How to Pick a Digital Nomad Backpack: 10 Things I Wish I Knew Sooner

Are you at the beginning of your digital nomad life and puzzled when it comes to picking the perfect backpack? We can help. 

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 latest gadgets, most pockets or thickest padding? 

If you’ve never purchased a backpack before, then how are you supposed to know what to look for or which to choose?

Don’t worry. We’re taking you step-by-step, and teaching you everything we wish we knew when first starting out, from the lowdown on the best size through to why less can indeed be more when it comes to zippers and compartments.

Here are 10 insights I wish I knew when I began to look for my first digital nomad backpack. Having these tips to hand will save you tons of time (and headaches) as you figure out what’s best for you and your upcoming journey. 

Here we go…

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1. Size and Volume

One of the first things to decide on when it comes to digital nomad backpacks, is the size (volume). You need to be able to comfortably pack all your belongings inside.

But what exactly is ‘volume’ in this context?

Simply put, it’s the amount of mobile closet space you have, measured in liters.

Similar to the volume of a swimming pool or glass of water, the volume of your backpack determines how much can fit inside. This might seem like an odd way to measure a bag at first glance, but it’s the universal language of backpacks and size.

The volume you choose will impact everything: from day-to-day mobility (a big bag can be heavy on the shoulders) to the amount of ‘left over’ available space should you need to buy more things on the road, or pack for more diverse climates.

So what’s the sweet spot?

Typically, 40 to 45 liters. It’s big enough to pack up your (minimalist) digital nomad wardrobe, electronics and other belongings, but still small enough to dodge those extra baggage fees and fit in most airline overhead storage spaces.

How to Determine the Ideal Backpack Size

This will sound basic, but it has to be said. The size of your backpack largely depends on how much stuff you need to take with you.

I’ve easily packed for many months of travel (across varying climates) using only a 46L carry-on backpack.

To me, keeping my backpack to carry-on size is really important. However, you may have other priorities! The #1 reason I picked the Osprey Porter 46L was because of its size. Sadly, my version of the Osprey Porter 46L has been discontinued so I’d suggest the Osprey Farpoint 40L as a suitable replacement.  

A carry-on-sized backpack (typically around 40 to 45 liters), is usually large enough to pack all the essentials but compact enough to adhere to airline restrictions. It will require a capsule wardrobe and limited electronics, but sticking to this size makes air travel a breeze. 

You can use our long term travel and digital nomad packing list to help get you started!

Benefits of Carry-On Backpacks

Drawbacks of Carry-On Backpacks

Do All Airlines Have the Same Carry-On Allowance?

Nope. Carry-on sizes vary by airline and type of plane, with the maximum size for a carry-on bag sitting around 46 liters.

It’s important to check your flight’s specific requirements to ensure your backpack fits the carry-on (hand luggage) criteria, including weight limits. 

I’ve been traveling for a decade with just my 46L carry-on backpack, and so far (fingers crossed), I’ve been able to check it on every flight – international, domestic, and even budget airlines too! 

Rules for International Flights

Most international flights allow one carry-on bag and one personal item (like a daypack or a purse) per person. The carry-on needs to fit into the overhead compartments, and the personal item should be able to fit under the seat in front of you.

Most travelers opt for a 13L-25L daypack if using a backpack, or a crossbody purse if carrying a handbag.  

I personally like to bring a smaller backpack containing my laptop, electronics, liquids, important documents, face wipes, a few snacks, and a sweater. Then, I toss my smaller crossbody bag inside too. 

Being able to separate your most important items easily is key! I place my larger carry-on overhead and keep my essentials at my feet.

Rules for Budget Airlines

Budget airlines often have more strict 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 requires me to consolidate everything.

Try to leave enough space to squeeze your laptop and essentials into your bigger carry-on so you can comfortably board a budget airline. Be warned: this may mean that sometimes, you’ll have to wear your heaviest jacket, sneakers, and toss your neck pillow around your neck to make some extra space in your backpack.

Tip: In the case of a full flight, flight attendants tend to prioritize stowing wheeled suitcase-style carry-on luggage in the aircraft cargo hold and allow backpacks to be stored in the overhead bins. A small observation that could work in your favor.

Backpack 2023
Wearing my trusty Osprey Porter 46L. It's had a permanent place on my back for the last decade!

2. Weight

Whichever backpack size you choose, it’s important to remember that 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 that you’ll be lifting this backpack overhead on planes, tossing it onto boats and buses, and lugging it up flights of 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, let’s mention airline weight restrictions… 

Beyond personal comfort, adhering to airline weight restrictions is important for avoiding additional fees and to ensure 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 can stand the test of time and endure all sorts of weather conditions is vital for anyone living and working on the road.

Here’s what to look for…

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 remaining lightweight. Materials like nylon and polyester are popular for their strength, water resistance, and ease of maintenance.

Most top-rated branded backpacks will be made of strong and lasting materials, but if you’ve snagged a backpack from a local market on your travels, please bear in mind that the quality may not be what you expect!

Waterproof Features

While no backpack is completely waterproof (unless specified, and even then it’s not 100%), many offer water-resistant coatings or come with giant 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 too.

But my best tip is below…

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

4. Loading Style​

There are two main types of backpacks when it comes to loading style: front loading and top loading.

A front loading bag is a must for me!

If you’ve ever found yourself stood in the airport security line, digging through a tightly packed top-loading backpack to find a jacket for the flights, then you understand the struggle…

Front-loading backpacks zip fully open, and lay everything out in front of you. This style is a game-changer for digital nomads who need quick access to and visibility of all of your gear.

Plus, organizing your stuff is so easy when you can see it all at once.

On the flip side, top-loading backpacks are often lighter, more flexible, and allow you to fill them to the brim.

They’re the ‘traditional choice’ for hikers and trekkers, but when it comes to the digital nomad life, rummaging through various layers to find your headphones can get old, really fast.

At least that’s my opinion!

Digital Nomad Backpack - Duffel and Top Loading
My duffel bag and top loading backpack that I used for years.

5. Comfort

As a digital nomad, you’re going to be on the move, and that means, you need a backpack that’s not only easy to pack and unpack, but comfortable to carry, too. 

But how can you tell if your backpack will be comfortable in the long run?

Check out these two features that can make or break your experience:

Waist Straps: Your Back's Best Friend

Maybe you’ve seen those odd straps dangling at the bottom of the bag and wondered, “What are these for? Does anyone actually use these?”

I don’t know about everybody else, but I definitely do! 

Waist straps help to evenly distribute the weight, allowing your hips to do the heavy lifting. 

Let’s say you’re walking from a bus stop to your hotel – a distance of 15-20 minutes… a waist strap is going to save your shoulders. Especially if you’re regularly on-the-move between transport and accommodation.

I must admit, there have been days where I tightened the waist strap super tight and loosened the shoulders so much that my hips were carrying everything. If you’ve ever experienced burning, tired shoulders, then you’ll understand this feeling of relief. 

Look for thick padding and adjustable straps that fit snuggly around your hips (not waist). If you have a petite frame, you may need to test this in person to make sure the fit is tight enough. For example, many men’s style bags are too big in the waist for my body frame. 

Padding: The Cushion Between You and Your Load

Now, onto padding.

Ever felt the corners of a laptop or a water bottle pressing into your back? Not pleasant, right?

Adequate padding in the back panel and shoulder straps can completely remove this discomfort. However, be aware of over-padding as it can add unnecessary weight and reduce the backpack’s overall capacity.

A good rule of thumb is to test the backpack at home – load it up with a bunch of items and walk around. How do you feel? Most backpack companies give the option to purchase (and return) hassle free.

Personally, I love Amazon Prime’s 2-day free shipping and returns

6. Compartments and Accessibility

While picking your digital nomad backpack, it’s tempting to opt for the one with the most zippers, pockets, and organizational features.

I know my OCD brain loves the idea of this.

However there’s a catch: more zippers mean more potential entry points for wandering hands.

The truth is, you don’t need a pocket for every pen, charger, or notebook. What you really need is one main compartment large enough to hold your essentials, which you can then secure with a lock.

This simplifies the process of 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 cafe.

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.

Honestly, my backpack is more like an empty void and I love it. I toss everything inside (organized with packing cubes) and there’s one small zipper on the outside for my carry-on liquids bag. My passport and essentials are in a dayback or crossbody purse for organization and easy access.

That’s my style, what’s yours?

Remember, the goal is to find a backpack that supports your nomadic lifestyle, rather than complicating it.

Opting for a model with fewer, more secure compartments means less time worrying about your belongings and more time focusing on travel and work.

7. Security Features

Some of you may be thinking, “Why do I need security features on my bag? Isn’t it going to be with me most of the time?”

Yes and no. 

You’d lock your suitcase before checking it on a flight, right? Then you should want the same thing for your backpack too.

Whether it’s a flight, bus ride, or luggage storage room at a hotel, there will be times where your backpack is out of sight. And when you’re carrying your entire life in your bag, peace of mind comes with some simple but strong, lockable zippers

Lockable zippers secure the main compartment, and any other pockets you deem essential, with a padlock or combination lock. These days, they’re a common feature on most backpacks, but double check that those on your shortlist have this option.

When choosing a lock for your backpack, consider the size, weight, and type of locking mechanism.

I prefer a lightweight, combination lock (who wants to keep track of a key?), that’s TSA-approved and strong enough to protect your gear. This style is what we usually choose.

Digital Nomad Backpack - Lockable Zippers
Lockable zippers on all my travel bags.

8. Price and Value for Money​

Although I’m an advocate for budget travel and strategic purchases, I would suggest stretching the budget to make sure you own a top-quality backpack. This is your ‘home’ while you’re on the road, protecting your belongings (and your back). 

While I wouldn’t personally spend $300+ USD on a backpack (yet!), I would aim for the $100-200 USD range to find a quality bag that fits your needs. 

Here’s a few thing’s I’d consider…

Invest in Quality

It may be tempting to go for a cheaper backpack to save some cash upfront, but this can turn out to be a big mistake. Low-cost options might not withstand the rigors of constant travel, leading to more-regular-than-you’d-like replacements that ultimately cost more in the long run.

I’m not saying that an increased price equates directly to superior quality, but be mindful that low cost options often reveals a lower standard of quality.

I’ve had my Osprey backpack for over a decade and it’s still going strong. Worth every penny!

Assess Features vs. Price

When weighing up your backpack options, consider the features that are non-negotiable for your lifestyle.

  1. Does it have a dedicated laptop compartment?
  2. Are there enough pockets for your gadgets and gear, yet not so many that security becomes an issue?
  3. 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.

Again, please remember, more features does not mean it’s a better backpack. The features need to be the right ones for you!

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. Making sure it’s up to the task is worth it.

I’m embarrassed to admit how many backpacks I purchased and tested out before concluding on my trusty Osprey (pictured below). 

Backpack 2013
I've had the same backpack since 2013 - and it's still in great condition!

9. Additional Tips for Efficient Packing

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. Keep the load manageable to make your travels much more enjoyable.

Leave Space for 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 can save you from having to make tough decisions about what to leave behind.

It also eases the process ofrepacking, knowing you don’t have to slot items back into your bag in the ‘perfect’ way to be able to zip it up. 

Use Packing Cubes

If you take anything ‘extra’ from this article, let it be the benefit of packing cubes!

These have changed my life (I know that sounds sad!) and could quite possibly be the only reason I’m able to travel the world with so many clothes.

The packing list (and photos) are finally ready to share, check out the complete article here!

Packing cubes are small Tetris-style containers that help compartmentalize your belongings, compress your items, and keep you organized.

Like I said… game changer

My #1 tip: invest in a set of packing cubes! I like the thicker ones, similar to the example in the link.

Tip: Roll your clothes! There's a longstanding debate about which packing method is better, rolled or folded, but I'm a stickler for properly rolled items and stacking my rolled clothes in layers inside the packing cubes.

Embrace Minimalism

Have you ever heard of a capsule wardrobe? If not, now’s the time to Google it.

Packing a few staple items in a similar or complementary color scheme that can be used interchangeably is key. 

Embrace a minimalist approach to your packing list, and you 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

Reusable tote bags are perfect for trips to the grocery store as well as carrying 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 carry around extra snacks. Choose a thin material that an easily be folded up and packed away if you’re not using it. 

Regularly Review and Adjust Your Packing List

Your needs and preferences will likely evolve as you travel.

You may need to leave clothes behind, trade with a fellow nomad, or purchase new items along the way. And if you notice an item isn’t getting used, maybe it’s worth donating it instead of continuing to carry it around.

As hard as it may be, it’s okay to say goodbye to items we once loved. 

Digital Nomad Backpack - Packing Cubes
Here's my packing cubes to help me stay organized.

10. Choose the Right Day Bag

When you’re setting out to explore or heading to a local cafe to get some work done, carrying your main digital nomad backpack isn’t 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.

We’ve listed a few of our favorite day bags on our digital nomad gear page.

Consider a day bag that’s versatile enough for different settings, whether you’re in a city, hiking a trail, or heading to the beach.

While many people may boast about a high-quality day bag, I often skip the bulky, feature-packed day bags and opt for portability and convenience. I love this packable day bag.

Are You Ready to Choose Your Next Digital Nomad Backpack?

You’re ready, I know it!

The most important thing is figuring out your travel style and needs. It’s okay if you’d prefer a larger backpack or checked bag. Remember, this is your journey and only you will know this answer. 

But after a decade of experience and a variety of digital nomad backpacks, this is everything I wish I knew before I got started and a mental checklist of the items I think about when making purchases now.

Try on the backpack. Fill it up, test it out, walk around your house. Your back and knees will thank you for going the extra mile here. 

And if you’re looking for a place to get started, we’ve rounded up our favorite digital nomad and packing essentials. Check them out!

So, which digital nomad backpack are you getting for your next trip?

Leave us a comment and let us know why.

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.
Picture of 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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