Peak Design Travel Backpack Review
There is no way around it: the Travel Backpack is a large bag.
In fact, its size is perfectly matched to qualify as a carry-on on most airline companies. As such, it almost exactly corresponds to the size of a typical, small suitcase. This makes it larger than the usual backpack, while still being smaller than multi-days hiking bags.
As can be seen from the image above, the bag is still much smaller than the limit for carry-on on a train in Canada.
On the other hand, it cannot slide under the seat of a train. In a plane, the bag fits tightly under the seat of most planes except the smaller ones, and goes into an overhead compartment with ease. It has two advantages over most suitcases regarding this. First, it has no wheels and no fully rigid parts, which makes it easier to squeeze in tight spaces. Second, the numerous handles, plus the ability to stow away the straps, make it easy to handle.
Expanding the front section of the backpack actually makes it too large to be counted as a carry-on most of the time. The company’s logic regarding this is twofold. First, not all trips involve air travel. Second, at times the traveler will want to add something inside the bag after clearing security (a jacket, for instance). This extra volume is available for just these scenarios.
Ventilation on the back is average, no more. The fabric, while extremely durable and stain-resistant, is not particularly good for air flow. Ventilation improves if the magnetic wings are folded back, resulting in a smaller contact area on the back and even better padding. To do so, the hip straps must be out, which is likely to be the case anyway if the wearer is sweating. This smaller contact area on the back has no negative effect on comfort or balance, luckily.
The level of comfort is high. The bag has been designed for being put on and removed often, but even when worn over longer periods, weight distribution remains good. The pivoting rivets on the hip straps help considerably with body movements: they are useful for more than storing the straps. That being said, a full bag can get quite heavy. In that case, the wearer is strongly advised to use the hip and chest straps to better distribute weight.
Those straps do not hook in the classic way, via a plastic buckle. After a very short period, the use of those straps becomes intuitive, and makes the user wonder why no other company uses such a slim and efficient design.
Despite its rather large size, the bag can fit various body shapes, although a smaller person might have more trouble if the bag is top-heavy or expanded towards the back. Finding a good adjustment for the shoulder straps is relatively easy whatever the wearer’s height. The shape of the shoulder straps is also adequately adapted to female bodies. We like that there are no loose strap ends. In general, the exterior is streamlined and nothing sticks out or risks catching.
Despite its good level of comfort, the Travel Bag is not designed specifically for hiking. While it offers two pockets suitable for water bottles, there is no provision for a hydration bladder. One could easily use the laptop compartment for this, but note that this compartment is not fully isolated from the main volume. Still, using a weatherproof camera cube for photo gear and placing the bladder inside the laptop partition offers a good level of protection.
Accessing the photo gear is easy, but with a few caveats. Side access is a common way to design a bag and Peak Design did not reinvent anything here. It is not the best system (Mindshift Gear’s rotation180 has that claim) but works well. The inner zipper (closing the camera cube) can be left open if desired, and only the backpack's side panel must then be opened.
However, the ease of access will then be influenced by the size of the camera cube. The small cube’s top opens fully, giving access to the whole interior. On the other hand, the medium and large cubes offer only a trapezoid opening. This is perfect to quickly grab a camera, but does not offer access to anything else inside the compartment. To access more gear, the user must fully remove the bag, lay it down, unzip the back and then reach in. In this sense, the Travel Bag is more of a camera gear carry solution than anything else. Note that the medium and large cubes offer access from both sides, which can help if the dividers are positioned strategically. Two small cubes can also be placed back to back to offer access on both sides, or one small cube can be used alone, allowing the user to use the remaining volume for easy to reach items.
Planning ahead, attaching the camera to a clip outside the bag (or to a neck strap) and placing an extra lens in the camera section inside the cube partially solves this issue, as does using an external lens case fixed to the hip strap.
Having the opportunity to use the camera cubes as standalone bags is a nice perk. The large cube doesn’t make much sense for this, it’s better to simply use the whole backpack. The medium offers a good volume, some of which can be used for non-photographic items. Most of the cube won’t be easy to access when worn, as there are high risks of spills. The small cube is closest to a compact sling bag. It can also serve as an inexpensive case for larger lenses. It can even carry a compact camera kit with ease and allow easy access. It is, in fact, mostly similar (looks aside) to the company’s 5L sling.
The number of accessories is impressive. The company definitely sees the travel line as a system, and it shows.
The tech pouch is probably our favorite accessory. It is beautifully designed, versatile and easy to use. It can hold a large number of items but more importantly, inserting and removing elements is easy. Each and every pocket is stretchy, and cables only have to be pushed in, without particular care. Tech pouches often require cables to be tightly rolled and flattened; not so here. This pouch may be too large or too thick for some people, and will be ideal for others. It can double as a compact shoulder bag (or purse, or fanny pack) when coupled with a removable strap (Peak Design’s, or another brand’s).
The wash pouch also includes interesting elements, such as the washable toothbrush compartment and hanging hook. Current air travel regulations limit the usefulness of this pouch if traveling by air (razors and liquids being tightly controlled), but it can be extremely useful for ground travel. Note that, if desired, this pouch could serve many purposes apart from toiletry carry.
The two pouches, together, take up approximately one packing unit inside the bag, but can be stuffed in a corner or inside the front compartment. We had no problems traveling with the medium packing cube, a full shoe pouch, and a tech pouch crammed at the top, with space left around the various elements to cram tiny objects.
The packing cubes are more expensive than what is often available on the market, but also larger. The “medium” cube (labeled this way because it has the same size as the medium camera cube) is easily the size of two or three common cubes. The packing cubes lack the see-through top often found on such products. However, the light fabric, easy tear-open tabs, effective compression make them interesting. The fact that they also match closely the backpack’s size is an added bonus. They certainly are durable and well made. One differentiating element is that the cubes open completely. This makes it easier to organize clothes inside: instead of cramming objects through a tiny opening, one can optimize storage and take advantage of the cube's size and shape.
The shoe pouch might be more interesting. Like a minimalist packing cube, it’s even lighter and simpler than the regular affair. In addition to shoes, it can carry a lot of other items, and also takes up one packing unit of size when full, integrating beautifully in the system.
Air travel report
After traveling via plane (with correspondances) for a week-long trip, we can appreciate many of the designers' choices.
The lack of wheels raised a few eyebrows from travelers usnig the ubiquitous small carry-on suitcases. The level of comfort was perfectly adequate, however, especially since in an airport, the bag is never worn over long periods. When at destination, much of its weight is left in the hotel room and the bag's weight becomes easier to bear.
There were many occasions when travelers' suitcases did not firt into the overhead compartment's of a smalle plane, and had to be checked at the gate. This never happened with the Travel Backpack, thanks to its flexible frame. On the other hand, placing anything thick in the front compartment compromises the ability to use an overhead bin, except if the bag can be placed on its side. Storing the various straps unde the magnetic flaps make handling the bag in a plane quite easy.
Accessing a laptop of tablet to place it in a bin at a security checkpoint is as easy as can be. The several magnets inside the bag showed up on the security scanner, but did not raise any problem.
Using a medium packing cube and a fully loaded shoe pouch left room for a tech pouch and many odds and ends distributed around the bag. We appreciated the fact the the bag is slightly larger than three "packing units", offering welcome flexibility. a medium packing cube allowed us to store enough clothes for a full week, an impressive feat. The trip in question required many spare shoes for sports and business contexts); having only one pair of shoes would have freed room for a small camera cube.
In short, air travel with the Travel Packback was a pleasant experience, which helped vindicate many of the choices made when designing this bag.
As a whole, the components of the travel line work well together. In some ways, the Travel Backpack is less than your typical camera bag: if the sole purpose is to carry photo gear, there are better suited options on the market, often less expensive. The travel line is a system, and should be understood as such. As a means to travel with a camera AND then use it when on location, the Travel Backpack offers a level of flexibility and quality that’s hard to beat.