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Choosing a Front Loading Backpack

Choosing a Front Loading Backpack

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One of the biggest things you have to consider when buying a backpack is front loading vs top loading. Since this determines how you get things in and out of the backpack, it can have a big impact on how comfortable you are using the bag over time. They’re also made differently which can impact how well the backpack works for your particular situation and travel style.

Front loading, sometimes called panel loading, means the main compartment opens up similar to the way suitcases open, so you have a big opening to work with. Top loading means the backpack opens up at the top, usually giving you a smaller opening.

Panel Loading vs Top Loading Backpacks

Pros of Front Loading Backpacks

Easier to pack and unpack: Having a bigger opening means it’s easier to get things in and out of your backpack, so repacking on the road is faster and easier. This makes it easier to get to things at the bottom without having to unpack all the contents of your backpack. With a top loading backpack, you have to unpack every time you want something at that’s not right at the top.

Keeps your belongings more secure: Front loading backpacks have zipper closures, while most top loading backpacks have drawstrings. Zippers keep your belongings more secure, and you can usually lock the zippers together for a little peace of mind. You can’t lock a drawstring, and if your bag tips over, your stuff could potentially slip out if the drawstrings aren’t cinched tight enough.

Better shape: Front loading backpacks tend to be a little shorter from top to bottom and a little wider from side to side, while top loading backpacks tend to be narrower and taller. The weight is distributed a bit better with the front loading backpacks, especially for us shorter ladies, because of this shape difference.

The Tortuga V2 Backpack Insides
The panel loading capabilities of the Tortuga Travel Backpack.

Cons of Front Loading Backpacks

Weight: Top loading backpacks are usually made for hiking, so they are made with lighter weight material. If you’re counting ounces (or grams) to travel carry-on only, even a little extra weight from a front loading backpack could make a big difference to the overall weight of your bag.

Not as much structure: While it’s great that front loading backpacks have a bigger opening, sometimes this means it can actually be a little harder to pack. When the bag is opened all the way, there is less structure to hold everything in while you’re trying to get the next layer of clothing into the backpack.

Zippers may break more easily: Good backpacks will come with sturdy zippers, but regardless, a zipper may not hold up as well in the test of time versus a sturdy, solid fabric.

Should I Buy a Front Loading Backpack?

After going over the pros and cons of choosing front loading backpacks, it really comes down to your personal travel needs. The best option is to test one out in real life. It might be necessary to invest in a front panel loading backpack if you have a lot of belongings (it’s harder to dig to the item in the bottom of the bag if it’s top-loading), for example.

If you’re shopping in a store, like REI, there will usually be some weighted bags and filled compression sacks for you to see how the backpack feels when loaded. Pay attention to what it feels like to pack it up. It won’t be the same as your clothes, but it can give you a sense of what it’s like to pack things into a front loading or top loading bag.

Whether you buy a backpack at a store or online, check the return policy. Before you take any of the tags off, do a trial run by packing clothing, toiletry bags, and other things you typically take with you to see how it all packs up. Pay attention to how easy or difficult it is to access something packed towards the bottom.

>>For more on choosing a backpack, check out the ultimate female guide to picking a backpack and the best backpacks for slim and petite women.

Front Loading Backpack Examples

front loading backpacks

Osprey Porter 30

The Osprey Porter 30 is a smaller bag for those of you looking to travel even lighter. With 30 liters, it’s hard to over pack! The straps can be zipped away in case you do need to check it, the compression straps help keep everything cinched up, and there’s a separate laptop sleeve.

>> Check out the Osprey Porter 30 backpack on REI.

front loading backpacks

Kelty Redwing 32

Another backpack for minimalist packers, the Kelty Redwing 32 has cushioned straps for comfort and support. The waist strap will help distribute the weight, and there are lots of great external pockets.

>> Check out the Kelty Redwing 32 backpack on Amazon.

Tortuga V2 (40L)

Tortuga Travel Backpack

This 44L backpack was built to be carry-on friendly with an emphasis on organization and convenience. The Tortuga comes with built-in laptop sleeve, internal and exterior compression straps, and a slew of other features that will make your travel life easier.

>> Check out this review of the Tortuga, or purchase one of your own on the Tortuga website.

Front-loading Backpack Reviews on HPL

Fjallraven Kanken 16l classic backpack
Fjällräven Kånken 16L
timbuk2 jet laptop pack
Timbuk2 Jet Laptop Backpack 30L
minaal 2.0 carryon
Minaal 2.0 Carry-on 35L
osprey fairview 40l backpack
Osprey Fairview 40L
Osprey Farpoint 40L
Osprey Farpoint 40L
REI Trail 40L
REI Trail 40L
Osprey Porter 46L
Osprey Porter 46L
eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender 54L
eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender 54L
Osprey Farpoint 55L
Osprey Farpoint 55L
osprey meridian 60l backpack
Osprey Meridian 60L
Osprey Ariel 65L
Osprey Ariel 65L

Do you prefer top loading backpacks or front loading backpacks? Tell us why in the comments!

Written by Ali

Ali Garland is a freelance writer, blogger, and travel addict who made it to all 7 continents before her 30th birthday. She enjoys travel planning, encouraging others to see the world, and packing carry-on only. She and her husband are expats living in Berlin. You can find Ali at Ali's Adventures and Travel Made Simple.

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Travel Resources

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Handbag Packing Masterclass – Learn to pack your lightest bag ever in this revolutionary packing class run by HPL founder, Brooke.

Creative Ways to Minimize Your Toiletry & Beauty Kit – Practical tips alongside DIY recipes designed to help you pack lighter, smaller & with fewer liquids. (Also included as a bonus to Handbag Packing Masterclass.)

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Viator – Enhance your trip experience by booking from thousands of tours across the globe. – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions


  1. Stephanie Ciancio says

    Hello Ali! Thanks for this gathering of options- I love how you also included European models. I want to find out which of these come in frame sizes. I have a hiking backpack from rei size csa, xs that feels good. I wonder if I’ll have better luck with European models and how easy or challenging it is to get those in the states. Some additional useful information will be the weights and carry-on weight restrictions, I’ll share what I find.

  2. Sonya says

    I have used both styles and at the end of the day what is most important is how it feels on your back. i.e. comfort factor. If it is not comfortable, it doesn’t matter how well it packs you wont use it and you will never be a happy traveller.

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