Packing less and less has become something of a game to me. How much can I leave at home and still have everything I need to travel comfortably? Can I challenge myself to smaller and smaller bags? This makes finding the best carry-on luggage super important. With each trip, I reevaluate what goes in my backpack and what stays behind. Andy and I have streamlined our packing lists, and we often combine our things into one main bag plus daypacks. Here’s a look at my favorite luggage for traveling carry-on only.
REI Trail 40L Backpack
If I want to be almost guaranteed to not have to check bags, 40L is about the biggest backpack I’m willing to use. I’ve always liked REI, so when it was time for a new bag a couple years ago, I stuck with the brand I trust. Helps that it comes in purple.
The REI Trail 40L is a panel-loading traveling backpack, which I think is better than top-loading because it’s easier to get things in and out of it. The zippers run all the way to the bottom, which I thought would be annoying, but after using it for a few trips, I actually quite like the set-up. I’ll pack things into the bottom and close the zippers a little at a time as I add more things.
There are lots of pockets, which is really important to me. Pockets help keep me organized, so I always want several in a backpack. The Trail 40L has two pockets at the top, one on the outside, one on the inside. They’re great for things like my toothbrush, charging cords, makeup (on the rare occasion I travel with makeup) and other smaller, non-liquid items. The bag also has a long, flat pocket on the front where I often keep receipts and print-outs.
The three side pockets are perfect for flip flops, umbrella, or a water bottle. The waist strap/hip belt is comfortable and easy to adjust. And it has a rain cover, which luckily I haven’t had to use much, but I think it’s an important feature.
The REI Trail 40L is the backpack Andy and I usually use for longer trips, like our upcoming four week trip to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. We manage to fit about a week’s worth of clothes each, plus a few other small things, in this backpack. Now, we also travel with a day pack each so sometimes a little clothing will migrate to those bags along with laptops and toiletries.
But the REI Trail 40L backpack packs up well, and we’ve learned we don’t need as much stuff as we ever think we do.
Osprey Escapist 25L Daypack
The Osprey Escapist 25L daypack is my newest piece of luggage. After Andy and I got attacked by bedbugs in Prague last June, I decided my old daypack was ready to be retired. Osprey is a good brand and Andy really likes his so I went for it. I was hoping for a little smaller than 25L, like maybe 20L or 22L, but this was the best bag for what I was looking for.
The main compartment can be divided into two sections with a zippered panel for more organization. My laptop is small enough (13 inch) that I can fit it in the top section when separated, something I couldn’t do with my old daypack. I also like the front pocket of the bag because it’s deep enough to fit a lot of things but it doesn’t get too bulky or poke into the main compartment much.
There’s another pocket at the top of the bag towards the back that I thought was interesting. I wouldn’t put anything bulky in there since it’ll poke my back, but it’s good for my passport, some papers, and a few other small things. Because of it’s location, I feel like it’s less likely to be pickpocketed.
The bag’s side pockets will hold flip flops, water bottle, or umbrella. It also has a rain cover, which is super important to me since my laptop goes in this bag. It’s an obnoxious bright yellow, which I’m not a fan of, but I suppose there are safety reasons for making a rain cover stand out.
>>Check out the Osprey Escapist 22L backpack here.
Osprey Momentum 22L Daypack
As I mentioned, Andy bought a new Osprey daypack before I got mine. He decided on the Osprey Momentum 22L daypack mostly because it has a dedicated laptop sleeve. His laptop is bigger (15 inch) than mine, and this makes it easier to get it in and out of the bag at security checks at the airport.
In addition to the laptop sleeve and the main compartment, the daypack has lots of pockets for organizing things. There are two side pockets for flip flops, umbrella, or a water bottle. The straps are all easy to adjust and comfortable.
The Osprey Momentum 22L also has a rain cover, which was surprisingly hard to find on a bag with a laptop sleeve. It’s important for protecting the laptop, but most other bags of a similar size seemed to have either the laptop section or the rain cover, but not both, so this was a find.
Andy loves this bag and, aside from its travel uses, he carries it around Berlin when he goes to co-working once a week. He’ll also use this as his main bag for shorter trips with no space problems.
>>Check out the Osprey Momentum 22L backpack here.
I didn’t understand packing cubes until I tried them. But it turns out, they’re super helpful for organization, and they compress your clothes a bit so they take up less room. Now we don’t travel without them. We have a set of three. Andy uses the big one for his underwear and socks. I sometimes use the medium one for my underwear, but sometimes I use it for shirts. And the smallest one is usually for non-liquid toiletries and miscellaneous items I don’t want getting lost in the backpack.
REI Stuff Travel Pack
It might sound odd to pack another bag when we already have two daypacks between the two of us, but hear me out. Stuff bags are wonderful, and we almost never travel without one.
It can get annoying to unpack everything from our normal daypacks to use them for other things. But if we’re going sightseeing or to the beach and we want to carry our Kindles, cameras, snacks, sunscreen, and anything else, we need a bag.
That’s where the REI Stuff Pack comes in. It folds up into itself so it takes up almost no space in our luggage. But then it unfolds into a small backpack that’s the perfect size for a day exploring a city or going to the beach. It also works great as a grocery bag or a laundry bag.
We’ve had ours for several years now, and we like it enough that we just bought a second one.
>>Check out the REI Stuff Travel Pack here.
More Luggage for Traveling Carry-On Only
Kelty Redwing 50L backpack
For years I’ve owned a Kelty Redwing 50L backpack, and I think it’s a great bag. It has a good sized main compartment, a small to medium sized compartment, and a nice small pocket on the front. The straps are comfortable and easy to adjust, and there are two side pockets.
Andy and I used to combine all our things into this bag, but at 50L, it’s on the edge of what is acceptable as carry-on for most airlines. It’s important to choose the right backpack for your needs, so if you’re not concerned about going carry-on only and you want a little more space without going overboard, this is a great option.
Carry-on sized suitcases
I haven’t used a suitcase in years. I like the hands-free option of a backpack, plus there are so many places in the world where rolling a suitcase simply doesn’t work well: dirt roads, cobbled streets, buildings without elevators.
But I know backpacks aren’t for everyone. Your travel style might be different than mine. Or maybe a suitcase is better for you because of a physical condition. Whatever the case, there are plenty of quality suitcases that can help you stick to carry-on only. Here are few popular ones:
What’s your favorite luggage for traveling carry-on only?
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