The problem with the travel backpacks that are available is that so few are actually designed for travel. Either you get a rolling suitcase with wheels and some flimsy shoulder straps, but sacrifice a hip belt and comfort, or you get a true backpack with a great hip belt and lots of adjustments for comfort, but sacrifice ease of use and having a carry-on size. My old Eagle Creek Continental Journey LC was nearly perfect, but sadly, after 15 years, it was wearing out. Unfortunately, when Eagle Creek was acquired by a large conglomerate, they stopped making it or anything even remotely like it. Finding the perfect travel bag has been a long, time-consuming process, sometimes involving buying and returning bags. I eliminated a lot of good bags, such as the Tom Bihn bags, because they lacked a hip belt. So far, I have looked at ten bags:
None of these had what I was looking for as explained in my post entitled, Desperately Seeking My Dream Backpack. Some were too big to truly be carry-on; some were too flimsy to last a whole year; many just didn’t have a decent hip belt; some were extremely overpriced; and most were just plain uncomfortable to carry. So finally, I come to the Tortuga Travel Backpack that so many people have been raving about. While it doesn’t have everything I want, it had quite a lot going for it, including one very important aspect: comfort. Here’s my review of it.
The best thing about the Tortuga is that it fits me and it’s comfortable to carry for the short haul. My wife tried it on, but it’s just too big for her 4’11” frame. I’m 5’9″ and it fits me perfectly, riding on my hip at just the right spot and transferring the weight off my shoulders and directly to my legs. The hip belt is substantial enough to not dig into my sides and the shoulder straps and sternum strap adjust to keep the pack close to my body. And when the straps need to be stowed, there’s a full zip panel to cover it all, so there’s fewer straps to snag. To keep with the clean design, there are only two outside compression straps to supplement the elastic four-point inside compression panel. Padded carrying handles on the top and the side make it easy to carry when I’m not using the backpack straps.
Its dimensions are 22 x 14 x 9 which is exactly the 45 linear inch maximum imposed by most domestic airlines. The shape is also more rectangular and squared off than most other packs giving this pack 44 liters of usable space. The pack has a padded laptop compartment. That’s nothing special, except that it has its own zippered access for easy removal at security checkpoints and it’s positioned closest to your body, putting a very heavy item right where it should be. There are also two zippered mesh pockets inside the main compartment and two zippered pockets on the compression panel.
The build quality seems decent with ballistic nylon outside, ripstop polyester lining, covered edges and seams, YKK coil zippers, and Duraflex buckles. The pack uses an HDPE sheet along the back to provide support. I can’t be certain about the thread used to sew this together. I’m not expecting the materials to last as long as my old Eagle Creek that had Polyurethane (PU) coated Cordura fabric, but I’m hoping it lasts a couple of years. The main compartment zipper goes three-quarters of the way around the pack allowing it to open like a suitcase. This outside flap has a bit of light padding around the edge helping it hold its shape. The zippers of the main compartment, laptop access, and outside large pocket—all of which are out of sight when carried as a backpack—can be locked to thwart the opportunistic thief.
There are usable side pockets on this pack. Unlike so many other packs, the compression straps don’t go directly over a side pocket making it useless. There’s even an elastic strap to help hold a water bottle in the side pocket. In addition, there are pockets on the hip belt that are very convenient for phrase books, a phone, or your passport. The large outer pocket is perfect for my toiletries, laundry kit and similar items.
There’s only one color: black. That may have to do with the type of fabric used, but I’m okay with basic black. It’s understated and doesn’t attract too much attention. The squared off corners and boxy shape may not look the most svelte or streamlined, but it has a simple elegance and I won’t be moving fast enough for shape to be a factor. The Tortuga logo is small and less conspicuous than most logos, including V1 of this pack. That’s good, because I’m not getting paid to advertise their bags.
Finally, it has a lifetime warranty against defects. I just wonder if that covers defective design and materials, because that leads us to…
While the Tortuga is comfortable to carry for a short amount of time, it’s not the most comfortable to carry for extended periods, such as trekking. That’s because of the materials they chose. They use a mesh fabric for the underside of the shoulder straps, hip belt and back panel instead of a more comfortable soft stretchy wicking fabric. In order to stow the straps more compactly, they also use an open-cell foam for padding instead of a less compressible closed cell or dual density foam. This foam looks good when not under load and stows easily, but once you put weight on it, it compresses and offers very little supportive padding. What’s strange is that they chose to make the two carrying handles out of closed-cell foam with a soft underside.
I’ve read a few reviews of this bag on the Tortuga site complaining about the durability of it—seams coming apart and edges fraying. There are a couple of durability issues here. Instead of the better U.S. two-ply 1050 denier ballistic nylon, Tortuga went with the cheaper Asian single-ply 1680 denier ballistic nylon. The 1680D is about half the cost of the 1050D. The 1680D falls between the 1050D and Cordura in terms of weight. It holds its shape better than Cordura, but it has lower tenacity (strength), less abrasion resistance, and it will fray more easily and look worn more quickly than 1050D or 1000D Cordura. I have a Chinese-made Travelpro rolling duffel bag that uses the exact same material. The first time I used it and checked it on a flight, I got it back with all the edges frayed and looking like it was dragged along the runway during takeoff. Since then, I’ve been trying to avoid this fabric for luggage.
The other issue is the stitching. Because of the bigger yarns and single-ply weave of 1680D, there are only 6 stitches per inch versus 8-10 stitches per inch with 1050D or Cordura. Fewer stitches could make it easier for a seam to split. Tortuga doesn’t say what kind of thread is used for the stitching, but if it were something special, I would think they would mention it. There is also no mention about whether the fabric is waterproof. My old Eagle Creek had a PU coating to make it waterproof and give the fabric additional strength. Since I can’t see the backside of the outer fabric and they have a rain cover available, I assume it isn’t coated and is not waterproof. Unfortunately, the rain cover is sold-out.
The zippers are YKK coil zippers, which are more flexible, but easier to open with a ballpoint pen than molded zippers. So even if you lock your bag, it can still be accessed quickly and easily. The zippers are not even the Aquaguard type and are not weather resistant. If you look closely at the photos, you’ll notice that the flap of fabric covering the zipper isn’t properly contoured, so it doesn’t really cover the zippers and allows water to easily penetrate. Without a rain cover, which is sold-out, your stuff will get wet.
All that fabric adds to the weight I’ll be carrying. At 3.65 lb. (1.66 kg.), the bag itself uses up nearly one-quarter of the 7 kg. weight allowance on many Asian airlines. Let’s hope the added weight means added strength.
The outside pocket runs almost the entire length of the bag, but the zipper only opens a third of that length. When the pack is full, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s down inside this pocket and can be difficult to remove some items. Plus, it’s just one big pocket with no inner pockets to prevent everything from falling to the bottom where you can’t see it. One minor complaint is the expandable pleats. Even when the pack isn’t full, tightening the compression straps pulls the pleated area apart, making the bag look like it’s bulging.
Finally, there’s the price. At $199, it’s not the cheapest, nor is it the most expensive bag out there. However, when I consider the materials, and that it’s made in China, I feel it’s a bit overpriced. When you throw in free shipping within the U.S, it’s acceptable.
There are a lot of good things about V2 of the Tortuga Travel Backpack. A lot of the bad things I mention above are just a matter of degrees. Most are issues with its long-term durability and many are the same issues I would have with just about any bag I use. However, I’m a little disappointed that I couldn’t get straight answers from the folks at Tortuga when I asked some questions about the zippers and slash resistance. I hope that they see this review as they go about designing V3 of this bag.
Contrary to what their web site says, I do have to compromise. Because it fulfills about 75% of my requirements, I will probably keep this bag and use it for our upcoming big trip. Since most bags don’t even meet half my requirements, I wouldn’t exactly consider this an endorsement of the product; it just happens to win by default.
Disclosure: I paid full price for the bag and I received no compensation for this review.
UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 1, 2016
We’ve been on the road now for 8 months and the bag has held up quite well. Durability was a major concern for me and there are a few things that are starting to worry me. Fully packed, my bag now weighs about 13 kilos. When I carry the bag as a backpack, I hoist it up onto my back with both shoulder straps and swing it onto my back. One time, I tried to swing it onto my back with just one shoulder strap and I heard the stitching tear. It only sounded like a few stitches tore out, so now I’m a bit more careful when I swing the bag around. The front of the bag is getting a few worn spots that I’m thinking might fray. I’m keeping an eye on those areas and have the duct tape ready just in case. Pointy or sharp items in the bag, especially inside the compression pockets, have started to poke holes through the nylon lining.
Straps and hip belt are not as comfortable as I had initially thought. the hip belt has to be tighten so much that it’s almost constrictive. Otherwise, it seems to slip down my hips too far. The shoulder strap padding is about useless. It compresses too easily and eventually my arms start to fall asleep. The sternum strap makes the shoulder straps even more uncomfortable because it tightens around the shoulder strap and compresses the strap even more. The way the sternum strap loops around the shoulder strap is a poor design. On the plus side, I appreciate the gray color on the inside of the bag. It makes it easier to locate things inside the bag.
I also made a few improvements to the bag. On the inside of the large front pocket, I added a brass grommet hole in some of the pleated fabric near the top to attach a small carabiner clip. This allows me to carry small keychain type items. Security was another concern of mine, so to the bottom of the bag, where the back cover stows, I added a sheet of 1/16″ thick HDPE cut to fit the shape of the bottom. This added bit of plastic should help with cut resistance in the main compartment, especially while I’m wearing it. I also added some lobster-claw clips tied to the cord running through the zipper pulls to clip the zippers shut, making it less likely to open when the bag is checked and a little harder to unzip when I’m carrying it. Finally, the one thing I considered doing, but haven’t yet, is to remove the padded laptop pocket. I’m carrying a much smaller laptop that fits into my camera bag, so the laptop pocket is unnecessary and just takes up room in the bag.
I had to also rethink my packing list, and at the last minute, change a few things. Also, during our trip, friends and family have joined us along the way and I have sent back items I didn’t use or simply didn’t work out. Even so, I seem to be accumulating more things along the way and occasionally, the bag feels like it’s bulging. Despite Tortuga touting this bag as carry-on size, I have rarely been able to bring the bag on an airplane as carry-on. Throughout most of Asia, the 7 or 8 kilo weight restrictions made it nearly impossible to bring it onboard. Even my camera bag was tipping the scales and probably wouldn’t have been allowed had they actually weighed my camera bag.
I’ll continue to post updates on this bag further down the road or when something happens with it.