Carry-on backpack/soft suitcase recommendations?
September 11, 2019 12:34 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking at getting a carry-on soft-sided duffle/suitcase/backpack (like the Osprey Farpoint/Fairview or the Lowe Alpine Carry-on 45). What recommendations do you have?

I’ve done a lot of outdoor travel so I’ve always brought my backpacking pack, but I find myself doing more city trips, and thought something more suitcase-like might be better. I do have a rolling carry-on suitcase but find it heavy and don’t like having to wheel it around. The clamshell sorts of soft-sided bags with backpack harness seem ideal, but is it really worth investing in another piece of gear? Have you used these? Are they good for travel? I notice they don’t generally have outside pockets for water bottles, stashing a rain coat, etc., which are features I would like. I don’t think I want something with wheels, but are they useful? I’m looking at a 45 liter-ish size.

Any suggestions/recommendations or general feedback welcome!
posted by stillmoving to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have this Patagonia MLC 45L and love it. I dont have it in the material linked, but half off is a good deal!
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:42 PM on September 11, 2019

If you have the budget for it, the man in Seat 61 recommends the Eagle Creek Switchback
posted by pharm at 12:42 PM on September 11, 2019

I used a rolling carry-on bag (Filson) for years. But I got tired of the wheels and the weight. I still use it for business trips in the winter when I have to pack more heavy clothes, as it is easier to pack *tight* than most other options.

But whenever I can I use a soft-sided backpack. Beaucoup pockets on the outside, much lighter and easier to carry/move. I live in a town with a lot of used outdoor gear stores so I shopped them until I found just the pack I wanted. It's a quality name brand in great shape and I paid $45.
posted by ITravelMontana at 12:43 PM on September 11, 2019

You probably already know this but Osprey makes a great product in my experience (2 bags, one of which is a baby carrier). I'm sure other major brands, like Patagonia, are spot on as well.

I also dislike roll bags as non-checked bags, they are bad for everything except the actual airport terminal. I'm surprised it's taken me this long to come to that conclusion. They are for business travelers or other very white collar/glove type uses and excel at that one thing.

I think your size is good but consider that you want to be able to pack it tight and it still not make you twitchy that it fits in any given airline's sizing box lest you eat extra fees. That's the hard/specific research I'd be doing.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:45 PM on September 11, 2019

I used to always travel with my backpacking pack (Osprey Kestrel 58) as well but switched recently to the REI Big Haul 40. I like that it has backpack straps and duffel straps and that it folds into a (relatively) small bag. I love it so much I also got the 60L & 90L versions, and my wife ended up getting a 40L as well. The 40L works great for a weekend or maybe a week long trip if you don't need a lot of clothes, and the 60L is my go-to travel bag. If the 60L is not completely stuffed it can fit it in most overhead bins.
posted by montbrarian at 12:55 PM on September 11, 2019

Everyone has their preferences but I find my 45 liter Tom Bihn to be useful and totally bombproof. It has a perfect padded slot for a smallish laptop, is nice and big, and always fits under the seat in front. I don't use it very often anymore because i got better at packing and usually take a 30 liter Tom Bihn now. It was expensive but it looks like new. They have a lighter dyneema (halycon?) version that might not be as bombproof - I don't check my dyneema one, only the ballistic one. Good customer service, comes in cool colors.

I throw a very very small packable backpack (Sea to Summit or Matador) in to take my laptop and chargers to meetings and etc so I don't have to be digging through my boxers to give a presentation.
posted by ftm at 12:57 PM on September 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am a big fan of Tough Traveler. Their stuff is expensive, but it's extremely well made (by fairly compensated workers in Schenectady, of all places—there's a nice factory store if you can get yourself there) and well designed. Lifetime warranty, although the stuff is built such that I've never taken advantage of it.

They have a convertible bag/backpack called the "Tri-Zip" that's basically maximum carry-on size, comparable to the Osprey Farpoint except it has stiffened/padded sidewalls so it retains its shape if it's not stuffed totally full. Converts to a backpack and the straps disappear into a pocket when not in use. It's sort of the OG "3 zip" style carryon, popular with "one bag" travelers. (It's similar to an Airboss, which is another popular "one bag" carryon, but IIRC the Airboss doesn't convert to a backpack.)

I have a couple of their bags, including their 'Flight Bag' which is a bit similar, although smaller and without the backpack conversion or internal stiffening, and while it's not quite big enough to be a "one bag" for extended traveling, it's pretty nice for weekends.

Occasionally their stuff turns up on eBay, but a quick check doesn't spot any of the Tri-Zip models (lots of their child carriers and a few other miscellaneous bags, though). With patience you might find one eventually—sometimes they also get traded around in the buy/sell sections on traveler forums.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:09 PM on September 11, 2019

I'm not a super-intense traveler, so I can't really speak to durability, but I have had great success with an eBags brand bag, an earlier version of the eTech Weekender Convertible. Although it's called the "Weekender" I've used it on trips up to 3 weeks (with laundry stops). It's around 50 liters. Lots of pockets on the outside, comfortable-enough straps (but no hip belt like a proper backpack), there's a handle and a shoulder strap (the should strap is bad, but you can buy a different shoulder strap or a pad for the shoulder strap).

I'm sure it's not as nice as the other ones people are recommending but it's $60 and it has held up very nicely for me over maybe 15 trips in the 2-20 day range. I had another one for maybe 5-10 years before that and it also held up very well but I either got tired of the color and gave it away (it was light pink, never buy light pink luggage) or lost it in a move or something.
posted by mskyle at 1:24 PM on September 11, 2019

I still carry my 10-year-old Tom Bihn Aeronaut with me on pretty much every trip I take that's more than a night or so. Still in great shape in spite of plenty of abuse, and occasionally being checked or overpacked (or both). I would avoid a hard-shelled backpack both because they're less forgiving of being banged around than a sturdy fabric, and because they don't work well as an impromptu cushion while traveling.
posted by asperity at 1:32 PM on September 11, 2019

another vote for the patagonia mlc 45l! the clamshell design makes packing and accessing the stuff in your bag very easy. because it's soft-sided, you can squish it down or stuff it as needed, and it fits into overhead compartment more easily than hard-shelled/rolling bags, which means you have more options about stuffing it into spots that might be too cramped for other bags. can easily pack 7-10 days worth of stuff. the only downside is because there's no internal structure, when you use the backpack straps for more than a few minutes at a time, the weight of the bag when fully packed does pull on your shoulders a bit. highly recommended for city trips!
posted by the thought-fox at 2:42 PM on September 11, 2019

The clamshell sorts of soft-sided bags with backpack harness seem ideal, but is it really worth investing in another piece of gear?


Have you used these?


Are they good for travel?

Yes I have a Patagonia MLC that is more than 10 years old and that thing is bombproof. It still looks new, although having a cell phone pocket that is size for a flip phone does have some limitations these days. Having a bag that you can carry as a backpack but that doesn't have a lot on the outside that can get caught/break, like a backpacking bag has, is really nice. The clamshell design is great for packing.

I notice they don’t generally have outside pockets for water bottles, stashing a rain coat, etc., which are features I would like.

For travel (versus outdoor activites) having the pockets on the inside is better, in my opinion. Outside pockets get caught on things (narrow airpline aisles!) and get ripped off if/when you check the bag. The MLC has different subpockets so it is easy to stuff things in. You still have the pockets, they are just on the inside.

I don’t think I want something with wheels, but are they useful? I’m looking at a 45 liter-ish size.

Overall a bag like this is super useful. 45L is perfect for a carry-on that can still hold a lot. When I'm on a longer trip than one bag can handle, the Patagonia MLC fits nicely on top of a wheeled suitcase with a handle, so everything is organized and easy to deal with.
posted by medusa at 2:59 PM on September 11, 2019

Tortuga also has some nice options. I have one of their earlier models but a real padded hip belt (not just a stabilizing strap) definitely helps with longer carries.
posted by praemunire at 3:03 PM on September 11, 2019

(Also the Tortuga hip belt has pockets for your wallet &c.)
posted by praemunire at 3:04 PM on September 11, 2019

i also often tuck my water bottle or a jacket into the top zip of the MLC, sort of sandwiched between the two clam-shell halves. works great for keeping it accessible, and overall, like others, i prefer the fewer pockets and features.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 3:10 PM on September 11, 2019

I am going to suggest the MEI Voyageur Deluxe which ticks all your boxes at a reasonable price. It converts to a backpack, has side pockets and is at the max for carry-on. It helps that the thing comes from a company that produces bulletproof equipment. The original Voyageur was the choice of bag for and you can see youtube testimonials about the old bag and some on reddit

Here are the highlights:
  • Buy It For Life Quality (I have had the same MEI bags from the last century, and only one bag needed repair due to aggro baggage handler)
  • Highly Customizable but the standard deluxe has functional pockets
  • Inexpensive for what you get
  • Max size allowed for carry-on
  • Convertible backpack with straps for shoulders and waist
  • Side carry handle for when you don' want a backpack
  • Not so fancy that it fails. I look at all the other bags on the market and have used, and in the end, simplicity won me out.
Why have you not heard of MEI, unlike the others? Well, they like making bags and don't do jack for marketing. When I say no marketing, I mean they don't do social media; do not pay for any shilling , reviews or product placement and their website...well, you would call it retro, now. It is weird and refreshing but annoying.
posted by jadepearl at 3:18 PM on September 11, 2019

I have the Osprey you mention for the same reasons you describe - looking for something a bit better looking than my backpacking pack for general city travel. I generally like the capacity, and the ability to have essentially a duffel and a daypack as something airlines consider one bag. I used it for about 6 months and am taking a break from it due to weird weight distribution. Having the daypack portion - where my computer, iPad, misc heavy things, etc would go -located not right up against my torso when the pack is zipped together effed with my back (which is generally fine-ish) and would leave me fairly unhappy for several days after a flight. I often just wore the main part on my back and the daypack on my front for transit days. Also water bottles constantly become dislodged from it.

(Body details cuz backpack sizing- I'm a petite lady.)
posted by soleiluna at 11:59 PM on September 11, 2019

I love my Lug Puddle Jumper for air travel (and any travel really). Lots of pockets to organize and for easy access to small things and water bottles. It fits under the plane seat in front of me even if I’ve stuffed it full. I use the regular version but they have a backpack version that may appeal to you. Link leads to their Canadian site but they have a US site as well. Good luck finding the bag of your dreams!
posted by melissa at 4:54 AM on September 12, 2019

I love traveling with a backpack. It feels so much easier to haul around, and I can always find space to cram it in the overhead. If you search for 'one bag,' you will get recommendations from every backpack geek in the world. Here is a comparison spreadsheet that originated from the reddit/ onebag people. Here is wirecutter's recommendations (though I didn't follow them because I wanted something smaller and the Outbreaker seemed heavy).

The clamshell sorts of soft-sided bags with backpack harness seem ideal, but is it really worth investing in another piece of gear? Have you used these? Are they good for travel?

Yes. Packing a square clamshell bag has been so much easier and more convenient than a toploader. Even the size - my square 26L Tortuga bag fits so much more than my 26L teardrop shaped Osprey because it's all usable space. It's like packing a lightweight, super efficient suitcase.

Also, before I got my backpack, I measured the interior dimensions of my suitcases. My US domestic carryon had actual space of around 36L, and the international carryon one was under 30L. Based on that, I decided to go with a smaller backpack, but you might appreciate the extra space of a 45L.

I notice they don’t generally have outside pockets for water bottles, stashing a rain coat, etc., which are features I would like.

Totally possible. I also like an outside water bottle pocket and quite a few bags have them.

I don’t think I want something with wheels, but are they useful? I’m looking at a 45 liter-ish size.

Wheels add weight and can reduce space. Some people love them. I don't think it's worth the trade off.
posted by oryelle at 5:24 AM on September 12, 2019

Thank you for the feedback this far! Any specific suggestions for bags with a water bottle pocket/mesh slash-stash pocket?
posted by stillmoving at 6:44 AM on September 12, 2019

With waterbottle pockets in the ~40L range

Tortuga Outbreaker
Tortuga Setout
Osprey Farpoint/ Fairpoint
Nomatic Travel bag
Tom Bihn Brain bag
Lowe Alpine Lightflight (maybe?)
Osprey Porter (maybe? I thought it had one but can't see it in the pictures)
ebag motherload weekend convertible (according to features list)
posted by oryelle at 7:13 AM on September 12, 2019

Also MEI Voyageur Deluxe
posted by oryelle at 7:21 AM on September 12, 2019

Just yesterday I flew home from abroad with my REI Ruckpack 40. I've traveled with it quite a bit and kinda love it. It comes in men's and women's versions (the men's is designed for longer torsos). It has a good assortment of zippered compartments, including an interior security pocket. It's compatible with hydration bladders, and it comes with a rain cover. It has two water bottle pockets, sized to fit a 32oz Nalgene.
posted by workerant at 7:52 AM on September 12, 2019

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