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The Best Bags For One-Bag Travel

One-bag travel is one of the latest ideas to start to make the leap from niche online communities to Instagram to the mainstream.  Here’s what it’s all about and our top picks to get the most out of one-bag travel.

The idea is that you travel—often for extended periods of time—with just what you can fit in a carry-on backpack. A whole range of bags have cropped up to answer the needs of Instagram influencers, but which is the best? Read on to find out.

What Is One-Bag Travel

One-bag travel, like many #hashtag #labels, is pretty open-ended and really, nothing new. In its purest form, it’s traveling the world for extended periods of time with only a small carry-on backpack. The kind of people who pull that off only own one t-shirt and cut their toothbrush in half to save weight. They can, however, literally carry their life on their back pretty much anywhere.

Most people aren’t prepared to go that minimalist so a lot of people, myself included, use a bag that is the max legal carry-on size for most airplanes. It lets you bring a reasonable amount of stuff—I carry my camera, laptop, three days worth of clothes, gym gear, and toiletries, basically—while still being pretty flexible. You probably don’t want to lug everything around with you all the time, but you can get by, especially once you ditch the really heavy stuff in your Airbnb or hotel. This is the kind we’ll mostly be looking at.

At the far end of things, you’ve got rebranded backpacking bags. They have gigantic rucksacks, that definitely don’t fit in a carry-on bin, filled with everything they need to hitchhike around Europe for three months. All that’s new is the #hashtag; people have been doing this kind of travel for years. It’s really outside of what most people talk about when they say “one-bag travel”; it kind of carries connotations of minimalism and cutting back on the amount you bring, in the same way that sleeping in your car for a few nights isn’t really #vanlife. This isn’t to knock backpackers: it’s just that we’re not going to be looking at the heavy, load hauling packs they use. It’s the midsize bags where there’s been all the interesting developments.

What We’re Looking For In a Good Travel Bag

Before diving in, I’m going to lay out the criteria I used for selecting these bags. I’ve personally handled them all and talked to people who travel with them. I’ve also owned and used two of the three picks. So here’s what I was looking for:

  • It had to a backpack. No rollaboards or gigantic duffels.
  • It had to be big enough to carry a reasonable amount of gear. Most people have more than one t-shirt.
  • It had to be small enough that you could carry it for extended periods of time, even if it was heavy. No gigantic 100L trekking packs.
  • It had to be backloading or clamshell opening like a suitcase. These are travel bags, not ergonomic hiking packs.
  • It had to be able to carry a laptop safely. Again, travel, not hiking.
  • It had to be really well made. We’re talking great manufacturing and high-quality components. These bags are all expensive so they couldn’t skimp on anything.
  • People who used them had to love them. Different people have different needs so this isn’t a one-bag wins situation.

Now, let’s dig in.

My Favourite: The Peak Design 45L Travel Bag ($300+)

The bag I use—and reviewed here on ReviewGeek in full—is the Peak Design 45L Travel Bag ($299.95). This summer, I traveled thousands of miles by plane, train, and automobile with my entire life crammed into it. It held up great.

For a really—really—detailed run down of why I love this bag so much, check out the full review, but here are the highlights.

In its default setup, the Travel Bag is a 35L pack that scrapes in under the max carry-on size allowed by most airlines. It’s got one big main compartment, a laptop and tablet compartment, a front pocket with organizational internal pockets, and a top pocket for your passport or sunglasses. You can also expand the Travel Bag into a 45L gear hauler or a 30L day bag, although it’s still quite big.

The reason I’ve listed the price as $300+ is a big part of the Travel Bag is the accompanying Travel Line accessories. There are storage pouches, packing cubes, and best of all, camera carrying cubes, that are designed to fit perfectly with the Travel Bag. These start at $30 and go up to around $60 so expect to spend another $100 if you want to make the most of the bag.

Now, I’ll accept that that is a crazy price but the quality of the bag—and especially the ability to carry a camera safely—more than makes up for it.

If you don’t carry a camera, then the Peak Design Travel Bag won’t necessarily be your best option—in this same price range I also love the Minaal Carry On 2.0 which also has a line of travel accessories—so read on to see if one of the other bags is a better fit.

Also Great: Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Travel Pack ($190-$220)

If I didn’t carry a camera, I’d use the carry-on legal Cotpaxi Allpa 35L Travel Pack ($190). I adore this incredibly thoughtful, well-made pack. One thing that sets it apart from the other bags on this list is its internal organization.

The main compartment is split into four smaller compartments: one big compartment that takes up half the bags volume, another that takes up a quarter of the bags volume, and two small pouches for passports and other small items. This means that, as well as the laptop compartment, there’s one big front pouch that can hold about 8L worth of stuff: we’re talking your Kindle, a jumper, your phone charger, a Snickers, and whatever else you want.

This big front pouch is a revelation. It means you can pack all your clothes and other bulky stuff in organized compartments—no need for travel cubes here—and still keep all the stuff you need to grab when you’re on a plane in a single, separate and accessible place.

Everything else about the bag is excellent too: the straps are comfortable, the materials tough and weather-resistant (plus there’s a waterproof cover included), the zippers are secure and lockable, and it even looks nice. It’s also probably the best value pack on this list at $190—or $220 in a bundle that includes a small day bag (also awesome), a laundry bag, shoe bag, and water bottle sleeve.

A Bigger Option: Osprey Farpoint 55 ($180)

The Osprey Farpoint 55 ($180) is the big daddy of one-bag bags. Some people have managed to get one on as carry-on luggage but that’s always a reliable move: this thing flies in the hold and the small detachable day bag comes with you as a carry-on. That day bag is one of the Farpoint’s best features. It lets you carry what’s essentially two real bags as one. When you’re traveling, you pack everything into the main bag and keep the essentials in the day bag then, when you get to your destination, you stash the big bag in the corner of your room and use the day bag for everything else. It’s a very clever system.

The Farpoint 55 is a great bag if you’re carrying a lot of stuff and, the biggest problem with it is also one of its greatest strengths: Osprey is largely a trekking and backpacking company. The Farpoint 55, with its laptop sleeve and the like, is a concession to business travelers, digital nomads, and other one-bag travelers who do most of the actual moving on vehicles rather than their own two feet—but it doesn’t go the whole way.

It still has a lot of the trekking heritage—like a comfy harness system, sleeping mat straps, and compression straps—but doesn’t have the great organization features of the Peak Design or Cotopaxi bags. If you want to bring your laptop and also do lots of hiking, it’s the best option. But if you just want a bag to live out of, it’s not my recommended choice.

A Cheap Option: Whatever Bag You Own

It’s easy to get carried away bag shopping. A lot of people are now starting to absolutely obsess about bags—I should know, I’m one of them—and really over think them. The reality is for travel, you don’t need a special, expensive bag. You can get by with whatever you already have. Unless you have the cash to spend and really need a bag for an extended trip, don’t fuss about things too much. But if you do need a bag… any of our picks above will be awesome.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »