Got a trip coming up? If you’re travelling anywhere for any length of time, you’re going to want to take stuff with you – everything from the essentials to the possessions you wouldn’t want to leave home without. If you’re planning something seriously long-term or long-distance, like a gap year from work or college spent gloriously globe-hopping, your luggage and what you pack in it have to be near the top of your checklist. Your packing decisions affect how much stuff you can take with you, how safe your gear will be from thieves and the elements, and how comfortable you’re going to be lugging it along with you – and that’s just for starters! If your luggage is going to need to do more than the journey from plane to taxi to hotel room, it needs to be robust, lightweight and comfortable to carry: even if you plan on taking a large suitcase as hold luggage, your carry-on bag should be something you can take around with you once you’re off the plane.
Happily for travellers and holidaymakers, the market for travel luggage has grown significantly in recent years. Travellers looking for secure all-purpose travel bags didn’t always have a great deal of choice: besides the distinctly unsecure weekender and duffel bags, lightweight but fragile daypacks or heavy-duty hiking backpacks were the best options on the market, neither of them designed with air travel in mind. Today, a number of manufacturers offer specially-designed travel backpacks, made to stand up to the constraints of air travel and the demands of travelling. There’s an impressive range of choice and brands on offer (including SWISSGEAR, Osprey and Tortuga), so it’s worth doing your homework; but if you’re looking for something to keep your stuff safe on the plane as well as on the move, the market’s got plenty to offer.
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What is a backpack for air travel?
Backpacks for air travel, or travel backpacks, are backpacks which have been designed specifically for the needs and difficulties of travel; and air travel in particular. The humble backpack was named in the early 20th century in America, but bags designed to be worn over the shoulders go back way further: by distributing the weight of the bag and whatever it’s holding, shoulder straps make carrying larger loads much easier on the arms, as well as helping the bearer maintain a comfortable and healthy posture. Modern backpacks come in a wide range of designs and styles, some of which are more suitable for air travel than others; and they can also be fashioned from a variety of materials. The most common material used for travel backpacks is polyester, favored among travellers on account of its lightweight and waterproof qualities.
Most travel backpacks use zips, often in combination with securing compression straps, to open and close the various compartments while keeping the bag’s contents safe and dry. A common feature on travel backpacks in particular is oversized zips, which are large and sturdy enough to allow the affixing of a padlock for added security: it should be noted, however, that on any kind of backpack the zip itself (whether padlocked or not) is a weak point in terms of security, as a sharp edge or even brute force can be enough to break the zip and gain access to the backpack’s contents in this way. Travel backpacks are also notable for the efficient approach taken to storage space in their design: most feature a large number of interior and exterior pockets and panels, some containing their own compression straps, making planned packing straightforward and ensuring you should always have easy access to your backpack’s contents. The shape of travel backpacks further facilitates this ease of access: backpacks designed for air travel are shaped so that they have no difficult to reach areas, while still being sized appropriately to meet major airlines’ carry-on regulations.
If treated well, travel backpacks are durable and can last for years, making them a wise investment for casual holidaymakers as well as for hardcore travellers. Other luggage solutions certainly exist – among them hiking backpacks, rucksacks, weekenders and tote bags, duffel bags, suitcases and trolley cases – but for modern travellers, the travel backpack is a hard option to beat. Designed to sit at the crossroads of capacity, comfort and convenience, backpacks for air travel should be near the top of the shopping list for anyone looking to holiday in safety and security. As with any purchase, it pays to do your research and think about your particular needs before getting down to comparing items; and with travel backpacks, that includes checking the luggage size and weight limits for your chosen airline(s). If you take the time to think it through, you’ll find the luggage market packed with competitively-priced quality products; and backpacks for air travel are no exception.
Why buy a backpack for air travel?
If you’re on the lookout for carry-on luggage that makes your life easier on the move, travel backpacks are one of (if not the) best option available. But why not rely on a conventional backpack? They tend to be cheaper, after all. Unfortunately, conventional backpacks have a few drawbacks compared to the variants designed with air travel in mind:
- Limited access.Most conventional backpacks open from the top, or only partially from the front. This makes it tricky to get to whatever you’ve packed at the bottom of the bag without having to unload everything you packed on top – fine if you’re at home or in your hotel room, but irritating at best if you need quick access to something while you’re out and about.
- Hiking backpacks and rucksacks can be easier to get access to, as they’ve been designed with outdoor use in mind. Where they fall down in comparison to travel backpacks is their heavy-duty design, being littered with straps, belts and buckles which not only increase the bag’s profile (making it more likely to fall foul of stricter airlines’ luggage limits) but also add to its weight – not ideal if you plan on using your backpack on a daily basis.
- Hard to pack.The long narrow style of many conventional and hiking backpacks makes them comfortable for use over longer distances and periods of time, but it’s a style that’s difficult to pack, while creating the same access issues as putting the bag’s opening in the top.
If a conventional backpack isn’t going to get the job done, what about a suitcase or trolley case? These certainly share some of the advantages of the travel backpack: they’re bigger and more secure than standard backpacks or rucksacks, but their increased capacity is also their downside. Suitcases simply aren’t designed with mobility in mind, and tend to be oversized for use as carry-on luggage – even the wheeled trolley cases, easy enough to push around airports and hotels, aren’t portable enough for anything more demanding and are usually too large to serve as personal luggage. On the other hand, backpacks for air travel have a number of reasons behind their recommendation.
- Easy access, easy to pack.Travel backpacks are front-opening rather than top-opening like traditional backpacks and rucksacks. This means that if you lay the bag on its back, it can be opened and packed exactly like a conventional suitcase, making packing and accessing your stuff a breeze.
- Comfortable and convenient.Backpacks for air travel are designed to be both convenient and comfortable, being made of soft material (usually polyester) and featuring padded shoulder straps and ergonomic designs. Travel backpacks are lightweight and designed to be carried for long periods of time, so they won’t become uncomfortable after a day on your feet.
- Safety and security. The zips on travel backpacks are usually lockable, which greatly reduces your risk of becoming a victim of opportunistic crime. Zips are still a weak point on any bag, but the lock protects you from smash and grabs while increasing your peace of mind. The waterproof materials most travel backpacks are made from also work to keep your gear safe from the weather.
- If looked after, backpacks for air travel with their modern materials and designs can last for years; but remember that polyester isn’t exactly a hard-wearing material, so it can rip and tear if handled roughly and not taken care of. Be careful to avoid overfilling your travel backpack, as this is one of the most common ways to cause lasting damage.
- Travel-friendliness.All of the above features add up to make travel backpacks unsurprisingly great for travel. Whether you’re planning an itinerant gap year or just want something comfortable and waterproof for urban exploration, travel backpacks can get you there in style and keep your stuff secure while doing it.
Things to consider
If you’ve decided to invest in a backpack for air travel, there are a few things worth thinking about before laying down your hard-earned cash.
- Your travelling needs.This might seem obvious, but your travelling needs will greatly affect which bag is best for you. How frequently and regularly do you travel? When you do, what kind of destinations are you headed for – urban, rural, exotic – and for what length of time? What is your most common reason for travelling: is it business or pleasure? When you’re on holiday, how do you like to spend your time? You need to know what you’ll need before you start shopping for it, so think about your travelling needs and you’re sure to end up happier with your purchase than you would have been otherwise.
- The material used in the backpack’s construction is of primary importance for how well it’ll stand up to the elements. Most travel backpacks make heavy if not exclusive use of polyester, a lightweight and waterproof material, but pay particular attention to any other materials used. A bag is only as waterproof as its least waterproof component, so be wary of anything that fuses polyester with other, more permeable materials.
- Travel backpacks use zips for good reasons – they’re quick, convenient and lockable. However, cheap and flimsy zips can greatly degrade a backpack’s lifespan, as well as creating security weak points and potentially allowing water and moisture into an otherwise waterproofed bag. Look closely at the zips: how durable are they, and how secure?
- This will include the backpack’s zips, but is far from limited to it: a safe and secure travel backpack should not have any external pockets which can’t be zippered closed at the very least. Internally, compression straps work to keep your stuff precisely where you stored it, which is not only of benefit in terms of quick access convenience, but also a security measure which lets you readily confirm your essentials are still in place.
- Does the travel backpack have enough storage capacity to meet your needs, without it being too large or unwieldy to work as carry-on luggage? You might be surprised by the amount of difference innovative and space-efficient designs can make when it comes to eking out the maximum potential from your carry-on; and backpacks for air travel are leading the way on this front.
- Quality and durability.Once again the materials used in the backpack’s construction will make a big difference here, as will the build quality of any internal frame or components. A travel backpack that’s been designed and manufactured with quality materials and attention to detail should remain serviceable for many to years to come, especially if it’s primarily used when travelling, so you shouldn’t be tempted to settle for something which will only last for a few uses.
- Travel backpacks are popular because they marry capacity and convenience with something too often missing from carry-on luggage and luggage in general – comfort. Padding on the back of the backpack and the shoulder straps can make a real difference when wearing the bag for longer periods of time, and the high-quality polyester typically used in such bags is soft and lightweight. Many backpacks for air travel also boast ergonomic or contoured designs which aim to ensure the bag remains comfortable when worn. The more time you’ll be spending out and about while travelling, the more important a comfortable travel backpack will become.
- As with any luggage or carried bag, your travel backpack is unavoidably a fashion item: it forms part of your look, so it should be something you’ll feel happy and comfortable wearing, and will go with at least some of your clothes. Some of us care more about appearances than others, and if you plan on trekking into the wilderness you may not be particularly bothered about what the wildlife will think of your bag; but many of us will want to take the travel backpack’s style into consideration when making our choice.
- As with style, price matters more to some of us than others; but whatever your budget, you’ll be well served by having a rough idea of what you’d like to spend before you start shopping. Budget travel backpacks are available from around $50, with high quality backpacks for air travel starting at about $100. Specialist designs and luxury brands offer travel backpacks at prices of $200 or more, but when it comes to backpacks for air travel there are quality examples available at every point on the price scale.
Risks and warnings
There are some basic principles to be aware of when purchasing and using a travel backpack for the purposes of air travel.
- Carry-on issues.Make sure to thoroughly check the carry-on regulations and maximum limits for any and all airlines you plan on flying with. Do this with respect to both size and weight; and if your maximum limits are the same coming in as they are going out, make sure you’re under the maximum on the way out if you’d like to be able to bring any souvenirs home with you.
- Don’t overfill.Respect the limits of your travel pack and don’t overfill it to the point that the material and the zips are straining. This may cause the bag to rip or tear, and even if the results aren’t that catastrophic overfilling will degrade the backpack and shorten its lifespan over time. Travel backpacks, with their myriad pockets and compression straps, are also designed to keep your gear secure inside – if you overfill, you prevent the backpack from doing the job it was designed for.
- Stow securely.If stowing your travel backpack on a plane, take care to properly secure it; especially if you’re stowing it in an overhead bin. Unsecured luggage can fall or be propelled across the cabin during take-off or turbulence, potentially causing damage to your bag, your stuff, other people’s stuff and other people.