I think most people would be best served packing light, and using a carry on size “travel pack” which is a cross between a backpack and soft-side luggage. Travel packs will often have light weight internal frames to make them easier to carry, handles on the top and side to carry as luggage, and backpack straps and maybe a waist strap that tuck away in case you need to check the bag through. If you have no plans to check your bag, a classic daypack can function beautifully as a “travel” pack.
Most travel packs are really designed for urban use with an emphasis on ease of use / access rather than multi-hour carry comfort. Travel packs address keeping the contents organized, easily accessible, and have clean lines so they don’t get hung up on things. I find I can carry most travel packs <10 lbs for an extended time and between 10-20 lbs for an hour or so. Most don’t have good carry systems and become bothersome for longer duration walks. If you are planning to be walking long distances with your pack, you would be better served by using either a trekking pack if your days end in a town, or a wilderness backpack.
Make sure the travel pack you are considering is still under the limit for carry-ons! Feature and size creep has resulting in many travel packs which are heavy and are too big to be used for carry-on. At the same time the airlines have been reducing the size/weight limits of carry on bags.
I think the ideal travel bag is one that fits under the seat in a standard plane and is considered a “personal item” by the majority of budget airlines enabling travel on the cheapest tickets. I like bags which qualify as a RyanAir ”personal bag” which is technically 40x25x20cm (15.7x10x7.8in) but their sizer is 43cm. It’s possible to use bags with slightly larger dimensions so long as you don’t completely fill them (e.g. the will squish into the sizer). Note: there are a few airlines which are even more restrictive. The other size to consider would be an “international” carry-on. Almost all major airlines permit bags to be carry-on which are 7.8×12.5×18″, and most permit up to 21″. Bags which match these dimensions will often need to go into the overhead bin because infrastructure is intruding into the under the seat space. Some airlines define carry-on bags as having 45 linear inches which enables the use of well carrying packs which are longer than 22″. Just know that you will have to put you bag into the overhead bin sidewise which means someone else might not have room for their bag. It’s possible to overstuff soft side bags to the point that they will not fit, even it the bag is theoretically the “permitted” dimensions. There is a summary of common carry one restrictions, and an exhaustive periodical table of carry on size limitation. When it doubt, check with your carrier. The packhacker site list which airline a bag is guaranteed to qualify as a carry on.
I use daypack rather than classic travel packs. When I don’t to need too many “options” from my packing list I use a discontinued variant of the Gossamer Gear Vagabond Jet. When I need to bring more in an urban locations, I use a Tom Bihn Synik-30 Backpack. It’s large enough for every every trip I have taken, while small enough that it has never been viewed as “luggage” which needed to be checked-through or stored in the under-carriage on a bus. I have found this pack (and the very similar Synapse packs) are beautifully designed with just the right amount of organizational features that allow me to find my daily use items without wasting space or having too many compartments. On trips that mix my travel with wilderness backpacking or I need to carry a heavier load extended distances I use a Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack which is carry-on legal provided I don’t over stuff it.
Travel packs vary in the amount of “organizational features” they have. One approach is to divide the bag into sections which often directly accessible from the outside of the bag. In theory is it’s quick and easy to retrieve a particular item without disturbed most of the pack’s contents. If the way you separate you items matches the size of these compartments this works quite well. The other extreme is that the bag is just one large space (with maybe a pocket or two for small items). This has the advantage of being very flexible. The downside is that finding things in the one large section can be challenging. People typically manage this by using packing cubes or stuff sacks to collect smaller items together. In between are bags that have external access to compartments, but the divider is light and flexible materials that allows the main compartment to “take back” space not used by the small compartments. I personally tend toward the one big compartment, though my Synik 30 has numerous compartments.
Below are a list of travel packs which I think are worth a closer look. This is list is in roughly in my preferred order when considering function and price.
- Gossamer Gear Vagabond Jet: super minimalist 23L pack with few organizational features, light weight, durable, and carries well. Waterproof, flat bottom lets you put it down on the ground and easily access the main compartment. One of the less expensive bags for it’s level of quality. . If you are traveling ultra-light could be a nice option.
- Osprey Farpoint 40: Less functional volume than some of the maxi-volume carry-on size bags which is offset by a real frame that is comfortable for me up to around 22lb, a large pocket on the opening panel, an externally accessible padded slot for laptop, a number of built in straps to keep everything in place. Downside is no side pockets. If the load is less than 10lbs, I would prefer several of the following packs over the Farpoint, but if the load is a bit heavy, the carry comfort of the Farpoint trumps most of the other packs in this list. I would say that the Farpoint (or women’s Fairview) is the “safest” / most likely to be an effective travel pack the most people, especially for someone who is just starting onebag travel. The daypack can attach to the back or hang on the front from the shoulder straps.
- ULA Camino: A full feature back country backpack which has been designed to be travel friendly. If you are going back and forth between city and back country with a heavy load and need a carry-on sized bag which can expand when on the trail to hold multiple days of food, this is your pack. If I was to buy a larger bag, this is what I would most likely purchase.
- Osprey Daylite 26+6 is a popular bag on /r/onebag. If not overpacked will be considered a personal item by many budget airlines. Can be expanded if you need to carry a bit more. A nice set of organizational feature. Reasonably comfortable to carry. Can often be found for less than $100.
- ULA Dragonfly: For minimalist packers who are dialed in. Small bag, beautifully made, great material, good shoulder straps, clean design. This is the only bag that would tempt me away from the Vagabond pack. Often out of stock with new packs appearing Wednesday mornings.
- Rick Stevens Back Door Bag: A great value. Typically less than $80. Light weight. All the features that are critical. Not as refined as many of the bags on this list, but also significantly cheaper than most.
- Cotopaxi Allpa 35l was a Indiegogo funded project but now easily purchased at stores like REI. Well designed bag that unzips suitcase/clamshell style with zippered mesh compartments. Has a fair number of organizational features and externally accessible laptop compartment. Hip belt does an ok job of transferring weight. Wish it had an external pocket to carrying water. This bag calls attention to itself with the bright, multi-color fabrics pieces. I have noticed a lot of shorter women rave about the packs fit and carry comfort.
- Bags from Tom Bihn: All the bags made by Tom Bihn are amazingly well thought out, have great organizational features, and are top quality. Choose the bag that fits your packing need and style, but be prepared to pay for the quality. The downside of Tom Bihn bags is that they don’t have the class leading weight to carry volume nor are they the most comfortable when carrying significant weight for longer durations. If you are carrying a heavy weight, you will likely prefer one of the other travel packs listed that have padded waist straps. We will how TB fares with Tom and his lead designer retiring and the company purchased by a capital management firm.
- REI 40L Trail and Rucksack 40 are pack which seem well liked by the onebag community and supposedly can transfer significant weight to the hips, is easy to purchase, and reasonably priced. It can stretch to be used in the back country if you are carrying an ultralight load. I have only tried them in the store. I didn’t find them comfortable with >10lb and had trouble getting it into a comfortable position. The zipper configuration that allows it to be partially opened for top loading or fully opened seems nice, but I found the zipper often caught in the transition area.
- zPacks Bagger: expensive, light, minimalist pack (doesn’t have a laptop/hydration sleeve. Avail in 25 & 40l.
- Patagonia Cragsmith 45l: The foam sewn into the fabric give it a stiffness which provide structure and padding while adding modest weight. Stands up on the bottom with a zip top which provides good access. When laid of it’s front the entire back unzips providing full access to the contents while keep the harness out of the dirt. When empty the foam keeps structure. This bag “natural” size is 23″ x 14″ x 8″ but it will squish into many carry-on sizers provided you don’t overpack. The side pockets are quite tight, your average water bottle will only fit by pressing in against the contents of the pack. The carry comfort is surprisingly good up to around 20lb. They also make a 32l version that has a webbing belt.
- Tortugaback Packs is a small company that makes packs specifically designed for the light weight traveler. Suitcase like zipper opening, side access laptop sleeve, zip away straps, and other features make this a well designed travel pack. Waist belt actually transfers weight. Heavy.
- Matador GlobeRider45: No personal experience. Looks like a very nicely design max size carryon travel pack which should have good load transfer to the hip belt. The one downsize is the pack by itself is more than 4lb.
- Peak Designs Travel Backpack 45L is a kickstarter project from a company that has delivered numerous successful projects designed for photographers. This bag would be ideal for photographers, and would be a good bag for just about anyone. The back has good access and organizational features, and opens likes a suitcase. The hip belt actually takes some weight off the shoulder making it comfortable carrying moderate loads. It can be slimmed down to 35L by closing two side zippers and snaps (which have a tendency to pop open when pressured). It’s very durable. Heavier that I would like.
- Opsrey Porter 46: A durable bag which will protect the contents better than many other bags because there is closed cell foam sewn into the sides which also gives some structure without adding much weight. The “strait-jacket” compression system is very effective but the straps need to be released when you want access to the main body of the pack. They’re a fairly large top pocket which I put everything I might want quick access to while on the move. The lid to the main compartment has an external accessible zippered pocket, and a mesh pocket on the inside. One side of the bag has an internal mesh pocket which runs the length of the bag. This is one of the more comfortable carrying bags I have found though the hip strap is more stability than weight transfer. This pack unfortunately doesn’t have an external water bottle and is a light on organizational features. This was my primary bag for ten years. There is also a 30L version of this pack. Note: Osprey periodically makes minor updates to this bag, at which point you can often find “last year’s model” on sale for less than $100 which is a very good value.
- Patagonia MLC: Nothing special but nothing particularly wrong either. Decent travel bag with backpack style straps that hide away. I haven’t see the most recent update so might be better than the first version I tried.
- MEI: One of (if not the first) travel pack makers. Very durable, carries well. Hard to find in local stores… when doing mail order you might need to wait for your bag to be built.
- Marmot Long Haul, Northface Basecamp Duffel (Small), etc: Very durable and highly water resistant. A good option if you expect your bags to be outdoors a lot and you aren’t looking for organizing features (Marmot has a few features, TNF none). I didn’t find either as comfortable to carry as the Osprey Porter, but would choice it if I expected my bag to spend a lot of time exposed to the elements. Duffles are really nice if you are doing a lot of loading / unloading. Many other outdoor companies make similar duffels with straps which are roughly equivalent: Patagonia, REI, etc. Consider how easily the straps come on and off, and what against your back.
- Granite Gear Cross Trek2: Moderately priced 36l bag. No personal experience with it, but generally have had good experiences with Granite Gear Packs.
- Minaal Carry-on is a pricey bag that was a successful kickstarter project. The bag zips open like a classic suitcase for easy access, has an external water bottle pocket, removable straps, and a well designed padded pocket for a laptop. Clear design, but the webbing waist strap is only for stabilization, not load transfer.
- Nomatic Travel Bag is a kickstarter project bag designed for travel. Well designed with a lot of organizing features. Clamshell opening, shoe compartment, side storage pockets, internal waterproof water bottle pocket. I don’t have personal experience using this bag but it seems well regarded.
- ULA Atlas: A 40L Travel Pack designed by people who normally do back country backpacks. I have not seen it in person, but likely has a better suspension than most of the other travel packs and lighter weight. Won’t have all the organizational features of some of the fancier travel packs, but for many people that shouldn’t be a problem. Carry-on approved for some airlines, but several limit you to 22″ and the Atlas is 23″.
- Rangeland New Business Trip Backpack: $45, qualifies as a personal item with most airlines. No personal experience but several people recommended it.
- Decathlon Forclaz Travel 100, 40L Hiking Backpack: Inexpensive travel backpack. No experience but worth a look.
- Decathlon / Quechua 23l NH Escape 500 rolltop: budget bag which qualifies as a personal item.
- eBags Luxon bag is reasonable design. It’s often on sale for around $100.
- Goruck GR1: I don’t really understand the love as a travel bag, especially given it’s high price. Yes, it’s seriously durable, but short of doing military deployments I don’t believe most people need a pack which is that rugged, and you pay for the weight. The other issue is that I didn’t find the shoulder straps that comfortable when carrying more than 20lb. I will say that no pack I have tried keeps rucking plates in place as well and Goruck packs. A GoRuck lover told me that they need to break in and I didn’t use it long enough to experience it. I have never heard about a backpack that needs to be broken in before.
There are a number of other packs which I don’t have experience with that might be work looking at such as AER, Bellroy, Cabin Zero, and Evergoods. There is a spreadsheet of popular onebags and an analysis of what bags are being used by the /r/onebag community. The packhacker sites has lots of reviews and list which airline a bag is guaranteed to qualify as a carry on. I don’t necessarily agree with how they rank bags but they have an extensive list of bags and details about them.
Packs for Trekking or “Wilderness” Backpacking
If you are planning to be walking long distances with your pack, you would be better served by using either a trekking pack if your days end in a town, or a wilderness backpack.
Remember that you can’t take fuel on a plane… plan to acquire at your destination. You can’t bring knife, stakes, or hiking poles as carry-on. Sounds like there has been clarification so you should be able to take tent poles. If you need to carry these things, you can ship them via a postal carrier, send them through as checked baggage (cardboard poster containers work well), or send your backpack as checked luggage. If you are shipping your backpack as luggage I encourage enclosing it in either a duffel bag or cardboard box. Ikea Frakta storage bag /duffel is cheap (<$5), durable, light (6oz) and large enough for most packs. Other hints about flying to reach backpacking destinations.