I read a lot of travel sites which talk about the best travel bags and there’s typically only two types of bags recommended: roller bags for the pack everything person, or pretty small bags for those who have “figured it out”. What you don’t see much of is bag recommendations for those who don’t want a roller bag, but also who pack closer to how normal people pack.
So whether you are looking for a backpack, or a shoulder bag to fit this role you should be looking for a few key features in your bag.
- Good straps. If it is just a nylon strap, forget about it.
- About 30L-40L is ideal. Most airlines max out the carry-on size at 45L, but if you over pack that then you are going to be in trouble. Best to stay safe and only go up to 40L. And remember that not every 45L bag will fit into a bag sizer.
- Get something with a dedicated laptop compartment on it if you are only going to carry that bag. This way you don’t need to unpack everything to pull out the laptop. If you are carrying a second “personal item” then this is less of a concern.
- Look for softer materials. Chances are that if this is the type of bag you are looking for, you are not interested in breaking in a bag. Things like ballistic nylon are far softer than GORUCK’s 1000D Cordura. Even 500D Cordura is much better.
- Look for cinch straps as a major bonus. This keeps the gear stored much smaller than it otherwise would be. If your bag of choice doesn’t have these, then get some good packing cubes as they make a world of difference.
- Remember that the bag might need to be checked at times. Depending on the airline, or your circumstances, you cannot avoid having to check baggage. But you shouldn’t fear it, so make sure the bag you buy can handle that abuse. Look for removable, or storable straps. Durable materials, and generally a lack of dangly shit from the bag.
Ideally you should be grabbing a backpack, but I’ve found that most people don’t believe this, so these bags are a good assortment to fit every style. I’ve tested almost all of them, and don’t think you could go wrong with any of them.
- Arcido Faroe: this might be the best buy of the lot. I love mine (they sent it to me for review). This has also been my go to for packing my kids clothes for trips. My wife recently used it for a weekend trip and she liked it as well — which surprised me (she’s not a backpack person). It holds a ton, has internal cinch straps. Great electronics compartments and some handy external pockets. The materials are soft and durable. The price can’t be beat. The only downside is that this is only a backpack, and cannot be carried as a shoulder bag. (My review)
- Mystery Ranch Mission Duffle: this is the only bag I have not tested on this list, but I know the brand well enough to know this would be good. It’s a duffle bag, so it is designed to be carried with a shoulder strap. It does have hidden and stowable backpack straps so you can whip those out if you really need to get moving. Don’t go above the 40L variant. Pick this bag if what you want is to jam a ton of crap in a bag without thinking about it.
- Osprey Farpoint 40: this is among the more popular options out there. Osprey makes insanely good bags geared mostly towards light-weight hiking. The Farpoint series basically takes all the outdoor knowledge and applies it to travel. People love this bag, and it’s hard not to. That said, I like the looks of it the least of all the options.
- Patagonia Black Hole MLC: While I haven’t tested this new Black Hole variant, I have tested and used for years Patagonia’s Original MLC bag. At 45L it is the biggest on the list (MLC means “maximum legal carryon”). That said, it is really easy to pack, and has great flexibility, but it’s also pretty ugly. Can be had for cheap though.
- Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30: Tom Bihn sent me one of these and I used it for a couple years as my primary travel bag. It’s fantastic, but on the smaller side. Get their fitted packing cubes to really get the most out of this bag. The backpack straps are solid, but the bag is best carried as a shoulder bag since there is no rigidity to it. This is a really good bag. (My thoughts)
- Tom Bihn Tri-Star: the Tri-Star is slightly larger than the Aeronaut with a bit more organization. I think if I were to pick from this list, this is the bag I would pick given how I currently pack. I’ve played with one, but never tested it on a trip. The big difference between this and the Aeronaut is really how you pack it. The Aeronaut basically has 1 large open area and two smaller ones and packs more like a duffel (which is why packing cubes are a must). Whereas the Tri-Star doesn’t really need packing cubes as it works to squeeze your gear for you. Best seen by the pictures and videos Tom Bihn has of the bags. If only picking from this list, this is the bag. You get what you pay for.
As an upgrade to any bag with a shoulder strap, I highly recommend Tom Bihn’s “Absolute Shoulder Strap”, it’s very nice. As always, pick the bag you like best, as you are more likely to be happier with that choice, all of the above are great bags.