The search for the ultimate carry on travel backpack
The search for the ultimate carry-on travel backpack was an insanely long process, but I believe I finally found the best hybrid travel/hiking/daily backpack. I’ve been pretty minimalist for about three years now and have travelled perhaps too much for the past 10. But ironically, I never found the perfect piece of luggage. If you’re going to travel frequently or for long stretches of time (1 month to 1 year), I have learnt from experience, having the right luggage can make the difference between coping and enjoying your trip. Now that I’ve found the one, most likely my travels will end.
I’ve travelled quite a bit, and at this point, I’m pretty much a nomad. My full life can fit into a car, but I can easily squeeze it into a single backpack.
After my first few backpacks, I had the Super Continent 65. I thought it was wonderful, until I was schlepping the damn thing across Africa. When I first got it, I thought, “Wow, an attachable daypack!” Nope, attachable daypacks just throw you off balance. Anyway, I was young, and I carried far too much for my first foray into the continent. I took that huge pack and packed an entire first aid kit, medicine, mosquito net, and a bunch of other stuff I thought was important. The most important was actually my Go Berkey Kit, which filters any type of water to be drinkable. Anyway, I digress. The Supercontinent was a bad choice, but it did the job for a few years. The main problem was that the plastic frame at the back was a few inches too big for it to be used as a carry-on sometimes and the daypack attachment was pretty inconvenient.
So on my second major try, I went for a 2-wheel Briggs and Riley. I thought to myself, why the hell am I carrying things on my back when I can roll them around? It was also really damn good. It could expand on the trip back home, had a lifetime warranty, compression straps, a garment bag, and the handles were on the outside of the bag, so it actually carried the full amount on the inside. Then I had a personal item, too, a laptop bag that attached to the luggage. And, at that point, I totally regretted getting a 2-wheel bag. With another 10 pounds attached to the handle, dragging that around on cobblestone, up stairs, across trains, etc. really became an exercise in wrist endurance. At times, I would just put the messenger bag on my shoulders and just pick up and carry the carry-on rather than try to drag it around. A 4-wheeler would have the same problem, though I entertained the idea for a while. Also, some airlines have carry-on weight limits, and the roller bags use quite a bit of that allotment. But as long as I didn’t attach the messenger bag to the handle, it was pretty good.
The search and selection…
So then I began my extensive search with the following criteria in order of importance:
- carry on size - 22 x 14 x 9
- front loading (like a suitcase)
- proper hip belt
- low weight (preferably around 3 lbs)
- can use for hiking also
Extras / Nice to have:
- laptop pocket
- organization pocket
- air panel for back air flow
- ability to hide the straps for checkin
- lockable zippers
- pockets on hip belt (though I’ve never used any)
- conversion into daypack
- extra side pockets
- rain cover
I went through bags, and reviews, and spreadsheets, and more bags:
- Google spreadsheet
- http://www.carryology.com/luggage/best-check-in-results-carry-awards-iv/ (and the other stuff on the site)
The main contenders were:
- Patagonia MLC - $190
- Kelty Redwing 44 - $125
- Osprey Farpoint 40 - $160
- Osprey Porter 46 - $130
- Tortuga Backpack- $200
- Railriders - $125
The Patagonia looked awesome, but didn’t have a hipbelt.
I actually ordered the Tortuga, but then returned it. It isn’t meant for hiking, and I wanted a versatile backpack since sometimes I travel to the middle of nowhere and I’d rather not have two packs. The Railriders and the Osprey Porter weren’t meant for hiking either.
That left comparing the extra features on the Osprey Farpoint 40 and the Kelty Redwing 44:
Osprey Farpoint 40 (2.93 lbs):
- No pockets on hip belt
- Lockable zippers
- Strap hideaway
- No airpanel
- Only 40L
- Lifetime warranty
2016 Kelty Redwing 44 (2.7 lbs):
- No pockets on hipbelt
- No lockable zippers (though easy to convert)
- No strap hideaway (since I was going for carry-on or gate-check only, not required. There are also extra-large laundry bags for doing check-in)
- Airflow panel on back
- Extra side pockets that extend the pack storage
- Converts into daypack by removing hip belt (2.2 lbs without hipbelt)
The Kelty 44 is more of a hiking backpack (airflow, sidepockets) and has the added bonus of the removal of the hipbelt to convert to a nice daypack, while the Osprey Farpoint 40 has some travel features (lockable zippers and strap hideaway).
Kelty’s are durable, but the lifetime warranty of the Osprey is tough to beat. But then again, Kelty has an extra 4L. It turns out you can easily convert the zippers into the lockable type via some steel wire and some crimps. Given that, I went for the Kelty 44 because I wanted the extra hiking features and the ability to turn it into a daypack. One less bag to have, it can work for hiking, travelling, or a daypack. You can’t go wrong with either choice.
Also checked out the 2015 Kelty which was 5 ounces heavier, easier to convert into a daypack and back, had slightly bigger side pockets, and no front stash pocket, which as it turns out is pretty handy. The 2016 is definitely a bit more polished with the little details.
Full review of Kelty Redwing 44
This backpack meets all the main criteria. It is 2.7 lbs and 2.2 lbs without the hipbelt. The hip belt is definitely good enough for hiking. It is both front loading like a suitcase and top loading like a hiking backpack. The specs say it is 25” in length, but it is only 22”. It works quite well as a travel carry-on.
The laptop pocket fits at least 13 inch laptops and doubles as a hydration sleeve. While travelling and having everything packed tight, it may be more difficult to access. The two water bottle holders fit normal size water bottles and I haven’t had one fall out yet. I haven’t tried larger sizes yet. There is an organization pocket in the front that also has a padded 8x11 area that is perhaps meant for tablets. It has a few smaller pockets in there, nothing special or closable. The two side pockets are reasonably sized and then there is one pocket at the very top of the backpack which has a keychain extension in there. Note that only the main zippers and the organization pocket can be converted into lockable.
Regarding hiking features, there are molle loops at the bottom of the bag. The hip belt is pretty fantastic and the straps are adjustable. I must say that it takes 80% of the weight or more. The chest, hip, and shoulder straps are adjustable. There is excellent padding and airflow in the back. On the front of the pack is a stowaway pocket between the organization pocket and the main pack. It’s nice to be able to roll up a jacket and hook it in there. The side pockets also serve as a passthrough for storage of hiking sticks and what not. There are hidden attachment loops on the front of the bag, too. And, of course, the bag is 2.7 lbs with the hipstrap.
As a daypack, it is possible to remove the aluminum stay and the hipbelt and it becomes 2.2 lbs. Note that since the aluminum stay is no longer visible like the 2015 version, it is much tougher to put back in. In fact, it could take a pair of pliers to remove it in the first place. The compression straps can adjust the backpack to look a lot smaller.
And after learning the lessons from my previous travels, I purchased some packing cubes+laundry bags and a packable lightweight daypack if necessary for excursions.
It turns out that one can completely overpack with the packing cubes since they can carry:
- Large cube (13.75” x 12.75” x 4”) - 2 jeans, 2 shorts, 1 swim trunk, laundry bag
- Medium cube (13.75x9.75x4) - 8 t-shirts, 2 short-sleeve collared shirt, laundry bag
- Small cube (11” x 6.75” x 4”) - extras, etc.
It turns out there is still room to spare at the top of the pack for another small cube at least. The actual measurements after fully loading of the 2016 Kelty Redwing 44 are 22 x 14 x 9. And I didn’t bother using the laptop sleeve since everything was nicely packed. If the side pockets are packed, it would be a bit wider, and if stuffed it would also be more than 9 inches in depth. The back panel is 22 inches and the way that it is shaped, it won’t get too much higher unless completely stuffed. Fully packed for me it is 10 kg / 22 lbs - the packing cubes, jacket, laptop, and other accessories. Quite frankly, for temperate climates, I’ve packed for about 2 weeks to avoid doing laundry, but this setup could last forever. In cooler climates, it would be perhaps a few pounds heavier.
Also, please note that I’ve included a laundry bag in each packing cube. The dirty items go back into the same cube, but they are separated. Packing light is an acquired skill and there a bunch of guides on how to manage it. No matter what the backpack, if you’re going to carry around 40 pounds for 6 months, you’re not going to have a good time. I’ve seen a couple travel who were travelling across India for 6 months with a child with a pair of 20L backpacks. I also have an uncle who travels for months at a time with a tiny daypack. The key for super-light travel is the ability to wash clothes frequently. I usually go for a weekly laundry cycle, which is pretty reasonable, but this pack, as you can see, a tad heavier, and around a 2-week wash cycle. This backpack has 44L, which means, you can probably overpack if you don’t have self-control.
After all the testing and comparisons, ended up with a coin-flip between the Osprey 40 and the Kelty Redwing 44. Went with the Kelty Redwing 44 for its adaptability. It serves as a carry-on that is 22x14x9 packed for long or short travel, a pretty-good overnight hiking pack, and can also remove the hipstrap making it into a daily commuter backpack. Just remember, no matter what backpack you get, whatever features you’re looking for, pack well and make sure it fits properly. Altogether, the Redwing is versatile and pretty much the total package.