May 17, 2021

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For splendid leisure

Best travel backpack 2021: Stash your travel essentials in style

10 min read

Whether you’re planning a big backpacking trip across Southeast Asia or a road trip around Britain, you’ll need a good travel backpack to see you through your adventure. Even if you’re only going for a long weekend, sometimes a backpack is better than a traditional suitcase or duffel bag.

We’ve sourced and tested eight of the best backpacks you can buy right now. Our writer used each backpack on research trips for her latest guidebook project and has gone the distance with the hiking packs by testing them out on dog walks. If you’re looking for a great travel backpack, consider investing in one of these.

Why choose a backpack over a suitcase?

There’s something rather romantic about carrying your life on your back for a week or two (or more), but beyond that, backpacks are often a far more practical option. The very nature of the way they’re carried means you’ve got your hands free at all times, which is especially helpful when you’re going to be walking a good distance, taking public transport or likely to need to use your phone or a map to look for directions.

Backpacks are useful for long-term trips where you’re likely to be taking lots of planes or public transport – they are less likely to be damaged by careless airport staff, for example, and will be safe when strapped to the top of a bus or in the luggage rack above your head on trains. Suitcases, being bulky and usually made of breakable plastic, are less practical in this sense.

Backpacks also make packing much easier. They usually have a few different compartments and even extra pockets. This means you can easily separate your wires from your underwear, or pop your liquids in a dedicated pocket so they don’t leak all over your clothes.

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What to look for in a travel backpack

One of the most important features for any backpack is the way it opens. Front or side opening zippers are almost essential, as having to unpack everything to get to those socks at the bottom is just impractical. Adjustable backs and straps are also essential, as everyone’s body is different, and it’s key to be able to change the back according to your own height. Finally, every backpack needs to be waterproof or at least have a rain cover – you never know when you’re going to get stuck in a downpour. Any backpack with these three features is likely to be a trusty travel companion for many years.

The best travel backpacks for 2021 are:

  • Best for camping adventures: Salkan the backpacker: £250, Discoversalkan.com
  • Best for a long-haul holiday: Millican miles the duffel bag 60L: £135.96, Outdoorandcountry.co.uk
  • Best for long-distance trekking and camping: Osprey Ariel 65 litre rucksack: £180, Gooutdoors.co.uk
  • Best for backpacking adventures: Vango wrath 60:70: £125, Vango.co.uk
  • Best for adventures on the water: Columbia OutDry Ex 80L duffel: £125, Columbiasportswear.co.uk
  • Best for business travel: Stubble & Co the adventure bag: £185, Stubbleandco.com
  • Best for short trekking trips: Montane women’s sirenik 65L backpack: £160, Montane.com
  • Best for backpackers on a budget: Mountain Warehouse carrion 65L rucksack: £59.99, Mountainwarehouse.com

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism acrossThe Independent.

Salkan the backpacker

Best for camping adventures

Pros:

  • Top and front access
  • Internal side pockets
  • Comes with detachable daypack
  • Weighs just 3.4kg

Cons:

  • Non-stretch, non-flexible material
  • Could damage/stain easily in transit
  • Daypack quite small 

Salkan’s backpacker model is a clever and stylish piece of kit. The bag looks great, with its on-trend grey (also comes in green and charcoal) polyester outer fabric and straps that come in all sorts of colours and patterns. But it gets serious kudos for its functionality, too. The highlight is its front opening mechanism: the entire front panel zips off so you can see everything in the bag all at once. This saves so much time in unpacking and repacking every time you want to get one small thing out.

Another important feature is the adjustable strap section, which means regardless of how tall you are, the pack can be fitted to your size for maximum comfort. Waist and chest straps keep it secure and look after your back muscles at the same time. They have excellent inside pocket game, with compartments for underwear or valuables and small items, and a handy raincover for if you get caught in a downpour or you want to protect the bag in transit. A neat little accessory is the roll-top laundry bag, and the daypack which attaches to the front of the pack, or it can be hooked to the straps so it sits at your front. 

Millican miles the duffel bag 60L

Best for a long-haul holiday

Pros:

  • Doubles as duffel and backpack
  • Easy grab handles
  • Lightweight 

Cons:

  • Back straps can become uncomfortable
  • Few pockets inside and out

If you prefer to travel hands-free and you’re not planning on carrying your bags for an extended period of time, this is the backpack for you. Millican’s miles the duffel 60L bag has plenty of space (60 litres of it, in fact) and it opens with a zip down its front for ease of access.

It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of many backpacks, but its sturdy material and flexibility as a duffel or backpack makes it a great option for single-destination trips where you’re able to unpack for the week. The backpack straps aren’t hugely comfortable, so this isn’t the kind of backpack you’ll want to carry for extended periods, but it’s perfect for hands-free treks through the airport or on and off of public transport.

Osprey Ariel 65 litre rucksack

Best for long-distance trekking and camping

Pros:

  • Top and front opening
  • Strong technical fabric
  • Chest and waist straps
  • Weighs just 2.2kg

Cons:

  • Lots of dangling straps
  • Noisy fabric 

This is the ultimate hiker’s backpack. Lightweight but sturdy with fully adjustable straps and handy pockets on the waist strap, you’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with this bag. It opens at the top like a traditional backpack as well as offering front access via a zippable panel and a base compartment for your sleeping bag or mucky trainers.

What’s clever about this backpack is that it comes designed for men (Aether) or women (Aerial), meaning the fit is tailored to your body type. Both backpacks have clever built-in features like hydration pockets and even an emergency whistle on the chest strap. This backpack will be comfy enough to wear for long hikes, and is ideal for packing your camping gear into for an outdoors adventure.

Vango wrath 60:70

Best for backpacking adventures

Pros:

  • Weighs just 2.1kg
  • Lid converts into waist pack
  • Chest and waist straps
  • Top grab handle

Cons:

  • No side grab handle
  • Lots of dangling straps

Gap year students and backpackers, this one’s for you. This is an affordable but sturdy backpack that could well see you through six months adventuring in Australia and New Zealand, or help you cart your things about for a few months while you hop on and off of buses in South America.

It has top and front access thanks to a panel that opens from the bottom, and handy mesh pockets on its sides for water bottles or snacks. The adjustable back system can be altered while you’re wearing the pack, so if it starts to feel uncomfortable you can fix it without having to stop and take it off. Plus, a breathable mesh back panel means you won’t overheat or suffer from chafing as you walk.

Columbia OutDry Ex 80L duffel

Best for adventures on the water

Pros:

  • Doubles as duffel and backpack
  • Waterproof technical fabric
  • Packs away for easy storage

Cons:

  • No back support
  • Few pockets

Whether it’s sailing in the Med or boating on the Norfolk Broads, this duffel-come-backpack is the perfect solution for watery adventures – and there’s no need to worry about accidentally sending it overboard. The Columbia bag is made from technical, leathery fabric that keeps water out, and its zippers and seams are sealed to ensure not a drop can creep in.

Without proper back support, this isn’t a backpack you’ll want to carry around for extensive periods of time, but using it as a backpack for short stints is easy and comfortable enough. We love that it packs away into a little pouch when you’re not using it, too. Its vast, 80-litre compartment also means you can fit plenty of clothes and shoes inside, so it’s great for long trips.

Stubble & Co the adventure bag

Best for business travel

Pros:

  • Opens like a suitcase 
  • Waist straps & lots of pockets
  • Shoe and credit card compartments

Cons:

  • Zips feel a little stiff
  • No quick top access 

This sleek backpack is a bit of a tardis: it looks small, but it has 42 litres’ worth of space inside, which is enough for a long weekend or even a week away. It’s the perfect travel backpack for business trips or city breaks, as it’s small enough to go in the overhead lockers in the cabin of a plane.

Beyond its handy size, the backpack has plenty of excellent features – best of all its opening mechanism. Instead of being a top, front or side access backpack, it opens like a suitcase to reveal two sections, separated by zipper-fastened mesh. This means you get easy access to all your belongings all at once, like you would in a suitcase. The bag has a card pocket on its straps so you can grab your plastic as and when you need it, while there’s also a shoe compartment in the bottom and a padded laptop pocket. You can fit a 750ml vessel in its bottle pocket, and if you want to use it alongside a suitcase, there’s a trolley sleeve for when you’re wheeling around the airport. 

Montane women’s sirenik 65L backpack

Best for short trekking trips

Pros:

  • Very light at 1.5kg 
  • Sturdy technical fabric 
  • Chest and waist straps
  • Lifetime guarantee 

Cons:

  • No front access
  • Few pockets

This is a great, reasonably-priced backpack for short hiking trips or backpacking adventures. With its curved aluminium frame tailored for women (the men’s version is Yupik), it’s comfortable on the back and super lightweight at 1.5kg. With 65 litres capacity, there’s plenty of space for clothing and shoes, and there’s a sleeping bag compartment at the bottom, too. 

There’s a removable lid, a waterproof cover and a pair of pockets on the waist strap for snacks and money. You can attach walking poles to the back, insert a water bag to the H2O pocket, and the chest strap is an elasticated, one-handed clip for easy adjustment. Overall, this is a solid travel and hiking backpack that’s ideal for short walking holidays or backpacking trips.

Mountain Warehouse carrion 65L rucksack

Best for: Backpackers on a budget

Pros:

  • Detachable day bag
  • 65 litre capacity
  • Adjustable back system
  • Straps hide away for transit 

Cons:

  • Single access point 
  • Few pockets 
  • No lid 

This is by far the best-value backpack on the market right now. Ideal for backpackers who are likely to be on and off planes and other public transport, the backpack is large, comfortable and versatile. The technical fabric is strong and shower-proof (there’s a full waterproof rain cover inside) and all the zips are lockable, meaning you can safely store it on the luggage racks in trains or on buses without worrying about someone getting inside.

It has an adjustable back so you can fit it to your body, and best of all, it can be converted from backpack into a duffel bag with a spare strap. Grab handles on the top and side make it easy to load on and off of vehicles or luggage belts, and the back cover hides away all the straps – ideal for when it’s in transit and you want to avoid the queues at the pesky oversized luggage counter. The detachable day bag is a useful little addition, too.

The verdict: Travel backpacks

The Salkan backpacker is a brilliant backpack well worth the investment. It looks great and delivers on practicality too, with its numerous pockets and detachable day bag. The customisation of the backpack is a nice touch, too, with straps and fabric colours all interchangeable.

We also loved the Stubble & Co adventure bag, though, as it’s the perfect middle ground between a suitcase and backpack, has plenty of pockets and compartments and fits lots of stuff inside. The Osprey also deserves a nod for its highly technical specification and excellent comfort – we took this one on a long dog walk and it felt like it was hardly there.

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For more outdoor gear, check out our selection of the best walking trousers to take on your trip

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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