PackHacks: Top Three Travel Backpacks for Substance, Style and Security

I am unforgiving when it comes to finding products I truly love; I demand a lot from myself, why wouldn't I expect the same from the whoseywhats that win my hard-earned cash? This causes loads of grief in my purchase process and forces the seemingly simple decision to buy anything worth over $100 into a research frenzy reserved by most people for big ticket items like cars or homes. Yes, I am that crazy (thanks, Daddy - sorry, Billy). 

My quest for product-perfection currently has me scrolling endless Pins, with a minimum of eleven tabs open at any time and my poor husband wondering if we will ever actually pull the trigger before we hit the road again this fall. I'm searching for a backpack. Not just any pack, but a wonder-pack - a travel-loving companion that is as ready to hit the streets as I am. 

To be clear, I am a purse girl. I LOVE carrying a purse - more often than not, the bigger the better. I love the control I have over what I carry around - miniature first aid kit, check; wardrobe malfunction kit, check; charging brick, check; sweater, check; emergency snack items, of course! I love to be prepared for anything. Likewise, I love the autonomy carrying a purse provides - I can go anywhere, do anything and not rely on anyone else to tote my lipstick, keys or phone. 

On the contrary, I do not find backpacks in the least bit sexy. They bunch up your clothes, require you awkwardly mount/dismount them from your back for access and typically are bulky, style-void behemoths. As I am unwilling to budge on my statute of preparedness that comes from having a bag in tow, I'm now navigating the heaps of so-called "travel packs" available the world over in search of one I'm content to share years of adventure with. 

My criteria for evaluating bags may sound demanding, but anyone designing for the global adventurer should be well-equipped to meet every one of these needs:

  • FORM & FUNCTION: I am extremely design conscious and don't want anything with excess straps dangling, attachment points I don't understand or garish colors that scream traveler. I want sleek, well-planned design in a neutral palette. 
  • FLEXIBILITY: We've covered my disdain for the backpack. I want a pack that gives me multiple carry options for the many situations we'll navigate together. Sometimes I want to pretend I'm still a purse girl, I'd like my pack to play nice and pretend alongside me.
  • WEATHER RESISTANCE: I don't want to run for cover when the skies open up. I want to wander in the rain. My goods should stay happily dry inside my pack while I get wet. 
  • SIZE: Dainty packs have no home in my closet, nor do any packs I can't take with me wherever I go. I want something I can carry on the strictest of budget airlines while potentially allowing me to ditch my roll-aboard altogether (I'm looking at you, Ryanair). 
  • SECURITY FEATURES: It seems straightforward enough to source zippers capable of locking and to hide tech compartments close to the wearer's body. Some RFID-blocking technology would be nice, too. I want to focus on my experience, not on constantly checking my six. 

It's startling how few packs check each of these boxes, but there are a couple of badass standouts that are making the grade. Here's how our favorites stack up: 

Best Pack for Substance: A Sleek Sidekick Built for Travel, by Travelers

Ahhh, Minaal. You're a breath of fresh air. A product of road-loving guys also fed up with the quality of travel packs on the market. They took matters into their own hands and designed a bag, launched a Kickstarter campaign and made magic happen. 

Minaal's smart and sexy travel bag is available for purchase on the brand site for $299

Minaal's smart and sexy travel bag is available for purchase on the brand site for $299

Their bag features hide-away backpack straps, allowing you to switch from go-mode to pro-mode in an instant. It comes with a removable waist-strap to help shift weight from your shoulders to your hips. It has full-length zippers for flat and efficient packing, and features a locking compartment for all your super-expensive tech. Minaal's pack meets even Ryanair's strict carry-on guidelines, AND it comes with a seam-sealed rain cover. Did I mention it is smartly branded, a sexy shade of grey, has no dangly appendages and looks like it's smiling at you? 

The downside? Not much, actually. We'd love to see a couple added security features, including locking zippers all around and RFID-blocking lining on that tech compartment. We'd also really respect a free returns option just in case the pack doesn't fit. Understandably, this can be a big commitment for a small business, but the perception it creates for me is that you stand behind your product and believe I won't be able to part with the pack once it makes it into my home.

Our current frontrunner is Minaal, assuming they replenish their stock before we make for the door. These guys are smart, travel-savvy and deliver (at least on paper) a product we'd be happy to tow. Their site also alludes that more travel products might be in the works, and we look forward to seeing more from this young brand. 

For more on the Minaal Carry-On Bag, including tech specs, shipping, warranty info and more images, visit their site

Best Pack for Style: The Ruggedly Handsome and Supremely Customizable Road Companion

Incredible food, creatively balanced cocktails and good looking, truly smart design always give us pause, and Mission Workshop's Arkiv System Bags are that kind of make-you-gasp, swoon worthy. We've been eyeing this line for some time, and have not found another option that provides the freedom and flexibility of their modular packs. 

The Mission Workshop Arkiv System modular packs start at $209, not including accessory packs

The Mission Workshop Arkiv System modular packs start at $209, not including accessory packs

The system is entirely weatherproof, and the mecca of models, the VX / R8 Modular Arkiv Field Backpack, is available in both 20L and 40L sizes. This version has eight Arkiv rails built in to handle the maximum possible accessory packs for everything from cell phones to laptops to tool kits. There is an optional shoulder strap to turn any of the accessory packs into a portable shoulder bag (a wildly awesome option for the girl who is reluctant to part with her purse), and an optional waist belt to assist with weightier loads. 

The hard news to swallow on this pack is the price - the least expensive Arkiv base comes in at $209 before any accessories. The model we're drooling over starts at $320 for the 20L version; When we add up the custom pieces to our pack-puzzle, the bag of our dreams comes in at a whopping $672. At this price-point, we'd like to be more clear on the security features (pickpockets vs velcro seems like an unbalanced fight), and it's fair to mention that like Minaal, Mission Workshop requires customers to cover shipping on returns.

In addition to killer modular packs, the brand has an awesome lineup of other bags and clothing that are beautifully designed for travel and cycling. Visit their site to check out their full product line.

Best Pack for Security: Lock it, Leave it and Love it

We are not so foolish to believe that if we have something a thief really wants a super-bag will halt the crime and save the day. However, we do believe most crime is a product of opportunity, and by eliminating the ease at which someone can snatch, slice or slip into our bags, we've made ourselves significantly less of a target and vastly improved our odds of enjoying a crime-less travel day. Enter Pacsafe's line of security-centric travel bags, including our current favorite, the Intasafe Z500.

The Pacsafe Intasafe Z500 is $220 worth of security-rich features

The Pacsafe Intasafe Z500 is $220 worth of security-rich features

This bag is new to the line and features Slashguard straps, stainless steel protective webbing built into the lining, interlocking zipper pulls, a new anchor-lock system that allows multiple zippers to be secured with one padlock and an anchor strap to affix your mobile safe to a stationary object (à la hostel nights and café days). We also love the RFIDsafe blocking compartments protecting our passports, credit cards and IDs with embedded micro-chips from being swiped by lurking identity thieves. In addition to the security-rich features, the pack's a great size, has smart branding and is sharply, cleanly designed.

While color offerings in some styles are lacking, including this one only offered in charcoal (seriously, no black?), the real pitfall of these bags is their inability to stand up to the elements. We nearly lost two iPads to a rainstorm en route to our hotel in Santiago de Compostela using the Metrosafe 200 GII Shoulder Bag - a potentially expensive close call for two wanderers who quit their jobs to travel. With the forethought and planning that goes into these pieces, it seems weatherproofing would be an easily surmountable challenge for production. And again with Pacsafe, the purchaser is responsible for return shipping. Clearly no one has adopted the Zappos formula for free returns, though I do feel a little more forgiving with this brand since I can try their packs on in stores. 

Just like Minaal, Pacsafe is a series of products created by travelers, for travelers. Their full product line features a wide range of travel and gear bags, luggage and accessories. For more on their offerings and pioneering security features, visit their site. 

For more bags we love, check out our Travel Bags Pinboard. As usual, we'd love to hear from you if we've missed a favorite. We'll be sure to post an update on our final pack choice and a detailed review once we're moving. 

In the meanwhile, happy packing!