Travel Backpacks

A photo of a backpack on a busy city street, courtesy of OpenAI's DALL-E

There is just something satisfying about a quality backpack. The ultra-durable materials, effortless zippers, and everything organized into a dedicated pocket.

When I travel, the goal is always to take just one bag. It serves double-duty as my primary piece of luggage, and an EDC (every day carry) once I reach my destination. To do that, I need a bag that expands to hold about 30 liters of volume, but can collapse into a manageable day pack (without becoming a floppy mess).

I plan on traveling quite a bit in 2023, so I started to survey the available options. Big thanks to /r/OneBag, /r/ManyBaggers, and Pack Hacker for having such a wealth of reviews and discussions on literally all the bags. Check them out if you are looking for suggestions. For me, I narrowed it down to a shortlist of four likely candidates.

This is not a full review of the below bags, but a high-level comparison. A head-to-head battle, going through their pros, cons, and who I think they’re best suited for. To do that, we need to pack some stuff:

The Loadout

My travel gear has trended (surprisingly) less tech-heavy over time. I used to always bring a laptop, iPad/Nintendo Switch, and DJI Mavic drone with me, which would obviously eat a large portion of the bag. Nowadays, I’m never more than 40:60 tech-to-clothing, especially since I always bring an extra pair of shoes.

To test these bags, I’ve tried to pack for a colder, but not snowy climate. Anything above 30°F (-1°C) is fair game.

Travel Kit

A flay lay photo of my primary travel items

Above I have:

I’ll admit, I’m a recent convert to packing cubes. The added compression lets me pack much more clothing than I could fit otherwise. Not sure how I managed before!

It’s also way easier to decide what I can or can’t bring. If it can’t fit in a cube, I know I have to leave something else behind.


A flay lay photo of my primary every day carry items

For an around town carry, I leave behind the clothing/toiletries for:

The water bottle and cables live in a small sling on travel days, but swap into my main bag once I arrive at my destination.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut


Specs: 30L capacity, 2.88 lbs empty, 24.0 lbs full, 19.7” x 12.6” x 7.9”

Note: For reference, I am 6 feet tall and ~180 pounds

A comparison image between the Tom Bihn Aeronaut holding EDC and travel items


  • Convertible between a duffel and backpack
  • Good amount of organization w/ two large end pockets
  • Holds its shape fairly well, easy to live out of


  • Backpack mode is not the most comfortable
  • No “true” laptop compartment
  • Not EDC material, due to its size


This is my current travel bag. I am admittedly a big Tom Bihn fan, ever since I got my Synapse 19 (which is still going strong 7 years later). But the Aeronaut is definitely more duffel than backpack, as the straps are not padded enough when fully packed. And the only slot for a laptop is the empty strap compartment, which can’t zip shut in backpack mode.

A newer version with the Edgeless straps from the Synik/Techonaut was just released, which should be more comfortable.

Tom Bihn Techonaut


Specs: 30L capacity, 2.54 lbs empty, 23.6 lbs full, 19.7” x 12.6” x 8.0”

A comparison image between the Tom Bihn Techonaut holding EDC and travel items


  • Convertible between a backpack and duffel
  • Great organization with a variety of pocket sizes
  • Nicely padded straps and back panel


  • Duffel carry is less structured vs. the Aeronaut
  • Straps place more weight on the inside edge (on me anyways)
  • Not EDC material, due to its size


The Techonaut is a great update on the Aeronaut, with a much improved backpack mode. It’s still not EDC friendly though, since the main volume does not collapse when empty.

If you don’t care about reusing your bag for EDC, this would be a great dedicated travel bag.

Tom Bihn Synik


Specs: 30L capacity, 3.00 lbs empty, 20.8 lbs full, 20.0” x 13.4” x 8.0”

A comparison image between the Tom Bihn Synik holding EDC and travel items


  • Best-in-class organization
  • Two-way quick access to laptop slot
  • Collapses down for EDC easily


  • Could not hold second pair of shoes
  • Fully packed bag protrudes from back
  • Larger 30L size looks… turtle shelly


The newer relative of my Synapse 19 shares many of its traits. The layout of the Synik, with the organization pockets on top of the main compartment, helps it flatten out when not fully packed. The rounded shape also means it’s a less efficient use of space, explaining why I couldn’t get my second pair of shoes into the bag.

If you are heavier on tech than clothing, or really love having dedicated pockets for everything, the Synik is for you.

Peak Design Travel Backpack


Specs: 33L capacity, 3.17 lbs empty, 23.4 lbs full, 20.9” x 13.4” x 7.9”

A comparison image between the Peak Design Travel Backpack holding EDC and travel items


  • Most padded of the bags here, for delicate items
  • Highly structured, completely holds its shape
  • Pivoting straps are a great innovation
  • Expansion space cleanly zips away


  • Could not hold rain jacket
  • Interior mesh pockets are not useful
  • Pivoting straps are an additional stress point
  • Straps themselves could use more padding


This backpack holds its shape whether full or empty, because of all the extra padding on the backpack walls. I do really like the pivoting strap mechanism, since it allows the straps to completely form to the shape of your body. At the same time, I’m nervous that enough weight on the joints could cause a failure, but I haven’t seen any reports of that happening.

If you need to carry more delicate items, or you have a lighter loadout than me (~21 lbs), the Peak is a great option.

ULA Dragonfly


Specs: 30L capacity, 1.84 lbs empty, 23.2 lbs full, 19.5” x 11.0” x 7.0”

A comparison image between the ULA Dragonfly holding EDC and travel items


  • Lightest bag in the roundup
  • Incredibly flexible due to its expandibility
  • Tons of external lash points (think tripod or sleeping pad)


  • Bag pulls away from the back in travel mode
  • “Ultralight” hardware feels cheap in the hand
  • Front mesh pocket is best for flat items


I was shocked by how much the Dragonfly held. It’s only slightly larger than my Synapse 19 when empty, but can expand to hold the entire loadout thanks to the clever use of exterior mesh pockets. Not without fault though, the bag pulled away from my upper back, digging into my lumbar area. Rearranging things inside did not immediately help.

If you are looking for the most versatile, clamshell backpack that can easily go from trail to city to airport, the Dragonfly is your guy.

Trough of (Bag) Disillusionment

At this point, I was a bit conflicted. The Dragonfly seemed like the best choice, except it didn’t fit my torso. And I was bummed that the two Tom Bihn options, which were by far the most comfortable, also had issues. So I continued to research, and oddly enough I ran into this post on the Tom Bihn Facebook group reviewing a 23 liter bag. Carlos mentions that the bag easily held the same contents of his Synik 30.

Last minute, I decided to include this as a dark horse…

Tom Bihn Shadow Guide


Specs: 23L capacity, 2.19 lbs empty, 23.4 lbs full, 19.3” x 12.6” x 9.0”

A comparison image between the Tom Bihn Shadow Guide holding EDC and travel items


  • Top loader design
  • Most expandable capacity
  • Very comfortable carry


  • Top loader (cuts both ways)
  • Tons of dangling straps
  • Technically over carry-on size (23” tall)
  • Minimal organization


The rumors turned out to be true, the Shadow Guide 23 managed to swallow all of my gear, with room to spare! It’s also more compressable than the Dragonfly, and doesn’t have the back-digging issue.

The downsides: it’s a top loader, whereas the rest are clamshell openings. Dangling straps can be managed with strap keepers, and (when fully loaded) it’s slightly over the US carry-on limit of 22 inches tall. But I doubt I’d ever be stopped for being 1 inch over.

Why Does This Work?

This raises the question, how can a 23-liter pack hold just as much as bags 30% larger? Especially since Tom Bihn is one of the few companies following some sort of measuring standard for volume. I have a few theories:

  1. On the product page, TB lists the Shadow Guide as being 19.3 inches tall. It could be that, when taking measurements, they did not fill the bag past the point of the drawstring closing completely (as I have).
  2. The Shadow Guide is basically one big tube, which let’s you pack everything together instead of potentially under-filling several pockets. More organization = less liters for stuff
  3. Bag of holding magic ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


So, to summarize the above: if you are looking for one bag that can do it all, going from hikes, to cafés, to planes, there are two really great options.

And if you are less picky than me (very likely), any of the other bags here would probably work just as well. Happy travels!

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