Carry-On Sized Backpack For Travel

Last modified on September 7th, 2013

I went down to Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) in Vancouver a few weeks ago with the intention of buying a new backpack for travel. While I’ll be living fairly normally in Buenos Aires, I wanted to have a backpack that would allow me to take the occasional weekend trip without carrying too much or too little. Since I have a camera and a laptop, I also wanted a bag which could accommodate both of those, since I know one or two people who have had camera’s stolen from checked baggage over the last few years.

Most travel books I’ve read go out of their way to remind people not to pack too much. Most first-time travellers buy a huge 80 litre backpack and fill it to the brim before setting out. Those same travellers usually have horror stories about dragging that same backpack up 100 stairs, or trying to make it fit on some subway or train. Several authors have even said that their enjoyment on a particular trip was inversely proportional to the amount of things they packed for the trip — that is, the less they brought, the more fun they had.

For me, I think it would be great to simply walk up to an airport with a backpack, and walk right onto the plane without checking in any luggage. Not only do you not have to worry about anything getting lost along the way, but you can plane and deplane in a very short amount of time.

So when I hit MEC, I wanted a bag that had the following characteristics:

  • Should fit as carry-on for most airlines
  • Should be large enough to carry basic necessities like a few changes of clothes and toiletries
  • Should have room for a laptop, my camera and my iPad

There was actually only one backpack at MEC that fit the bill, and that was the MEC Pangea 40, which retails for around $120 CAD (shown in the photo above).

The bag has 40 litres of storage capacity, which essentially makes it like a big day-pack. It’s not the type of bag you would consider for long camping trips, but it should be fine for carrying a week’s worth of clothes, as long as they are rolled up and not very bulky. The bag actually is shaped like a typical carry-on suitcase, which should allow it to be taken aboard most airplanes, at least those in North and South America.

The bag is organized into two large compartments, one of which has a padded laptop sleep, and the other of which is meant for clothes and other personals. The laptop portion rests against your back when the bag is on, which increase the comfort of the bag when it has a laptop inside. I only have a 13″ laptop, which is a nice fit for this bag, but I imagine a 15″ laptop would be a tight squeeze. It seems like some people on the forums have fit a 15″ in it, but I suspect a 17″ is definitely out of the question.

The actual reviews of this bag are a bit mixed – some people really love the bag, and some people really hate it. So I suspect it really depends on what type of traveling you do and what your expectations are. As for me, I think this bag is going to work out really well, and I’m anxious to load it up and try it on my first trip.

2013 Update

I travelled to about 15 different countries with the Pangea 40L backpack in 2011 and 2012. All in all this backpack performed admirably, and I was always allowed to bring it with me into the airplane, even on several low-cost carriers such as Air Asia (although I still had to watch the weight limit).

One change I made though was to cut the waist straps off the backpack (as recommended by Duncan in the comments below). It made hardly any functional or cosmetic difference, shaved about 1 lb from the backpack’s weight, and made it less clunky when trying to fit it into the overhead plane on an airplane.

In 2013 I actually bought a newer version of this backpack, but in black and not red. I thought the red looked cool when I first bought it, but now as a seasoned traveller I think the colour simply stands out too much and draws attention to the fact that you are backpacking. The black just seems like any backpack that a kid could have for school, and I much prefer not being singled out as a traveler with this colour, especially when carrying a laptop and camera inside.

Other Backpacks to Consider

Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack

Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack

My MEC Pangea 40L backpack is great, but unless you are in Vancouver you likely won’t be able to find it. So if you’re looking for a new backpack for travel, here are a few of the bestsellers on Amazon and some of my thoughts on them.

  • The North Face Borealis – This looks like a great backpack with a built in laptop sleeve (I won’t ever buy a backpack again that can’t easily accommodate a laptop). It’s 29L, which means it’ll definitely fit on carry-on. It might be a tad small though for men if you’re thinking of doing a week-long trip with it, since you won’t be able to fit many clothes. But my 40L is rarely packed to capacity, so it may be large enough for you.
  • Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack – This is about the same size, at least in terms of volume, as my current backpack. It does look slightly longer than mine though, which probably mean it can’t get as wide as mine. It’s advertised that it fits on carry-on as well, and based on my own experiences with my 40L backpack, it should. It also doesn’t look like it has waist straps, which is also good (I think unless you are carrying a bag full of rocks around in this thing that they are totally unnecessary in a backpack this size). It also has a padded laptop and tablet sleeve – so check.

If you have a travel backpack already, drop a comment and let us all know which one it was and how you liked it.

11 responses to “Carry-On Sized Backpack For Travel”

  1. I’m going to have to agree that less is more when it comes to traveling. Over the past little while I’ve been figuring out how to do all my traveling with only day pack sized backpack. And that’s how I plan to do all my travel in the future (for anytime that I won’t be in a single place for longer than 2 months).

    I’ve found two “laws” when it comes to packing for a trip… the one you mentioned above above enjoyment being inversely proportional, and another that’s basically parkinson’s law for packing… Luggage expands so as to fill the size of the bags available to hold it. No matter how big your bag is… it will always be bulging full by the time you’re done packing :). I guess this is also where the saying “take half the stuff and twice the money”.

    For short trips why do you want a bag that /just/ fits in carry-on? I would say take the smallest bag that fits your laptop and 2 sets of clothes (not including pants, you only need one pair of pants that you’ll be wearing). You’ll obviously want some basic toiletries and soap to wash your clothes if it’s a trip longer than 3 days. But I’d recommend looking for a bag that’s a small as possible as that will definitely maximize your comfort on the trip. You should see if you can get down to 20L :).

    There’s nothing I hate more about traveling than lugging around luggage. In fact, that’s the only thing I hate about it :).

  2. Duane says:

    Well, I may pick up a smaller day pack for short journeys, but the 40L bag is still pretty small. I’ve done really big trips with an 80L bag on my back, so 40L seems pretty small, and even full, wouldn’t be much of a problem toting around. But yah, I could see doing shorter trips with an even smaller bag, but most of the smaller ones didn’t have any room for a laptop.

    Where are you heading next? Anywhere fun?

  3. So are you thinking of taking a 40L for carry-on as well as another larger bag that you’ll check?

    No plans for any trips in the near future (back in vancouver now and need to earn some more money 🙂 ) but I’ve been mulling around a couple ideas lately. Possibly a motorbike trip through vietnam in 2012 and I also plan on doing a road trip through southern africa when I go back to Cape Town this spring.

    Btw, you should enable the subscribe to comment replies thing on this site like you’ve got on your duanestorey blog. And the RSS link for the home page ( seems a bit broken or something.

  4. Duane says:

    Just a 40L bag for everything – I don’t plan on checking anything in, not unless they make me check the 40L bag (but all the forums say it’s the right size for carry-on, as long as it’s not bursting at the seams).

    I just put subscribe to comments on.

    Which RSS link is broken? I went around looking for one, but couldn’t find it. Never mind, found it. It was actually the comments RSS feed, which had zero entries because there were no comments on that page.

  5. Jen says:

    I can attest to the “less is more” approach as well!

    I took a couple of three week trips with nothing but a 28L pack – although I was traveling with my husband, so between the two small packs we were able to divide and conquer a bit on things like electronics and toiletries.

    I’ll definitely be living vicariously through your light-packing adventure, since my days of truly minimal-luggage travel are ending for a few years.

  6. Ok, well a 40L bag for everything is pretty sweet then :). I think that’s probably way lighter than I normally pack right now.

  7. Duane says:

    Yah, hopefully it’s big enough. But, I don’t think I’m going to have a big problem packing light. I haven’t tried packing yet, so who knows!

  8. Duncan says:

    Weird serendipity here… I’ve been traveling for about 9 months with this exact same backpack and I bought it at the MEC on broadway in Vancouver.

    It’s a great bag although I ended up cutting the lower waist straps off as they made it too bulky to cram into the overhead bin when full. I mentioned it over here:

  9. Jenny says:

    My first back packing trip to Europe at 18 I bought the same size bag. My best friend bought one about twice the size. She was always jealous when I could carry my entire pack onto the plane and when we were trekking from train stations to hostels and such. I still can’t believe I fit everything in there! But if you need tips on how to roll up your underwear and stuff them into your shoes you know who to call!

  10. Duane Storey says:

    Duncan – I ended up cutting the waist straps on mine as well!

  11. […] these backpackers also back me up here, here, here and […]

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