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I’m a big fan of one bag travel which is why I always look for a travel backpack that’s perfectly sized for carry on luggage.
Not only is this faster at the airport without the need to check bags in, but it appeals to the budget backpacker within me because saves the added expense of a check in bag.
In this guide I’ve shared some of my favourite carry-on backpacks that fit within the cabin bag size requirements for most airlines around the world.
You can often get away with bags bigger than the size requirements, but for this review I have stringently stuck to them so as no readers get caught out.
Purchasing a backpack can be overwhelming, especially if you’re shopping online and won’t get to try it on before it arrives. So, I’ve put together a few bullet points of the key things to look for:
- Carry-on dimensions: According to Travel + Leisure, the most common size for carry on luggage is 22” x 14” x 9” (approx. 55 x 35 x 22 cm). Bear in mind that this is slightly different for each airline and could be a fair amount smaller for budget airlines. It is rare that your backpack will be measured as long as it is within the ballpark range and will fit in the overhead lockers.
- Front loading: If you’re using your backpack for travel, then front loading is the way to go. This means that it opens like a suitcase with a zip panel on the front.
- Comfortable and well ventilated: Of course, you’ll want your backpack to be comfortable, but this is very subjective and often hard to judge for your own needs until you’ve bought it. So, a few things to look out for include padding on the back and shoulder straps, a hip belt to spread the weight evenly and a sternum strap (chest strap). Ventilation is also critical to ensure you don’t get too sweaty when carrying your backpack, look for air channels down the back panel or trampoline mesh material on the straps which is also good for air flow.
- Pockets and organisation: Whether you opt for a more basic bag or something with lots of pockets will be down to your personal style. Some people prefer to use packing cubes, so a minimal backpack is best. If you carry a tablet or laptop when travelling, then look out for a padded sleeve to store them and check the maximum gadget sizes.
Best Carry On Backpacks for Travel
These are my top recommended carry-on size backpacks:
- Best Overall: Farpoint 40 (or Fairview 40 for women)
- Premium Pick: Nomatic Travel Backpack
- Budget Pick: Lowe Alpine LightFlight
- For Frugal Packers: Osprey Porter 30
- Great for Hiking Too: Kelty Redwing 32
- Uber-comfortable: Deuter Aviant Access 38
- Best with Wheels: Eagle Creek Expanse Convertible
- With Safety in Mind: PacSafe VentureSafe
- For Expandable Capacity: Peak Design Travel Backpack
Below are images, detailed reviews and buying links to each of these backpacks.
Farpoint 40 or Fairview
Capacity: 40L // Size: 54 x 35 x 23cm // Price: ££ // Material: 210D Nylon
The Farpoint 40 is a traveller’s favourite and the bag I personally use for travelling around the world.
It’s very durable and has stood many years of use without any issues. I especially love the chunky YKK zips that never get stuck like other backpacks I’ve had.
It’s a front-loading backpack which makes it simple to pack and unpack with a organisational/laptop compartment.
The straps and back system can be zipped away which is convenient if you do decide to check it in or want to prevent them getting caught for bus or train journeys.
The waist belt is nice and chunky that provides a ton of support and when combined with the sternum strap make it very comfortable to carry. It’s available in a medium or large size to suit your torso. There’s also the Fairview which has the same features only in a women’s fit.
There are two water bottle pockets on the front of the backpack, or you can use taller items like walking sticks or a tripod in them and secure with the upper compression strap.
The downside to this bag is that everyone has it, so be careful not to get confused at airports or in hostels and hotels. I recommend tying something notable to the outside so this doesn’t happen.
Nomatic Travel Backpack
Capacity: 40L // Size: 53 x 36 x 23cm // Price: £££ // Material: Tarpaulin
Next up is the Nomatic backpack. This one isn’t cheap but it’s well worth the extra investment.
It manages to maximise the carry-on space to give you 45L of capacity whilst still keeping in carry on requirements, although for this reason it looks very square and not particularly sleek.
As for durability, the Nomatic doesn’t disappoint. It’s made of tarpaulin material which makes it very water resistant for when you get caught out in the rain (although not completely waterproof).
Not only does it have backpack straps, but there are grab handles and duffel bag style handles too. It comes with a hip belt that has well sized pockets on it, this is detachable if you’d rather not use it.
The backpack is pockets galore; I can’t even count them all there are so many. In the base of the backpack is a separate compartment which Nomatic say is designed for shoes or dirty laundry, a feature I really like. Other pockets include quick access pockets, an organisation pocket and one made specifically for water bottles since there is no external water bottle pouch.
For your important belongings, there is a hidden pocket for your wallet and passport on the back, and under the lid are padded sections for laptop and tablet.
Lowe Alpine LightFlight
Capacity: 45L // Size: 35 x 55 x 20 cm // Price: £ // Material: TriShield Micro Rip
If you like backpacks with fewer pockets so you can use your own packing cubes, then this is the one for you. It’s simple, lightweight (only 760g!) and can often be picked up for a great price in sales.
Inside there is one major compartment and a mesh pocket on the underside of the opening. A small quick access pocket with a key chain strap is also on the front of the bag along with 4 lashing points to tie things too and a stretchy water bottle pouch.
The bag is very basic with no ventilation on the back pane and limited padding on the shoulder straps, but I guess you get what you pay for.
It has both internal and external compression straps to keep everything tights to the frame of the backpack. The harness can be used for carrying on your back or tucked away if you opt for the grab handles.
Osprey Porter 30
Capacity: 30L // Size: 50 x 32 x 23cm // Price: £ // Material: 500D Recycled Nylon
The Porter 30 is another great carry-on backpack from Osprey, this one is a little smaller than the Farpoint so would suit shorter trips or very those that pack lightly.
The Porter has a slightly sturdier side wall than the Farpoint, so it doesn’t collapse when you open it like the Farpoint sometimes does. However, it’s not as comfortable to wear as there is less padding on the straps and the hip belt
Ospreys straight jacket-style compression system keeps everything snug and the weight close to your back which is more comfortable. The straps do stow away on the Porter, but in a slightly different way to the Farpoint as they unclip and tuck away rather than a zip panel to hide them.
If you want something a bit bigger, the Porter 46 is a popular choice but only fits the carry-on dimensions for some airlines.
Kelty Redwing 32
Capacity: 32L // Size: 55 x 35 x 28cm // Price: £ // Material: 420D polyamide
The Kelty Redwing is the only one on this list that hasn’t been designed specifically with travel in mind. It’s actually a hiking backpack that can double up as a lightweight carry-on travel bag, so it’s my recommendation if you want something that can be used for hiking and outdoors too.
One of the key differentiators is the pockets. It has the signature wing pockets that feature throughout the Redwing range, these are big zippable pockets on each side that are a change to the basic side pockets usually found on backpacks and help with organisation.
As for getting into the pack, it has both top and front loading which adds to the dual-purpose appeal of the backpack.
It’s also very comfortable, being a hiking backpack, they have gone the extra mile with padding and support. The pack is not suspended, but there are plenty of air channels down the back panel which keeps you ventilated when wearing it for long periods of time.
There is a hip belt which can be stashed away when not in use, my only gripe is that the hip belt could be bulkier to provide more support.
Deuter Aviant Access 38
Capacity: 38L // Size: 55 x 35 x 23cm // Price: ££ // Material: Polyamide
Deuter is a leading German outdoor gear brand, so when they turned to making a backpack for travel, they incorporated a lot of the features usually found in trekking packs which means they are super comfortable and a joy to carry.
It uses their contact back system which holds the weight and centre of gravity close to the users back. Without getting too technical, every movement pumps air through the hollow chamber which provides maximum ventilation. There is also a large surface area which makes it more comfortable against your back.
As with most of the packs here, it opens like a suitcase, I’d recommend packing cubes as there aren’t a huge number of organisational pockets. However, there is a padded laptop compartment that can hold up to 13” laptops and is conveniently accessible.
As for carrying, you can use the shoulder straps, or these can be unclipped and be tucked away if you’d rather use the large grab handles or do need to check your bag in.
It’s a durable build with YKK zips and buckles. The 38L shown here does come with a hip belt, but if you choose a different size then it may not have this feature.
It comes in men’s and women’s fit; the women’s fit is indicated by a yellow flower, but this is easily removed once you purchase it.
Eagle Creek Expanse Convertible
Capacity: 30L // Size: 35 x 54 x 20cm // Price: ££ // Material: 420D Two-Tone Polyester
I wanted to include a carry-on backpack with wheels so naturally the Eagle Creek Expanse Convertible was my go-to pick. Even with the wheels and handle included, it’s still sized to fit most airline carry on requirements.
The straps are well padded and stow away in a slot on the back when you want to put the pack in ‘wheel mode’. The dual telescopic handle is very sturdy when in use and the wheels are heavy duty which aid the pack on rougher terrains.
It opens like a regular suitcase, with no internal pockets other than the door pocket. It has a deep quick access pocket on the front with a tablet sleeve, although you won’t find anywhere to put your laptop which is a bit of a shame.
Of course, being a wheeled backpack there is a lot of extra weight in the pack itself so only choose this option if you’ll definitely use the wheels.
Eagle Creek have a no matter what warranty that covers the product for its lifetime, and not just from manufacturer defects, literally from anything like your backpack being mauled by tigers could see it repaired or replaced by Eagle Creek.
Capacity: 45L // Size: 55 x 35 x 22 cm // Price: ££ // Material: Regenerated Nylon
If safety is your paramount concern, then the PacSafe VentureSafe has been made with this in mind from the beginning.
The VentureSafe backpack is 45 litre and made from regenerated nylon. Within the material is a hidden steel exoskeleton which makes it very resistant to cutting, although does add a fair amount of weight at 1.8kg.
The double zips are anti-puncture which prevents tampering, and the actual zip pulls themselves can be locked in place with their roof bar locking system.
One other anti-0theft feature I quite like is the anchor strap (sometimes known as a café strap) which allows you to secure the bag to an anchor such as a table leg or chair to prevent someone grabbing it.
As for the layout of the bag, it’s pretty standard with a large main compartment that has a front opening lid and an organisational pocket on the front, not too dissimilar to the Farpoint 40. It is reasonably comfortable to carry and features a hip belt to spread the weight through your body.
Peak Design Travel Backpack
Capacity: 45L // Size: 56 x 33 x 29cm // Price: £££ // Material: 400D Recycled Nylon
The Peak Design Travel Backpack is one of the most versatile bags for travel. At its standard size, the pack is 35L, however it can be compressed down to 30L or expanded up to 45L and still fits as carry on.
It does have a premium price tag, but you get excellent build quality. It is made of heavy-duty Nylon, 400D across most of the bag and 900D on the base so it’s very durable, this is to be expected from Peak Design who have traditionally made secure camera backpacks.
It can be accessed from both the front and back with two panel openings. You can keep the front and back separate or unzip the divider for one large compartment. It also has space for a laptop up to 15” and a 10.5” tablet.
The hip belt has a sizeable pocket that is even big enough for a mobile phone. It can also be stowed away when not in use. It has a buckle rather than a plastic clip which is a bit fiddlier.
The zips have very innovative buckles that allow them to be clipped together, this would make it that little bit harder for anyone trying to nab your belongings without too much inconvenience for you when opening it.
Kieren is the avid traveller behind the blog. His adventures have included Interrailing through Europe, road tripping the US and backpacking SE Asia.