Photo: Ben Herndon/Tandemstock

How to Choose the Best Travel Pack

Use this guide to find the right travel pack for your adventures.

Trains, planes, buses, boats, rickshaws, camels, burros, and your back. The best journeys entail all kinds of locomotion, and your pack should match. There are many options, from duffels to backpacks to do-it-all carry-ons. You want to determine your needs so you get the right combination of features, capacity, and carrying performance. Here’s how to get started.

In this guide, you'll learn about:

  • Pros and Cons of Travel Packs 
  • Questions to Ask Yourself
  • Types of Travel Packs
  • Capacity 
  • Size and Fit
  • Design and Materials
  • Features

Travel Pack Pros and Cons

While a dedicated travel pack is a great choice for many journeys, it’s a specialist piece of gear. Here are some factors to consider.

Pros

  • Backpack-style travel bags are easier to maneuver in tight, crowded spaces.
  • You can move faster than with a suitcase or wheeled bag—which is great when racing to catch a train. 
  • On trips that include moderate trekking, travel packs perform well both in town and on the trail. 
  • Adjustable straps improve fit and weight distribution.
  • Style is often low-key, which blends in better in town than a colorful trekking pack.  
  • Organizational features are usually better than you’ll find with conventional packs.

Cons

  • If you plan to travel with a smaller daypack also, carrying two packs can be challenging.
  • Straps and outside pockets can be damaged when checking baggage on airlines.
  • Top-loading packs are not always as good as traditional luggage for gear organization.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Now that you understand the pros and cons of a travel pack, ask yourself a few questions to help determine your individual needs before diving into the details. 

How much gear will you need to pack? 

Think about the amount of time you’ll be gone, any special gear you need, and if you can stow supplies in a hotel or elsewhere during your trip.

Do you want a carry-on pack or will you check it?

If lost or delayed baggage will seriously compromise your trip, consider prioritizing carry-on size packs. At the least, use a carry-on for essential gear.  

What activities will you be doing while traveling? 

For example, will you be trekking or lashing your bag to pack animals? For the former, prioritize comfort. For the latter, durability.

Types of Packs

Frameless

These packs are lighter but don’t distribute the weight load as well as packs with an internal frame. If you’re traveling for a weekend and don’t need much support, a frameless pack might be a good option. They tend to be smaller, lighter, and more compact when not packed. For these reasons they often make great daypacks once you arrive at your destination.

Internal Frame

A pack with an internal frame is the best choice for travelers going for longer trips, especially with trekking on the itinerary. As with conventional backpacks, the frame stabilizes the weight and distributes the load, making for the most comfortable carry. There are plenty of options within this category, so you’ll also need to decide on the capacity you need and the features you want.

Top-Loading

The traditional style trekking backpack opens and packs from the top. These packs will be more challenging to organize for travel but can carry heavy loads, have a larger capacity, and are versatile. The larger top-loading packs usually have an internal frame. 

Panel-Loading

These travel packs open up more fully to make access and organization easier. Some open like a clamshell with a center divider, some have zippers around the perimeter, some have a combination of access points. The larger panel-loading packs usually have an internal frame.

Duffels

If you have a lot of gear to schlep, or need the highest level of durability (tough materials and minimal straps and doodads to break), a duffel with built-in shoulder straps is a great choice. They’re not as good as travel packs when it comes to carrying performance (so not a good choice for trekking), but for trips that require hauling your gear short distances, a backpack-style duffel is a smart option.

Photo: Dan Holz/Tandemstock

Capacity 

Simply put, you want the smallest pack that will accommodate your gear and supplies. Traveling light is a great goal, but don’t underestimate the capacity you need; cramming gear into a too-small pack makes it easy to break zippers and bust seams, and an overloaded pack doesn’t carry comfortably. Also: Take into consideration any souvenirs or gifts you plan to bring back.

Carry-On Packs

The standard carry-on size limit is 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches, which is about 45 liters. Always check with your airline for specific size restrictions.

Weekend and Short Trips (1-4 days)

For quick getaways in moderate weather, a pack between 30 and 50 liters will be ideal. Smaller capacity travel packs also make great day packs, so you won’t need to bring an additional pack. 

Longer Trips (5 or more days)

Most weeklong or extended trips will require a pack between 50 and 75 liters (even bigger for gear-intensive journeys). Many packs in this category will have removable daypacks or lids that convert to fanny packs.

Features

Once you’ve determined the type and capacity of the pack, consider these features.

Weight

A heavier pack will affect overall comfort, and the extra pounds will also count toward airline weight limits. However a lighter pack will likely compromise on durability and features.  

Organization

Most travelers prefer packs that let them organize gear and clothes and books and such so they don’t have to constantly dig through their pack. Look for zippered pockets, dividers, and sleeping bag compartments that will help keep everything in its place. 

Ventilation

Some packs have “trampoline-style” suspensions with mesh panels that enhance airflow. Built-in ventilation is especially welcome in hot, humid climates.  

Durability

Travel packs tend to take a beating. Nylon is the most common material you’ll find; look for ripstop and ballistic nylon, which are fabricated for higher tear strength. Denier is a measure of fabric thickness; the higher the denier the tougher the fabric. Check zippers; the main ones should be extra sturdy, like YKK #10. 

Shoulder Straps and Hip Belts

These affect comfort. Check padding and adjustability. 

Compression Straps

Effective compression straps help to stabilize and balance a load, especially when the pack is partially full.  

Rain Cover

A waterproof pack cover is great to have in extended wet conditions.

Fit

Just like with a conventional backpack, travel packs should fit well. Here are a few tips. 

  • Packs are sized by the torso length, not your height or weight. To find yours, measure the distance, in inches, from the C7 vertebrae at the base of your neck to the point on your lower back that’s between the tops of your hips (your iliac crest).
  • Weight should be primarily on your hips, not your shoulders. Adjust straps and try different sizes as needed.
  • Women’s-specific packs accommodate the hips and shape of the female body, which will help with fit and comfort.
  • A loaded pack fits differently than an empty one. Be sure to fill the pack with weight when trying it on.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.