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10 Things You Must Consider When Picking a Digital Nomad Backpack

Heading into the digital nomad lifestyle and puzzled about picking the perfect backpack? You’re not alone.

The hunt for the ideal digital nomad backpack can feel overwhelming. Should you go big and pack everything but the kitchen sink, or is the secret to success in the sleek, minimalist approach? What if we told you that the best backpack might not be the one with the most pockets or the heaviest padding? 

In this guide, we’re diving into the essentials—from the real deal on the best size to why less can indeed be more when it comes to zippers and compartments. Here are the 10 insights I wish were on my radar when I was on the hunt for my first digital nomad backpack. We’ve got you covered with everything you need to make the most informed choice, including a list of our favorites!

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1. Size and Volume

Finding the right digital nomad backpack starts with narrowing down the perfect size and volume. But what exactly is “volume” in this context? Simply put, it’s the amount of mobile closet space you have, measured in liters. This might seem like an odd way to measure a bag at first glance, but it’s the universal language of backpacks. 

The volume you choose directly influences how much you can carry, impacting everything from your day-to-day mobility to your ability to pack for diverse climates.

Aim for the sweet spot that lets you breeze through airport security, with everything you need snugly fit in a carry-on-sized backpack. This magical range? Typically, 40 to 45 liters. It’s big enough to pack a punch but small enough to dodge those extra baggage fees and fit in the overhead bin.

How to Determine the Ideal Backpack Size

The size of your backpack will depend on how much you want to carry.  I’ve easily packed for months of travel (with varying climates) using only a 46L carry-on backpack.  To me, having a carry-on sized backpack is crucial, however you may not agree.  The #1 reason I picked the Osprey Porter 46L was because of its size. Currently, my version of the Osprey Porter 46L has been discontinued so I’d suggest the Osprey Farpoint 40L, but check out our complete list of digital nomad backpacks to make the decision that’s best for you. 

A carry-on-sized backpack, typically around 40 to 45 liters, is often the sweet spot—large enough to pack your essentials but compact enough to ensure ease of movement and adherence to airline restrictions. It will require a capsule wardrobe and minimal electronics, but this size will make air travel a breeze. 

Benefits of Carry-On Backpacks

Drawbacks of Carry-On Backpacks

Are All Carry-On Sizes the Same?

No, carry-on sizes vary by airline and type of plane (international, budget, etc.), with the maximum size for a carry-on bag averaging around 46 liters. It’s crucial to check your flight’s specific requirements to ensure your backpack fits the carry-on (hand luggage) criteria, including weight limits. 

International Flight Rules

Most international flights allow one carry-on and one personal item, like a daypack or a purse, which must fit under the seat in front of you. We call this smaller bag your “daypack” or “day bag.”  Most people opt for a 13L-25L daypack (if using a backpack) or a crossbody purse if carrying a handbag.  This flexibility is great for digital nomads, allowing them to separate work essentials from general luggage.

Budget Airlines Rules

Budget airlines often have stricter carry-on policies, with limitations on dimensions, weight, and sometimes even the number of items you can bring aboard. I like to ensure that everything fits into my 46 liter bag, just in case the airline requests me to consolidate items.

Tip: In the case of a full flight, flight attendants tend to prioritize stowing wheeled suitcases under the aircraft and allowing backpacks in the overhead bins, a small observation that could work in your favor.

Backpack 2023
Wearing my trusted Osprey Porter 46L

2. Weight

When it comes to selecting the perfect digital nomad backpack, weight plays a pivotal role. Whichever backpack size you choose, it’s important to remember you will be carrying this bag on your back, as well as the weight of the backpack, and all its contents. 

So first off, pack light and select a backpack that weighs between 3-5 lbs. Trust me, your back will thank you! Also remember, you’ll be lifting this backpack overhead on planes, tossing it onto boats and buses, or lugging it up the stairs. Weight matters…

A heavy backpack can lead to sore shoulders and a strained back, turning what should be an exciting journey into a painful ordeal. A lighter load will reduce fatigue, allowing you to travel further without needing frequent breaks.

Also, airline weight restrictions… 

Beyond personal comfort, adhering to airline weight restrictions is crucial for avoiding additional fees and ensuring your backpack can always travel with you in the cabin. Here’s how to stay within limits:

3. Durability and Weather Resistance

Choosing a digital nomad backpack that stands the test of time and varying weather conditions is crucial for anyone living and working on the road. Here’s why durability and weather resistance should be top priorities in your selection process.

Choosing Materials That Last

The material of your backpack not only determines its durability but also its ability to protect your belongings from the elements. Look for backpacks made from high-quality, rip-stop fabrics that can endure wear and tear while being lightweight. Materials like nylon and polyester are popular for their strength, water resistance, and ease of maintenance.

Importance of Weatherproof Features

While no backpack is completely waterproof unless specified, many offer water-resistant coatings or come with rain covers to protect your electronics and important documents from getting wet. Features such as sealed zippers and water-repellent fabrics add an extra layer of security against unpredictable weather, ensuring your gear stays dry.

Tip: Amazon sells waterproof backpack covers or you can use a poncho, if necessary.

4. Loading Style

There are two types of backpacks: front loading and top loading. A front loading backpack means it opens up like a suitcase and it is easy to access all of your clothes at once. A top loading backpack means it opens at the top and everything is piled on top of each other. A front loading bag was a must for me!

If you’ve ever stood at the airport security line, digging through a top-loading backpack to find a jacket for the flights, then you know the struggle….

Front-loading backpacks zip open like a suitcase, laying everything out in front of you. This style is a game-changer for digital nomads who need quick access to their gear, whether it’s pulling out a camera for that sunset shot or grabbing your power bank in a pinch. Plus, organizing your stuff is a breeze when you can see it all at once.

On the flip side, top-loading backpacks have their charm. They’re often lighter and more flexible, letting you stuff them to the brim. They’re the traditional choice for hikers and trekkers, designed to distribute weight evenly for long walks. But when it comes to the digital nomad life, rummaging through layers to find your headphones can get old fast.

So, think about how you travel and work. If quick access and organization top your list, a front-loading backpack might just be your best bet. But if you’re moving from mountain to beach and back again, and packing light isn’t your forte, a top-loader could be the way to go. 

Digital Nomad Backpack - Duffel and Top Loading
A duffel bag and top loading backpack

5. Comfort Features

Let’s talk about the long haul—those days when your digital nomad backpack feels like it’s becoming one with your back. Comfort is key, and two features that can make or break your love affair with your backpack are waist straps and padding.

Waist Straps: Your Back's Best Friend

Imagine this: You’re wandering through the streets of a new city, your backpack snugly fitted to your back. Thanks to the waist straps, the weight is evenly distributed, taking the burden off your shoulders and letting your hips do the heavy lifting. With a good set of waist straps, you can explore further, for longer, without that dreaded backache creeping in.

Padding: The Cushion Between You and Your Load

Now, onto padding. Ever felt the corners of a laptop pressing into your back? Not pleasant, right? Adequate padding in the back panel and shoulder straps can turn that discomfort into a “What laptop?” experience. But beware of over-padding—it can add unnecessary weight and reduce the backpack’s overall capacity.

6. Compartments and Accessibility

When picking your digital nomad backpack, it’s tempting to opt for the one with a myriad of zippers and pockets. They promise organization and easy access, but here’s the catch: more zippers mean more potential entry points for prying hands.

The truth is, you don’t need a pocket for every pen, charger, or notebook. What you really need is a main compartment large enough to hold your essentials, which you can secure with a lock. This simplifies packing, reduces weight, and, most importantly, enhances security. One well-placed lock on a main compartment can deter theft, giving you peace of mind whether you’re on a crowded train or in a busy café.

This isn’t to say your backpack should be a bottomless pit where everything gets lost. A few strategically placed pockets for quick access to your passport, phone, or wallet can make life on the road much easier. The key is balance. Look for a backpack that offers accessibility without sacrificing security.

For example, a compartment at the back for your laptop offers quick access and added security. Side pockets for water bottles keep hydration at hand, while internal pockets for passports and documents offer peace of mind. It’s about having what you need, when you need it, without turning your bag inside out.

Remember, the goal is to find a backpack that supports your nomadic lifestyle, not complicates it. Opting for a model with fewer, more secure compartments means less time worrying about your belongings and more time immersing in your travels and work.

7. Security Features

Following our earlier note on avoiding a backpack with too many zippers, the importance of security features, especially lockable zippers, becomes even clearer.

A backpack equipped with lockable zippers offers an added layer of security for your valuables. This feature allows you to secure the main compartment, and any other pockets you deem essential, with a padlock or combination lock. It’s about minimizing risk in transit or when your attention is elsewhere. Whether you’re navigating crowded city streets, boarding a train, or settling into a café, knowing your backpack is locked can offer invaluable peace of mind.

When choosing a lock for your backpack, consider size, weight, and the type of locking mechanism. A heavy-duty lock might seem like the best option, but remember, every ounce counts. Look for locks specifically designed for travel: lightweight, TSA-approved, and strong enough to protect your gear. This style is what we usually choose, no key and TSA approved. 

Digital Nomad Backpack - Lockable Zippers
Lockable zippers

8. Price and Value for Money​

Navigating the price of a digital nomad backpack can feel like walking a tightrope. On one side, you have the budget-friendly options that seem appealing at first glance. On the other, there are the premium backpacks with price tags that might make you do a double-take. The key here is to find the sweet spot where price meets value, ensuring you’re investing in a backpack that won’t just last a season.

Investing in Quality

It’s tempting to go for a cheaper backpack to save some cash upfront, but this can be a false economy. Low-cost options might not withstand the rigors of constant travel, leading to replacements that ultimately cost more in the long run. A higher-priced backpack, on the other hand, often comes with the assurance of durability, ergonomic design, and thoughtful features that cater specifically to the needs of digital nomads. Think of it as an investment in your mobile office and home. I’ve had my backpack for over a decade and it’s still going strong. Worth every penny!

Assessing Features vs. Price

When weighing up a backpack, consider the features that are non-negotiable for your lifestyle. Does it have a dedicated laptop compartment? Are there enough pockets for your gadgets and gear, yet not so many that security becomes an issue? Is it made from materials that can handle being tossed into an overhead bin or strapped to the roof of a bus? These features might justify a higher price tag if they match your specific needs.

The Long-Term Perspective

A good quality backpack should see you through countless airports, cities, and remote work locations without faltering. Before making a decision, read reviews, watch videos, and, if possible, test the backpack yourself. Remember, this backpack will be carrying your life for the foreseeable future. Ensuring it’s up to the task is worth every penny.

Backpack 2013
I've had the same backpack since 2013

9. Additional Tips for Efficient Packing

Efficient packing is an art form that every digital nomad must master. It’s not about fitting everything into your backpack, but rather, packing smartly so you can maximize space, minimize weight, and access your essentials easily. Here are some additional tips to help you pack efficiently for your next adventure.

Don't Pack More Than You Can Carry

It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to overestimate your capacity for carrying weight over long distances. A good rule of thumb is to pack your backpack and then walk around with it for a bit. If it feels too heavy or uncomfortable, it’s time to reassess what you’ve packed. Remember, you’ll be carrying this weight through airports, up stairs, and possibly across cities. Keeping the load manageable will make your travels much more enjoyable.

Leave Space for Souvenirs and New Purchases

No matter how much you plan, you’re likely to pick up a few items along your travels. Leaving a little extra space in your backpack for these new acquisitions can save you from having to make tough decisions about what to leave behind. Plus, it gives you the flexibility to shop for local goods without worrying about where to put them.

Use Packing Cubes

Packing cubes can be a game-changer for keeping your backpack organized. They allow you to compartmentalize your belongings, making it easier to find what you need without unpacking everything. They also help compress your clothes, freeing up valuable space in your backpack. Investing in a set of packing cubes is a small step that can significantly improve your packing efficiency.

Embrace a Minimalist Packing List

The key to efficient packing is not just how you pack, but what you pack. Embracing a minimalist approach to your packing list can dramatically reduce the weight and bulk of your backpack. Focus on versatile items that can serve multiple purposes, and choose clothing that is lightweight, durable, and easy to wash and dry.

Bring a Reusable Tote Bag (or several)

It’s perfect for going to the grocery store as well as carrying my dirty clothes to the laundromat on laundry day.  When traveling, it makes repacking a lot easier if I can’t fit everything into my backpack or when I want to tote around extra snacks and food.

Regularly Review and Adjust Your Packing List

Your needs and preferences will evolve as you travel. Regularly reviewing and adjusting your packing list can help you stay organized and efficient. After each trip, take note of what you used frequently, what you didn’t use at all, and what you wished you had brought. This reflection will help you refine your packing list for future trips, making each one smoother than the last.

Digital Nomad Backpack - Packing Cubes
Packing cubes to stay organized

10. Choosing the Right Day Bag

When you’re setting out to explore or heading to a local café to get some work done, carrying your main digital nomad backpack everywhere isn’t always practical or necessary. This is where the right day bag comes into play—a smaller, more convenient option for your daily essentials.

Your day bag is the sidekick to your main backpack. It should complement your larger bag by being lightweight, secure, and spacious enough for your daily essentials, like your laptop, a notebook, a water bottle, and perhaps a camera. Choosing a day bag with a laptop compartment adds an extra layer of protection for your most valuable tool, while pockets for a water bottle and other small items keep everything organized. We’ve listed a few of our favorite day bags on our digital nomad backpack roundup.

Consider a day bag that’s versatile enough for a variety of settings, whether you’re in a city, hiking a trail, or heading to the beach. Water-resistant materials and a sturdy build can adapt to different environments, making your day bag a reliable companion no matter where you are.

Choosing the right day bag is about balancing functionality with personal preference. For me, I often skip the bulky, feature-packed day bags and opt for convenience. I love this packable day bag.

Are You Ready to Choose Your Next Digital Nomad Backpack?

Selecting the perfect digital nomad backpack goes beyond just aesthetics and initial appeal. From understanding the right size and volume to considering the weight, materials, and special features, each aspect plays a crucial role in your overall travel experience. 

These were some of the things I wish I understood before choosing my first backpack, and a mental checklist of the items I think about when making purchases now. For me, I have to try on the backpack and “feel it out” before committing. Whether that means ordering a few from Amazon or going to a backpack store, this helps solidify my decision. Just because a backpack is well recommended, it doesn’t mean that it will feel great on your body. I encourage to try it on, fill it up, and walk around. Your back and knees will thank you after a few pseudo test runs. 

Looking for the best digital nomad backpack? We’ve rounded up our favorites and other top recommendations from the web. Check them out!

Max quit her corporate job in 2013 to take a chance building businesses online while traveling the world. Armed with an adventurous spirit and a can-do attitude, Max has traveled to more than 50 countries, embracing slow travel as a digital nomad and long-term living in places such as Thailand, India, Nepal, and Indonesia. Max currently resides in Bali where she oversees content creation for DNG as our resident travel aficionado.
Max Pankow
Max Pankow
Max quit her corporate job in 2013 to take a chance building businesses online while traveling the world. Armed with an adventurous spirit and a can-do attitude, Max has traveled to more than 50 countries, embracing slow travel as a digital nomad and long-term living in places such as Thailand, India, Nepal, and Indonesia. Max currently resides in Bali where she oversees content creation for DNG as our resident travel aficionado.

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