Travel backpacks can provide speed, mobility, financial savings, and logistical simplicity for family travel that is hard to duplicate with traditional luggage. It also forces the family not to overpack. When my family, with teens ages 12 to 17, set off for Thailand, we were very choosy about the backpacks we wanted to live out of for 10 days.
Gear Reviews, Kids & Family
General Travel Tips
June 19, 2021
I used to work a part-time job in outdoor retail in my younger years. I spent those years acquiring the most unnecessarily large collection of backpacks you’ve ever seen: day packs, overnight packs, expedition packs, mountaineering packs, winter packs, hydration packs… all accounted for in various sizes for various-sized adventures. I had mastered the fine art of knowing what to look for in backpack fit and features. But, never in my time working in outdoor retail did I even consider getting a travel backpack.
Loading the family up with suitcases is touristy. Traveling light with travel packs is touristish.
Why Should You Want to Take a Backpack Instead of Luggage?
We wanted to travel light for my family’s trip to Thailand to make ourselves more mobile. We could save money by not having to check luggage for five people. We could also cut down on logistics. We were already taking up a lot of room as a big family. If we were also a big family with big luggage, it would have made traveling by public transportation… well… annoying for everyone around us, including ourselves. For example, the type of taxi or Grab (Southeast Asia’s version of Uber) that can carry 5 people with backpacks in their laps is quite different from a vehicle made for five people and five suitcases. (Especially considering a lot of Grabs are tuk-tuks or motorbikes!) We would have required something more like a large school bus or semi-truck. We also wanted to reduce the risk of lost luggage – what a bummer way that would be to start a big vacation.
When we traveled on a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we were thankful for the backpacks because traveling with a lot of luggage would have been burdensome to store in such a tight space. You essentially share your train seat/bed with your luggage and a nice, compact backpack made for a lovely traveling companion.
Travel Backpack Gear Reviews
Because there were so many travel backpacks to choose from, I evaluated a couple dozen. For this trip, they needed to be small enough to carry on (this meant about 46 liters or smaller). They also needed to be durable and comfortable. We wanted straps that stowed away if we needed to check the luggage because of weight limits on smaller domestic flights in Thailand. We also wanted extra features: padded laptop compartments, water bottle holders, detachable daypacks, comfortable suspension, functional organization compartments, and… you know… stylish, of course.
After three months of reading, watching gear reviews on YouTube, evaluating packs at the store, ordering packs online to evaluate in person, sending packs back that didn’t meet the needs, we concluded that there is no such thing as the perfect backpack. And that each of us needed to decide for ourselves what we were looking for in a travel pack, and which one was the best for each person individually. Some had surprisingly awesome features but lacked some basic necessities. Others had all of the basics but were nothing special.
Osprey Porter 46
The Osprey Porter 46 is the pack my husband, Jason, chose to take to Thailand. It had a lot of padding, was durable enough to check onto the plane, had great suspension, and was very comfortable. What we liked most was the option to attach an Osprey Daylite daypack to the outside, which has since become my favorite small daypack. However, attaching the Osprey Daylite is pretty clumsy and callus-inducing on the fingers. We contacted their customer services, who quickly emailed an instructional video showing us how. Once a full Osprey Daylite is on an already fully-packed Osprey Porter 46, it looks quite comical: Jason took up the space of three people in line. And when he would spin around, everyone would have to duck and cover to avoid being taken out by a backpack with such a large profile. Without the Osprey Daylite attached, he looked like a stud.
The outside organization pockets on this pack were very useful, and the laptop sleeve is durable. The hip belt on the pack was soft which made it easy to stow to turn the pack into a small suitcase, as were the straps.
What I considered downsides to this pack is that it did not have water bottle holders, so that was sorely missed in the sweltering heat of Thailand. Also, the side “clamshell compression” is so stiff that it is difficult to get into the main contents of the backpack. Maybe that is because it is new, and it will break in over time. We all use packing cubes when we travel, but the clamshell made it difficult to load them into the pack and it took some getting used to.
One of the outside clips for the clamshell broke when we had to check the pack. That is a disappointment on the maiden voyage of such an expensive pack. Osprey customer service was quick to send a replacement part, but it was the wrong size. We will need to remember to get this fixed before our next trip. Otherwise, Jason was very pleased with his pack, overall, and continues to use it in our travels.
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Gregory Praxus 45
This was the backpack I took. In full disclosure, I’m pretty partial to Gregory Packs. I’d go so far as to call myself a Gregory Fangirl, so it’s safe to say that my bias made other backpacks not really stand a chance in this review process. I pretty much knew I was going to take the Gregory even before trying it out because my brand loyalty runs deep. I also own more Gregory backpacks than I care to admit: a side effect of working in outdoor retail for several years. But, even with all that said, I’ll keep it real with you: The Gregory Praxus 45 is a great travel backpack, but it’s not perfect, and I will tell you why.
My favorite feature of any Gregory backpack, including the Gregory Praxus 45, is that the hip belt is solid, padded, and heavy-duty. I have chronic lower-back issues, so this extra support really is necessary for me when I’m carrying a load. And that’s where I load the weight – at my hips. But I know not everyone likes that kind of hip-belt. For those who find the Gregory hip-belts to be a little “extra,” the Osprey hip-belt is softer and more flexible. While that beast of a padded hip-belt is awesome when wearing the pack, I found that it also makes that hip-belt much more cumbersome and sloppy to stow for checking the backpack as luggage or stowing in an overhead bin. Viewing me across the airport frantically trying to stow that hip-belt before the flight attendants took notice and made me wing-check the backpack for being a little on the large side, I’m sure I looked like a rookie alligator wrestler in the rain. It’s slippery. It’s not pretty. There’s a lot of arms flailing and anxiety. And I need a stiff drink once it’s properly stowed. And that is my biggest complaint about the pack. My favorite feature ended up being my least favorite when it wasn’t needed.
The laptop compartment was solid, and my laptop traveled quite well. And, unlike the Osprey Porter 46, this pack did have water bottle pockets on the outside. But, the Gregory Praxus 45 had no way to attach a removable daypack. This surprised me because many of Gregory’s camping backpacks do have a removable daypack feature. Maybe Gregory noticed how ridiculous the Osprey Porter looked with a daypack attached and thought they wouldn’t put their customers through that. However, I looked even sillier than Jason did in his huge Osprey Porter plus Daylite by wearing my Osprey Daylite on my front as though it were a baby kangaroo in a BABYBJÖRN. Of course, the daypack could have easily gone inside the big backpack for someone who travels lighter. But, I was using my small Osprey Daylite as my purse this entire trip and needed for it to be accessible.
From a quality standpoint, the Gregory Praxus 45 was just as durable and rugged as the Osprey Porter 46 and was padded enough to confidently check, although the large hip-belt stowed away doesn’t give it as smooth of a profile. Even being equally as padded and durable as the Osprey Porter, the Gregory Praxus’s clamshell compression stayed open all the way, making it much easier to access the main compartment than with the Osprey Porter. My husband would brag that his Osprey Porter was one whole liter larger than my Gregory Praxus, but the fact that mine could stay open all the way meant I could better utilize every nook and cranny.
Overall, I was thrilled with the Gregory Praxus 45 and continue to use it. On this first trip out, though, the compartment where the hip-belt is stowed ripped slightly, which was not surprising given the drama of packing it. It does not impact the functionality of the pack at all, it mostly just hurt my feelings. I’m certain Gregory customer service would take care of it, but asking for that just seems petty. So, as long as you are more careful and patient than I was when you wrestle that substantial hip-belt into its little stow pocket, you will be fine!
Mother Lode Travel Backpack (Formerly TLS Mother Lode Weekender)
The Mother Lode Travel Backpack from eBags was such a pleasant surprise; we ended up buying two of them: one for Aaron, who was 17 years old, and one for Ryan, who was 15. Granted, both boys are adult-sized, coming in at over six feet tall. We feel strongly that this is the best travel backpack for teens because of the price. It’s about half the price of the previous two packs, which is why we stocked up.
The Mother Lode had some really unique features: great organization, a water bottle holder that packed away (Note: it will not fit a Nalgene bottle – only a disposable-sized water bottle), an inside shelf to keep everything at the top from shifting to the bottom, a special pocket for quick access to liquids when going through airport security, and many more fun organizational features.
The hip belt was just a thin, removable strap that clips on… it’s useless, and we didn’t even take it with us. So, this backpack really doesn’t have any suspension. It also came with a duffel strap that is probably more useful under certain circumstances, but not on this trip for us. The laptop storage wasn’t overly padded, and it was against the back, relying on your body to protect the computer. The zippers were not high-quality YKK zippers, but they didn’t give us any issues. The pack had virtually no padding on it, which made it great for storing flat but also made me constantly concerned about checking it onto a plane, especially with fragile electronics. It’s worth noting that wrapping breakable items in clothing was enough to keep them safe when checked, and we didn’t have any of the issues one would expect from an utterly non-padded suitcase.
So, the Mother Lode definitely wasn’t as durable, high-end, or fancy as the Gregory and Osprey packs. But, the best thing about this pack was the cost. This affordable pack made it perfect for teens, new travelers, or light travelers who aren’t very rough on their gear. It also has some excellent features I wished had been included on the other backpacks.
Eagle Creek Mission Control 38L
We bought this “little guy” for my little guy, Hayden. He was only 12, so we knew he didn’t need a 45-liter travel backpack. This pack, while smaller, is very durable and has stiff outside organization pockets that are designed for protecting electronics. The Eagle Creek Mission Control is more water-resistant than the Mother Lode and feels more durable and of higher quality. Eagle Creek is a travel company, so this looked and carried more like a small suitcase turned into a backpack, whereas the Osprey and Gregory packs felt like outdoor backpacks altered for travel.
Despite handy pockets on the outside of the backpack, there was no inside organization. It also only unzipped about ¾ of the way, which would make it difficult to pack without packing cubes. The price for this backpack was very reasonable, and I would use this pack myself for shorter weekend getaways. This is the best backpack for a smaller teen or tween. Due to its size, I wouldn’t recommend a backpack this small for an adult traveling for 10 days, but I would use it myself for a weekend getaway.
These backpacks worked great for our trip to Thailand, and you can read about the benefits here. Each person was happy with their choice. But, if I had the pleasure of designing a perfect backpack for me, it would have had the following specs:
- The durability and padding of the Praxus or Porter
- The suspension and comfort of the Praxus
- The ease of strap stowing of the Porter
- The ability to attach a daypack like the Porter
- Water bottle holders like the Praxus or Mother Lode
- Easy access to the main compartment like the Mother Lode
- Flat storage like the Mother Lode
- The laptop compartment of the Praxus
- The inside organization of the Mother Lode
- The outside organization pockets of the Mission Control
Which features are most important to you in a travel backpack? Leave a comment below!
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