The Best Carry-On Backpacks

With it practically a given now that on your next flight you’ll have to pay to check a bag, you may take a shot at flying with only a carry-on bag and not checking any luggage at all. More and more people are doing so, and there entire websites, such as www.onebag.com, devoted to the art of traveling with only a single carry-on bag. Many people choose to try this with rolling luggage, but as discussed in another article, Luggage or Backpack?, there are some clear advantages to traveling with a backpack – and the advantages are even greater when going the carry-on route.

First, the additional hardware used in rolling luggage takes up valuable packing space and also makes the bag heavier. This means you’ll have a harder time keeping it under the carry-on size and weight limits which vary amongst airlines (see The International Maximum Carry-On Size and Weight Limits). Second, because rolling luggage tends to have a hard structure to it, if your bag is larger than what the airline accepts, you won’t be able to squeeze it down to a size that fits the luggage templates and you’ll be forced to pay for a checked bag. A backpack, on the other hand, is soft and can easily conform to the size of the luggage template – even if it means pulling out a sweater. Carry-on backpacks are also about half the weight of rolling luggage, meaning you’ll be less likely to have to worry about weight limits, which can be as low as 5kg or 11lbs on some airlines.

If you decide to go the way of the carry-on backpack, here are some choices to consider:

Rick Steves Convertible Carry On

If you’ve never heard of him, Rick Steves is the host of a TV travel show where he usually features various destinations in Europe. At 21″ x 14″ x 9″ this bag meets standard US carry-on size restrictions, and if you pack it properly you should be able to squeeze that 9″ depth down to 8″ to fly on foreign airlines with stricter size limits. It’s only 3 lbs and claims 2,500 cubic inches of packing space, expanding to 2,650. You can use it with the included shoulder strap or with the backpack straps, which tuck away when not in use. Most important of all, it has a waist belt with pads for your hips, making it a top bag to consider if you’ll actually be carrying your bag any fair distance on your back, as waist-belts shift the weight off your shoulders and on to your hips.

 

eBags Weekender eTech Convertible Red - Travel Backpacks


eBags Weekender eTech Convertible Travel Backpack

Also at 22″ x 14″ x 9″ this bag is similar to the Rick Steves bag above. However, it’s heavier at 3 lbs 10 oz and lacks hip pads on the waist belt. eBags describes this bag is having a capacity of 3066 cubic inches, but I think it’s safe to cry foul at that, as if you calculate the volume of a 22″ x 14″ x 9″ object, it’s 2772 cubic inches – so unless eBags found a way to defy the laws of physics, I think it’s safe to say the capacity is closer the 2,500 cubic inches of the Rick Steves bag. It does not include a shoulder strap. It does have the advantage of being cheaper, generally under $60 after discount at eBags.com. If you just need the cheapest, decent carry-on backpack you can get, this is probably the one for you.

 

eBags Mother Lode LTS Weekender Convertible Travel Backpack

The Mother Lode LTS Convertible from eBags is a step up from the Weekender eTech in terms of features and price. It’s approximately the same weight at 3 lbs 11 oz (not including shoulder and waist strap) and the same dimensions of 22″ x 14″ x 9″ – however, it boasts a slightly larger carrying capacity of 3299 cubic inches, and the carrying capacity can actually be increased to 3651 cubic inches by fully expanding the bag (which I’m guessing puts it over the carry-on limit, but still a useful option for before and after your flight). One of the most noteworthy extra features on this bag is the padded laptop compartment, a feature lacking on most other carry-on backpacks. Other stand-out features include a removable hip belt (not padded, unfortunately), a fold-down “shelf” to give you the option to divide the inside of the bag into an upper and lower section, and additional pockets for organization. All in all, a very well thought out bag for carry-on travel that is definitely worth checking out – especially given that it’s priced at less than $100.

 

Lowe Alpine TT Carry-On 40

Lowe Alpine is a reputable manufacturer of backpacks and other outdoor gear, and this is one of their bags which crosses into the adventure travel market. At 22″ x 12.5″ x 8″ this bag is a better size for meeting the stricter carry-on limits of the budget European airlines including EasyJet and RyanAir. It’s slightly lighter than the Rick Steves bag at 2 lbs 13 oz, yet claims a capacity of 2,600 cubic inches. It does include a detachable shoulder strap, but lacks the hip pads on the waist belt. The big advantage of this bag in my opinion, is that it just looks better. The fact that it’s made by a reputable bag manufacturer just makes it all the more tempting.

 

Osprey Porter 46 Travel Pack

Osprey is another manufacturer with a great reputation for making bags that last. With 2,800 cubic inches of space, the Osprey Porter 46 has the highest capacity of all the bags listed here – and at 3 lbs 3 oz, it’s not significantly heavier than even the lightest options. This is due to the fact that it is designed as one large zip-open compartment with no internal dividers to add to the weight, though there is a top pocket and some internal mesh organization. The hip belt and backpack straps can be stowed during transport, although note that a shoulder strap is not included, so when stowed you’ll have to carry this bag by the carry handles. The zippers can be locked for extra security. You can pull the two compression straps to keep the bag size down, although I would expect that even with the compression straps, if you pack this bag to the limit, it’s quite likely you could run into trouble on the the airlines with smaller carry-on bag size restrictions which are found outside the U.S.

 

Briggs & Riley Baseline 20 Convertible Travel Tote

This may be the preferred choice if you’re a business traveler looking for something that will look suitable walking through the lobby of a nice hotel. It’s 20″ x 12.75″ x 9″ with a stated capacity of 2571 cubic inches and a weight of 3 lbs 13 oz. It has both a shoulder strap for the business look and stowaway backpack straps for when things get adventurous (but no waist belt). It features something Briggs & Riley calls a SpeedThru pocket, which is designed to hold your keys, wallet and PDA when going through security checkpoints. The big disadvantage of this bag is that it’s generally twice the price of any of the other bags here, but if it’s for work, perhaps you can write it off as a business expense.

In addition to these bags which are designed for carry-on travel, you may be able to use a small hiking backpack with the right dimensions or a laptop backpack. Of course, the latter would make a lot of sense if you need to bring your laptop along, but keep in mind that a standard 14″ laptop will take a pretty significant chunk out of your bag capacity, leaving you less room for clothes. Also, if you do go with a laptop backpack, make sure the laptop sleeve is closest to your back when wearing it. You always want the heaviest items closest to your back to ease the load on your shoulders.

If you’ve found a backpack that works great as a carry-on, share your find with others by leaving a comment below.  If you’re up for it, pull out your ruler and give us the dimensions!

2 Responses to “The Best Carry-On Backpacks”

  1. I want to use a convertible carry-on bag. My challenge is that I want a slightly smaller bag than the legal size bag. I’m 5’1″ & 95lbs. I want a convertible carry-on that offers compartments for organization yet lightweight and durable. The bag, when full must fit under the seats as I cannot reach the overhead compartments. The weight must be evenly distributed, I do travel light as I use public transportation. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  2. I’ve been very pleased with the L.L. Bean Expedition Travel Pack. It’s more of a duffle with straps than a backpack. 22 x 14 x 9.25″, 2 lbs. 5 oz. Big main compartment and several smaller ones. Tuck-away shoulder straps. Padded back. Sturdy carry handles.
    I’ve taken it between Vermont, California and Iceland. I’d like to use it again, but my son is using it between Calif., Boston, and eastern Europe. I may have to get another one.
    My only carry-on difficulty was on a commuter jet with 2+1 seating, and the flight attendant gave me a stern look as I jammed it under the seat.
    It’s pricey, though, $129.

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