Top 5 Best Backpack Features For Travel

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I have so many backpacks that I don’t know what to do with them. It’s growing to be an obsession I think. I find myself always looking for backpacks with the perfect size, features, and design to fit my specific needs, especially for traveling. With that said, I have still yet to find the overall perfect travel backpack with the right combination of elements and good looks.

So what am I looking for in a travel backpack? Here are my top 5 features that I like to see on a backpack:

  • Size & Scalability
  • Pockets and More Pockets
  • Dedicated Laptop Compartment
  • Waterproof / Water Resistant
  • “Clamshell” Opening

I started looking for these features because of my experience with the different backpacks I’ve used when traveling.

Note that this list of features is for a ‘personal item’ (backpack) for traveling to take alongside a separate carry-on or check-in luggage when flying or on a road trip.

Size & Scalability

It should be small enough to double as a daypack while on destination and can expand to fit your layers or purchases

When packing, it is always best to leave enough room in your luggage or backpack for souvenirs and random buys during your trip. However, you might pick up way too much stuff or just want your hands free while exploring. I need to have a versatile backpack that is either able to expand to reveal more space or a bigger bag that can be compressed by compression straps to make it sleeker and manageable.

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Compression straps at work

The amount, or volume, a backpack can fit is measured in liters (L). For me, an ideal size for a travel backpack is between 30L to 40L with compression straps. In my experience, I find backpacks around the 20L range too small and limits its use to certain situations.

Anything bigger than 40L is probably too big and might be considered a carry-on vs a personal item by the airlines. Remember that I’m using this backpack as a personal bag in conjunction to my luggage and not for long-term backpacking cross-country or camping. It should be small enough to double as a daypack while on destination and can expand to store your layers and/or purchases. A backpack this size also works well by itself for short weekend trips.

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The “kangaroo pouch” feature on this backpack is great place to hold a jacket or a small shopping bag

Pockets & More Pockets

I want a backpack that has enough organization for all my stuff and have them easily accessible without opening up the entire bag

I’m a bit of a scout, so I like to be prepared for whatever, just in case. This means I need a number pockets to organize and sort the things that I might need. I want a backpack that has enough organization for all my stuff and have them easily accessible without opening up the entire bag. I like a small top pocket to hold sunglasses, headphones, and other small things for quick access. Other pockets can be dedicated to medications or first-aid.

Currently, I am looking at military style backpacks that have many compartments and features that allow you to add more organization. Military style backpacks usually have MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) that allows you to add different types of compartments and modifications to the backpack depending on your needs. For instance, I sometimes like to bring a lightweight tripod… I can attach carrying straps to the side or bottom MOLLE webbing for a place to secure the tripod. There are many types of MOLLE attachments to choose from.

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MOLLE stitching on front and sides for add-ons. Multiple compartments.

Dedicated Laptop Compartment

Most backpack types currently in the market will have a laptop sleeve but not all have the dedicated access feature.

Carrying a full-size laptop, when you don’t really need it, adds unnecessary weight on your back. However, having a dedicated fleece lined laptop sleeve in your backpack is really useful. I have found it very useful as a separate compartment for your travel documents. I usually carry a folder with printouts of all my reservations I might need for my trip. Some backpacks have a dedicated zipper so you don’t have to open up the main compartment to quickly access your paperwork.

Obviously, it is good to have one just in case you do need to bring a laptop or tablet on your trip. You will need to remove your laptop from your bag at the security checkpoint and having the dedicated compartment access makes this a quick move.

Most backpack types currently in the market will have a laptop sleeve but not all have the dedicated access feature.

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Easy access to laptop sleeve compartment

Waterproof / Water-Resistant

This is especially critical if you are carrying electronics.

This feature I didn’t realize I needed until it rained during one of my trips. I had an umbrella so I thought it will be okay. I was wrong. The contents of my bag weren’t soaking wet but enough moisture got inside that my clothes were damp. This is especially critical if you are carrying electronics – cameras, laptops, etc.

There is also a difference between water-resistant and waterproof. Water-resistant doesn’t allow water to enter the bag to some degree. Usually, the material has been treated with a coating to resist liquid penetration. However, if you submerge the backpack in water for a long period, water will get in. Zippers and stitching are not 100% sealed. Waterproof means you can completely submerge it and the insides will stay dry. These waterproof backpacks are under the title dry bags and have a rolltop design. If it doesn’t have a rolltop, chances are, it is NOT completely waterproof.

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Waterproof ‘dry-bag’ backpack …note the rolltop design

Some backpacks are not water-resistant but come with a rain cover to wrap your bag with. If you already found a great backpack but it is not waterproof or resistant, you can always buy a rain cover separately. They’re lightweight and comes in handy during unexpected showers.

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Backpack inside a rain cover

I am not a fan of the rolltop design nor am I planning to take my backpack kayaking or other water sports that require waterproofing, so just a water-resistant bag is good enough for travel. If anything, I can pick up a rain cover.

“Clamshell” Opening

Wide open access.

Clamshell opening backpacks are similar to your typical front-loading schoolbags but it can be opened wide and flat. This is in comparison to the rucksack style backpacks that are top-loading and are usually closed by a drawstring and/or buckles.

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Front-loading main compartment wide open

I found the clamshell opening feature very useful because you can open the bag nice and wide for easy packing as well as easier access to your stuff placed in the bottom of the bag. I ran into an annoyance with my rucksack style backpack in which I had to dig through all my stuff in order to get something in the bottom. It doesn’t have to open 180° but wide enough for easy access.


I still have not found a travel backpack that completely satisfies me. I have a backpack list on Amazon that continues to grow where I constantly do comparisons. All in all, it all depends on your needs as a traveler. In my experience, these are the top 5 features I found most useful in a travel backpack.

Enjoy!

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