Girl with backpack at door | Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

How to choose the right carry-on backpack

Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Thursday 12 March 2020 Take the right gear Leave a Comment

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A few weeks ago, one of our readers contacted me about items on my packing list – specifically about my backpack and my Turkish towel. Her questions made me realise I had never actually gotten around to writing an article on my backpack and why I chose it.

So, if you are interested in

  • understanding what the benefits are of travelling light; and/or
  • learning how to choose the right carry-on backpack

you’ve come to the right place. If not, please pass this post on to someone you know might find it useful.

Why travelling light is great

I have stopped counting how many travellers we see on the road every day lugging around backpacks that are often larger than themselves. We wish we could talk to every one of them there and then, and try and convince them to travel light next time.

Backpackers walking in Christchurch
Backpackers walking in Christchurch
Waiting with backpacks at Brazil Argentina border
In 2012, we still traveled the world with big backpacks

We’ve been there. We travelled with our big 70-litre backpacks during our three month trip in 2012. But we have now also travelled for a year with carry-on sized backpacks, and we will never go back.

So, what are the benefits of travelling light? Here are three of them but there are way more…

It makes arriving a breeze

Ever waited for (what seems like) an eternity at the luggage carousel? The conveyor belt seems to be the most popular place on earth. You can’t see a thing as everyone else has claimed their spot right next to it. As the place slowly empties, you wonder what happened with your luggage. And then finally, half an hour after you went through security, it makes an appearance and you breathe a sigh of relief.

Now imagine travelling with carry-on: You grab your backpack (or small wheelie) out of the overhead locker, swiftly walk past fellow travellers (who have somehow managed to take the kitchen sink on board). The lines at security are still short. A few minutes after you landed, you’re out of the airport and greet your friends/family and/or grab that taxi/bus/train into town.

Baggage claim area | Photo by Johnnie Shannon via Pixabay
Baggage claim area | Photo by Johnnie Shannon via Pixabay

Your luggage can’t get delayed, lost or stolen

How many times was your luggage delayed, or even lost or stolen? I arrived in Berlin on Christmas Eve without even a winter jacket (since we flew in from Sydney where it was summer). My check-in luggage finally arrived four days (!) later, damaged and unusable. A strike combined with bad weather (and Christmas) had made Heathrow Airport a giant luggage warehouse.

Paul almost missed out on competing in a half marathon in Italy a few years ago, when our plane was delayed in Dubai, and Emirates wasn’t fast enough to get our luggage from one plane to the next. In that instance, we were reunited with our luggage (including his running gear) less than 12 hours before the race. I’m sure everyone who has ever travelled with check-in luggage can tell similar stories. Not much fun…

If you travel solo, how many times did you wish you had a travel buddy to look after your 70-litre pack while you quickly popped into the bathroom (or elsewhere)? Well, a carry-on backpack is small and light enough to take with you… wherever you go.

Baggage trolleys | Photo courtesy of Tony Prats via Pixabay
Baggage trolleys | Photo courtesy of Tony Prats via Pixabay

It may just save your travel plans

Imagine you wake up late. You have 30 minutes to catch your train. The train station is a good 20 minutes’ walk away. The morning traffic is horrendous. If you want to make your train you have to run.

Now imagine you have a (check-in sized) wheelie and a day pack or a 70-litre backpack. You gather your gear as quickly as you can, but it still seems like an eternity until you’ve made it down the stairs and out onto the streets. The streets to the train station are cobble-stoned and full of people heading to work. Good luck making that train.

Now imagine grabbing your carry-on backpack. It’s packed and ready in a flash. You run down the stairs and along the streets, shouting apologies as you zigzag between people. You only carry around 10 kilograms on your back, so even moving on cobble-stone is not too difficult. What are your chances now catching your train?

Traveller with trolley on cobblestone | Photo courtesy of Mantas Hesthaven via Unsplash
Traveller with trolley on cobblestone | Photo courtesy of Mantas Hesthaven via Unsplash

What is considered carry-on?

Unfortunately, every airline has its own carry-on luggage rules, especially when it comes to weight. Some allow ten kilograms, others only seven. And it’s often those with a lower limit that enforce the rules (to make some extra money for the airline’s shareholders). How much you are allowed to bring into the cabin also depends on whether you travel domestic or international, and what class you’re seated in. So, do check the rules (on the airline’s website) before you book your flight.

The most common dimensions seem to be as follows:

  • 56cm Length x 36cm Height x 23cm Width
  • 22inch Length x 14inch Height x 9inch Width

By pure maths, this gives you about 46 litres and will be the (maximum) size of luggage you are looking for.

Also note: Most airlines allow one piece of hand luggage (up to the weight limit they impose) plus one personal item (which does not usually count towards the weight of your carry-on luggage). So, if you find your laptop pushes you over the weight limit take it out of your backpack and carry it in your hands as your personal item. When we encounter airline staff that takes the weight limitations too seriously, we put my little handbag (my usual personal item) and whatever else makes my backpack too heavy into a silk bag (usually used to carry our groceries or laundry). That silk bag then becomes my personal item.

People arriving at airport | Photo courtesy of FreePhotos via Pixabay

How to choose the right carry-on backpack

Before you go shopping, think about and write down your requirements. They may not be as obvious initially, but the more you look at the options out there the clearer they’ll become. To help you get started, here are my criteria:

Close to maximum carry-on dimensions

I wasn’t so sure about how much I’d need but the more I looked at different sizes, I realised that less than 40 litres would be a bit of a squeeze for me, even as a practising minimalist. The benefit of going larger is also that you can fit in that cool t-shirt or colourful sarong you bought on your trip.

Super strong yet ultra-lightweight

Considering your 10-kilogram weight limit, the lighter your backpack is the more content you can carry. Make sure though your backpack is of good quality. The last thing you want is for your backpack to break at that busy intersection in Hanoi or when you’re jumping on that chicken bus in Guatemala.

Proper waist strap/hip belt to distribute the weight evenly

That’s an absolute must (and I’m surprised how many carry-on backpacks don’t come with one). Your full backpack needs to sit comfortably on your hips. So, if your (shoulders’ and back’s) health is important to you make sure your carry-on backpack has a proper waist strap/hip belt.

Girl at river with backpack | Image courtesy of Engin Akyurt via Pixabay
Girl at river with backpack | Image courtesy of Engin Akyurt via Pixabay

Separate laptop compartment at the back

This goes hand in hand with the former. A laptop is likely the single heaviest item you carry in your backpack. So, the best place for it is right against your back. You also want a laptop compartment that can be accessed easily even when the backpack is full. You don’t want to have to empty your backpack each time you go through security. Trust me.

Separate compartment at the bottom

Speaking of security, another item that has to be taken out whenever you go through security is your toiletry bag. A toiletry bag usually also weighs a bit (at least mine does). So for my toiletry bag, I prefer to have a separate compartment at the bottom that can be accessed easily from the outside. Why at the bottom? Again, for better weight distribution.

Stretchy side pockets that fit a water bottle

Staying hydrated is important when travelling. For that reason, we travel with an 800-millilitre Klean Kanteen tin bottle. That bottle (and Egon, my travel mascot) need to fit somewhere, and that’s what the side pockets are great for.

Backpack with water bottles | Photo courtesy of Lukas Kurth via Pixabay
Backpack with water bottles | Photo courtesy of Lukas Kurth via Pixabay

The main compartment that opens like a suitcase

Imagine you’re waiting for your flight to board, and the airport feels like a freezer. So, the best thing to do is to grab your jumper/cardigan/shawl. If your backpack opens from the top (like a potato sack) you’ll have to unpack everything on top, and by the time you get to your jumper/cardigan/shawl, you’ve frozen to death. Having a backpack that opens like a suitcase makes (packing and) accessing an item a breeze.

Lockable compartments

Travelling with carry-on, you’ll have your luggage on you most of the time. But if you do have to check in your luggage (for example, if the bus is too crowded or your plane too small) lockable compartments come in handy.

Ideally built-in rain cover

This was more of a nice-to-have requirement (at least for me) as there are other options to protect your gear from a downpour, for example, a rain poncho (which not only covers your luggage but you as well).

Reasonably priced

Good quality luggage is not cheap. The same applies to carry-ons. I saw a lot of Chinese branded backpacks online that were insanely cheap. While I have no experience with them, I’d be concerned about their quality (see above).

Your requirements might be different. That’s okay. Find one that ticks all (or at least the most important ones) of YOUR boxes.

Tortuga and Osprey Ozone 46 backpacks
Tortuga and Osprey Ozone 46 backpacks

What did I choose and why?

I did a lot of research and checked out over a dozen different backpacks from different manufacturers before I bought my Osprey Ozone 46 (mid-2016). Here is a list of all the ones I checked out (and kept notes on) – in alphabetical order. If you use the imperial measuring system (such as our friends in the US and UK) you may find this converter useful.

ModelPrice (mid 2016)Dimensions (cm)Volume (l)Weight (kg)What I didn’t like
BlackWolf Strato 40USD9554 x 35 x 22401.3No bottom compartment, side pockets impractical for bottle
Caribee Sky Master 40L Carry OnUSD8554 x 33 x 18401.2No waist strap, looks flimsy
Gregory Border 35USD17955 x 32 x 19351.4Too small, no side pockets for bottle
Kathmandu LitehaulUSD11555 x 31 x 29381.3Too small, no bottom compartment
Minaal Carry-onUSD29955 x 35 x 20351.4Too small, no waist strap, expensive
Osprey Farpoint 40USD14953 x 33 x 23401.3Side pockets impractical for bottle
Osprey Ozone 46USD12552 x 33 x 30461.1See above
Osprey Porter 46USD13557 x 36 x 24461.5Too large for my frame, no side pockets for bottle, foamy side parts add unnecessary bulk (and weight)
Pacsafe Venturesafe 45USD22555 x 35 x 22451.8No side pockets for bottle, too heavy
REI Trail 40USD10955 x 33 x 27401.3No laptop compartment, no bottom compartment
The North Face Overhaul 40USD15953 x 31 x 18411.5Bottom compartment too small
Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45USD28056 x 36 x 23451.4No waist strap, no side pockets for bottle, expensive
Tortuga Travel BackpackUSD19956 x 36 x 23441.7Too large for my frame, no bottom compartment, side pockets impractical for bottle, too heavy

The Osprey Ozone 46 was the best compromise out of the bunch in terms of value for money. It meets most of my requirements (bar the following):

Main compartment

I would have preferred a backpack that you can open like a suitcase, but the Osprey’s main compartment opens really wide, and my packing cubes slide in easily. So I have found that not too big an issue.

Lockability

The main compartment is lockable (I use a TSA approved number lock) but the other three compartments (one at the bottom and two in front of the main compartment) can’t be locked. On the rare occasion we had to check in our luggage (for example on the small planes in the Caribbean), I used cable ties to secure those compartments.

Rain cover

The Ozone doesn’t have a built-in rain cover. We did have a few heavy downpours (given we travelled the Americas in the rainy season) but we managed with rain ponchos that covered us including our backpacks (bought on the road for about USD10 each).

My backpack has done more than a year now, and apart from a few minor scratches, it’s still in very good condition.

What carry-on backpack do you use and why?

Feature photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

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How to choose the right carry-on backpack
How to choose the right carry-on backpack
How to choose the right carry-on backpack

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