If you can’t fit it in a carry-on, it’s not worth bringing.
Wise words. One bag travel is really gaining popularity among travelers these days, lots of people are embracing the advantages of not having to check a bag. No more waiting it out with everyone else at baggage claim, no more checked baggage fees, and best of all, having just one bag forces to bring less stuff which automatically makes for better travel. Once you decide to travel with a small or medium sized bag, and only that bag, you automatically save yourself from a common mistake that most travelers make, rookies and experienced alike: packing too much stuff! But picking the best backpack for one bag travel can be quite frustrating. But worry not, we’ve done the work for you.
There are a lot of great travel backpack options out right now, like the Kickstarter darling, the Minaal Carry-On 2.0; the tactical GoRuck GR2 backpacks (available in 3 sizes), the backpacker favorite, Tortuga Outbreaker and even the camera gear oriented Peak Design Everyday Backpack series. The problem is, these bags are pretty expensive, with prices starting at $299 for the Minaal backpack and $399 for the GoRuck GR2 packs. But one bag travel with a quality bag need not be expensive. Here, we round up some great budget alternatives to the Minaal, GoRuck, Tortuga and Peak Design packs.
But cheaper doesn’t always mean lesser quality. It is possible to get well built and well designed travel backpacks without breaking the bank. You just need to know what to look for. Here’ we’ve come up with a short list of cheaper alternatives to the best carry-on travel backpacks. All the usual features are still here: lay flat opening (aka clamshell design), quality materials and zippers, minimal branding etc… all except the high price.
What size backpack for Carry-on? Why you should not get a maximum legal carry-on bag.
You want to look at backpacks in the 28 to 35 liter range. Most maximum legal carry-on bags are around 40-46L, max. But you don’t really want a bag that’s designed to maximum carry-on dimensions. Wait, what? Let me explain: For starters, a filled up 45L pack can get really, really heavy and unwieldy. If you need that large a bag, the first question you need to ask yourself is, do you really need all that crap? Stuff-to-bring will always expand to the size of your bag. We just can’t help but fill our bags to capacity. We want to be prepared for every emergency. We pack a lot of ‘just-in-case’ stuff.
By picking a pack that’s smaller than maximum carry-on size, you force yourself to pack light and save yourself all the hassle of a large and heavy pack. You might wish you went with a larger pack while you’re packing, but once you’re on the road, you will be grateful you picked a smaller bag.
Not only is a full-sized backpack not fun to carry around, you also run the risk of going over the carry-on weight limits. This can be a real problem in some areas where the carry-on weight limits are enforced more often than in the US (e.g. South East Asia, budget airlines in Europe). You also don’t want to run the risk of having to gate check your pack just because the gate agent sees you struggling with a large pack. This is a real risk, especially when flying with budget airlines or small regional jets.
The smaller the pack, the more it will look like it will fit in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you. Plus, the easier it is to maneuver in tight spaces. The goal of one bag travel is to travel as light as possible, not to squeeze in as much as possible into maximum sized carry-ons. A maximum sized 45L to 50L+ pack is also going to be way too big for most people. Unless you’re well over 6 feet, you’ll want something that’s at or under 35L.
The Sweet Spot
Around 28 to 35L is the sweet spot for most one baggers. Ultra light packers can get away with as little as 24L, and most people can keep it at 28L-30L if traveling to a sunny destination. Sure, you may need stretch it to 40L if you need to carry some winter layers, but you want to minimize as much as possible since you’ll need to be wary of weight limits as well.
You also want a bag with minimal branding. You want something that looks good, but not something that’s going to attract a lot of the wrong kind of attention. Something much better looking that your mountain ready rucksack.
You don’t want to be walking around a major city like NYC, Hong Kong, London or Tokyo and looking like you want to climb Mt. Everest.
You want something that’s rugged and sleek. A pack that’s able to take abuse, but minimal looking enough to not make you look like a backpacker. You want to be able to throw your bag on the back of a tuk-tuk, slide it on the floor of a hostel, but you also want something sleek enough to blend in at a nice boutique hotel or a high end coffee shop.
The Faroe is Arcido’s second bag, and they’ve taken a lot of what they learned in their first pack, and they’ve built a sleeker, lighter carry-on pack. The first Arcido bag was a huge Kickstarter success story. Made of premium cotton canvas, it’s tough and extremely well built. But because of the material, it was also quite heavy (2kg/4.4lbs). So for their next bag, they looked to make something more suited for ultralight travel – and boy did they really hit it out of the park with this one: The Arcido Faroe.
Coming in at the same dimensions the original Arcido bag, the Faroe is like the sports car to the big truck of the original Arcido bag. Although it is the same size (and capacity) as the original bag, it comes in at a much lighter 900 grams!
It’s made of water-resistant Kodra fabric (similar fabric to the Peak Design bags), which is a nice departure from the typical nylon that you see in most travel bags. And it doesn’t skimp on features – you get a separate laptop compartment with built-in admin panels and tablet pouch; a large main compartment that packs like a suitcase. I can’t emphasize enough how useful this is – compared to your typical top loading backpack, a lay flat compartment allows you to quickly and efficiently make use of a space. Since you have full visibility while packing, you can easily organize your stuff and won’t be leaving wasted space. There are built-in compression straps in the main compartment as well – again, it’s no different from packing a suitcase or rolling luggage, minus all the bulk and weight!
There is a very nice top handle, and I mean really nice, it’s not just an after thought. It’s got the right amount of padding, and it’s wide enough to not feel flimsy.
There is an external quick access pocket on the top (on the outer face of the pack) – for your earphones, sunglasses, phone etc… AND there is a separate security pocket on the opposite side (closer to the bottom of your neck) – for your passport, wallet etc..
YKK zippers, stretchy water bottle pockets on each side and a pull tab for your laptop (to make it easier to slide your laptop out when at security) are also included. Didn’t I say that they did not skimp on features? Best of all, the main compartment and the laptop/tech compartment both open flat – great for easy packing and for quickly finding stuff.
Arcido Faroe quick specs:
Dimensions: 22 x 14 x 9 (Height x width x depth)
Capacity: Approx. 35 Liters
Weight: 900 grams
Materials: Kodra Fabric with YKK zippers
This one is for the ultralight packers out there. Or if you need a great looking, minimal backpack for a 2-4 day trip plus a laptop and other tech gear. (Of course, if you’re doing laundry, then you can pretty much travel with this pack indefinitely.)
The Incase EO Travel pack is unique in that it is a very slim bag, but its main compartment can expand to carry up to 35% more (about 5 inches deep when compressed and about 8.5 inches deep when expanded). At its compressed state, it’s roughly 24 Liters, and about 32 Liters once expanded. The great thing about this feature is that at only 5 inches deep when compressed, this bag will also make for an excellent day bag. Expand it and fill the main compartment with clothes, dump everything out when you get to your destination, and voila, you’ve got an excellent daypack or work bag. Yep, because of its slim profile, briefcase style side handle and its minimal look, this is a really great office bag as well.
There are four compression straps (2 on each side) which are really handy for keeping the bag as slim as possible. There is both a nicely sized top carry handle and side handle – these handles are actually one of our favorite parts of this bag. It might be weird to get excited about handles on a backpack, but seasoned travelers will know exactly what we mean – these handles are extremely useful.
There are two external pockets: a small pocket on the top of the bag, great for stuff you need quick access to, like your sunglasses, lip balm, earphones etc.. and a much larger pocket on the face of the pack with a nicely sized zipper pull, great for quickly and easily stashing your phone, passport, watch and boarding pass when going through security.
Think of the EO Travel Backpack as a three compartment bag: the laptop/tablet compartment at the back; the main expandable compartment in the middle (for your clothing etc..) and the tech/admin compartment in the front. The laptop compartment is a lay flat compartment, great for when going through security. It can fit up to most 17 inch laptops (although those huge 17″ Alienware gaming laptops will have to go in the main compartment) and it’s lined with InCase’s fleece-like material.
The main compartment also opens up all the way just like your rolling luggage, allowing for really easy packing and visibility. Just like a suitcase, there is also a large mesh pocket inside the main compartment. This is also the compartment that expands or compresses as needed.
The third compartment, what we like the call the tech organizer or admin pocket does not lay flat since the zips only open half-way. Though some may not like this design, we actually prefer this since this is where we tend to keep small items – pens, cables, batteries, our laptop mouse and GoPro etc.. and we don’t want small things falling out when we open the bag after a long day of travel. The half-zip sort of serves as a catch-all for any items that fall out.
The back and straps are nicely padded, and have some mesh for ventilation. Best of all, the pack also comes with a built-in sternum strap which is great for distributing load. There is no waist strap though, and there is no provision for one, but we don’t find that necessary for a pack of this size. The only other possible negative we could find is the lack of an external bottle holder. Unfortunately, due to the expandable design, there just wasn’t space for a side pocket. But we think it’s a nice trade-off – no external bottle pocket – but you get a pack that can expand 35% more. When we use the pack as a daypack, we just put our water in the main compartment, since the only thing we have left in there is an extra layer after we’ve dumped out our clothes at the hotel.
The EO Travel pack is one of our favorite packs. It’s well thought out, with compartments and features that make a lot of sense, and its got a very understated business-like look that we love. But be warned, this one is for light packers! If you don’t expand it, it can actually work as your personal item, as it can easily fit under the seat in front of you. However, if expanded, you likely need to keep it in the bins, and will have to be your main carry-on.
InCase EO Travel Backpack quick specs:
Dimensions: 21.5″ x 15″ x 5-8″ (Height x Width x Depth (compressed and expanded)
Capacity: Approx. 24 Liters to 30 Liters when expanded
Black version: 900D nylon with triple coated front panel
Heather grey version: 300D heathered-weave Ecoya eco-dyed polyester
Available in two sizes – these are the most outdoor looking backpack in our list. We’re normally not fans of outdoorsy packs, since we prefer a more urban aesthetic, but the Gregory Compass line hits the right balance. It’s streamlined and minimal enough that it’s a great urban travel pack as well. It’s also probably the most security-conscious bag on our list, because of the way the zippers and compartments are set-up. But best of all, clocking in at a mere 500 grams (for the 30 Liter version) and 900 grams (for the 40 Liter version) these are the lightest bags on this list.
The design is fairly simple, but well thought out. There are two primary compartments – a laptop compartment and the cavernous main compartment.
The laptop compartment is accessed via a side zipper. It’s nicely padded and can fit up to a 15″ laptop (this is true for both sizes). There is also a separate tablet or iPad sleeve. Because of the side access, it is possible to quickly access this compartment without completely removing the pack.
The main compartment is just one big compartment. It opens up from the back of the bag (strap side facing you) and it opens with a U-shape zipper, similar to a duffle. This isn’t nearly as good as a lay flat pack, but it’s close enough. It’s certainly miles better than a top loader. You can still see the entire compartment, which makes for easy and efficient packing. Sadly, there are no built-in compression straps inside the main compartment, but there is zippered mesh organizer pocket on the inside of the flap.
Some reviewers have criticized this design, saying that the zipper and compartment design make it confusing to know which compartment you were opening. We honestly never had this problem and can’t really imagine it being a problem unless in really dark situations. The upside of this design is that since the access to both compartments are located near your back, it would be nearly impossible for pickpockets to open your bag while wearing it. The location of the zippers also mean that it would be possible to get a security tie or cable to lock and secure your bag, if needed.
There is an accessory pocket on the top of the bag, great for quick access stuff – sunglasses, lip balm, phone etc.. There is a zippered mesh pocket inside this accessory pocket, for extra security. There is also a key clip in this pocket.
There are 4 compression straps, 2 on each side, which are also great for strapping things on the outside of your pack – sleeping bags, extra layers, a dry bag containing wet clothes etc… If you need to strap on more things, there are dual daisy chains running down the front of the pack.
Overall, the Gregory Compass packs are great all-arounders. They’re not great for quick access – there are no external bottle pockets for example, but there strength lies in their ability to be chameleons – they can be great travel bags, gym bags, work bag, outdoor pack etc.. An ultra flexible, jack-of-all-trades, master of none pack, if you will. Plus, they are able to achieve a great balance between light weight and just the right amount of padding. Most ultra lightweight backpacks achieve their weight by shedding their padding, resulting in comfort trade-offs, but with the Compass line, Gregory have managed a fantastic balance – the laptop compartment is padded, the shoulder straps are ergonomic, and there is just enough padding to give the packs some structure so you’re not left with a hopelessly floppy bag.
What’s the difference between the Gregory Compass 30L vs 40L version?
Aside from the size/capacity the only difference is that the 40L has an extra ‘shoe’ pocket on the bottom of the pack. This is great for storing a pair of shoes, or for separating dirty clothes. That’s it, all other compartments/features are the same, except of course, the 40L is slightly larger.
Like we said at the start, we prefer smaller packs, since they forces you to pack light. So, for most purposes we prefer the 30 Liter version. But if you’re not sure if you can be an ultralight packer, or if you’re over 6 foot tall, then the 40 Liter version is definitely the one to get. It’s still within carry-on limits, and the extra bottom pocket can be useful on occasion. Plus, for an extra 10 Liter capacity, you only gain extra 400 grams in weight, which is fantastic.
Gregory Compass 30 Liter Quick Specs:
Dimensions: 21.5″ x 13.5″ 7.5″ (Height x Width x Depth)
Capacity: 30 Liters
Weight: 0.5 kg
Materials: 420D nylon
Gregory Compass 40 Liter Quick Specs:
Dimensions: 23.25″ x 14.5″ x 9.75″ (Height x Width x Depth)
Capacity: 40 Liters
Weight: 0.9 kg
Materials: 420D nylon
The Blade 28 is a pretty polarizing bag. It’s one of those bags that you either really love or really dislike. Personally, we really love it – as expected from Arc’teryx, this pack is made of high quality materials and is extremely well built. There is a ton of extra features, but they are not superfluous (e.g. security pocket; long side handle). Where the love-it-or-hate-it reactions come from is in the general orientation of the bag. See, even though this is a backpack, it’s designed to be accessed like a briefcase.
The pack has two main compartments – an outer laptop/tech compartment, and a large main compartment. Unlike most packs, the laptop compartment on the Blade 28 is the compartment farthest from your back. Some people complain that this will severely affect the balance of your pack, if the main compartment is not full, but we never found this to be a problem.
The pack is designed to be accessed like a briefcase because the zippers on the laptop compartment and all internal pockets are oriented horizontally (e.g. designed to be easily accessed when the bag is in landscape orientation). Some people seem to really dislike this, but for us, it’s practically a non-issue.
The padded laptop compartment can fit up to a 15″ laptop. Inside is a separate tablet/iPad sleeve. As previously mentioned, this compartment is on the front of the pack (farthest away from your back). We’ve never found this design to be an issue, even when the only contents of the pack were a laptop and the main compartment was empty. It can be a problem if you have a real brick of a laptop – where the majority of the weight is going to be away from the straps, but if you have a fairly modern laptop, such as a Macbook Pro or equivalent, we just don’t see it being a problem.
Inside the laptop/tech compartment are smaller pockets (some with zippers, one is an open dump pocket) great for organizing your cables, and other tech gear like your battery pack, mouse, chargers, card readers, dongles (!) etc..
The second compartment – the main compartment,which is closest to your back, lays flat, which is great for easy packing. There is a full length horizontal sleeve on one side, great for storing paperwork, a magazine, an extra layer, even your 3-1-1 toiletry bag, or perhaps other tech gear that won’t fit in the laptop compartment. Opposite this pocket is where your clothing is meant to go. There is a zippered panel that will keep your clothes separate from the contents of the aforementioned sleeve. It’s large enough for an overnight trip or a 2-3 day trip, max.
The Blade 28 offers two other pockets on the outside of the bag. There is a small stash pocket on the side, with a key clip built-in. This is a small pocket, great for your keys, lip balm, earphones (but not full-sized headphones – those will have to go in the tech/laptop compartment).
On the back panel, there is a small security pocket designed to carry your passport and wallet, and perhaps a card case. Basically, anything valuable that is flat. You can try keeping small non-flat items, but they’re going to be poking your back. So it’s really best for a passport, wallet, maybe some cash. Since it’s right up against your back, there is simply no way anyone is going to get into the pocket without you noticing.
In line with the horizontal orientation of the bag, there is a very nice side carry handle. One of the best we’ve seen in a backpack actually. Same goes for the top carry handle, it’s long, spanning the entire width of the bag, and it doesn’t stick out in an ugly way. On the back of the bag is an elastic strip that is meant to tuck in the backpack straps for when you’re carrying it like a briefcase. It’s a nice touch, and it really goes a long way in keeping things from flapping about when needed.
The Blade 28 is one of the pricier packs in this round-up, and as we said, it’s polarizing. But we really love it for short trips. Perhaps it appeals more to business travelers, because of the briefcase-style design choices and the slip pocket that can work great for folders or paperwork, but we think it’s a great pack with lots of use cases. Overall, if you want a pack that can double as an overnighter, a weekender, a daypack and an office bag, the Blade 28 should be for serious consideration. Some people might not consider it a ‘budget’ choice, but it still comes in at less than a Minaal backpack or a GoRuck, and we’d argue that the Arcteryx Blade 28 has quite a but more travel friendly features.
Arc’teryx Blade 28 Quick Specs:
Dimensions: 21″ x 12″ x 7″ (Height x Width x Depth)
Capacity: 28 Liters
Materials: high tenacity nylon
The North Face Basecamp Duffel line is a legend among bags. It’s a staple in expeditions all over the world. Available in various sizes, from XS to XXL, and in production in various iterations for over 30 years, it is one of the most recognizable duffle bags available right now. You can stand in any airport in the world, and chances are you’ll see one of these. It is typically the duffel by which all other expedition duffels are judged against. It is extremely rugged, made of really burly materal, and has all the features you need, without adding any unnecessary and gimmicky features.
The TNF Basecamp Duffle is a cylindrical pack that is available in six sizes – extra small (31 Liters), Small (50 Liters), Medium (71 Liters), Large (95 Liters), XL (132 Liters) and XXL (150 Liters). For our purposes, we’re mostly going to be looking at the smallest one – the XS duffle.
It’s called a duffle, but it really should be called a Dufflepack. The bag has just one main compartment, that opens with large D-shaped zippers covered with a storm flap. The large main compartment is devoid of pockets, save for a zippered mesh pocket on the inside of the top flap. This isn’t a bag that will force you to place certain items in certain places – it is entirely up to you how you pack this bag. We prefer packing cubes.
There is one external zippered pocket on the outside – great for your phone and other stuff you need quick access to.
One of our favorite features about this bag is that there are grab handles on every side. These are really great for maneuvering the pack in tight spaces – whether you need to grab the pack from the overhead bin or a gym locker, or you’re throwing the pack on to the roof of a tuk-tuk or to be carried on a yak, it doesn’t matter, the handles make everything really easy.
In keeping with its expedition heritage, there are also daisy chain loops for lashing other gear externally. There are also four compression straps, two on each side, although we rarely use them, even when the bag is less than half full.
Why were the duffle straps removed?
The older versions of the Base Camp duffel had separate grab handles on the back of the bag (on the same side as the backpack straps). In the most recent re-design of these bags, these handles were removed, leaving only the backpack straps, and this decision has caused quite a bit of uproar with some users. North Face instead added side carry handles on the long edge of the bag (in addition to the handles on the short edge) and the idea is that you’re going to be using the backpack handles as grab handles as well.
Personally, we’re quite ok with the new design. Sure, the older grab handles were slightly better for shoulder carry (especially in the XS size) – but if you wanted to carry the older versions in backpack mode, then those handles would frequently get in the way or be uncomfortable wedged against your back. It’s a trade-off were more than willing to make. The addition of the side handles (on the same side as the daisy chain loops) on the new design also alleviates the need for those grab handles. The new side handles are not as easy to grab as the old handles, but we find that they work almost as well.
Extra Small or Small?
Like we said in Gregory Compass 30 Liter vs 40 Liter section above, we much prefer smaller bags. We find the XS duffle to be much more useful – it’s a great carry-on pack, a great gym bag, a great grocery bag etc.. But, again, if you’re just not a light packer, or you really need the extra space – then go for the Small size. Just bear in mind, that if you pack the Small version to the gills, you’re more than likely to go over carry-on weight limits of smaller budget airlines or regional jets (typically 7kg) and there is a chance you will be forced to check your bag. Although it bears saying that these bags are tough enough to handle the abuse of being checked.
Technically, at a 50L, and measuring almost 21 x 13 x 13 inches, the Small is slightly bigger than some carry-on limits. But as long as you don’t pack it full, and since it’s a soft sided bag, you can get away with using it as a carry-on. Again, that so long as you don’t pack it full.
The North Face Base Camp duffle packs are built to be abused, are very well designed, available in a ton of colors and can be carried in multiple ways. This bag is a classic and remains one of the most popular duffle bags in the world for a reason.
The North Face Base Camp Duffle Bag Extra Small (XS) Quick Specs:
Dimensions: 18″ x 11″ x 11″ (Length/Height x Width x Depth)
Capacity: 31 Liters
Weight: 0.950 kg
Materials: 1000D phthalate-free TPE fabric laminate and 840D ballistic nylon
The North Face Base Camp Duffle Bag Small (S) Quick Specs:
Dimensions: 21″ x 12.8″ x 12.8″ (Length/Height x Width x Depth)
Capacity: 50 Liters
Weight: 1.2 kg
Materials: 1000D phthalate-free TPE fabric laminate and 840D ballistic nylon
The best packable backpacks! – Looking for a daypack that you can store inside your main travel bag? We’ve got 5 to recommend.
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