Wearing my Tortuga travel backpack – one of the best sustainable travel gifts this year. ©KettiWilhelm2023

Tortuga Backpack Review: Why This Is The (New) Best Travel Backpack

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This is my detailed review of the Tortuga Travel Backpack (the Pro version – stay tuned for my review of the new Tortuga Lite). I’m also comparing the Tortuga Pro with the Cotopaxi Allpa, and the Osprey Farpoint / Fairview. After lots of test-packing and comparing in my living room, the bag I ended up traveling with surprised even me.

After years as a frequent carry-on-only traveler with a roller bag, I’ve finally decided to test out a good travel backpack again. (Full disclosure: I’m a professional in my 30s, not a college student on a gap year. So I have a bit higher standards for travel gear now than when I first experimented with backpacks for traveling.)

I’d spent months at a time backpacking around Central America and Asia in my 20s, but a great carry-on suitcase has been my “grown-up” option for years.

So why the change of heart?

Lately, I’ve just gotten tired of being a noisy tourist, dragging my wheels over cobblestones, and always looking for ways to avoid stairs. I wanted to be stealthier again. Lighter. Smoother. More independent.

[Related: If you’re into that idea, too, be sure to read my best tips for packing lighter.]

But I also wanted traveling with only a backpack to be better than what I remember from years ago, when I was using the Osprey Farpoint. (More about the latest version of that pack below, and why it still isn’t my top pick.)

So I started hunting for the best travel backpacks on the market today.

After many hours of comparison shopping, two bags consistently rose to the top – and have many of the sustainability credentials I always look for:

And some Osprey travel backpacks remain so popular (I’m amazed by how many of them I see in airports) that I thought maybe something major had changed since I last used one. (But as it turns out, that’s not the case, which is why Osprey doesn’t feature as strongly as the others in this review.)

Quick Comparison Chart:

For Packing a LOT
Top Pick
Budget Pick
3.2
4.8
3.9
$185 – $235
$200 – $350
$170 – $220

Good quality, but lacking features. I'd only recommend these if you need the biggest travel pack. (Fairview is the women's fit version of the Farpoint.)

With the best organization, comfort and security features, Tortuga’s maximum carry-on size 40L bag is the best travel backpack I’ve tested – whether for a digital nomad or a weekend traveler.

More affordable, still great quality and sustainable backpacks, just not quite all the features of the Tortuga.

40L, 55L, 70L and 80L
30L and 40L (plus 24L Laptop Backpack)
35L and 42L (or 28L but hardly a luggage replacement)
A few subtle, dark shades ⚫🔵
Black or black 🖤
Anything under the rainbow 🌈
Free from REI or Osprey (Both only ship Osprey products to US addresses.)
Free on orders over $50. (US only – unless you use a freight forwarder.)
REI: Free, including international on orders over $150. (Except Australia) Cotopaxi: Free in US & ships globally
For Packing a LOT
3.2
$185 – $235

Good quality, but lacking features. I'd only recommend these if you need the biggest travel pack. (Fairview is the women's fit version of the Farpoint.)

40L, 55L, 70L and 80L
A few subtle, dark shades ⚫🔵
Free from REI or Osprey (Both only ship Osprey products to US addresses.)
Top Pick
4.8
$200 – $350

With the best organization, comfort and security features, Tortuga’s maximum carry-on size 40L bag is the best travel backpack I’ve tested – whether for a digital nomad or a weekend traveler.

30L and 40L (plus 24L Laptop Backpack)
Black or black 🖤
Free on orders over $50. (US only – unless you use a freight forwarder.)
Budget Pick
3.9
$170 – $220

More affordable, still great quality and sustainable backpacks, just not quite all the features of the Tortuga.

35L and 42L (or 28L but hardly a luggage replacement)
Anything under the rainbow 🌈
REI: Free, including international on orders over $150. (Except Australia) Cotopaxi: Free in US & ships globally

Yikes – yes, that’s quite a price difference. If you’re wondering whether (and why) the Tortuga backpacks are worth it, the quick answer is below.

UPDATE: Tortuga also just launched a new 40L “Travel Backpack Lite” (on April 17, 2024). The Lite backpack costs $100 less and weighs one pound less than the Pro travel backpack, which this review focuses on. I’ve traveled with both. Here’s my detailed comparison, but in short, the Lite is a great alternative to save money without skimping on quality – you mostly just have to give up a few pockets.

You can save 10% off all Tortuga products with the discount code TILTED . (First-time customers only.)

Note – watch out for outdated Tortuga reviews.

The Tortuga travel backpacks have been through a lot of iterations. (I even ordered and returned one back in 2015. The reason? That early version of the Tortuga didn’t have enough organization. So I ended up going with the Osprey Farpoint, which had even less organization, but at least it cost less.)

But after seeing Tortuga’s Version 4 updates, launched in 2023, I bought one again and have been impressed. (Including after testing it for 10 days in El Salvador, among other trips.)

If you see reviews of the Tortuga Setout or Tortuga Outbreaker backpacks, those are outdated information.

The Setout and Outbreaker names were discontinued when Tortuga released the fourth version of their travel backpacks, with significant design updates, in January 2023. (Those links explain the differences between the old and new designs.)

The current designs are simply called the Travel Backpack 30L, and the Travel Backpack 40L (which I tested for this review). Their smaller pack for daily use is the 24L Laptop Backpack. (But yes, all three of them have computer pockets.)

UPDATE: As of June, 2024, both the 30L Travel Backpack and 24L Laptop Backpack are scheduled to be discontinued – so they’re both on sale right now!


Tortuga vs Cotopaxi: First Impressions / Short Review

At first blush, I wanted to love the Cotopaxi bag, because it’s a sustainability focused company. (They specialize in building new bags with dead stock materials – the excess fabrics that other companies would throw away. They’re also a certified B Corp that’s Climate Neutral certified – meaning they measure, reduce and offset their emissions. As a sustainable travel blogger, those are all things I normally look for in a company.)

And Cotopaxi does make a good travel backpack – but I don’t think it’s the best. I thoroughly compared the Cotopaxi Allpa with the Tortuga travel backpack in my living room and it was a tough decision. But I ended up seeing more value in the Tortuga bag, for several reasons.

Here’s why the Tortuga won: More pockets, more space, better organization, better security (locking zippers), and more comfortable (better padding and load distribution). Bonus: the stealthy black makes it feel more multi-functional and calls a lot less attention to itself. (It fits in on work trips, too… when I’m not pretending to be a 20-something backpacker again.)

If you want the short version of this review, that was it. I think Tortuga makes the best travel backpacks on the market right now.
Trying on the Cotopaxi Allpa 35 backpack that I bought for this review to compare with the Tortuga 40L. ©KettiWilhelm2023
Trying on the Cotopaxi at home, and certainly thrilling everyone with my detailed design observations.

But is Tortuga worth the price?

While I think the $350 Tortuga 40L is the best travel backpack I’ve found, it’s clearly not a cheap one.

NEW Alternative: Check out the more affordable Tortuga 40L Lite Backpack, which comes in at $250 and weighs a pound less than the Pro. (Here’s my Pro vs Lite comparison.)

But you don’t have to just take my word for it, either. They have a “home try on” policy that lets you order one and return it within 30 days (unused) if you’re not convinced. And all Tortuga bags and gear are guaranteed by their Worldwide Warranty.

Honestly, I also ordered it thinking I was probably going to keep the $200 Cotopaxi pack instead, but found the Tortuga was just the better bag. (Yes, I did buy them both out of pocket for this review.)

Because of its better organization, security and comfort, this is a bag I plan to keep using for many years. (And it has the quality of construction to make that possible.)

Discounts:

Tortuga offers a significant 20% discount, but only for a few groups of people (including students, teachers, and first responders). See the full list and how to get your discount code here. (Even for Black Friday, they offered free small items with a backpack order, but no cash savings.)

For everyone else: Remember, you can save 10% off all Tortuga products with the discount code TILTED ! (First-time customers only.)

If you’re still undecided (understandably), and want to dive deep into the differences between the Tortuga, Cotopaxi and Osprey travel backpacks, well then read on!

Are Tortuga backpacks sustainable?

Again, the reason I wanted to love and recommend Cotopaxi was their well-documented sustainable sourcing and ethical manufacturing.

And Tortuga isn’t sleeping on sustainability either, but they could do more.

The Good: Sustainable Materials & Quality

Tortuga backpacks are built with 100% recycled fabrics (for both the lining and outer body of all Tortuga backpacks). And their main material supplier for is awaiting Bluesign certification.

The durable polyester inner and outerfabrics were designed as sailcloth for racing sail boats – meaning they’re lightweight and waterproof. They’re made from 100% recycled plastic, instead of virgin petroleum.

[Related: That reminds me of a few other favorite brands, including Rothy’s, which makes washable shoes and purses out of plastic bottles. There are a few more similar ones on my Sustainable Clothing Brands Guide.]

That choice to avoid virgin plastic reduces the carbon emissions from the production of each backpack. That means it’s a small step toward reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, which normal plastics, including synthetic fabrics, are made of. (Every step counts! And every company should do what it can to contribute.)

And Tortuga costs more than many alternatives because their backpacks are built to last. The quality is quite apparent, and that in itself is a huge sustainability factor ­– avoiding “fast fashion” and cheap junk that will just need to be replaced soon, sucking up more resources.

The Bad: Shipping Materials

However, you can only buy Tortuga bags straight from Tortuga, and they ship them in a cardboard box, but unfortunately with an inner plastic bag. The packing tape is also plastic, as opposed to paper tape.

I asked Tortuga about this, and they said they don’t have any immediate plans to improve either of those things.

The plastic packaging that the Tortuga travel backpacks are shipped in. (Not the best indicator of the brand as a sustainable backpack company, however their packs are made out of recycled fabrics.) ©KettiWilhelm2023
The one disappointment I’ve had from Tortuga: plastic shipping materials.

I hope that changes, but in the meantime, they honestly do deserve some credit for not trying to lie about it. (I’ve asked other companies similar questions, and been told what they think I want to hear. But what they apparently don’t expect is that instead of just publishing their promises as if they were facts, I actually pay attention. Often, a year or two later, the brands still haven’t fixed what they claimed was already in the works.)

The Beautiful

Buy less often, but buy better. With its reputations for quality, you’ll likely be able to resell a Tortuga backpack if you decide to give up being a digital nomad backpacker (or just go back to traveling with a suitcase). The same applies to Cotopaxi and Osprey. All are known for quality, and I never review cheap brands that aren’t.

More Sustainable Backpacks:

These are just FYI, because I love shouting-out sustainable brands.

None of these brands make a full-featured travel backpack that checks all the boxes I needed checked for to make it into this review. However, if you’re looking for something smaller or sportier, these are good starting places.

  • Everlane makes daypacks out of entirely recycled materials, as well as both leather and vegan-friendly “cactus leather” bags. (They’re more of backpack you’d take to work, as opposed to travel backpacks. And Everlane is one my top sustainable clothing brands.)
  • Peak Designs has a buy-back and resell program, so they make sure your bag doesn’t go to waste.
  • Patagonia makes more outdoorsy and hiking backpacks, and they’re one of the most sustainable clothing and gear companies in the world.
  • 8000Kicks makes sustainable backpacks, shoes and accessories out of one of the world’s strongest and most sustainable fabrics – hemp. That means the backpacks are actually compostable if you ever wear them out.

Organization & Highlights: Tortuga vs Cotopaxi

I said it’s understandable to be undecided between these backpacks because the winning features of the Tortuga Pro Travel Backpack really weren’t obvious online.

At first, I thought the Cotopaxi seemed to have better organization, but after looking more closely at the Tortuga, I think it’s actually the opposite.

My mom described the Tortuga as “like a gigantic purse” for all its pockets. (She’s an expert on both giant purses and organization, so I considered this a compliment.)

It might just be that Cotopaxi seems organized because the contrasting colors of the zippers makes them stand out, so the pockets it does have are very visible. (Color is one of the brand’s signatures, after all.)

The Tortuga is much more stealthy: black on the outside, cool gray on the inside.

Organization pockets on the Tortuga travel backpack include lots of zippered pockets and dedicated pockets for a laptop, tablet, passport, pens, and keys. ©KettiWilhelm2023
These are just the beginning with the Tortuga…
The front zippered organization pocket on the Cotopaxi 35L backpack from this review – it has zippers and slip pockets, but not much space. ©KettiWilhelm2023

And the Tortuga really does have pockets everywhere:

(These are just the pockets that are beyond what the Cotopaxi Allpa has. Again, this is for the flagship Pro pack, not the newer Lite travel backpack.)

  • Hip pockets on the thoroughly padded hip belt
  • A small, quick access pocket on the top with a key fob
  • An extra zippered pocket inside the laptop pocket (great for chargers)
  • Two stretchy exterior water bottle pockets
  • And a large lateral stash pocket on the front for a wet swim suit or jacket (much better looking than the elastic rope for that purpose on many other travel backpacks)
The Cotopaxi backpack isn’t bad, it’s just different.

It has more and smaller pockets inside the main compartment, where you pack your clothes. (I actually really love the inside of this bag, and wish Tortuga’s bag were more similar in that respect. But only in that respect.)

The main compartment of the Cotopaxi Allpa travel backpack holds 35L of clothing, and has several small organizational pockets with zippers. ©KettiWilhelm2023
Seemingly lots of organization on the Cotopaxi…

Whereas the Tortuga leaves that main compartment as basically a black hole, and splits its organizational pockets into more places, with more external access. (But it’s all secure external access, with three individually lockable compartments.)

This set-up is easy to get used to, if you’re comparing it to a regular suitcase.

The main compartment of the Tortuga travel backpack holds 40L of clothing, but has minimal organization – a design choice to keep the bag lightweight. ©KettiWilhelm2023
… But the Tortuga’s pockets are just more hidden away.

Because of this design, it makes even more sense to rely on packing cubes with the Tortuga, which I think are the best way to keep clothes organized, anyway. Without them, your clothes won’t stay neat and folded.

(More on packing cube options below.)

Tip: If you’re thinking of ordering the Cotopaxi and you don’t know, REI has a one-YEAR return policy for members. (Even if the item is used. It’s a huge leap of faith that the company offers this, so I’m careful not to abuse it.)

The $30 lifetime membership fee is definitely worth it for that level of service, plus 10% cash back on all full-price REI purchases. You can sign up as a member here by December 30, and they’ll essentially waive the fee.


Features Deep Dive: Tortuga Travel Backpack Pro vs Cotopaxi

This is my overview of all of the features of both the Tortuga and Cotopaxi Allpa 35 travel backpacks, and why they matter.

While this might seem basic, a lot of these details are actually really hard to tell from the online descriptions. This is what I learned and noticed by having both bags in front of me at the same time.

Tortuga Travel Backpacks

These details are for the Tortuga 40L Pro travel backpack, as well as the 30L version.

(Note: If you’re trying to compare the organization of 40L pack with its 30L equivalent, all of the information below is still accurate. I double-checked with Tortuga – there’s no difference in the design or pockets of the two bags; only the size changes.)

Tortuga’s Laptop Backpack (their smallest pack, at 24L) also has a lot of the same organization features described below.

Both the Tortuga Pro Travel Backpacks and Laptop Backpack feature:

  • 3 main compartments, all with lockable zippers — large front pocket with organization, main storage area, and well-padded laptop compartment
  • Unique adjustable fit back structure (which lets this pack fit people with a wide range of heights).
  • Top mini pocket with key fob (but not lockable)
Looking into the extra front pocket with a key fob on the Tortuga travel pack. ©KettiWilhelm2023
The first of many bonus pockets on the Tortuga (compared with the Cotopaxi bag).
  • Huge sideways pocket on front – for stashing a jacket? Or a wet swimsuit? I used it mostly for extra shoes.
  • Two stretchy, exterior water bottle pockets ­
  • Handles on one side and the top of the backpack
  • Removable hip belt, with lots of padding and zippered pockets on both sides
Hip belt on the padded hip strap of the Tortuga backpack can fit an iPhone13 Pro with a case. ©KettiWilhelm2023
It’s tricky to close, but I was surprised I could fit my phone in the hip pocket at all. Handy for pulling it out constantly at the airport, but beyond that, I don’t use these pockets much. (This is an iPhone13 Pro with a thin – plastic-free and compostable! – case.)
  • Front organization pocket — deeper than on the Cotopaxi (the pocket is the full size of the bag, and zips open half the length of the bag making it easier to access.)
    • Inside this compartment: One small, interior zip pocket, and lots of other organization (pen pockets, credit card slots, and two slide pockets, one big enough for a book or small iPad.) Nice, but mostly useful when the bag is vertical, since they don’t zip closed and things could fall out when the bag is flat on the ground.
    • (The Cotopaxi’s comparable exterior organizational pocket is just a small top pocket – only about 1/4 the length of the bag.)
The organization pocket on the Tortuga travel backpack is much larger than on the Cotopaxi Allpa. ©KettiWilhelm2023
This front pocket on the Tortuga goes ALL THE WAY down. (The Cotopaxi front pocket only opens as wide as you see in the picture, and that’s the bottom of the pocket.)
  • Inside the Tortuga backpack’s main area for clothing, it’s mostly BYO-organization. It’s just a big empty compartment, with no small zippered pockets.
    • The “lid” has one big mesh pocket, the full size of the bag, which I used for laundry and small items. (Cotopaxi has 3 smaller organizer pockets in its place.)
  • Dedicated laptop and tablet compartment – accessed from the top, as opposed to from the side on Cotopaxi. There’s another medium-sized mesh zip pocket inside the fleece-lined, padded laptop compartment (I found it perfect for chargers). The entire tech compartment can be locked with a third luggage lock.
Passports, jewelry, and other small valuables inside the lockable designated laptop pocket on the safest travel backpack I found for this review – Tortuga travel backpack. ©KettiWilhelm2023
I think this is the smartest part of the Tortuga – perfect to stash everything valuable if you only brought one luggage lock.

Is a 40l backpack big enough for travelling?

Ahh, the oldest travel question: How much to pack?

Honestly, I travel with just one bag – either a 40L backpack, or a comparable carry-on size suitcase (this investment-worthy one) – all the time. For weeks at a time! Even in winter.

(That suitcase of mine is actually 34L, but its dimensions, including wheels, make it the maximum “global” carry-on size – what you’ll be able to use on discount airlines and flights in Europe. So a max carry-on size backpack actually gets you more space than a suitcase without checking a bag.)

So yes, a 40L backpack is big enough – if you know how to pack and, most importantly, what to leave at home.

Packing lightweight, multipurpose layers that don’t wrinkle, or smell bad is a huge factor. (This is my favorite brand, which I reviewed in detail here.)

But it’s more than just what you pack. I’d suggest giving my advice for packing light a read. It’s a strategy – not a packing list – and it might change the way you think about what to bring and what feels like “enough.”

Comparing a travel backpack vs luggage as a carry on, with a max carry-on size suitcase and Tortuga backpack next to each on an airplane's overhead luggage rack. ©KettiWilhelm2023
My carry-on suitcase vs my carry-on backpack: More volume when you lose the wheels!

Real Travel Test with the Tortuga

While I was initially looking for a travel backpack for Europe, the first test I ended up taking my new Tortuga 40L Pro on was a much grungier trip to El Salvador. (Hostels, public busses, nothing fancy. And Central America is definitely the kind of destination where you’ll want to travel with only a backpack and leave the roller bag at home.)

Wearing my Tortuga travel backpack – one of the best sustainable travel gifts this year. ©KettiWilhelm2023
Everything I brought with me on my back.

A few of the things I noticed about the Tortuga on that trip surprised me (and a few didn’t).

There was nothing earth-shattering, but definitely the kind of observation you won’t get just from reading product descriptions online.

  • The large pocket on the inside seems to open upside down. I guess this works just fine if you open the bag to 180 degrees and lay it flat (which it makes sense to do, since it has no structure. Unlike a suitcase, you can’t open the top and prop it up against a wall very well, as I did below.) But for quick access, you have to open this pocket only half way, or else its contents will spill out into the main compartment. Not a deal breaker, nor that hard to avoid, but I would have made the zipper open in the opposite direction.
The Tortuga travel backpack on the bed in my hostel, with the clamshell lid open against the wall and items falling out of its zipper compartment. ©KettiWilhelm2023
I learned quickly not to do this.
  • I didn’t use the front organization area as much as I thought I would. (I’m talking about those pen pockets, fleece Kindle pocket, and slide pockets.) It turns out, this area is really useful on a backpack you’d use for commuting, which you mostly use in a vertical position. But it’s not so useful for a suitcase replacement. Since these pockets mostly don’t have zippers, it’s easy for things to fall out when the bag is horizontal.  
  • But I was surprisingly grateful for the extra-large front pockets. The fact that Tortuga’s front organization pocket is so much bigger than Cotopaxi’s is a huge factor.
    • Those shoes you forgot until the last minute? The wet swimsuit from your last morning on the beach before your flights? Toiletry kit after you get ready in the morning? Any and all can fit in the large exterior pockets on the Tortuga bags (but definitely wouldn’t on the Allpa’s small front pocket). And the Tortuga also has another lateral front pocket for airport essentials.
  • My husband wanted to steal it. This is one of the things that didn’t surprise me. (After all, he voted for me keeping the Tortuga over the Cotopaxi after the living room comparison.) But he was using my old Osprey Farpoint on this trip, and complained about the lack of pockets and thin padding on the straps.

Cotopaxi Backpack Review

Here are my (detailed) first impressions and overview of the features of the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L travel pack, and how they compare with the Tortuga travel backpacks.

(Most of this is the same for the Allpa 42-liter backpack, but there are a few differences, which I noted below.)

  • Colors! The most unmissable thing about any Cotopaxi product will be its bright colors. This is because they use deadstock fabrics (leftovers that would often go to landfill) instead of committing to specific colorways.
  • Three main compartments, but no way to lock the zippers – unless you count cloth loops.
    • Cotopaxi calls these “anti-theft zippers,” because the zipper pulls can be tucked under a cloth loop. But it would take a pretty undetermined thief to not get around them. To me, the loops seem more effective at just making the zippers annoying to open and close. (And my main concern with theft is often when I leave my bag somewhere – hotel or hostel storage, for example – which means a thief would have time to work this system.)
One significant negative review of the Cotopaxi backpack: the zippers are not lockable. ©KettiWilhelm2023
Zippers that aren’t really lockable is one of the biggest reasons I said no to this backpack.
  • No separate, external water bottle pocket
  • Outer zippers feel kind of stiff compared with Tortuga’s zippers
  • Computer pocket and smaller tablet pocket inside padded computer pocket – similar to Tortuga’s, but significantly smaller (why this might matter to you is below). Access is from the side of the bag (not the top) and not lockable.
  • More small zippered pockets than Tortuga. If you want your organization for small items inside the main compartment to be built into the bag, this is a win.
The smallest interior zip pocket on the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L travel backpack with a passport showing inside the pocket. ©KettiWilhelm2023
I do love this interior zip pocket as a way to stash my passport or other (very small) valuables deep inside the bag.
  • There’s a side zipper with access directly into main compartment – why though? This just seem like the opposite of an anti-theft feature.
Demonstrating access to the interior pocket of the Cotopaxi Allpa 35l pack directly from the outside, with the reviewer’s hand sticking into the main compartment – not a good anti-theft feature for a travel backpack. ©KettiWilhelm2023
…But I just can’t see how this could be a good idea.
  • Detachable rain cover, stored in its own compartment inside the main compartment
  • Straps and handling:
    • Much less padding on the Allpa vs the Tortuga’s shoulder straps
    • Can tuck away straps – nice for keeping them safe if you have to check the bag. Tortuga doesn’t have this feature.
    • Removable hip belt (which doesn’t have much padding anyway, compared with Tortuga’s, and no pockets)
    • Lots of carabiner loops (none with Tortuga)
    • Handles on all 4 sides vs 2 on the Tortuga backpacks

Cotopaxi Allpa 35L vs other versions:

Allpa 42L

  • 1 water bottle pocket (which holds up to 3” in diameter) while the Allpa 35 has none
  • An additional messenger bag style strap

Allpa 28L

  • Small side pocket to stash the rain cover for easy access – I think this makes much more sense than keeping it packed away! (As the larger packs do.)
  • No padding on the hip belt

Laptop Pocket Comparison (Cotopaxi vs Tortuga):

Both the Cotopaxi and Tortuga bags have a padded laptop compartment, which sits against your back when you’re wearing the bag and can fit both a laptop and tablet. My 13” MacBook Air (a very thin laptop) fits in either pocket on the Tortuga bag, but only fits in the larger pocket on the Cotopaxi.

That’s definitely a point for Tortuga, because the smaller pocket holds your tech toward the center of the bag, and away from bumps at the corners or edges.

Tortuga’s laptop compartment is also lockable (huge factor), has an additional zipper pocket (great for chargers and hard drives), and opens from the top of the bag. I found that to just be much more convenient than Cotopaxi’s side-access laptop compartment. (Especially for getting to your laptop on a flight while the bag is overhead.)

A MacBook Air 13” and an iPad can both fit inside the lockable, padded laptop compartment on the Tortuga backpacks, the safest travel backpack in this review. ©KettiWilhelm2023
Tortuga’s fleece-lined tech compartment can fit both a laptop and a tablet.
A MacBook Air 13” fits inside the smaller and more secure padded laptop compartment (designed to hold a tablet) on the Tortuga travel backpack. ©KettiWilhelm2023
…or a 13” laptop can fit in the (most secure) tablet sleeve.
The separate, padded laptop compartment on the Cotopaxi Allpa fits a laptop and tablet, but the laptop doesn’t fit inside the backpack’s smaller and safer pocket (which also is not lockable). ©KettiWilhelm2023
… But the 13” laptop doesn’t fit inside the Cotopaxi’s smaller sleeve.
The separate, padded laptop compartment on the Cotopaxi Allpa fits a laptop and tablet, but the laptop doesn’t fit inside the backpack’s smaller and safer pocket. ©KettiWilhelm2023
… and it slides around a lot more in the laptop compartment. (Closer to the bag’s corners and further from padding.)

With these features, I think the Tortuga 40L Pro is undoubtedly the better backpack for digital nomads. (Or for anyone wanting to travel carry-on only, with just one bag and a laptop.)

Just starting out, or want a more affordable and lightweight travel backpack? I’d look at their new Travel Backpack Lite. (Want a deep dive on the two packs? Here are my pros and cons of the Pro vs Lite.)


Extra Travel Gear

A few mini-reviews of some of the other travel gear from Tortuga, Cotopaxi and alternatives (when someone else does it better).

Tortuga Travel Sling (new)

I also wore Tortuga’s travel sling in El Salvador, which is sort of a trendy new take on a fanny pack, crossed with a small day bag. (I’m really not a trend-chaser, so this was oddly on-trend for me.)

Just the fact that these bags are so popular this year made me skeptical.

But I have to say, I actually liked using it a lot more than I expected to. Its well-designed organization made it impressively functional and multipurpose.

For how tiny it looks, I could fit a lot in it – even including my new Sony mirrorless camera. (Which I finally bought to replace my old DSLR, after it suffered a dramatic fate in France.)

So I ended up using the sling in place of a day pack most days! Pretty impressive.

Looking inside my Tortuga Travel Sling being used as small travel daypack with my camera inside. ©KettiWilhelm2023
Wearing my Tortuga Travel Sling as small travel daypack that fits a camera. ©KettiWilhelm2023
It zips, too!

Travel Water Bottle

Tortuga also makes its own water bottle (which, of course, fits in the water bottle pockets on all of their travel backpacks), but it’s not the one I’d recommend.

The best travel water bottle – hands down – is this one from LARQ. It has a UV-C light inside the bottle that kills bacteria and viruses, meaning you can drink tap water all over the world instead of buying it in plastic bottles!

[Details: Here’s how I use the LARQ, along with a filtering water bottle, to avoid buying plastic bottles – even in places with dangerous tap water.]

Packing cubes

Both brands make their own packing cubes, but neither Tortuga’s nor Cotopaxi’s cubes have compression – which I think is literally the most important feature. (Although Tortuga says they’re designing compression cubes to launch in 2024.)

UPDATE: Tortuga’s new compression packing cubes are out! After they read my complaints here, they were kind enough to send me one before the launch, and I have to say, it’s excellent.

Compression lets you keep your clothes more compact to save space, and keep them from moving and wrinkling. And you can zip the contents down when most of your clothes are dirty and stashed elsewhere.

Instead, I’d recommend these highly rated, expandable cubes, which also let you keep clean and dirty separate.

For a budget pick, I’d take this packing cube set from REI any day. (I’ve been using these for many years and they’re still going strong. If I ever need more, the Peak Design ones above are what I’ll buy.)

Sturdy Luggage Locks

Don’t forget a good luggage lock if you want to take advantage of the Tortuga’s lockable zippers! (And I’m surprised that Tortuga doesn’t make their own.)

As you can see, I’ve been using these locks from Eagle Creek for so many years the paint has rubbed off – but they’re still going strong. They’re TSA approved and, unlike most luggage locks, all metal.

My recommended Eagle Creek luggage locks with the paint worn off, locked to the best travel backpack from Tortuga backpacks. ©KettiWilhelm2023

If you want a slightly larger, flexible cable loop for locking multiple things together, I’d go with this lock from Pacsafe.

Tortuga Travel Pouches

I don’t see a whole lot that’s special about these travel pouches – they’re just zippered pouches to organize small items. That’s great if you actually need them, but doesn’t everyone already own a bunch of these at home?

Tortuga Tech Organizer

Unlike the pouches above, this travel tech organizer actually does seem like a useful and well-designed way to keep all of your cables, extra camera batteries, and chargers organized inside your backpack.

Tortuga's travel tech organizer, designed to keep cables and chargers neat in your suitcase or travel backpack.
(Not my hands! I haven’t tested this organizer yet, but I think it looks well designed. Image courtesy of Tortuga.)

The Negatives

Here’s every bad thing I could think of about all three of these backpack brands.

Why I never quite liked my Osprey travel backpack:

When I first started traveling with a backpack years ago, the Osprey Farpoint 40 was my upgrade from a regular old backpacking backpack.

Note: What’s the difference between the Osprey Farpoint and Fairview?

They’ve really overcomplicated the naming here. The Fairview is just the women’s fit version of the original “men’s” Farpoint, which I (a woman with perhaps slightly more broad shoulders than average) used for years. (Don’t worry, no pink tax, though. The bags cost the same. And neither actually comes in pink.)

I traveled for months at a time with an older version of this bag, so I tested it very thoroughly. All of these problems were apparent from the start, but I just couldn’t find a better alternative at the time. (This was before the Tortuga had such great organization.)

  • No organization in the main compartment. (It was like they expected you to use the day pack as the organizational component of the main bag, but then you’d have to empty if out every time you wanted to use it for a day hike. It just wasn’t functional.)
  • No stretch to the detachable day-bag, and it’s very small, so it needs some stretch.
  • No stretch to the water bottle pockets. Unless the rest of the day pack is empty, the water bottle pockets are useless. A full backpack means the water bottle will immediately squeeze out of the inflexible pockets.
  • Uncomfortable. Not enough padding on the hip belt or shoulder straps.
Unfortunately, this bag doesn’t seem to have evolved much over the years. That’s why it doesn’t feature heavily in this review.

They’ve added a padded laptop sleeve, and one “toiletry pocket.” And the day pack is now sold separately, unless you buy the larger 55 liter backpack, or absolutely gigantic 70 liter version.

But it’s still a far cry from the organization and travel-specific design of the best travel backpacks available now. (Which isn’t surprising, considering that Osprey has always been an outdoor gear company, more than a travel company.)

What I would recommend the Osprey for:

Extra capacity: 40 liters is definitely enough for me when it’s well organized, and it’s the maximum carryon size that you can reasonably expect to get away with on most airlines. But Osprey also makes 55-liter, 70-liter and even 80-liter travel backpacks.

(Yikes, I definitely wouldn’t want to pack around an 80-liter travel backpack, but if you really need all that space (and really need it on your back) Osprey has you covered. Remember that it’s twice the maximum carry-on size, though.)

Budget Travelers: While these aren’t my favorite, the Farpoint / Fairway bags are still pretty good quality construction for a much lower price than the Tortuga backpacks. (Same goes for Cotopaxi, for that matter.)

I so consider Osprey a reliable brand, and they have a lifetime warranty. So if you’re looking to save some money, I’d definitely recommend one of their backpacks over some cheap knockoff you find on Amazon. (Which will just end up in a landfill before long.)

You can order Osprey bags directly from Osprey, or on REI. (Either way, they only ship to the US.)

What I don’t love about the Tortuga:

Even though I kept this travel backpack and wouldn’t switch, there are a couple of things I would change about it.

  • The large pocket on the inside opens upside down. (This was one of the things I noticed on my first trip with the Tortuga. Definitely not a deal breaker, just a head-scratcher why they designed it this way. Scroll back up here for details.)
  • Lack of color. This is entirely personal – if the stealthy look of a solid black travel backpack is what you want, then Tortuga hits the nail on the head. I just kind of like the contrasting zippers and accents on the Cotopaxi.
  • Can’t tuck the backpack straps away. This isn’t a big deal, especially since I’d only want to hide the straps if I checked the bag for a flight. (Yes, of course, it’s carry-on size, but if you’re like me and like to bring home a bottle of wine or liquor as a souvenir, the pack might end up getting checked anyway.) That said, the straps are well-built and sturdy, so cinching them down might be enough to avoid conveyor belt snags.
    • The new Lite Travel Pack does have straps that you can tuck away for checking the bag, and the hip belt is removable. The padding is thinner, but in my experience it’s still been enough to be comfortable.

But despite that…

Why I didn’t choose the Cotopaxi:

However, after comparing these travel backpacks side by side, there were more things I didn’t like about the Allpa than the Tortuga.

  • The lack of lockable zippers really doesn’t make sense to me for a bag designed for light, fast travel. (Meaning there’s a good chance you’ll leave it in a hostel at some point. And if you’re doing the one-bag travel method, it seems weird to have all your worldly possessions in one bag and no way to lock it.)
  • The side access to the main compartment is a similar security concern. I just can’t imagine any real use for it, and it adds yet another unlocked zipper for pickpockets to slide open on a subway.
  • My small 13″ laptop doesn’t fit in the smaller (more protective) part of the laptop compartment. (Details on that here.)
  • Less organization – including no water bottle pockets, and no hip belt pockets. And if you’re traveling with only one bag, those seem like no-brainers to include. (The Tortuga does both without adding bulk or making the bag look like a school backpack.)
  • Less comfortable. With less padding on the hip belt, and no load-lifter straps, the Cotopaxi just isn’t built for much more than a (hopefully) quick trip from one hotel to the next.

What both travel backpacks are missing:

  • An additional key fob deep inside a locking compartment of the bag. I don’t understand why every single suitcase and travel backpack doesn’t have this feature. (A safe place to keep your home keys stashed away, when you don’t need to access them for weeks or months. Makes sense, right?)
  • Compression straps inside to keep everything in place – the Osprey bags actually do have this, so at least they get one point.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, and after all the overanalyzing above, I think the Cotopaxi and Tortuga bags are two of the best travel backpacks. Both have high quality construction, sustainably chosen fabrics, and great details. The Osprey travel pack remains a runner-up.

Here are my recommendations:

  • Best Travel Backpacks Overall: The Tortuga 40L for all the reasons summarized below (with lots of details in the review above). Don’t live in the US? There’s info about using a freight forwarder to order from Tortuga in their FAQ here.
  • Budget Pick: The Cotopaxi Allpa 35 ($150 less than Tortuga, but still high quality)
    • Honestly, now that I’ve tested Tortuga’s new Lite version, it’s the one I would recommend to a friend for a budget travel backpack over the Cotopaxi. (Detailed comparison coming soon.)
  • Best BIG Travel Backpacks: The Osprey Farpoint and Fairview. (While they don’t have all the features I want, these packs come in sizes up to 80L, if you’re committed to a heavy haul.)

Discount Reminders: Tortuga offers a 20% discount for students, teachers, first responders and a few others. (See the full list and how to get your discount code here.) For Osprey or Cotopaxi, REI members get 10% back on all full-priced items at the end of the year. (If you’re not already a member, here’s the information about joining.)

The Cotopaxi Allpa bags are great if you’re not worried about locking zippers and like bright color options. (Although they definitely would limit the bag’s usefulness, say for professional travel or anywhere you’d rather not stand out.)

While the Cotopaxi packs don’t have as many pockets as the Tortugas, they still have pretty good organization.

In theory, it’s nice that the Cotopaxi comes with a rain fly, especially if you’ll be using it for longer walks outdoors – although the much lighter padding on the straps means it’s not a pack I’d want to wear for longer periods of time anyway. Effectively, that means the rain fly might just turn into another thing you end up carrying and never using.

(And the Tortuga’s zippers are weather-sealed, so it would take a lot for the bag to take on water with its waterproof sailcloth exterior.)

On the other hand, Cotopaxi bags cost almost 50% less than Tortuga 40L Pro, which could be a critical factor for many travelers.

And Cotopaxi’s sustainability and ethical manufacturing make it a company I’m happy to recommend. While I really wish Tortuga would change its plastic inner packaging, at least the backpack itself uses recycled materials.

So while a lot of those factors seemed like close comparisons, the Tortuga backpack still won out for me in my living room test, and taking it on a few actual trips has confirmed I made the right choice.

At the end of the day, I think the Tortuga Pro is the best 40L backpack for traveling in terms of organization and comfort, and also the safest travel backpack.

I love the Tortuga’s extra pockets, both on the inside and outside of the bag. I appreciate that the zippers can lock easily and securely. The Tortuga backpacks also keep a lower profile, without the attention-grabbing colors.

Wearing my Tortuga travel backpack and travel sling in a jungle El Salvador. ©KettiWilhelm2023
On the way to an early morning flight in El Salvador with my Tortuga 40L, magical purifying water bottle, and travel sling.

Its customizable height lets almost anyone get the right fit with the Tortuga. (It would definitely be the better bag for tall people.)

Plus, the Pro version of the Tortuga is much more comfortable, with thicker padding and load-lifter straps (a feature normally only found on backpacking backpacks).

I really think they have adopted the best features of backpacking packs, and applied them exceptionally well to a backpack for travel – whether that’s long-term as a digital nomad, or for an easy week away, without the roller bag dragging behind you.

I hope you found this review helpful! If you’re getting started with backpack travel, be sure to read my advice for packing lighter.

If you have any questions, especially about the Tortuga backpacks, which are still here at home with me (I returned the Cotopaxi after comparing them), just leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

And remember, if you’re shopping for any Tortuga products, you can save 10% on your first order from them with the discount code TILTED !


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