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. I find most travel packs comfortable when carrying less than 10lbs and between 10-20lbs for a few hours. More weight for long durations requires a good suspension and an effective hip strap which is rare on travel packs.
A near relative to the travel pack is your basic backpack. It doesn’t have the handles, and the straps don’t tuck away when shipping your bag, but these aren’t necessary if you always use it as a carry on bag. There is no need to purchase a “travel pack” if you already have a backpack which is large enough to hold your gear.
I use a Tom Bihn Synik-30 Backpack which is more of a classic daypack than a travel pack. It’s large enough for every every trip I have taken, while small enough that it fits in the personal space provided of every plane, train and bus I have traveled in. My Tom Bihn daypacks have never been viewed as “luggage” by transportation operators, so I have always been able to keep these bags with me. The slightly smaller Synapse-25 was my primary travel bag for 6 years. I switched to the Synik because I often take trips which mix work (which includes a MacBook Pro 13″ + external display and/or iPad used as an external screen) and outdoor recreational pursues which didn’t easily fit into 25L. Other than size, these bags are nearly identical: 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. For many years I used an Osprey Transport 46 (basically the same as the modern Porter46) which worked well when I was carrying more. On particularly minimalist trips I have used a Gossamer Gear Vagabond Packable.
Sometimes I combine travel (I carry my pack moderate distanced between hotels, hostels, and people’s homes) with multi-day backpacking in the wilderness. In these cases I am willing to give on some of the orginizational features for better carry comfort and larger volume. I use a Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack which is carry-on legal provided I don’t over stuff it.
There are a number of ultralight or light weight backpacks which can qualify as carry on baggage. For a list of possible options, look at the ultralight backpacks I discuss in my choosing a backpack post. There are a number of frameless packs which will work, MLD and Gossamer Gear would be the first I would look at. I know several people who have found the HMG Southwest 2400 worked well for them. While a bit on the heavier size, The ULA Camino-2 and Six Moon Designs Traveler might be a good pack for this sort of use.
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. 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.
Packs for “City” Use
Most travel packs are really designed to be used in town with an emphasis on ease of use rather than multi-hour carry comfort. My one warning is 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 quite heavy and are too big to be used for carry-on.
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.
- Bags from Tom Bihn: All the bags made by Tom Bihm are amazingly well thought out, have great organizational features, carry well, and are top quality. Choose the bag that fits your packing need and style, but be prepared to pay for the quality. If you are carrying a heavy weight, you will likely prefer one of the other travel packs listed that have padded waist straps.
- Osprey Farpoint 40: Slightly less volume than a number of the other bags listed here is offset by a real frame which is comfort carrying 15-25lb (similar to the frame on the first generation Osprey Aether back country pack), external water bottle pockets, a large pocket with organizer pockets and a padded slot for laptop and ereader/tablet, a number of built in straps to keep everything in place. The most significant downside is that the laptop slot is near in the front of the pack rather than against the back. If the load is less than 15lbs, I would prefer several of the following packs over the Farpoint.
- 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.
- Cotopaxi Allpa 35l was a Ingiegogo funded project. Well designed bag that unzips suitcase/clamshell style with zippered mesh compartments. Has a fair number of organizational features and externally accessible laptop compartment. Wish it had an external pocket to carrying water. Hip belt does a reasonable job of transferring weight. This bag calls attention to itself with the bright, multi-color fabrics pieces.
- 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 well.
- REI 40L Rucksack is a pack which can transfer some 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.
- 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, though a bit 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. There 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 go to bag for ten years and is now being used by other family members. 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.
- Gossamer Gear Vagabond Jet: super minimalist 23L pack with few organizational features, but light weight, durable, and carries well. If you are traveling ultra-light could be a nice option.
- 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.
- Osprey Ozone 46 is a very well thought out travel pack. Made from light weight but adequately durable materials. It has a foam frame sheet which improves it’s carry comfort, gives some back ventilation, and provides a bit of protection for the contents of the main bag. There is a large compartment which zips half open. The inside is a florescent yellow which makes it easy to see things. Closest to your back is a padded pocket which will hold a 15 inch laptop. On the exterior of the pack are two mesh water bottle pockets, a typical organizer pocket, and a padded pocket which seems to be sized for a tablet or kindle. There are two compression straps. This pack is also available in a the smaller 36L. This looks more like a backpack than luggage.
- Eagle Creek typically sells nicely designed Travel Packs. They change their models fairly frequently, so I have stopped listing any specific models. When looking at the Eagle Creek bags make sure they are carry-on legal. Many of Eagle Creek “adventure travel” packs are too large for carry on use.
- 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.
- Patagonia MLC: Nothing special but nothing particularly wrong either. Basic travel bag with backpack style straps that hide away.
- eBags Mother Lode weekender Convertible: A very good value, typicaly sold for under $80. While this bag doesn’t have the carry comfort the Osprey Bags, or features that are as refined as Tom Bihn, they have managed to make a well designed bag at a budget price.
- Marmot Long Haul, Northface Basecamp Duffel (Small): 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. 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.
- Rick Stevens Back Door Bag: seems to be liked by others, moderately priced, light weight, but nothing special.
- OR Drybags or similar products. there are a number of companies that make completely waterproof bags that have straps to carry on your back. The more basic drybags are not that cormfortable to carry, but there are more refined products. Often these packs have no orginizational features and are harder to pack, unpack, and find specify items, but if you are somewhere very wet (like watersports) the extra protection is well worth the inconvenience.
There are a number of other packs which I don’t have experience with that might be work looking at. That includes GoRuck, AER, Standard Luggage Traveler… take a look at what people are discussion on /r/onebag. Someone did an analysis of what bags are being used by the /r/onbag community.