Trusty backpacks are the luggage of choice for travelers embarking on a long journey.
After all, unlike a bulky wheeled suitcase, you’ll be able to whisk your baggage with ease over uneven terrain, up and down hostel stairs and onto that crowded public bus. Gone are the days when you were confined to calling a taxi every time you stumbled upon a cobblestone street because you couldn’t carry your bag to your next destination.
Of course, hybrids such as the wheeled backpack do have their place. You can even narrow down your options by searching for bags specifically for women or serious photographers, among other things.
But regardless of who you are and where you’re going, for budding and expert backpackers alike, it’s hard to beat the front-loading design for the sheer convenience it affords.
As a front-loading travel backpack advocate, I’ll provide a rundown on why front-loaders are the top choice, what to consider when buying one and the best options available on the market today.
Let’s get backpacking!
What’s a front-loading travel backpack?
Backpacks have been around for a heck of a long time. More precisely, since at least 3,000 B.C., according to an anthropological discovery among the fossilized remains of Ötzi the Iceman. His immaculately preserved 5,000-year-old rucksack was discovered in the Italian Alps back in 1991.
Only in recent times, however, have advanced manufacturing methods brought about the rise of the front-loading backpack. And for many of us nomadic types, the concept has been a game changer.
As the name implies, front-loading backpacks include a large zipper that allows them to be opened from the front, usually in addition to the top. The advantage is obvious: a vastly superior degree of accessibility.
The long zipper allows travelers to plonk their pack on the floor and open it up like a suitcase, quickly loading and unloading their gear or rearranging items with ease.
Finally, the use of zippers rather than drawstrings makes the bag easy enough to secure with a simple padlock.
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Why would anyone choose a top-loading travel backpack?
A front-loading backpack’s counterpart is the top-loading backpack, which you can only open from the top.
Most travelers wouldn’t dream of limiting themselves by purchasing a top-loader. Unless, of course, they happened to have a major interest in hiking.
Top-loaders have a longer, slimmer and lighter design that provides superior hip support. Consequently, they’re noticeably more comfortable over prolonged periods, particularly multi-day excursions through rugged wilderness regions.
Nevertheless, the convenience of a front-loader outweighs the comfort of a top-loader for all but the most passionate outdoor enthusiasts.
Is trekking your primary motivation for traveling? Then go with a top-loader. Otherwise, front-loading is your best bet.
It’s All About Easy Access: The Best Front-Loading Travel Backpacks
What to consider when purchasing a front-loading travel backpack
Brand and price
As one might expect, well-regarded and expensive brands tend to manufacture better backpacks. Nevertheless, avoid making a purchase on brand name alone. It’s crucial to factor in all the relevant characteristics to ensure you pick the best possible product for you.
Do, however, avoid the temptation to purchase suspiciously cheap, no-name gear. It may look the same, but inferior stitching, materials and design will cause it to quickly fall apart. As a result, you’ll have to fork out cash for a replacement much earlier than intended.
A sturdy high-end backpack, on the other hand, will withstand an impressive amount of wear and tear. Take it from me. I’ve been rocking mine for 13 years, and it’s still going strong.
As a rule of thumb, expect to pay 150-350 USD for a durable front-loading travel backpack.
Carry-on backpacks are becoming increasingly popular as more airlines begin to charge travelers for checked luggage. Moreover, you’ll skirt having to wait around the baggage carousal and circumvent the possibility of the airline losing all your gear.
The downside is that you’ll be severely restricted in terms of space. At most, you’ll get 40 liters, which is enough for a modest selection of clothing and a minimal amount of electronics. Most airlines allow dimensions of around 22 x 18 x 10″ (56 x 45 x 25 cm), although it varies from carrier to carrier.
Larger, check-in backpacks range from 45-120 liters. Somewhere between 50 and 75 liters is the sweet spot for most, while bags with 80-120 liters are only necessary for extended outdoor excursions.
Examine and try on a few different sizes to determine which feels best for you.
Tough fabrics, such as canvas, ripstop nylon or a high-end synthetic, are the hallmark of a quality backpack. Ensure it’s made of water resistant and quick-dry materials for those inevitable slogs through the rain.
Opt for an aluminum frame for its lightweight and sturdy properties. Also, check for double or triple stitching around the seams of the straps as these are the first bits to give way.
Aside from the shoulders, adjustable hip and chest straps will go a long way toward your overall comfort. Ensure these are sufficiently padded and try on the pack to see how it fits your frame.
A breathable mesh behind your back works wonders in reducing sweat in humid environments.
Keep an eye out for added extras you think you might need. External compartments are great for quickly accessing odds and ends, while outer cords are required for tying on bulky camping gear.
If you travel with a laptop, a dedicated protector sleeve could avoid a troublesome travel insurance claim. Some designs include a smaller daypack, which if you don’t already have, will be essential for day trips.
The best front-loading travel backpacks across each category
The best carry-on front-loading travel backpack: Osprey Farpoint 40
Globetrotters who value the freedom and simplicity of lightweight travel need look no further than the Farpoint 40, a petite offering with a functional modern design. Osprey has earned a solid reputation over the years for creating quality products, and their flagship carry-on backpack certainly lives up to the hype.
Built from 210D nylon ripstop material, the bag features padded hip and shoulder compression straps as part of its anti-gravity, custom-fit design. Combined with a breathable back mesh, these features make for a super comfortable backpack.
The main compartment contains the bulk of the space, including a protective sleeve for a 15.4″ laptop or tablet. Meanwhile, a top and midsection provide easy access to various odds and ends.
Note that long-term minimalist traveling isn’t for everyone. You’ll need to wash your clothes often and forgo luxury items to make this lifestyle work. Photographers, hikers and digital nomads who haul a lot of gear should give this bag a miss.
Carry-on: Yes, almost all carriers
Dimensions: 22 x 14 x 9″
The best midsize front-loading travel backpack: Kelty Redwing 50
Colorado-based Kelty is a big name in the outdoor adventure goods scene, and none of their products outsell the coveted Redwing 50. At 50L, it’s the ideal compact compromise for when carry-on just won’t cut it.
To keep the load as close as possible to your center of gravity, the Redwing features comfy shoulder and removable hip compression straps, while the hex mesh back panel provides ample breathability. Storage wise, you can quickly access the main compartment from the top and the front, and the twin side pockets are always within easy reach.
Although it’s marketed towards short-term hikers, this midsize pack is awesome for international wanderers, as well.
Dimensions: 26 x 16 x 12″
The best large front-loading travel backpack: Osprey Atmos 65
This is another excellent offering from Osprey, this time with the more outdoorsy traveler in mind. With an inbuilt hydration reservoir and sleeping bag compartment, as well as plenty of external space to strap on your camping gear, this big boy will serve you well on a wilderness adventure or two.
Suspension features include a padded and adjustable hip belt and harness, as well as the company’s famed anti-gravity back technology for a sweet custom fit. Overall, it’s an excellent compromise between capacity, comfort and weight.
Note that long-term hikers—think five days or more—will probably want to invest in a bigger, top-loading pack. But for the world nomad who likes to embark on the occasional multi-day trek, the Osprey Atmos 65 is hard to beat.
Dimensions: 34 x 15 x 16″
The best front-loading travel backpack for business travelers and digital nomads: NOMATIC 40L Travel Bag
Backed by a multimillion-dollar Kickstarter campaign, the NOMATIC 40L Travel Bag set out to become the most innovative piece of luggage on the market for the discerning business traveler. And considering the dizzying array of bells and whistles within, it appears to have hit the mark.
Unique features include a shoe compartment to keep those leather loafers looking dapper and a removable laundry mesh to air out your dirty clothes. A dedicated undergarment section, a protective netbook and tablet sleeve, a magnetic water bottle holder, removable hip straps and a pass-through slip for rolling luggage come part of the parcel, as well.
Frequent flyers love the fact it’s TSA checkpoint compliant and can quickly transform into a more professional looking duffel bag.
Although the backpack is designed for urban use, its tough, water-resistant tarpaulin and ballistic weave can withstand a respectable amount of wear and tear.
On the downside, it doesn’t come cheap, and some might consider it to be excessively over-engineered.
Carry-on: Yes, almost all carriers
Dimensions: 21 x 14 x 9″
The best front-loading backpacks for photographers: Lowepro ProTactic 450 AW
Photographers prefer highly compartmentalized bags with enough specially designed sections to keep their delicate accessories firmly tucked in place. And that’s exactly what you get with the ProTactic from Lowepro, the best all-around option on the market to date.
Featuring 210D nylon dobby as well as a slip lock hip, shoulder and chest compression straps, the bag excels in comfort and durability despite being a little heavier than most.
Within its modest frame, expect to fit up to two DSLRs, one 70-200 mm lens, a 15″ laptop and countless accessories, all of which are easily accessed from its numerous compartments and external pockets. Lighten the load a little, and you’ll be able to tuck in a DJI Mavic Pro drone, as well.
Bear in mind that the ProTactic is a dedicated camera backpack. Unless you’re rocking a DSLR and a whole bunch of kit, you won’t need something as specialized as this.
Carry-on: Yes, on almost all carriers
Dimensions: 13 x 10 x 19″
Regardless of your travel style, one of the above front-loading backpacks should be the ideal option for you.
Before you know it, you’ll be brandishing your super accessible front-loading travel backpack with glee as you gallivant around the globe in style.
Harry is a South American-based freelance writer who covers travel, the arts and culture, among many other things.
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