Tortuga Backpack Review

Jan 25, 2016 | Gear, Review | 6 comments

The Tortuga Backpack is easily one of the most popular and recognizable travel packs on the market. It was designed by travelers for travelers. The creators of the bag set out to create the perfect travel backpack. So how perfect is it?

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New and Improved

The original Tortuga backpack has been discontinued, although you can still purchase one on Amazon for a reduced price. Be sure to check out our review of the Outbreaker, Tortuga’s latest travel backpack.

Overview

In 2009, travelers and life-long friends Fred Perrotta and Jeremy Michael Cohen backpacked through Eastern Europe. Disappointed with the carry-on backpack options at the time, they set out to create the perfect travel backpack – one that travelers would love.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Tortuga bag was born. The first version was functional but fugly. The second (and latest) version improved the bag in almost every way, and was a hit with customers. In fact, when the V2 version of the bag was released the demand was greater than supply; bags were backordered, sometimes for months.

Now that the supply issues have been sorted out, the crew at Tortuga have busied themselves with creating additional bags and accessories for their product line. But as for improving the Tortuga, there’s apparently no rush since according to them, the Tortuga is the “ultimate travel backpack.”

The perfect travel backpack didn’t exist. So we made it.

Tortuga Co-Creators

Ease of Packing

One of the main appeals of the Tortuga is its boxy design and wide, clamshell opening. While the shape of the bag may not be the most visually appealing, it’s extremely functional when it comes to packing. The square corners accommodate packing cubes with efficiency, and other items tend to fit into place as if you were playing a game of Tetris.

Tortuga Backpack
Tortuga Clamshell Opening

The main lid unzips almost completely, allowing front-loading, easy packing access to all your items. The inside of the main lid contains two large mesh pockets, which can hold sundry items.

The interior of the bag features a paneled compression system which is designed to help keep your items tight and secure. The panels are attached to the top and bottom of the rear wall and clip together at the center of the bag. In an efficient use of space, the compression panels each contain a zippered pouch for storing small items.

Tortuga Compression System
Tortuga Compression System

As innovative as it seems, the interior compression system isn’t without its flaws. The panel attachments are elastic, which can remain stretched over time, reducing the usefulness of system that is designed to keep the contents of your pack tight. Additionally, the compression system is sewn to the pack and cannot be removed, loosened, or tightened.

A padded laptop sleeve is sewn into the back wall of the Tortuga Backpack and accommodates a laptop up to 17 inches. The sleeve sits between the bag’s back padding and main compartment, which keeps your heavy laptop closer to your back for optimal weight and balance distribution. A zippered opening on the top of the pack allows you to access your laptop quickly without opening the entire bag. However, since the laptop sleeve is technically part of the main compartment rather than a separate area, accessing the laptop from the top opening may require you to move some items out of the way in order to slide your laptop in or out.

The outside of the Tortuga has five pockets: a large, quick-access pocket on the back of the pack, dual size pockets, and a small pocket sewn into the sides of the two hip pads. The quick-access pocket is a catch all for any items that you might need to access without having to open the main compartment. It’s handy, but it lacks organization. Items tend to slide down to the bottom and become cluttered. I found myself using it as little as possible and only placing one or two small items inside in order to keep things tidy. The quick-access pocket could benefit from small, sewn-in organization pockets for keys, phone, pens, notebooks, and small electronic items, similar to those found in the Kelty Redwing line of bags (or even the smaller Tortuga Air).

The side pockets contain zippered closures and elastic expansion, and are capable holding of anything from water bottles to a surprising amount of small items.

Tortuga Quick-Access Pocket
Tortuga Hip Pockets

The hip pad pockets are one of the more ingenious design elements of the Tortuga. These easy-to-reach pockets are great for carrying cash, boarding passes, a passport, and other items that you may need to access quickly and on-the-go. The hip pad pockets are especially useful when going through airport security. Transferring the contents of your pants’ pockets into the Tortuga hip belt pockets before passing through the metal detector or scanner provides an extra level of security for your loose valuables. I only wish more backpacks included hip pad pockets.

Comfort

For a travel pack to be amazing, it must excel in both functionality and comfort. Despite being very functional, the Tortuga is not the most comfortable bag we’ve ever used. That’s not to say that the Tortuga is an agonizing bag to carry; it’s just not suited for extended periods of wearing.

The weakness of the Tortuga is in its strap system. While the straps themselves are amply padded, the entire support system is mediocre and has a lot of room for improvement. For starters, the internal, HDPE (high-density polyethylene) framesheet is not very rigid. The lack of a substantial frame leaves the bag feeling floppy on your back rather than tight and secure.

The shoulder straps connect to the top seam of the bag, but without any rigid support, the bag tends to loosely hang away from the shoulders when fully loaded. The addition of load lifter shoulder tightening straps would solve this problem, allowing the bag to be pulled closer to the shoulders, providing more stability. But load lifters would only work if the top of the straps were connected further down the back of the pack. Since the Tortuga’s straps connect to the top seam, a redesign would be necessary in order to add such functionality. Also the addition of load lifter straps would clutter up the shoulder straps, ruining the aesthetic. Tortuga has acknowledged the lack of load lifters, but has chosen form over function in the end.

Tortuga Strap System

The issues with the shoulder straps wouldn’t be as vexing if the waist strap was more functional. A waist strap’s sole purpose is to place the weight of the pack firmly on your hips, minimizing the strain on your shoulders. In order for waist straps to function optimally, the hip belt should be amply padded and the waist strap should tighten easily and efficiently.

While the Tortuga’s hip belt contains plenty of padding, the waist cinching system is difficult and clunky. To tighten the waist strap, the user must pull the tightening straps from the center buckle away from the body. The arm movement required to tighten the waist belt in this manner feels awkward, and the strength required has diminished returns. Getting the waist belt truly tight feels like an endeavor. The Tortuga would benefit from employing the Scherer Cinch System (used by Osprey, Kelty, etc.), a pulley-like system that doubles the tightening force when used with waist belts. The Scherer Cinch allows users to easily and smoothly tighten the waist belt by pulling the straps towards the center of the torso in a more natural motion.

The back padding of the Tortuga is comfortably padded and offers good airflow channels designed to keep your back cool. However, since the bag hangs away from the back when fully loaded, there’s little chance for your back to become hot and sweaty.

The Tortuga has a chest strap which provides additional support to the shoulder straps. The buckle of the chest strap doesn’t feature a built-in safety whistle, but that’s a minor quibble.

Features

The creators of the Tortuga Backpack have worked hard to keep the outside of the bag as clean and streamlined as possible, and they have succeeded. The bag is strikingly low key. I love the fact that the branding is minimal and subdued; a single Tortuga logo is affixed to the outside of the bag. Nothing chaps my craw more than having logos and backpack model names judiciously plastered all over the outside of the bag (I’m talking to you, Osprey).

A great feature of the bag is that it has a built-in strap cover panel. While the bag is designed as a carry-on, there are times where you have to check your bag. On such occasions, having the straps hanging out can be hazardous to the health of your bag, as loose straps can catch on all sorts of things. The zip-up panel neatly covers the straps, protecting them from damage.

Tortuga Strap Cover
Tortuga Strap Cover

The Tortuga features lockable zippers on the main compartment and the front quick-access compartment. Multiple zippers means you will need at least two locks to secure the main compartment, and a third lock to secure the quick-access compartment.

The Tortuga has two sturdy carry handles – one on the top and one on the side. The handles are nicely padded and very comfortable for hand carrying.

A pair of buckles – one on each side – provides external compression for the bag.

Tortuga bags are water resistant, but they aren’t waterproof. With enough rain and wind, the contents of your bag will get wet. The bag doesn’t come with a rain cover, although one is available from Tortuga.

The Tortuga comes in a single color: black. This has something to do with the difficulty of the dying process on the fabric, or so I’ve read. I’m not sure how other companies do it, but it would be nice to have some color variety. I had to put a special tag on mine to tell it apart from my wife’s.

The customer can have any color as long as it’s black.

Henry Ford on the Model T car

Weight and Size

The Tortuga has been designed for optimal carry-on sizes, meeting the requirements of all but the most stringent airlines. It’s slightly bigger than budget airline Ryanair’s allowance, but I’ve heard of plenty of instances where it’s been allowed.

Despite its diminutive size, the Tortuga bag is heavy! At 3.68 pounds (1.66 kg) empty, it’s heavier than most 50-liter travel packs. In a market where every ounce counts, this bag could benefit from a diet.

The Tortuga comes in a single size – 44 liters – with a single torso harness configuration. Some other bags manufacturers provide several different size harnesses for torsos of different length. With the Tortuga, however, one size fits most. If you’re shorter than 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 meters) tall, chances are the Tortuga will not fit you well at all.

SpecificationsDimensions
Length22 in / 56 cm
Width14 in / 36 cm
Depth9 in / 23 cm
Weight3.7 lbs / 1.66 kg
Volume2685 in3 / 44 L

The back of the Tortuga has an interesting expansion crease which bulks out when the bag is overloaded. It looks pretty awkward when stuffed, and we always joke that it bears a resemblance to female genitalia.

Tortuga Compression Strap
Tortuga Side Pocket

Durability

The Tortuga is a rugged bag. The exterior constructed of durable 1680D ballistic nylon, while the interior lining is 70D ripstop polyester. The bag features rugged YKK zippers with rope-style pulls. The zipper pulls are wrapped in a light plastic sleeve, which seem fragile and will probably tear long before the zippers wear out.

What all this means is that the bag should last a good long time. Tortuga offers a lifetime warranty against defects in materials and craftsmanship. As for standard wear and tear, that’s on you.

The upper zipper pulls are long enough to get caught in the lower zippers.

Price

The Tortuga retails for $199.99, putting it solidly at the higher range of its class.  The bag is available only from the Tortuga website. Free shipping is offered to customers in the US, while customers in Canada, Europe, Australia, or New Zealand will have to pay $30-55 in shipping.

Pros

  • Wide clamshell opening: Makes for easy packing.
  • Carry-on size: Never have to worry about meeting stringent airline standards.
  • Plenty of internal space: The bag easily accommodates several packing cubes, a pair (or two) of shoes, toiletries, a jacket, and other accessories in its ample main compartment.
  • Durable: The nylon fabric can withstand a lot of abuse.
  • Organized: Mesh pockets in the main compartment, additional pockets in the compression system, and handy pockets in the hip belt.
  • Hide-able straps: Safely tuck away straps when stowing the bag.
  • Aesthetically subdued: Clean and refined without annoying branding.
  • Lockable zippers: Keeps valuables in and curious hands out.
  • Comfortable carry handles: Some of the best in its class.
  • Laptop sleeve: It’s close to the back, right where it should be.

Cons

  • Difficult waist belt: There’s an easier way, and it’s called the Scherer Cinch System.
  • No load lifter straps: The loaded bag sags down and away from the shoulders.
  • Bulbous side pockets: While functional, they do look pretty dumb.
  • Heavy: The heaviest bag in its class, which is a crime in the carry-on community.
  • No organizer pockets: Small items have nowhere to go but down.
  • Fixed internal compression system: Can’t be removed. Can’t be tightened.
  • No safety whistle on sternum buckle: It’s a minor exclusion, but small details matter.
  • Requires multiple locks to secure: Extra locks mean extra weight, and the bag is already heavy enough.
  • Main compartment zipper pulls are too long: They hang down enough to get caught in the quick-access compartment zippers.
  • One color: Forgivable, since black is slimming.
  • Lack of sizes: If you’re short, this is not the bag for you. The Tortuga Air is too small and lacks a waist belt.
  • Expansion opening on the back looks like a vagina: Now that you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
  • Ease of Packing
  • Comfort
  • Features
  • Weight and Size
  • Durability
  • Price
3.7

Summary

The intent of the Tortuga team may have been to create the perfect carry-on backpack, but the Tortuga falls short of perfection. While it does many things well, there are plenty of areas that could use some refinement. Despite being functional, the Tortuga’s strap system is not very comfortable for long periods of wear. A future version may be able to bring the bag up to “perfection” status, but it looks like that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

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