected, this pack is the definition of quality. It features two main compartments, including a dedicated fleece-lined compartment large enough for a 15-inch laptop, as well as a number of smaller internal and external compartments, including a dedicated tablet sleeve and other fleece-lined pockets for iPhone, Oakleys, and more. The pack employs The North Face’s FlexVent suspension system with plenty of airflow grooves on the back panel, and it includes padded shoulder straps with a sternum strap and a hip belt to improve comfort under heavier loads. With a durable, water-repellent finish and a variety of cool colors in the stable, you can do worse than this bag but will be hard pressed to do better. [Buy]
5.11 Tactical Rush24 37L
In the world of tactical gear and apparel, few names are better known than that of 5.11 Tactical, so it should be no surprise that the 5.11 Tactical Rush24 37L, the standard bearer of today’s tactical backpacks, would make this list. This 37-liter backpack includes virtually anything one might need from their carry-on travel pack. The main storage compartment is impressively large with plenty of space for apparel, boots, water, a 15-inch laptop, and more, and with a total of 20 compartments, there is extra room for food, eye pro, and whatever else you may need in the air. On the exterior, 5.11’s SlickStick allows the attachment of MOLLE accessories, and the zippers allow the pack to be opened completely for easy packing and access. With padded shoulder straps (and a sternum strap), YKK zippers, fleece-lined sunglasses pockets, and plenty of extra touches, you cannot go wrong with the Rush24. [Buy]
SwissGear 1900 ScanSmart
The SwissGear 1900 ScanSmart proves once again why anyone who knows anything about backpacks associates the white cross on the red square with quality. While slightly small for most one-bag travelers, this urban backpack was designed with airports in mind. Between the main compartment and the back panel is the dedicated ScanSmart electronics compartment with a padded section for up to 17-inch laptops and a dedicated tablet sleeve, both of which zip open and lay flat for TSA scans that do not require removing your electronics. The other main compartment also unzips for lay-flat, easy access and contains plenty of organizational capability with a file holder, phone sleeve (with headphone port), and a zip mesh accessories pocket. The smaller external storage pockets combine perfectly with the carry handle, padded shoulder straps, vented back panel, and Add-a-Bag trolley strap to make airport navigation easier than hitting the broad side of a barn with a hand grenade. [Buy]
Orca Tactical 40L Salish 40L
If you need a tactical carry-on without breaking the bank, take a good look at the Orca Tactical Salish 40L. This backpack boasts an impressive capacity of 40 liters yet includes two large compartments with two smaller ones accessible from its exterior. As expected, this pack is set up to handle a hydration system with a 2.5-liter bladder, 15-inch laptops, concealed carry equipment, and plenty of room for other items such as phones, keys, and eye pro. All stress points feature double stitching, and the pack itself consists of 600D polyester with a water-resistant, scratch-proof coating and tons of webbing for easy attachment of MOLLE pouches and or accouterments. This pack also incorporates plenty of comfort-oriented components into its design, like padded shoulder straps with a sternum strap, a sturdy hip belt, and a mesh back panel, and the stowable shoulder straps make sure this pack slips easily in any overhead bin. [Buy]
Hynes Eagle Travel 40L
While it may be last on this list, the Hynes Eagle Travel 40L may be the most travel-conscious pack of them all. Unlike other backpacks, this one unzips and folds open like an actual suitcase, providing amazing access to its spacious 40-liter main compartment, and the secondary compartment hosts most 15-inch laptops and the smallest of the three included packing cubes. Both the main compartment and the two smaller external compartments features lockable zippers for worry-free travel, and plenty of smaller organizational storage locations simplify and streamline airline travel. The shoulder straps with attached sternum strap stow inside the back panel for easy overhead or under seat in-flight storage, and the stowable hip belt further enhances comfort with heavy loads. This pack fits within the maximum carry-on size standards established by the IATA for international travel, guaranteeing that you never need to check a bag on any IATA-compliant aircraft. [Buy]
HighSpeedDaddy Diaper Bag Backpack
Family travel can be a bear, and sometimes, the only bag you carry onto the plane is the diaper bag. The HighSpeedDaddy Diaper Bag Backpack may not be ideal for laptops or spare mags, but it can handle just about anything dished out by anyone under the age of 10. This 25-liter pack features just the right compartments for diapers, Goldfish, and anything else a kiddo (or two) might need. The YKK zippers boast large paracord loops for easy opening and closing, and the included changing mat can accommodate newborns and toddlers alike. For organization, this bag includes a pocket for baby wipes, insulated drink pockets, and grab-and-go mesh sleeves. The padded shoulder straps (with sternum strap), hip belt, stroller straps, and waterproof 600D exterior keep this bag ready for anything. With this bag, no one will know what you really have slung over your shoulder. Not until duty calls, that is. [Buy]
Related: 6 of the best hiking backpacks money can buy
Types of carry-on backpacks
- Urban backpack: One of the two most common styles available, the urban backpack is a regular site on college campuses, at the office, and in airport terminals. Originally designed with students in mind, this style includes a main compartment with a laptop sleeve, a couple of smaller compartments, and a side pocket or two. If books, style, or a low profile are your thing, this may be your best option.
- Camping backpack: With more and more millennials and post-millennials traveling to new hiking and camping spots halfway across the country, backpack manufacturers are creating packs that are just at home on a plane as on the trail. Many of these backpacks include the frames one might expect from an outdoor pack, but they also include laptop sleeves and other air-friendly features that make them an incredibly versatile option.
- Tactical backpack: Think of a tactical backpack as a small, “civilianized” rucksack. Usually, these packs include a couple of main compartments with plenty of smaller external pouches and pockets and a slot for either a laptop or a hydration bladder (sometimes both). Some models may include a slot compartment for ground-based CCW use, and well-engineered designs will have zippers that run down to the base for easy packing and access to all your gear.
Key features of carry-on backpacks
- Capacity: The size capacity of a carry-on backpack may just be its single most important feature. Usually, size capacity is measured in liters, although occasionally, some manufacturers prefer to stick with old-school cubic inches instead. The average size for a good carry-on backpack ranges between 35 and 40 liters, although larger sizes are available. On the flip side, anything smaller than 35 liters usually will only work for true minimalists or simply staying somewhere overnight.
- Organization: Organization can make or break any backpack. Obviously, internal laptop sleeves provide much-needed protection for notebooks, but smaller compartments can be both stuff savers and sanity savers. Internal and external pockets, pouches, and sleeves make it easy to keep the right gear easily accessible while safely securing more sensitive items inside without forcing you to dig around for an eternity when you finally need them.
- Hip belt: When you want to skip the luggage line and baggage claim, choose a backpack with a hip belt to avoid shoulder chafing and tension. A properly-equipped carry-on backpack will include a hip belt, and there is virtually no reason to pass on this in order to save a few bucks. Yeah, maybe you completed Ranger training with a literal ton on your back, but admit it, it sucked.
Benefits of carry-on backpacks
A carry-on backpack is a must-have for frequent flyers and casual travelers alike. Efficient packers can stick with two carry-on items and skip the ticket counters and baggage claims entirely, saving plenty of time and money in the process. Whether traveling domestically or internationally, a carry-on backpack can make travel smoother and simpler, making trips less stressful and making it easier to adapt to changing travel plans. A well-engineered backpack uses a logical layout with well-placed organizational compartments, keeping important items securely stowed inside while simultaneously providing plenty of pockets and pouches on the outside to make storage of and access to snacks, water, boarding passes, and other miscellaneous items simple and straightforward. Of course, the right pack also emphasizes comfort by using padded shoulder straps and by distributing its weight between those straps and a well-placed hip belt.
Carry-on backpack pricing
Not surprisingly, carry-on backpacks have quite a sizable price range, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. You can usually find a good budget bag for anywhere between $35 and $50, but we would strongly recommend avoiding anything with a lower price tag as the build quality, layout, organizational features, and comfort will give you plenty of gripes. Higher quality carry-on backpacks will usually cost you somewhere between $50 and $100, although the best of the best will run you even higher. In the middle range, you can expect to find bags with a solid combination of durability, usability, and comfort, although you are unlikely to find the ideal backpack without dropping at least $100. The only bombproof options will run you three figures, but the results will be worth the investment.
Related: 5 of the best fishing backpacks money can buy
Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.