Backpacks are back.
In a world of shrinking personal space, overstuffed overhead bins and exorbitant airline baggage fees, travelers are rediscovering the convenience and savings of wearing their luggage. For many, the “aha” moment came this summer as they watched a crowd of in-the-know travelers breeze through the terminal unencumbered by extendible handles and the bulk of things they didn’t really need.
That crowd is growing. The latest Travel Goods Association market report, released in 2016, found that unit sales had surged 22 percent as American travelers bought a record-breaking 176.1 million backpacks.
But the modern backpack is a far cry from that rucksack you strapped on when you were a kid — the one with everything inelegantly wedged into a single compartment. The most innovative wearable luggage allows technology, clothing and food to coexist without making a mess. At times, it stretches the very definition of “backpack.”
They’re being discovered by travelers such as Robby Bearman, an operations manager for a transportation company in San Francisco. He was looking for something to use for short trips and for his daily commute, and a backpack made the most sense.
His choice: the Everyday Backpack by Peak Design ($259), a Kickstarter-funded pack with lots of clever features. The Everyday is filled with innovations, including its magnetic closing system, expandable external side pockets and a modern aesthetic that looks decidedly un-backpacky. (Okay, I just made up that word, but stay with me.) Bearman liked the easy access to the main compartment from both the top and sides, thanks to swiveling shoulder straps and dual weatherproof side zips.
“The main compartment can be reconfigured with Velcro dividers, which is a handy feature, for example, to keep a banana from being squished,” he says.
Some of the new backpacks are built around technology. Take the Razer Tactical Backpack ($119) which has ample room for Jean Paldan’s computer and enough space for a headset, a tablet computer, books, snacks and a change of clothes. “It holds everything,” says Paldan, a web designer from Oxford, England. “Plus, it’s ridiculously comfortable to wear.” The Razer is also cool — which is a bonus if you’re traveling with your family.
Another trendy backpack is the STM Banks ($129), a new release from its Streets Collection, which is tech-friendly and looks good, too. Among its features: a quilted interior lining that protects your gadgets, side pockets with stretch mesh for water bottles and an ergonomic, curved fit to reduce shoulder strain. It’s the backpack my 10-year-old daughter wanted, so if you’re interested in impressing your kids, this is the one to buy.
The newest packs also cater to your power needs. Mobile charging company TYLT offers two backpacks that let you charge your devices while you’re carrying them. The Energi Pro Power Backpack ($149) offers a full charge to your phone, tablet and laptop, thanks to a powerful battery in its front pouch. And the Energi Backpack ($99), billed as a “next-gen” briefcase, backpack and mobile charging station, can route the cables to any one of the five external pockets or two internal Pockets. The TYLT backpacks are a godsend for travelers who keep pushing their electronics to the limit, like my kids, but they also take up more space than the other backpacks I evaluated.
For sheer coolness, it’s hard to match Travelpro’s Platinum Magna 2 Business Backpack ($161). It’s sleek, black and constructed with the frequent flier in mind. A “checkpoint friendly” carry-on, it’s built to Transportation Security Administration specifications so that you can pass through security without removing your laptop. And it also comes with extra safety, including padded corduroy laptop and tablet sleeves and an RFID-blocking interior pocket to keep your ID and credit cards from prying eyes. If you’re thinking of taking your backpack on a business trip, this is the one for it.
There are other backpacks for the security-conscious, too. Take Travelon’s Anti-Theft Urban Backpack ($130), which has a variety of features that will protect your personal property. Those include an interior locking compartment for your tablet, a locking front zip compartment with RFID-blocking card and passport slots and slash-resistant body construction to protect you from slash-and-grab thieves. Best of all, the Travelon backpack wasn’t any heavier than the other luggage I tested.
But sometimes, the best backpack is no backpack. To call the Eagle Creek Converge Weekend Bag ($179) a backpack would be an understatement. It can be used as a traditional carry-on bag, thanks to side handles, but also has a pouch for a large laptop, a tablet computer, a phone and a storage area for your clothes. The best part of the Converge is the fabric, a PU-coated, water-resistant polyester. Spills are inevitable, but at least your gadgets won’t get soaked.
If you’re just interested in carrying a laptop, a charger and maybe a tablet computer, you’ll probably want to leave the clever compartments behind and go with a more minimalist solution, such as the Knomo James ($229), which does that one thing really well.
Oh, sure, you can strap it to your back if you want, but this bag is meant to be carried, as, indeed, most luggage is. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.