The best carry-on backpacks ready for any mission

Take to the air with everything you might need on the ground.

Best Overal

The North Face Surge

The North Face Surge

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Best Value

Hynes Eagle Travel 40L

Hynes Eagle Travel 40L

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Best Premium

Osprey Farpoint 40/Fairview 40

Osprey Farpoint 40/Fairview 40

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A smart traveler knows the value of a good, reliable carry-on backpack, one that can handle anything and is ready for any destination. Whether the mission be a holiday excursion to grandmother’s house or a whirlwind European tour while on leave, the right backpack can transform a frazzled foray through the airport into a smooth campaign to any location around the world. The perfect backpack is comfortable and big enough to accommodate multiple days worth of clothes and gear yet is laid out with compartments, pockets, pouches, sleeves, and more to keep everything in its place for quick and easy access. On the flip side, a carry-on backpack must be small enough to fit in the overhead bin or even under the seat in front of you. Know your objective, then grab the right gear for the mission.

Best Overall

The North Face Surge

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Best Value

Hynes Eagle Travel 40L

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Best Premium

Osprey Farpoint 40/Fairview 40

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Best Tactical

5.11 Tactical RUSH24 2.0

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Most TSA-Friendly

SwissGear 1900 ScanSmart

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Best High-Capacity

Orca Tactical 40L Salish 40L

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Best Carry-On

HighSpeedDaddy Diaper Bag Backpack

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Why should you trust us

I’ve been traipsing through airports for years, usually with a backpack slung over my shoulder. I hate checking bags, so I’ve learned the value of a solid backpack that does its job and stays out of the way on the plane, in the terminal, and on the street. I hate bags that won’t last, and I’ve written about go bags, covered how to build a bug out bag, and even reviewed a few bags from 5.11 Tactical and others.

Common types of carry-on backpacks

Urban backpack

One of the two most common styles available, the urban backpack is a regular site on college campuses, at the office, and in airport terminals. Originally designed with students in mind, this style includes a main compartment with a laptop sleeve, a couple smaller compartments, and a side pocket or two. If books, style, or a low profile are your thing, this may be your best option.

Camping backpack

With more and more millennials and post-millennials traveling to new hiking and camping spots halfway across the country, backpack manufacturers are creating packs that are just at home on a plane as on the trail. Many of these backpacks include the frames one might expect from an outdoor pack, but they also include laptop sleeves and other air-friendly features that make them an incredibly versatile option.

Tactical backpack

Think of a tactical backpack as a small, “civilianized” rucksack. Usually, these packs include a couple of main compartments with plenty of smaller external pouches and pockets and a slot for either a laptop or a hydration bladder (sometimes both). Some models may include a slot compartment for ground-based CCW use, and well-engineered designs will have zippers that run down to the base for easy packing and access to all your gear.

Features to look for in carry-on backpacks

Capacity

The size capacity of a carry-on backpack may just be its single most important feature. Usually, size capacity is measured in liters, although occasionally, some manufacturers prefer to stick with old-school cubic inches instead. The average size for a good carry-on backpack ranges between 35 and 40 liters, although larger sizes are available. On the flip side, anything smaller than 35 liters usually will only work for true minimalists or simply staying somewhere overnight.

Organization

Organization can make or break any backpack. Obviously, internal laptop sleeves provide much-needed protection for notebooks, but smaller compartments can be both stuff savers and sanity savers. Internal and external pockets, pouches, and sleeves make it easy to keep the right gear easily accessible while safely securing more sensitive items inside without forcing you to dig around for an eternity when you finally need them.

Hip belt

When you want to skip the luggage line and baggage claim, choose a backpack with a hip belt to avoid shoulder chafing and tension. A properly-equipped carry-on backpack will include a hip belt, and there is virtually no reason to pass on this in order to save a few bucks. Yeah, maybe you completed Ranger training with a literal ton on your back, but admit it, it sucked.

Benefits of carry-on backpacks

A carry-on backpack is a must-have for frequent flyers and casual travelers alike. Efficient packers can stick with two carry-on items and skip the ticket counters and baggage claims entirely, saving plenty of time and money in the process. Whether traveling domestically or internationally, a carry-on backpack can make travel smoother and simpler, making trips less stressful and making it easier to adapt to changing travel plans. A well-engineered backpack uses a logical layout with well-placed organizational compartments, keeping important items securely stowed inside while simultaneously providing plenty of pockets and pouches on the outside to make storage of and access to snacks, water, boarding passes, and other miscellaneous items simple and straightforward. Of course, the right pack also emphasizes comfort by using padded shoulder straps and by distributing its weight between those straps and a well-placed hip belt.

Pricing ranges for carry-on backpacks

Not surprisingly, carry-on backpacks have quite a sizable price range, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. You can usually find a good budget bag for anywhere between $35 and $50, but we would strongly recommend avoiding anything with a lower price tag as the build quality, layout, organizational features, and comfort will give you plenty of gripes. Higher quality carry-on backpacks will usually cost you somewhere between $50 and $100, although the best of the best will run you even higher. In the middle range, you can expect to find bags with a solid combination of durability, usability, and comfort, although you are unlikely to find the ideal backpack without dropping at least $100. The only bombproof options will run you three figures, but the results will be worth the investment.

How we chose our top picks

When reviewing new gear, we much prefer to go the hands-on route, but sometimes, a lack of resources may thwart our attempts to get our mitts on some cool gear. When that happens, we listen to those who have firsthand experience. We comb through reviews on Amazon, enthusiast blogs, professional publications, and more to bring you the best, most comprehensive information we can. We sift through it all, keeping the gold and tossing the rest.

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Brian Smyth

Contributing Writer

Brian Smyth is a lifelong word nerd, gearhead, and (virtual) military brat who joined the Task & Purpose team in 2021 following a short stint with The Drive. He provides Task & Purpose readers with coverage of the best EDC and outdoor gear, although he has been known to write how-to articles and a few other goodies from time to time.