In all my years of worldly adventures, I couldn’t wrap my head around One Bag Travel. The sheer statement held an incomprehensible gravity.
Just one bag? But what if???
What if….I’m forced to check it and my laptop is inside?
What if….I lose it or it’s stolen and everything was in it and then I have absolutely nothing?
What if…I need a day pack at my destination?
What if….too many what ifs.
And then I realized that I was taking the concept of One Bag Travel more literally than most. To me, one bag travel means traveling with just one bag; a minimalist travel backpack that gets my stuff from A to B, and then somehow converts into a daypack at my destination.
When I looked around online at what other people define as one bag travel, for the most part it’s just about the best travel backpack (sometimes not even carry on sized backpacks) – as an alternative to traveling with multiple pieces of luggage. Sometimes the backpacks have some flexibility in size (with expansion capabilities for example), but really – the wimpy meaning of one bag travel is traveling with a carryon backpack.
That’s poppycock! That definition of one bag travel is just a new spin on minimalist carry-on travel. It’s been done.
So, I went on a quest. The quest to find the best carry-on backpack for one bag travel.
Here is my experience with One Bag Travel pros and cons, one bag travel packing lists, suggestions, and a review of three different backpacks designed with this whole quest in mind.
What is One Bag Travel? Just Minimalist Travel – or More?
Having addressed the wimpy definition of one bag travel (which is really just basic minimalist travel in disguise), let’s look at what real one bag travel entails.
In order for it to be a success, the bag of choice is large enough to transport everything we need to travel from A to B, while being small enough (or having separable modules) to suffice as a daypack while tootling around at our destination.
Three travel backpack companies have stepped into the one bag travel arena to provide products that answer to this call.
These companies are Knack Packs, Peak Designs, and Nayo Smart. They all sent me a free bag to test out for the purposes of this quest. You’ll see that each has its own set of pros and cons, and I’ve not been unduly biased or influenced towards one or the other. If you click some of the links in this post to make a purchase, I may receive a small commission, which doesn’t affect your price (but which does help me to run this website and continue to offer content to you for free).
I hope you find this article useful as a review and also a resource with suggestions for how to make your own (real) one bag travel adventures a success.
Table of Contents: Search for the Best Travel Backpack for One Bag Travel
Knack Pack Expandable Travel Backpack – Best Expandable Backpack for Shorter One Bag Trips
Knack Bags sent me their Large Expandable Travel Backpack. I was immediately impressed with this relatively lightweight backpack with lots of well-thought-out features. It’s made of water-resistant material and zippers.
The padded back is comfortable (though lacks breathability in hot weather). There is a padded waist belt that neatly tucks away if you don’t want to use it. The shoulder straps also tuck away in case you need to check the bag.
The Knack Pack magic happens with its hidden expandable backpack luggage compartment. This expands the capacity of the bag from 22 litres to 37 litres! When not expanded, the pack fits under the seat in front of you on an airplane, and fully expanded, it fits most airlines’ carry-on size regulations (for the overhead bin).
My biggest beef with Knack Pack might be another person’s accolade: there are a gazillion pockets.
The front diagonal zippers reveal an oddly-shaped area with RFID-protected pockets for cards and other smallish items. Thing is, I’d never keep anything of value in there, because it would be too easy for somebody to open the zippers (which can’t be locked) and rifle through my stuff unbeknownst to me while the pack is on my back. (Note: the zippers for the other compartments are lockable though; just not the front triangular pocket).
Behind that is a much larger compartment with a variety of slots and pockets to organize stuff. This is the meat of the daypack part of the bag.
Behind that, is the expandable luggage compartment, which opens up completely for convenient flat packing and organization.
At the side of the pack is a water bottle pocket that zips away so it’s hidden. It fits a 1-litre water bottle, albeit tightly.
Lastly, at the very back of the pack, is a subtle side zipper revealing a large padded laptop compartment.
Knack Pack Large Expandable Backpack Specs
Pack Dimensions (L(height)xWxD): Expanded – 21.5″ x 14″ x 9.5″ Unexpanded – 21.5″ x 14″ x 4.5″
Volume: Expanded – 37 Litres Unexpanded – 22 Litres
Weight: 3.25 pounds (1.5kg)
While volume-wise, Knack Pack’s Large pack is a very appropriate size for most carry-on travel situations, I will say that because of the dimensions of the pack, it feels large, even when not expanded. I took it on a couple of weekend excursions, and felt like it was overkill, even though in its stead I would have taken a 25 (or even 30) litre daypack.
Knack Pack’s Medium expandable backpack expands from 17 litres to 31 litres. I believe for short trips of up to three days, the medium size is the best bag for weekend travel. Any longer than that, and you’ll probably want the large size (which is what I have), especially if you’re bringing technological tidbits like laptops, cameras, and other hardware.
Taking Knack Pack on a One-Week Business Trip
Knack Pack was put to the full test on a one-week trip I took from Toronto to Boston to attend a conference. It was a pretty simple trip during the summer season, requiring some casual and semi-business attire, workout gear, and of course my business accoutrements.
Before going, the challenges for me were multi-fold:
- Because I was taking a smaller commuter plane, I was worried about being forced to check my bag. If that were to happen, I would have had to remove my laptop and a few other items I wasn’t willing to check. Thus, instead of slipping my laptop in the padded laptop pocket as is (like most normal people do), I kept it in its case with a shoulder strap. This took up extra space and weight. But it served me well because I could easily take my laptop on to the plane separately and stow the Knack Pack overhead without having to access it during the flight. NOTE: My new solution to this problem is to use a large enough tote as my personal item that I can keep my laptop in it. My latest love affair is with this gorgeous Sherpani backpack/tote.
- I was unconvinced that I’d feel comfortable carrying the unexpanded Knack Pack around as my daypack during the conference. Not only did it seem too big, but coupled with my stylish wrinkle-free wardrobe, it lacked a certain panache. (Once again: a problem that would have been solved with the Sherpani tote).
Here’s how the trip rolled:
- While I wasn’t super attentive to ultralight packing, I was surprised in that the Large Knack Pack was pretty full. I was glad to have the large size, as the medium would have been tight.
- I didn’t have to check the bag, but it was a tight fit in the overhead compartment on the commuter plane. Pay close attention to carry-on bag size guidelines whenever you fly! I watched many people on the flight who couldn’t fit their standard carry-on luggage into the overhead compartments.
- I did use the Knack Pack as my day bag during the conference, and while it served its purpose, it was too big for just my laptop, notebook, jacket, phone, wallet, and business cards. (Hello: Sherpani tote/backpack!).
Carry On Packing List for a One-Week Trip With Knack Bags
Pictured above is everything I took with me on my one week trip. This carry on packing list includes the following:
Packed into the Hoboroll (top left):
- Workout Clothes
- 4 pairs Underwear
- 4 pairs Socks
- Bathing Suit
Packed into packing cube (Travel Capsule Wardrobe, top middle):
- 1 pair Pants
- 1 Skirt
- 1 Tank Top
- 1 Short-sleeved Shirt
- 1 Lightweight Jacket
- Laptop and Charging Cord
- Extension cord/surge protector/USB charging station/Travel Adaptor (all-in-one)
- Mobile WiFi Router
- Various USB Charging Cords
- Business Cards
- Zero Waste Travel Kit
- Ultralight foldable backpack (just in case)
- Packing Cube for dirty laundry
- Wristlet (for nights out when I don’t want to carry the Knack Pack)
- 2 pairs Shoes (1 dressy ballet flats, 1 sandals; I wore runners on travel day)
- Toiletries (bottom left)
- Rain Jacket
Overall Experience: Knack Bags Expandable Travel Backpack
On the whole, I think it’s a fabulous bag. It offers a ton of protection with padded everything, lots of organization with various compartments and related features, and even the large size, fully packed, fits most carry-on guidelines (even on smaller commuter planes).
Cons include a lack of lockable zippers (which makes the front section that is supposed to carry cards and other personal items pretty useless in my opinion), and the bag’s dimensions make it appear larger than it really is when not expanded.
I think the large size Knack Bag is the best carry on bag for trips of about a week (give or take), and the medium size is ideal for shorter trips. (Of course, this ultimately depends on the nature of the trip and how much stuff you need to bring).
I referred the Knack Bags to my friend who travels for business all the time, and he said – emphatically – that it is the best backpack for work and travel that he has ever owned. Is it the best backpack for business travel? Well….it depends on your needs and the length of your trip. What’s for sure is that this is an incredibly well-made bag, and if you check out their site they’re developing some new stuff too.
Peak Design Travel Backpack 45L – Best Carry-On Backpack for Adventure Travel and/or Photographers
To be perfectly honest, after my positive experience with Knack Bags, I was leery of the Peak Design bag in front of me, comparatively looming in size (you’ll see what I mean in a minute).
But, some colleagues of mine who are professional photographers hail Peak Design as having the best camera backpack for travel. Granted, they have different Peak Design models; Peak Design’s roots are in making everyday bags and other gear specifically for photographers, who have somewhat unique needs for space and organizational characteristics.
I also adore their commitment to the environment and socially responsible practices; for example, their waterproof material is made of 100% recycled 400D nylon canvas, and they donate 1% of revenue to environmental non-profits.
So, given that the Peak Design Carry-On Travel Backpack is claiming a stake in the one bag travel movement, I tested it out to see how it fared.
“You look like a Ninja Turtle!” exclaimed my boyfriend as soon as I donned my Peak Design backpack. Not the reaction I was going for.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t entirely wrong. Even empty and fully “compressed”, the Peak Design travel backpack sits commandingly on the back (and my choice of green colour doesn’t help the whole ninja turtle thing).
Thus, it immediately became apparent to me that I would not be using this backpack as a daypack at my destination. It’s simply too big! So unfortunately, it immediately failed the one bag travel test according to my strict criteria.
However, I’ll say it again: perhaps travelers who are toting drones, DSLR cameras, lenses, and other photographic equipment would find this a suitable carry-on backpack/daypack combo. (Though technically if your camera equipment takes up all the compressed space of 30L, then your clothes and other stuff would need to fit into the remaining 15L of expansion space; I’m doubtful).
But, I wasn’t ready to write off this bag; while the expansion/compression features are minimal, they are still noteworthy, making this a carry-on backpack that can flex in size from trip to trip (and also within one trip).
It’s also one of the most solid and sturdy backpacks I’ve ever seen, and this lends it well to adventure travel.
There’s no two ways about it; this is a solid bag (which is a double-edged sword, when you consider what “solid” weighs). It’s so solid it comes with a lifetime guarantee, and its features are MANY.
It’s super durable, made of recycled plastics (yay!), and both the bag and the (lockable) zippers are weatherproof.
The front compartment has simple zippered pockets for organization, and this compartment also expands by an additional 10 litres.
Behind that is the main compartment, which is accessible from both sides as well as the back (the entire back of the pack opens up fully for ease of packing, and the side zips make access on-the-go easy). The padded laptop sleeve sits at the very back of this section. The main compartment expands an additional five litres with some snaps at the top.
Behind the subtle drink pockets on each side of the bag is a hidden zippered pocket for valuables.
The very back of the pack has magnetic flaps that allow you to very easily hide away the backpack straps and waist belt, and there are super-sturdy streamlined carry-handles on the top, both sides, and even the back.
Peak Design Travel Backpack 45L Specs
Pack Dimensions (L(height)xWxD): Expanded 22” x 13” x 11”; Regular/Compressed 22” x 13” x 9”
Volume: Expanded – 45 Litres; Normal – 35 Litres; Compressed – 30 Litres
Weight: 4.5 pounds (2.05kg)
Taking My Peak Design Backpack on a 9-Day Business/Adventure Trip
Compared to my trip with the Knack Pack (one-week business trip in summer), Peak Design had a more complicated task at hand. I needed business clothes for the four-day conference I was speaking at in Montana, as well as adventure clothes/shoes for the five-day Montana road trip afterwards, which would involve hiking, zip lining, fishing, hot springs, and more; changing hotels daily.
Being autumn and in the mountains, layers were essential, specifically lots of warm layers for the fickle weather and cold mornings.
This immediately sparked concerns about weight and space. Two different wardrobes plus heavier layers, all in a carry-on backpack that already weighs 20% of my entire carry-on weight allowance of 22 lbs/10kg? Yikes.
I sweated this one out for days prior to packing.
But in the end, with the help of some cool space-saving packing tools like compressible packing cubes and my Hoboroll, I made it all fit into the pack at it’s normal (unexpanded) size which just fit the carry-on size requirements and weighed in at 20 pounds (also squeaking in under the limit).
I was able to make this work in large part because of my new Sherpani Tote, which would be not only my purse for the trip, but also my daypack and laptop bag.
Technically, it means this was not a one-bag trip, given that Peak Design was relegated only to use on travel days. But this bag would still be put through its paces in ease of pack/unpack-ability in the adventure portion of the trip when I would be on the go and changing hotels every night.
Here’s how it went down:
The top snaps for “compressing” the bag are a bit difficult to snap and only minimally change the bag’s profile. But they did create a surprising amount of extra space for some swag I received at the conference.
So too did the expansion zippers at the front. Again on initial inspection, I thought this minimal expansion was useless. But when I did the road trip, I had to put my (bulky, heavy) dress shoes/boots in the backpack while I wore my (ultralight, low-profile) hikers. I also stashed my laptop in the backpack since I didn’t need it in my purse/daypack.
Between the conference swag, laptop, and having to pack some of the bulkier items I usually wear on air travel days, I was really pleased to have a bag that could expand in a few different ways when I needed it to, and compress back down when I didn’t need the space.
I was also really impressed with the make of the bag, including the following features:
- The zippers are super high quality
- The material feels indestructible
- The backpack straps are really comfortable
- The carry handles are super solid and easy to use
- The backpack straps and waist belt are really easy to tuck away
Ultralight Travel Packing List for a 9-Day Business/Adventure Combo Trip
Pictured above is everything I took with me on my nine day trip. It’s all in this ultralight travel packing list:
(Note: halfway through the trip I needed to hand-wash some items like underwear and socks).
Packed into the Hoboroll (top left):
- Workout Clothes
- 5 pairs Underwear
- 1 bra
- 5 pairs Socks
- Bathing Suit
- Warm hat
Packed into two compressible packing cubes (Travel Capsule Wardrobe, right, next to the Peak Designs backpack):
- 2 pairs dress pants
- 1 pair hiking pants
- 1 pair leggings (as a layer for warmth)
- 2 sleeveless tops
- 2 long-sleeved tops
- 2 ultralight jackets (business style and layering for warmth)
- 1 light sweater
- 1 fleece-lined zip-up sweater
Electronics/Business Stuff (I took my laptop and its charge cord in my purse/tote)
- Extension cord/surge protector/USB charging station/Travel Adaptor (all-in-one)
- Various USB Charging Cords
- Business Cards
- Wristlet (for nights out when I don’t want to bring my purse)
- 2 pairs shoes (1 hiking/ultralight trail runners, 1 ballet flats; I wore dress boots on travel day)
- 1 pair flip flops (for visiting hot springs)
- Toiletries (top middle)
- Rain Jacket
Because I had no plans to use the Peak Design backpack as my daypack, my purse/tote became a catch-all for purse-y things as well as anything I wanted easy access to on travel days (eg: under the seat in front of me while in flight). This included:
- Laptop and charger
- Business cards
- Video recording tools (selfie-stick and microphone)
- Vitamins (see how I stay healthy on the road)
- Zero waste kit
Overall Experience: Peak Design Travel Backpack
Considering I started off the trip really not wanting to like the Peak Design backpack (given my love of the Knack Pack), I returned from the trip liking it very much.
But I’ll reiterate, this is not a true “one bag travel” contender, given that the compressed size is still too large to be a daypack.
What it is, is a great carry-on backpack with flexibility to be a smaller bag, a regular backpack, or an expanded gear-hauler.
That said, be careful of the weight. At 4.5 pounds, it’s a good deal heavier than the other carry-on backpacks I recommend in this post, specifically the 45L Pacsafe Venturesafe EXP45 at 3.8 pounds and the Osprey Porter 46 at 3.5 pounds.
But, if you compare it to the weight of my favourite carry-on rolling case (the Pacsafe Toursafe AT21) at 7.28 pounds, suddenly Peak Designs doesn’t look too bad, and it has a bit more packing volume to boot.
If you travel full-time or long-term with carry-on luggage only, the Peak Design Travel Backpack could be a contender for your home on the road. (Just pack a foldable daypack inside, cuz you won’t likely want to use this).
Nayo Smart Combo – Best Small Travel Backpack With Detachable Briefcase; Most Versatile for Digital Nomads Who Travel With Checked Luggage
I was already neck-deep in one-bag-travel backpacks when Nayo Smart reached out to me, and I found what appeared to be the best small travel backpack – the ultimate bag for (short) one bag travel trips, with an unparalleled level of multi-functionality.
Made in China, all their backpacks (of which there are a variety) are well-priced at under $100 USD, and while I was leery of the shipping process, it was both free and relatively fast – and I didn’t have to pay customs/duties fees (which as a Canadian can be problematic when ordering things from the U.S.).
The magic of the Nayo Combo backpack is in the separate modules. All together it’s a snappy-looking backpack with an organizational section for a laptop, tablet, and other tech accoutrements, and larger open section for whatever you want.
It’s great because if you’re going on a short trip, you can keep clothes and other stuff in the larger section, your laptop and business stuff in the smaller section, and still be well within carry-on luggage size limits. Then, at your destination, you can separate the two bags, and depending on the excursion of the day, you can take one or the other (or both).
The backpack straps easily (but not too easily!) detach from one bag and fasten to the laptop/briefcase portion so you can carry either with backpack straps, or just by the side/top handles – your choice.
As you can see above, the Nayo Combo backpack is also a bit smaller than the Knack Pack, which means it is a better overall fit for somebody with a smaller frame.
What amazes me is the 35 litre capacity – just 2 litres smaller than the fully expanded large size Knack Pack. The Nayo Combo just doesn’t seem that big. I consider this a plus. (Though after using the Combo, I still don’t believe it’s almost the same size).
And, in the name of one bag travel, the Combo fills some of the gaps left by the two other bags profiled in this article, with great flexibility in separable modules. I would go so far as to say the Nayo Combo is the best business travel backpack.
That said, I worry about Nayo Smart Combo over the long term, in terms of construction. While it appears to be well-made, the lockable zippers aren’t 100% smooth in operation (not like some of their other backpacks – for example their best-selling Almighty, which may be the best waterproof backpack for travel), and separating (and reattaching) the bags and changing over the straps is a bit fiddly.
But for the overall flexibility – and price – of this bag, these are small concessions.
In addition to the 3-in-1 multi-functionality of the Nayo Smart Combo, here are some other features I love:
- It looks good. I like the two-tone effect, which stands out more with the Grey model, and is muted (but still there) with the Black model
- The knitted fabric is actually waterproof, but also really enjoyable to touch
- There’s a secret zippered pocket on the back that is perfect for items you need to keep super secure, like a passport or wallet or phone
- There’s a small pocket on both shoulder straps perfect for storing a card (like a hotel key, credit card, or transit pass)
- It has breathable padded mesh at the back and the straps are padded so it’s comfortable to wear (note: there are no waist straps)
- The main bag opens up on three sides for easy access to contents, and it also has straps on the side to hold everything together if you only want to access contents from the top (eg: while in use as a day bag)
- It has a pass-thru strap at the back so you can fix the Combo backpack to a rolling suitcase handle for ease of getting around on travel days
Nayo Combo Backpack Specs
Pack Dimensions (L(height)xWxD): Fully assembled – 20” x 12.6” x 9”; Detachable Briefcase – 20” x 12.6” x 3”; Main Bag Without Briefcase – 20” x 12.6” x 5.5”
Volume: All Together – 35 Litres
Weight: 3.08 pounds (1.4kg)
Overall Experience: Nayo Smart Combo – Best Small Backpack
I didn’t actually take the Nayo Smart Combo on a true one bag travel adventure like the other bags before publishing this post. I did, however, take it as my “personal item” on a trip along with my Pacsafe AT21 Wheeled Carryon luggage.
This was a gamble, because the dimensions of the Nayo Smart Combo are above most personal item allowances; it’s a bit taller and deeper than size guidelines usually permit. But many airlines don’t pay strict attention to this (just look at the number of women who carry gigantic totes as their “purse”), and I knew if I had to, I could check the Pacsafe.
I didn’t have to check the Pacsafe, and I absolutely adored the Nayo Smart Combo as my personal item for the following reasons:
- The briefcase part was perfect for my laptop, e-reader, charging cords, and other business/electronic accoutrements.
- The main bag without the briefcase became my day bag at my destination, and was the perfect size for my zero waste kit, notebook, jacket, miscellaneous items that I would keep in a purse, and bottle of water.
- There are lots of pockets that are all useful for a variety of purposes. It took me a while to remember where I was keeping various things, but once I got into a rhythm it was great for organization and easy access.
My biggest beef with the Nayo Smart Combo is the size of the side pocket for water bottles, which doesn’t fit a 1 litre bottle. (750ml is a tight fit, depending on the dimensions of the bottle; tall and thin works best). Instead I had to keep my water bottle inside the pack itself, which took up valuable space.
While I didn’t take the Nayo Smart Combo out for a true one bag trip, I would say that similar to the Knack Pack, it’s perfect for weekend getaways and ultralight journeys of up to one week. With the separable components it’s incredibly versatile, and well suited to keep electronics in the front part and clothes etc in the other part.
When I go on my next long-term trip (for example, I’m traveling for four months this winter), I will be taking a checked bag – because that’s what I do on long trips; here’s why – and the Nayo Combo is the best small backpack I’ve seen in a while. It will replace my former Pacsafe Venturesafe 25L daypack. It offers a level of versatility that is invaluable as a carry-on bag for long-term travelers, digital nomads, and other adventurers who travel with checked luggage.
And because of its versatility, it will be a fabulous day pack as well as an overnight/weekend/short trip backpack for excursions at my destination.
Do you have any experience with one-bag travel? Any luggage or packing recommendations?Please share in the comments!