Which travel backpack should I choose?

There's a lot of factors that go into the ideal travel backpack  for you -- your packing style, typical trip length, and type of travel.

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 can stay carry on compliant.

Mid-sized carry on backpacks vs maximum-sized carry on backpacks

Different packing styles -- and trip lengths -- call for different luggage.

Who should choose a maximum-sized carry on backpack

A maximum-sized carry on backpack is any bag that maximizes airlines’ quoted carry on dimensions, usually 22” x 14” x 9”. Depending on a backpack’s shape, that typically translates to 40-45L in volume.

Here are the types of travelers best suited to carrying a maximum-sized carry on.

Long-term travelers

If you’re packing for a long-haul trip, a maximum-sized carry on backpack is probably for you. You’ll have enough room to bring everything you need for months (or years) on the road without checking a bag.

Max packers

If you’re new to carry-on only travel, or like to bring a little more rather than just the bare essentials, a maximum-sized carry on backpack is the right bag for your packing style.

Souvenir buyers

If you typically pack light, but like to buy things on the road, a maximum-sized carry on backpack is for you. You’ll have plenty of room in your bag for art and souvenirs on your way home.

Who should choose a mid-sized carry on backpack

A mid-sized carry on backpack is any bag that is smaller than the maximum carry on dimensions, but is larger than a personal item. Typically that means a to 25-35L backpack.

Here are the types of travelers best suited to carrying a mid-sized carry on.

Budget airline flyers

If you frequently fly on budget airlines (like RyanAir), consider a mid-sized carry on backpack. We’ve flown on budget airlines with larger carry on backpacks without issue, but it’s technically breaking their rules. If you mostly fly on budget airlines, take shorter trips, and want peace of mind at the gate, choose a smaller bag.

Minimalist packers

If you’re a minimalist packer, a mid-sized carry on backpack is probably for you, no matter the duration of your trip. 

Does weight matter?

The maximum weight for carry-on-sized luggage differs by airline and by region.
In the United States, airlines are typically stricter about size than weight. If you’re primarily traveling on major airlines and/or traveling domestically, a backpack’s weight is less important than its ergonomics. Some airlines allow carry on bags weighing up to fifty pounds. Even if you’re allowed to carry 50 pounds, you probably shouldn’t do it. Even the most ergonomic backpack will feel heavy at 50 pounds… because 50 pounds is a lot to carry.
Some budget, European, South American, and Asian airlines only allow carry on bags up to 15 pounds. If you travel frequently on airlines with stricter weight regulations, you’ll have to master the art of packing light. Learning to pack correctly will make a far bigger difference than an extra pound of backpack weight -- especially when the extra weight gives you extra ergonomics (as is the case with Tortuga travel backpacks). 

Make sure to check with your airline before flying. 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 and short trips

The Setout Divide Backpack was designed with light packers in mind. For short trips, a maximum-sized carry on is too much bag. The Setout Divide is just the right size, whether you’re packing light for a weekend or a week.

Expand the backpack from 26L to 34L for extra packing space when you need it. Use the two-compartment layout to separate your clean clothes from dirty (or large pieces from small) to stay organized en route.

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 (men's & women's) is your holy grail. It has most of the organization and packing space of Outbreaker in a lighter weight package.

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

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