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News How to choose a carry-on backpack – plus the 5 best

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How to choose a carry-on backpack – plus the 5 best

Don't buy another backpack until you've read our essential guide to choosing. And if you need inspiration for which models might fit the bill, we've brought you those, too.

When it comes to cabin luggage, some people prefer to carry rather than roll. When buying a new backpack that you want to use as your carry-on, look out for these key features:


  • Choose a backpack that’s 55x35x20cm or smaller so it will fit within the majority of airlines’ carry-on guidelines
  • Well-padded shoulder straps with a sternum strap (the small strap you clasp over your chest) and waist strap will make long walks through the airport much more bearable. The sternum and waist straps help spread the weight through your entire torso, helping relieve some of the stress on your shoulders and neck. Look for models that allow you to tuck these away somewhere when not needed, such as when you’re using it as a daypack.
  • Back padding will keep your camera and laptop from jabbing you in the back as you queue up for passport control.
  • If you’re buying online, measure your torso from the top of your back to your lower back to try to get the right fit – and buy from a retailer that allows returns so you can return it if it’s uncomfortable when you try it at home.
  • Ensure there are two zips on every compartment so that if you’re forced to check your bag, then at least you can lock all the zips for security. Plus, when you’re out and about in crowded cities, you can lock the compartments to prevent pickpocketing.
  • Large external pockets will make your trip through airport security easier. Just shove your bag of liquids, tablet, keys and phone in one of those.
  • Water resistance is vital. At some point, you’ll be caught in a downpour, and you don’t want everything inside soaked. Look for thick, durable material, such as extra-strong nylon, and seams sewn with thick threads.
  • The wheels dilemma – some backpacks come with wheels and handle, which makes carrying your bag a lot easier on smooth ground, such as in airports. However, these add weight, and although the wheels are typically covered when not in use, they can poke into your back. So think carefully before buying one of these.
  • Handles on the top or side will make it a lot easier to heft your bag into the overhead compartment.

Riutbag backpack opened to see inside

Best for security features

RiutBag R15.3

Dimensions 55x35x20cm Weight 1.23kg Volume 15 litres Costs around £199

Why we love it Most backpacks have their zips on the outer side, but on the RiutBag, all zips are securely and comfortably designed against your back for your security – plus there’s a water-bottle holder tucked within its profile, a 37x25x3cm laptop compartment and a handy pocket for stowing your passport. And while the exterior is a black, waterproof Cordura fabric, the internal lining is a dazzling yellow, making it easier to find your stuff.

Need to know Crowdfunded on Kickstarter by more than 2,500 backers, the RiutBag was created by Sarah Giblin after gathering feedback from real city travellers. She meticulously checks every backpack – zip by zip – by hand.

Gate 8 luggage

Best for optional wheeling

Gate8 Cabin Mate Hand Luggage Lite

Dimensions 55x35x20cm Weight 2.8kg Volume 33 litres Costs around £159

Why we love it It’s actually two bags in one: a main backpack, complete with inline wheels, and a lightweight aluminium extension handle, plus a detachable rucksack for your 16-inch laptop that can be swiftly zipped off to keep by your side on the flight. Gate8 have thought of everything, from the water- and stain-resistant ballistic nylon exterior to the accessory pockets on the sides and the nifty garment-hanging bar. There’s even a transparent, detachable wash bag that can be used for passing through security.

Need to know This version was specifically designed to fit the carry-on allowances of 99% of airlines, including FlyBe, and has a five-year warranty.

Eastpack Hutson backpack

Best for style

Eastpak Hutson

Dimensions 52x31x16.5cm Weight 0.9kg Volume 27 litres Costs around £85

Why we love it The Hutson has a lot going for it: the 30-year warranty is a rare treat, for a start. What’s more, the Ash Blend2 finish (a stylish, soft grey) will set it apart in a sea of black backpacks and won’t look out of place when striding around a city at your destination. The two front pockets will prove very useful for your passport, chargers and other smaller travel essentials, plus there’s also an internal organiser and a padded, 51x30cm laptop sleeve with side access.

Need to know Not only does this look good, it’s also comfortable to carry – it’s ergonomically designed to lighten your load with a quilted back panel and padded straps.

North Face Flyweight backpack

Best for folding away

The North Face Flyweight

Dimensions 40x26x17cm Weight 0.17kg Volume 17 litres Costs around £40

Why we love it The North Face’s popular Flyweight collection is now 30 per cent lighter than before, weighing in at just 170g – less than an iPhone X. It’s ideal for those taking a quick trip and wanting to avoid eating into your weight allowance. Folding up into a small pouch at the front, it can also be easily stored away when not in use.

Need to know As this one is both foldable and fabulously light, it has room for just the essentials: breathable mesh shoulder and back panels, a front pocket and water-bottle holders on the sides.

Woman modelling the Bergen backpack

Best budget buy

Cabin Max Bergen Dimensions 50x35x20cm Weight 0.8kg Volume 38.5 litres Costs around** £30

Why we love it The sturdy Bergen may not be the most beautiful backpack on our list, but at an economical £30 you won’t care a jot. Functioning as both a shoulder bag and a backpack (you can pack away the straps), it’s lightly padded to protect your belongings but still impressively light, as it’s constructed from showerproof 600D PU material.

Need to know There are no bells and whistles here, but a 38.5-litre capacity is not to be sniffed at. A front zipped pocket ensures your essentials are easy to reach, the suitcase-style wide opens to an interior with convenient packing straps, and there’s an internal pocket for smaller items.

Have your perfect bag, but can’t decide on your dream trip? Click here to find flights using the ‘Everywhere’ search to find out where the cheapest flights are all over the globe

Published March 2018. Prices correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change and/or availability.

If you’re not sure if you want a backpack or wheeled bag, then check out our guide to five carry-on bags that will fit on any airline.