You don’t need an array of bags to suit different carry situations – expandable backpacks offer a one-stop solution for all your needs
You don’t have to invest in several bags to cover you for a range of activities; for commuting, working, hiking or trips away, the best expandable backpacks offer plenty of flexible space to suit several needs in just a single bag.
Expandable backpacks deliver greater – or reduced – capacity via folded sections of material that you either unzip/zip up or fold up/down, depending on the storage required. Once released, an extra section adds volume to one of the backpack’s compartments; but when you want the backpack to be neat and nimble, you can leave the expansion panel zipped up or folded.
One of the great things about using an expandable backpack is that you can choose a bag that’s well suited to your day-to-day, while having the option to add capacity on those occasions you need to carry extra items. This makes expandable backpacks perfect for day-to-day commuting, but also for overnight trips. Backpack capacity is measured in litres – as is the extent to which a bag expands. For instance, you might get a 25-litre backpack that expands to a volume of 28 litres, or a 50-litre bag that expands to 60 litres.
So whether you require a backpack for formal work use, travelling abroad, hiking or cycling, our selection of multi-use wonders is sure to offer the versatility you’re looking for. First, read on to discover the features you should consider when choosing the best expandable backpack for you.
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How to choose the right expandable backpack for you
Would an expandable backpack be suitable for my needs?
You can find expandable backpacks in many different styles, shapes and sizes. Some are designed for formal work use, while others are made for outdoor pursuits such as hiking and cycling. The two types are often easy to tell apart by their style and colour scheme. Other expandable backpacks sit somewhere in-between the city and the wilds, with a mix of features that could equip you to head straight from work to the campsite.
Expandable backpacks can be useful for air travellers, too, who may need the option to tweak the size of their cabin bag in order to avoid excess baggage charges. If the bag proves too large at check-in, you might be able to zip up the expansion panel, repack the bag and score a satisfying victory over a money-grubbing airline.
Are there specific features I should look for?
Commuter bags often include useful work-focused features such as laptop compartments, smartphone pockets and document storage. We’ve even come across one example that has a removable zipper that transforms into a smartphone stand.
Hiking backpacks tend to focus on helping you carry heavy loads in challenging conditions and for long periods. A good hiking pack will offer multiple adjustable straps – including ones across the sternum and stomach, as well as the adjustable shoulder straps found on most backpacks. Some adventure-focused backpacks go further, with features such as removable rain covers, and emergency whistles incorporated into their strap clips.
General design features to consider
As well as activity-specific features that you might need to focus on, there are more general questions to ask before investing in an expandable backpack for you:
- Capacity – You need a bag that can contain all of your stuff, whether that’s for a multi-day hike, or just your daily commute. If you’re buying a backpack online, you might be able to get a rough idea of whether it’s spacious enough to carry your stuff by finding a bin liner with a similar capacity, and seeing if it will hold all your day-to-day essentials.
- Suitability for your lifestyle – If you need a bag to wear in a formal working environment, a neutral-coloured commuter backpack would usually be a good pick. Or, if you need an expandable backpack to take camping or hiking, comfort-focused features such as multiple adjustable straps will be key. Whether you’re a city slicker or an intrepid hiker, be sure to choose a backpack that suits pretty much all of the situations that apply to you.
- Your mode of travel – Your chosen modes of transport will also influence the type of backpack that suits you best. For instance, cyclists should look for a backpack that comes with a good rain cover and fits comfortably while you’re in the saddle. Reflective materials are also helpful for safety-conscious cyclists and pedestrians.
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The best expandable backpacks you can buy in 2023
1. Targus Work+ Expandable 28L Daypack: Best expandable backpack overall
Price: £90 | Buy now from Targus
The Work+ Expandable 28L Daypack is a smart-looking backpack that’s ideal for formal workplaces. In fact, if you’re wearing a carefully ironed outfit that you’d like to keep pristine, then you can even carry this bag as a sort of briefcase, using a handle on its side.
We were impressed by this bag’s internal organisation, which includes two mesh compartments ideal for keeping important documents in order, plus a very well-padded compartment for laptops up to 16 inches in size. The main compartment expands by 33% via the zip that runs around the bottom and sides of the bag.
The Work+ Expandable 28L Daypack is incredibly comfortable on the shoulders, with wide, cushioned straps made from a breathable fabric. Note, however, that the lack of rigid structure to the back means it’s best to avoid carrying cumbersome items such as hardback books in the rearmost compartment – which is designed to store a laptop.
Key details – Capacity (non-expanded & expanded): 21L / 28L; Location of expandable compartment: Main compartment; Colourways: Black; Dimensions: 31 x 19.5 x 52cm
2. Deuter Rotsoord 25+5 Bicycle Backpack: Best expandable commuter backpack
Price: £108 | Buy now from Amazon
Advertised as a bicycle backpack, we actually found the Rotsoord to be an exceptional backpack whether we were on or off the bike.
There are lots of compartments on offer here, both at the top and bottom of the backpack.
Our reviewer used this backpack to carry books, a laptop and football gear. Once he’d changed into his football kit, the ordinary capacity of the bag wasn’t sufficient to accommodate his bulky winter clothing; but by expanding the backpack, he made the space just large enough to fit everything inside – useful expansion in action!
The Citrus-Graphite colourway is ideal for staying visible while walking or cycling in the dark, plus the rain cover – discreetly stowed in the very bottom of the bag – will prove useful if weather conditions change for the worse.
Key details – Capacity (non-expanded & expanded): 25L / 30L; Location of expandable compartment: Main compartment; Colourways: Atlantic-Ink, Citrus-Graphite, Graphite-Shale, Redwood-Ink, Teal-Clay; Dimensions: 52 x 30 x 19cm
3. Montane Orbiton 25-28L Backpack: Best innovative expandable backpack
Price: £110 | Buy now from Montane
Not only does the Montane Orbiton backpack boast an expandable compartment that adds 3 litres of capacity with the simple pull of a zipper; it also has a host of other tricks to make your life easier.
We were big fans of this bag’s internal zip-pull, which can be removed for use as an ingenious on-the-go smartphone stand, while the wrap-around side pockets are great for storing drinks bottles within a stretchy expanse of material. We would have trusted these pockets more had the openings been a little tighter, but they certainly provided easy access and flexible storage.
Above all, this rucksack works really well for day-to-day use. The laptop compartment inside the bag (nearest your back) generously caters for devices with a screen size of up to 15.6 inches, and there are lots of smaller pockets and sleeves around the bag to store your stuff as you see fit. Plus, the shoulder straps remain super-comfortable, no matter how much you’re carrying.
Key details – Capacity (non-expanded & expanded): 25L / 28L; Location of expandable compartment: Front; Colourways: Astro Blue, Black; Dimensions: 50 x 31 x 17 cm
4. Vango Contour 50:60S: Best expandable hiking backpack
Price: £105 | Buy now from outdoorgear
Here’s one for the intrepid adventurers among you. The Vango Contour 50:60S probably isn’t best suited for day-to-day use, but it’s an ideal option for outward-bound wearers who want a rucksack that can adapt to the needs of each trip.
Relative to its size, the Contour 50:60S feels astoundingly light on the back. It’s tremendously adaptable, with an adjustable back and straps at the sternum and waist to help you get the right fit. For a bag of its size, the 50:60S feels remarkably comfortable on the shoulders.
The main compartment is large enough to carry a serious inventory of outdoor gear – but if you require added space, then there’s the option to expand the side pockets for even more capacity.
Arriving with a detachable rain cover, emergency whistle and more, it’s ideal for those who love the outdoors.
Key details – Capacity (non-expanded & expanded): 50L / 60L; Location of expandable compartment: Side pockets; Colourways: Granite, Thunder; Dimensions: 30 x 76 x 31cm
5. Côte & Ciel Isar Air Reflective Backpack: Best luxury expandable backpack
Price: £220 | Buy now from END. clothing
Stylish, practical and exceedingly clever, the Isar Air Reflective is the ideal expandable backpack for use around town.
This bag looks compact at first glance, but we were amazed to discover how roomy it gets if you unzip the expansion panel. Depending on how you use it, the Isar Air Reflective can be a super-compact daypack, an overnight bag with space for a change of clothes, or anything in-between.
Keeping things simple, there are two main compartments: one with a laptop sleeve and four small open-top pockets, and another expandable pocket that’s perfect for clothes or other low-density items.
The Isar Air Reflective definitely isn’t the sort of backpack we’d take hiking – but for urban use, the bag’s flexible storage and chic, architectural design are just the ticket.
Key details – Capacity (non-expanded & expanded): 12.5L / 27.5L; Location of expandable compartment: Front; Colourways: Black; Dimensions: 56 x 34 x 11.5cm