I love shopping for bags. In part, that’s because no bag is totally perfect, so you’re always on the lookout for something just a little bit better. My go-to travel setup is a 40L Lowe Alpine bag that I’ve had for 25 years, and a 22L ultralight daypack from Gregory. I think this is basically the ideal setup if you’re physically able to get away without a rollaboard bag. A bag in the 40-45L range is big enough for a long trip, and can still fit in any overhead bin. Having a very squishy bag means your bag will fit even when the stiff-sided rollaboards are getting gate-checked.
Selecting a bag is a fraught process – there’s functionality to consider, but also personality. Are you someone who likes a little flair? Are you a millennial who pretends to be a member of Gen-Z? You’ll probably want to take a look at Cotopaxi’s Allpa 42L or the Global Travel Bag from Topo Designs. If you’re a little bit less extraverted, you might like Peak Design’s Travel Pack or the slightly more beefy Osprey Porter.
Each of these meet a few basic criteria I look for in a bigger bag:
- Functional as both duffel and backpack
- Straps that can be tucked away if you need to check the bag on the plane
- Multiple areas to keep items separate – toiletries can be easy to access for security checks, etc.
- Beefy zippers which are likely to suffer the abuse you’ll put them through
There might be extra features you value, like a pouch for keeping dirty laundry separate from clean, or an integrated rain cover. I find it helpful to make a list of the features I’m looking for, so I don’t get distracted by features I’ll never use.
When it comes to a daypack, I look for the lightest of lightweight bags, ideally in the 22L range and under 1lb. On a short trip, you can tuck your daypack into your bigger bag without suffering a meaningful weight penalty, which makes navigating airports extra easy. And a good daypack is still plenty big to be your only bag for a one or two night side trip, so you can leave your big bag at the Airbnb or hotel.
In a daypack, I have a few key criteria:
- Cinch top, covered by some sort of clipping cover. This gives a little bit of weather protection to the contents of the bag, and makes it a little harder for someone to sneak something out of your bag in a crowded space.
- At least one external pocket that can hold a water bottle
- At least one separate zippered area for quick access items
- The ability to access a CamelBak-style water pouch
- Minimal bulk and padding
Finding a great daypack is a little tricky – there are highly functional, stylish bags like the Cotopaxi Tapa 22L, but they tend to be a little heavy. My current bag from Gregory is fine, but has an inexplicably small aperture for getting items into the main bag area. The REI Flash 22L is probably the closest thing to my ideal bag at the moment – under a pound, flexible storage, and very compact. The previous generation of this bag had a design flaw at the shoulder strap attachment point, but the updated version seems to have resolved that.
If you’ve followed any of the links to bags in the previous paragraphs, you’ve probably also noticed one of the key difficulties in finding a great bag – all the websites are terrible. None of the big retailers let you filter by volume or weight, and the photos are usually along the lines of “Here’s two photos of the bag, neither of which shows how it opens or where the pockets are.” If you’re fortunate enough to have an REI nearby, a hands-on shopping trip is worth the hassle.
A great bag is a trusted companion on your trips. My Lowe Alpine has done more than half a million miles and is still going strong. If you’ve got a bag that’s just “fine,” consider looking for an upgrade.