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Best backpack 2021: The best rucksacks for commuting, running and travel

Sian Lewis
29 Sep 2021
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Our pick of the best packs for hiking, trail running, cycling, commuting, backpacking and more…

Whether you're looking to venture deep into the great outdoors or just want a practical backpack for everyday use, the vast amount of choice on the market can make it difficult to find the best backpack for the job.

That's why we've taken the time to test and review a range of models. We’ve whittled our selection down to the very best backpacks you can buy right now, ranging from small, everyday packs designed for commuting and fast-paced outdoor adventures to much larger hiking models ideal for multi-day hikes in the backcountry.

Remember, though, when it comes to backpacks, one size definitely does not fit all. Just as you don't need a bag with a huge capacity just for the daily commute, don't assume that every bag will be comfy for every person. This is why we’ve also included some female-specific bags (which are also better suited to those with narrower shoulders). And if you just want an affordable option, there’s a bag here at a price to suit every pocket.

You'll find our guide to buying the best backpack just below. If you just want to start browsing, then scroll past the buying guide and you'll find options that will be perfect for commuting, running, hiking, photography and even carry-on luggage.

The best backpacks: At a glance

  • Best commuter daysack for men and women: Osprey Nebula and Nova | Buy men's | Buy women's
  • Best small commuter backpack: Fjällräven Kånken 13in backpack | Buy now
  • Best backpack for take-on luggage: Chrome Industries Macheto Travelpack | Buy now
  • Best budget mid-sized backpack: Mountain Warehouse Ventura | Buy now
  • Best waterproof backpack: Aquapac 25 litre Wet & Dry backpack | Buy now
  • Best hiking backpacks for men and women: Osprey Kestrel and Osprey Kyte | Buy now

How to choose the best backpack for you

What size do I need?

Backpacks are measured according to how much they can hold in litres. Roughly speaking, a daysack holds 15 to 30l, a mid-sized backpack holds 30 to 50l and a multi-day backpacking bag holds 50l and more. If you’re an outdoors-loving soul who adventures abroad every weekend, you might want to have one of each size but if you’re only going to splash out on one, it's worth thinking about where and when you’ll use your new backpack.

  • Daysacks are ideal for the daily commute, as well as for walking and other activities where you don’t want to be hampered by weight, such as running and cycling.
  • Mid-sized backpacks are the best bet for backpackers and travellers who need to carry clothing, or for sports where you need to lug a lot of kit about, such as climbing.
  • Larger backpacks are best-suited for multi-day hikers carrying their life – usually including a tent and a sleeping bag – on their back. Larger packs often list their capacity as XX+XX litres. This means space is distributed in two separate compartments, or that the bag has a removable mini rucksack.

What features do I need to look out for?

  • Buying a backpack for the daily commute: A laptop sleeve will likely rank highly among the features you'll want to look out for, along with plenty of pockets for keeping your phone, keys and other valuables where you can easily find them. Picking a bag with deep water-bottle pockets on the sides is a good idea, although if you're using it for running or cycling you might also consider one that lets you use a hydration system.
  • Heading out into the great outdoors: Whether you're walking, running or cycling, you might also think about choosing a weatherproof model. Frustratingly, most rucksacks aren’t fully waterproof but are usually labelled showerproof or water-resistant instead. This means their outer shell will stand up to a shower while more extreme weather could render your belongings a sodden mess. If you don’t go for a waterproof model, make sure you pick a bag with an integrated rain cover you can whip out in a big storm.
  • How do you access the storage: Backpacks are either top-loading (with an opening at the top, usually covered by a flap), which is more water-tight and best for hiking; or front-loading (with a zip on the front), which makes it easier to pack and remove items, and is better for travelling.
  • Pick a bag that fits you: It’s a good idea to try on bags in person so you can check it fits you properly. Padded, breathable mesh straps for your shoulders, hips and chest are a must if you’re travelling over long distances, and larger bags often have built-in metal or plastic frames to distribute the load against your back. Compression straps are also useful for cinching down your load to make it more compact.

Best backpacks for the commute

1. Osprey Nebula and Nova: The best all-round commuter daysack for men and women

Price: £80 | Buy men's | Buy women's from Amazon

Principally designed for commuting but capable of taking a lot more than the urban hustle in its stride, the Osprey Nebula is among the best bags of its type. It's stuffed with padded slots and pouches for all your laptop, tablet and smartphone storage needs, yet capacious enough to hold up to 34l of gear for a day out on the trails.

With deep, stretchy water bottle pockets on either side and a stretchy pouch at the rear to stuff your waterproof jacket or bike helmet in, this is truly the MacGyver of multipurpose backpacks. The wide straps are comfortable and it will also shrug off the odd shower or two, although you may want to avoid using it in torrential downpours as there's no built-in rain cover and the cable port at the top isn't sealed against the elements.

The Nebula is aimed at men, and while we find it works as a unisex pack, women may find the female-specific Nova version more comfortable.

Capacity: 34l (also available in 33l as the Nova); Waterproof: Shower-proof (no rain cover); Access: Top-loading


2. Fjällräven Kånken 13in backpack: Best small commuter backpack

Price: £97 | Buy now from Amazon

The Fjällräven Kånken 13in differs from the company's popular regular Kånken in that it has a separate zippable compartment for a laptop on its reverse and a slightly smaller overall capacity (13l versus 16l). With its boxy, front-loading design, this iconic bag makes it easy to fit in everything you need for a day and its carry handles are perfect for holding it on a busy bus or train.

The only catch is that its side pockets aren't big enough for anything larger than a 500ml water bottle and the straps don't fit broader shoulders particularly well. If that's a problem for you, there are also 15in and 17in version with 18l and 20l capacities respectively.

Read our full review of the Fjällräven Kånken 13in

Capacity: 13l (also available in 18l and 20l); Waterproof: Water-repellent; Access: Front-loading


3. The North Face Surge Backpack: Best backpack for running to work

Price: £115 | Buy now from The North Face

Running to work can save you a fortune on fares, keep you fit and even get you there faster (honestly, the joy of overtaking a traffic jam on foot…). The North Face Surge is roomier than most trail-running packs and more close-fitting than most standard commuter backpacks, making it ideal for running all your work gear to the office.

It looks sleek enough to take to meetings, and its dedicated fleece-lined compartments will keep your phone, tablet and laptop secure. But beneath that businesslike exterior lies a beautifully-constructed suspension system that keeps the pack supported, and easy-to-adjust straps that stop it bouncing around while you're on the move.

At 31l, it's larger than many distance-running packs, which is good news if you want to cram in a pair of shoes. But it may be too large for longer runs or smaller bodies.

Key specs – Capacity: 31l; Waterproof: Water-repellent only; Access: Top-loading

Buy now from The North Face


Best backpacks for travel

4. Chrome Industries Macheto Travelpack: Best backpack for take-on luggage

Price: £80 | Buy now from Alpinetrek

Its boxy design resembles a suitcase more than a backpack – and that’s arguably what makes the Macheto Travelpack such a great travel companion. It’s not only highly durable (it’s guaranteed for life), but thanks to the softshell design and 34 x 25 x 46cm dimensions, it fits easily into the overhead lockers on any plane.

Its design is well thought out for short breaks, too. Laptop access is quick and easy via the main back pocket; there’s a zippable pocket for books, magazines and other essentials on the front; and another smaller one for stashing your passport and travel documents. Inside, the Macheto splits into two main zippable compartments and, if you need more space after buying too much in duty-free, it’s expandable, too.

The Macheto Travelpack is available in black and the “Ranger” green variant pictured.

Key specs – Capacity: 42-48l; Waterproof: No; Weight: 1.8kg

Buy now from Alpinetrek


5. Lowepro ProTactic 350 AW II: Best daypack for photographers

Price: From £149 | Buy now from Amazon

Keep all your camera kit safe and close at hand with this pack from pro photography specialist Lowepro. The outer shell is tough and solid-feeling but really light, and we found it far more comfortable than lugging around our DSLR in a shoulder bag.

Once all the Velcro dividers are in place, there's not a huge amount of room inside – you'll certainly want another bag if you're travelling. But the dividers are vital for cushioning and separating specific bits of kit such as lenses, flashes, a tripod and even a drone, which are all kept easy to reach via multiple zipped access points. The main opening is worn against your back for security and the pack includes an all-weather cover to keep out rain, dust and sand.

Key specs – Capacity: 16l; Waterproof: Water-repellent shell with optional waterproof cover; Access: Top and side-loading


Best backpacks for hiking

6. Vaude Brent 30 litre pack: The best daysack for summer outdoor adventures

Price: £120 | Buy now from Vaude

Avid walker and a keen outdoor explorer? Vaude’s Brenta will definitely be able to keep up with your adventures.

The comfortable straps stood out during our testing: they’re easy to adjust and well-padded for all-day comfort. The mesh-lined back panel is also a high performer, and wicks away sweat well even on hot summer days, so it’s ideal for use on your travels as well as in the UK.

The front-opening zip makes it quick and easy to grab layers or pack belongings away on the go, and the Brenta has attachments for trekking poles and can take a hydration bladder, too. An integrated rain cover helps to keep your kit dry if – or given that we’re in the UK, when – the heavens do open.

Key specs – Capacity: 30 litres; Waterproof: Yes (with rain cover); Weight: 1.1kg

Buy now from Vaude


7. Mountain Warehouse Ventura: The best budget mid-sized backpack

Price: From £45 | Buy now from Amazon

A well-designed, versatile backpack for a pocket-friendly price. Mountain Warehouse’s Ventura is simple and straightforward but still ticks all our boxes: it holds 40l of gear – enough for a multi-day hike or for travelling light – has comfy hip and chest straps to help distribute weight and has an effective rain cover, plenty of pockets and hydration compatibility.

It’s also the right size to qualify as a carry-on on most airlines. Any downsides? It’s heavier than some of the more expensive 40l models on the market. If you want something bigger than the Ventura for hiking in the backcountry but want to keep it cheap, Mountain Warehouse’s similar Traveller 60+20l pack is £60.

Key specs – Capacity: 40l: Waterproof: Rain cover; Weight: 1.2kg; Access: Top and front-loading


8. Osprey Kestrel and Osprey Kyte: The best hiking backpacks for men and women

Price: From £123 | Buy now from Amazon

With multiple capacities available from 38l to 68l, the superb Osprey Kestrel (for men) and Kyte (for women) let hikers choose which size they want based on the length of their expedition. We tried the 58l Kestrel on a four-day hiking and camping trip and were thoroughly impressed by its overall comfort and impressive range of technical features.

Like most larger hiking packs, the Kestrel can be loaded from the front and top. This makes getting at your belongings quick and easy, and should you need to stash your sleeping bag or a pair of shoes, there’s also a separate bottom compartment on larger models. There’s no steel frame adjustment, sadly, but the torso length can still be adjusted using a Velcro panel at the rear. The generous dual mesh side pockets each fit two 1l water bottles with ease and there are handy pockets on the hip belt for storing valuables. Although it’s pricey, the Osprey Kestrel still delivers plenty of bang for your buck.

Key specs – Capacity: 38-68l; Waterproof: Rain cover; Weight: 1.54kg-1.78kg; Access: Top and-front-loading

9. Aquapac 25 litre Wet & Dry backpack: The best waterproof backpack

Price: From £75 | Buy now from Aquapac

Aquapac describes its Wet & Dry rucksack as tough, waterproof and affordable, and it’s hard to argue with that description – this is a reliable weatherproof dry bag suitable for water sports that doubles up as a wear-anywhere rucksack

The comfortable, breathable shoulder straps mean that it’s perfectly suitable for hiking, and extra pockets and handy compartments make it easy to keep your kit organised. There’s also a compartment for keeping wet kit separated from dry.

If you want a pack that’s as happy on a walk or commute as it is on a kayaking or surf trip, this is a solid choice.

Key specs – Capacity: 25 litres; Waterproof: Yes; Weight: 1.54kg-1.78kg; Access: Top-loading

Buy now from Aquapac


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