Think about your bag’s main use. If you plan to do a lot of walking, look for a bag with cushioned, mesh-lined straps a good back system and hipbelt. If you’re more likely to use the bag as a city or laptop pack, look for padded sleeves and security features. If you’ll be carrying cameras and lenses, choose a bag that will hold them safely.
Some packs have rucksack straps, others have grab handles or shoulder straps, some offer a combination of all three. One carrying method might be sufficient if you’re only using the bag on the plane; if you plan to use the bag for city touring and walks, you might want more options.
Lighter is generally better for your back but less weight might also mean the bag has fewer comfort-focused features (eg good rucksack back system, padded hipbelt, choice of carrying method). Also, if the bag is heavy when empty, this may effect what else you can pack if your airline has a hand-luggage weight restriction.
Look for good cushioning in the areas that will be used most. If the bag has a zip-away rucksack system, ensure the bag is comfortable when being carried as a rucksack and by its other handles.
Many bags claim to comply with IATA guidelines on allowable cabin baggage size. However, these guidelines are not mandatory and many airlines have their own (smaller) dimension rules. Do some research before buying.
EASE OF USE
Hand luggage should be user-friendly. Is the main compartment easy to pack? Can you access the pockets quickly? Are the alternative carrying methods easy to use? Do you need all those extra functions or are they just extraneous bells and whistles, taking up weight and space?
Worldwide 45L £45
THE TEST: If you fancy a rucksack but are worried about the straps getting in the way sometimes, try this. Rucksack straps, a hipbelt (cushioned, mesh-lined, two zip pockets) and an airflow back system can be zipped away to leave a streamlined pack. There’s a grab handle so you can haul it onto shelves easily; it would benefit from a shoulder strap though.
On the outside are two wand pockets (ideal for tripods or water bottles), a front zip pocket (large enough for documents, pens etc) and bungee cords. The zipped main bag space has two access points – top and bottom – with drawstring fabric between them, so you can transform it into two compartments. It also has a hydration bladder pouch (which could also take an iPad), a zipped security pocket (big enough for a passport) and a rollaway raincover. At 1.25kg it’s fourth heaviest here. The verdict: A great choice for walkers – though they may not feel the need to hide the straps away in the first place.
AT Lightflite Carry-on £65
THE TEST: First thing: bags in this new travel range from Lowe come with a list of the airlines that accept each model (packed to capacity) as hand luggage. Handy. At 90g, this is the lightest pack here. It has stashaway cushioned, mesh-lined rucksack straps, which – unlike the Craghoppers pack – tuck away into pockets, saving weight on zips and fabric panels. There’s no fancy back system or hip belt but this carry method is only meant for short-term use.
There are also grab handles and a clip-on shoulder strap. At the top is a zip stash pocket with a key clip. There’s one wand pocket on the side and a luggage tag and compression straps so you can make it smaller. A large tamper proof zip enables you to open up the whole inside for easy packing. There are zipped mesh pockets and elasticised straps to hold items down. The verdict: Great value, super lightweight, versatile and easy to pack, though not the most comfy on the back.
Farpoint 40 £80
THE TEST: For an extra £15 you get a similar style bag to Lowe with a slightly more refined rucksack function. This also unzips fully so you can pack it like a suitcase; it also offers two grab handles and a shoulder strap. But there is a proper back system, which is mesh covered for ventilation, making walking more comfortable. This all zips away, which adds weight – at 1.2kg it’s third-lightest on test.
Inside the good-size main compartment there are clippable elasticated straps for securing items and zipped mesh panels (good for dirty washing). On the outside there are front wand pockets that will take a water bottle, a zipped compartment including a key clip (good for tickets, money etc) and compression straps. It also offers two padded sleeves suitable for tablets and laptops (at the same time) and a zip pocket for accessories. The verdict: Versatile, well-featured and good for those carrying laptops or tablets – all for a reasonable weight and good price.
Gear Hauler £130
THE TEST: This pack is similar to the Osprey but slightly lighter (1.15kg; second-lightest on test). It has a large main compartment – though no elasticated straps to hold items down – and a padded compartment for tablets/laptops. It has grab handles and a shoulder strap; there are also hideaway rucksack straps that zip into a front pocket – a nifty design, though having the bag’s front against your back isn’t the most comfortable.
There are compression straps and a self-repair main zip. The front pocket has compartments tailored for phones and pens, a zipped pouch for headphones and a security pocket for a passport/tickets. On one end there’s a generous zipped pocket that’s perfect for dirty/wet clothes or a pair of shoes – though this takes up some space in the main compartment when it’s packed. The verdict: Some nice features, a good weight and the ability to safely carry a laptop or tablet, but the price tag may be a turn off .
Venturesafe 45L £190
THE TEST: Yes, pricey – but this is no ordinary bag, it hides a gamut of security features. It has a built-in slash-proof mesh, and all zips are puncture resistant and interlock for extra security. Above the main zips is a ‘roobar’ – an anchor point on which to hook and lock your zips; it can also be attached to the stainless steel locking cable (for securing to a pole/table), which is covered by fabric so it doesn’t scream ‘I’m valuable!’.
All this adds weight: at 2.4kg, this is the heaviest on test by far. It’s also a good pack. It has compression straps, two wand pockets, a suitcase-like opening for easy packing, internal luggage straps, mesh-zipped panels and lots of space. The back panel unzips to reveal a rucksack back system (best on test): adjustable and ventilated, with a cushioned and mesh-lined hip belt and straps. This does add more weight though, and takes up room inside. The verdict: Heavy and pricey but if you’re worried about security it’s worth the weight.
THE TEST: This hardy pack combines the safe carrying of camera equipment with a comfy design, suitable for walkers. Built to take an Internal Camera Unit (section dividers for camera lenses; the ICU for this bag is £50), it also has a padded sleeve for a laptop/tablet. An internal aluminium frame helps spread the load, so at 1.9kg, this is second-heaviest here.
There are clips for extra attachments – even skis can be mounted. Zips are heavy duty; some are coated to keep water out. There are side compression straps and a hydration pocket. At the bottom there’s space for wet gear and a raincover, plus a stash pocket. Top lid pockets have specific space for camera memory cards, spare batteries etc, and the hipbelt and back system offer good ventilation and cushioning. Access is through the back panel where there are more pockets. There’s a decent amount of room inside too. The verdict: A hefty price tag, but excellent for photographers who do multi-day walking.