Best Travel Backpack – And the Winner Is…

Evaluating Travel Backpacks

For the past several years I have found largely moved from the rollaboard to a travel backpack, particularly for trips involving multiple stops. When I am going to be getting in and out of planes, trains, and automobiles, I like to keep my hands free instead of committing them to drag/carry a carry on suitcase. I have now traveled several times each with three different travel backpacks and have come up with my personal winner. 

First, let’s introduce the competitors. The first I tried was from REI, though I do not remember the exact model name. It looked like a typical alpine backpack with a few modifications for travel. I gave this backpack away a few months ago. My second backpack is the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L in True Blue. My third, a favorite, is the eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible in Sinful Red which is actually more orange than red to my eyes (maybe that is why it is sinful red). 

As I have traveled with these different backpacks, a hierarchy of importance for the various features has emerged for me that forms the basis of my preference among the three backpacks. Before I get to that, here are some pros and cons of the backpacks.

REI Backpack (2 out of 5)


  • Extraordinarily adjustable and supportive shoulder strap/belt system
  • Strong capacity
  • Detachable daypack
  • Water bottle holders
  • Price – ~$100


  • No clamshell – poor organization
  • Limited outside pockets 
  • The elongated shape was difficult to fit in some overhead bins
  • Poor laptop handling

Cotopaxi Allpa 35L (3.5 out of 5)


  • Great looking bag
  • Very supportive shoulder strap/belt system
  • Security loops for zippers
  • Clamshell with very good internal organization
  • Good laptop pocket


  • Very limited outside pockets
  • Mediocre capacity (~35L)
  • Price –  $200

eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible (4.5 out of 5)


  • Excellent capacity (~55L fully expanded)
  • Expandable
  • Good outside pockets including water bottle pocket
  • Clamshell-like with organizing shelf/straps; very good internal organization
  • Good laptop pocket
  • Price – seemingly always on sale for $99 or less


  • Mediocre shoulder strap/belt system 
  • No zippered mesh cover for the main compartment

As I have used these different backpacks, the three most important features for me have emerged as:

  1. Outside pockets
  2. Inside organization
  3. Capacity

I am sure that the idea of outside pockets being so important might be strange to some. However, I found having easy access to items such as headphones, passport, water bottle, snacks, etc., was critical for me while getting on and off of trains and planes. I really missed that with the Allpa. Also, packing and unpacking were so much easier and less frustrating with the Allpa and Mother Lode than with the REI because of the clamshell design. Finally, while I also try and pack as light as possible, the ability to expand the Mother Lode has been a very welcome feature on certain trips. I will note that on those trips I did wish that the Mother Lode did have better shoulder straps, though I find I do not end up actually carrying travel backpacks that much given how often it is off my back during various forms of transportation.

Overall, I would not recommend the REI model that I had. Conversely, the Allpa and Mother Lode are both great bags that I can recommend. However, there can be only one winner and, based on better outside pockets, larger capacity, and lower cost, the winner is…the Mother Lode. Now get out there and have some fine outings!