Travel backpacks come in a wide range of sizes, and the choices can be overwhelming. Here at Her Packing List, we love to pack light and avoid checking luggage.
So what’s the perfect size for packing what you need and still traveling with only a carry on?
While you can certainly travel with even less, a 40L travel backpack just might be the perfect size. Please keep in mind that flying airlines with tight carry-on weight restrictions might call for a smaller travel backpack.
Why 40L is the perfect size for a travel backpack
A 40L backpack falls into the middle zone, making it not too big and not too small. It’s perfect for many reasons.
- The measurements fall within the carry-on restrictions of most airlines.
- It will hold plenty of stuff without tempting you to pack too many unnecessary extras.
- The compact size will help reduce the amount of space you have for heavier items.
- It’s small enough to manage and provide you with good range of motion.
- You won’t feel overly restricted in what you can bring on your trip.
How to choose the right 40L travel backpack
You’re going to be wearing this on your back and spending a lot of time with it, so you want to make sure you get the right one. Here are some things to consider when shopping for your new backpack:
- Decide if you prefer top loading or panel loading.
- Check the dimensions to make sure they work with your airline’s carry-on restrictions.
- Make sure there are enough pockets for your needs.
- Look for a rain cover.
- Adjust the straps, including the waist strap, to make sure it fits comfortably.
>>For a more in depth look, check out our ultimate female guide to picking a backpack here.
How much can you fit in a 40L backpack?
Here’s what I fit in my 40L backpack on my most recent trip:
- 9 t-shirts
- 1 cute top
- 2 pairs of shorts
- 2 pair of pants (plus I wore a pair of jeans on travel days)
- 4 pairs of socks
- 10 pairs of underwear
- 2 bras
- 1 pair of shoes (clunky wedges)
- 1 bag of travel-sized liquid toiletries
- Make-up, deodorant, razor, hairbrush, prescription medication
- Laptop, charger, external hard drive
The only things I didn’t have inside the backpack were my rain jacket, which I either wore or had strapped to the outside of the bag, and my DSLR was in a separate camera bag as my personal item. Plus sneakers and the clothes on my back.
I easily could’ve cut back on the number of shirts. I wore each shirt twice without washing it. The only reason I had a cute top, one of the pairs of pants, and the clunky shoes is that I had to dress up for a show. Clearly I need better travel shoes!
Also, I pack lots of underwear because it means I can go longer without doing laundry. If you don’t mind doing laundry more often or you don’t mind washing underwear in the sink, definitely pack fewer pairs. I traveled for 18 days and did laundry once.
The 40L Travel Backpacks Reviewed on HPL:
Osprey Fairview 40L
REI Trail 40L
Osprey Farpoint 40L
REI Lookout 40L
North Face Terra 40L
$139 – $165
Backpacks Nearly 40L:
Osprey Kyte 36L
Gregory Jade 38L
Kelty Redwing 44L
Osprey Talon 44L
Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45L
>>Check out all our female backpack reviews all in one place.
What size travel backpack do you have? Do you think 40L is the perfect backpack size for females?
I have a Kelty Flyway (43 l), and while I like it a lot, I am eying the Tortuga Air – always on the hunt for an even better bag…
The Kelty Flyway is technically not carry on size, but I have not had any trouble with it so far, and it’s pretty much the perfect backpack to live out of on a trip, at least for me.
It’s definitely big enough to fit all the stuff I want to take, and even fits a decent amount of extras I might buy on the road. It’s not big enough to handle a major shopping spree, but for that we always take a duffle we can check on the flight back home 😉
I thought 40L was perfect until I got my Tortuga Air. Maybe it is the same usable space given that most packs have curves and aren’t as squared as the Air, but I feel like my Tortuga Air holds nearly the same if not more than my REI Lookout 40. Though the Lookout 40 is definitely top of my list for amazing and if you’re on a budget, it is the perfect bag. I did a month in Kenya out of it very easily.
Argh, another step closer to ordering the Tortuga Air…
It’s worth it. I really was worried that I would regret spending that much on a bag, but after the last 4 trips with it, I have come to the conclusion, that you can’t put a price on the perfect bag. While it may not work for everyone (I’m definitely a minimalist traveler) I have yet to wish I had my money back.
I like that you’ve put all the 40 litre bags you’ve reviewed in one place. That’ll make it easy to compare them. The bag you’re wearing looks so small!
I’d like to add in the 40L Mountain Designs Escape backpack – it’s amazing!
It has 3 sections – a large main packing section, a large front pocket to keep important stuff handy (I put a lock on it so I felt better about keeping things like bookings and other sensitive things close at hand) and a smaller top pocket. It also has bungy cords on the outside for strapping in things like jackets that you don’t want to carry.
The best bit (and the thing that convinced my sister that she also wanted one) is the pack cover. It’s convertible – it can be just a rain cover for when the odd downpour hits, or it can zip over the entire bag as a protecter. It’s an awesome bag!
Hi Siobhan! If you’d be interested in writing a review of your backpack, let me know 🙂
i was just wondering with what you packed, what your bag ended up weighing?
Thanks for the great resource!
Hi Danica! Unfortunately I didn’t weigh it. Had to be more than 7kg though because I had my laptop in there, and that weighs a little less than 3 pounds (maybe 1.3 kg?) by itself, plus I had those clunky shoes I wouldn’t normally travel with. When I’ve weighed my bag in the past, I usually end up around 10kg or so. The bag itself is 1.28 kg.
I have the Tortuga and I love it. Perfect fit for my 5’3 1/4 body. Lots of room to fit plenty of clothes and 2 large mesh pockets for assorted things. huge sleeve for a laptop and roomy and convenient hip belt pockets to fit passports and other stuff.
Just wondering if you have the Tortuga or the Tortuga Air? I”m 5’1 but with a longer torso than most shorter, petite females and I’m deciding between the Tortuga Travel Backpack or the Osprey Farpoint 40. Since I live in Canada, there isn’t a lot of options to return if things don’t fit me right.
Just wondering what you went with? I’m also in Canada.
This was really helpful! My husband and I are just getting into traveling quite a bit and we both agree that we hate lots of luggage. Our first couple of trips we used roller back packs which worked for cities since we didn’t have to keep the bags on our backs and there are plenty of places that will hold your bags while you’re site seeing. However we are going to Thailand next and roller backpacks won’t be so easy to hike with! Lol! Looking forward to going out and trying some of the bags you recommended above. Again, thank you for the helpful information! Great for us “newbies”!
I would like the add the Litus 32 from The North Face. They also have a ‘female’ version of it but since I am tall 5’11” I need the male version. I am very very picky and have been looking for the perfect pack for some time. I bought the Kelty Redwing 40 for women, fell in love with the panel opening and the color, but the spine length just wasn’t long enough for me. Since I loved it so much because of all the pockets I bought the 50L mens one. The moment I stepped off the plane in Hawaii I already wanted to ditch it, it just doesn’t carry light. So I went to Sports Authority and they had an North Face Banchee 50l… put in all my stuff and it was so much lighter to carry. I decided to send half my things home and exchange the bag for the 35L one. It’s super light weight, but was a bit stiff and even though it was only 35L still bulky. I looked at the Ascensionist and love it is lightweight and compact, but does not have many pockets. In the end I found the Litus 32L and LOVE it! It is the perfect combo of all of them. Super lightweight, has many pockets, great panel or top opening and carries perfectly on my hips, not my waist. I feel like I’ve finally found the right pack 🙂
no gregory packs! that’s a shame. i have a J53 (which is obviously bigger than this list) but i know they make similar packs in this range. i adore mine cause it zips open and fits everything, packs down small, and fits in overhead bins if it’s not overstuffed (tested on easyjet and other stringent european airlines).
point is, if you’ve tried osprey packs and never thought they fit you right, try a gregory! the two brands design their packs very differently – i’ve never found an osprey to be comfortable, but i can wear my gregory pack for days.
I travel everywhere with my Osprey Stratus 24L pack. It’s got awesome ventilation and plentiful, well-designed pockets, and is also very nice-looking. It’s perfect for my daily bike commute and as a carry-on/ day pack for vacation travel. I could go on and on about it! =)
Awesome, Elena – have any interest in sharing your story/ backpack with us here at HPL?
Great roundup! I’m hunting for a pack about this size, but I’m only 5’1″ and have a very short (<14") torso, so I find most of these options don't quite fit right. I want to downsize from my current pack to something more carry-on friendly. Right now I have the Gregory Deva 60 in a women's XS, which fits great, but the smaller Jade 38 doesn't have padded straps or hipbelt, which makes it less comfortable to carry. (Yes, even a smaller 38L pack, when fully loaded, is heavy for me — I'm a small person!) I'm going through the options you posted, and one at a time I'm eliminating those that only are designed for torso lengths of 15"-16" and up. Anyone have any suggestions for those of us on the more petite end of the spectrum?
I’m also 5’1″ but my torso is fairly average…my shortness is all from my short legs! Many backpacks come in S/M and M/L so it’s worth seeing if the S/M will work for you. I often test out the S/M options thinking, I’m short, this should work! But they always feel too short for my torso, so maybe they’ll be a good option. Also, check out this guest post about backpacks for petite women.
Hi! I’m switching from a small rolling bag that Ive been carrying on to just a pack. I’m still having a hard time making a decision. I’m going to Costa Rica for 2 weeks and will be on foot much of the time. I’d like it to be water resistant and front loading. Any advice would be great. Thanks.
I can recommend the Deuter Aircontact Lite 35+10 SL (named ACT Lite until Feb 2018). I’ve used mine for a decade now, on several short trips per year, and I still wait for the first damage to occur.
It has a trekking style suspension system that is adjustable from 38cm to 50cm torso length (according to the Deuter website) and is made for a female build with narrow shoulders and curvy hips. I often have the problem that I am too curvy for unisex and too tall for women’s size but this backpack is a great fit for me.
If not fully packed (ca. 30l?), it can be downsized to 55x30x20cm. Also, (with the newest model) the lid pocket can be seperated and carried as a purse or fanny pack. So, depending on airline restrictions, the backpack might be taken as carry-on luggage. I did so on RyanAir flights within Europe. I think that this backpack is not as fit for carry-on as a more rectangular, broader shaped one with a suitcase-like opening would be, but it is a good allrounder for different types of travel. I do a lot of travelling by train with long city walks and public transportation inbetween and I really appreciate to have a good weight distribution and a bag that is only as broad as me when I have to squeeze through narrow gangways or store it between my legs or on my lap.
There is a review for the bigger sister (ACT Lite 45+10) here on herpackinglist.
Mati Safi says
I travel everywhere with my Osprey Stratus 24L pack. It’s got awesome ventilation and plentiful, well-designed pockets, and is also very nice-looking. It’s perfect for my daily bike commute and as a carry-on/ day pack for vacation travel. I could go on and on about it! Thanks for you