The Best Carry On Backpack For One Bag Travel

Sharing is Caring!

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 Standard Luggage. 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. 

This is my quest to find the best carry on backpack for one bag travel – not just minimalist travel backpacks, but REAL one bag travel, with unrivalled versatility. #onebagtravel #travel #carryon #backpacks #travelbackpacks #carryonbackpacks #knackbags #peakdesign #nayosmart #expandablebackpacks #travelgear #theprofessionalhobo #fulltimetravel #adventuretravel
Pin this for later!

Table of Contents: Search for the Best Travel Backpack for One Bag Travel

Knack Pack Expandable Travel Backpack

Peak Design Travel Backpack

Standard Luggage Carry-On Travel Backpack and Packing Cubes

Knack Pack Expandable Travel Backpack – Best Expandable Backpack for Shorter One Bag Trips

Knack Pack Expandable Backpack in Action

Note: Since I originally wrote this article, Knack Bags redesigned their lineup, and also evolved into a spiffy “Series 2” lineup. I have edited the text below to reflect the amended Series 1 bag (which is basically what I had). Though if I were in the market for a new backpack, I would purchase the Series 2, and I’ll tell you why below.

Knack Bags sent me their Medium Expandable Travel Backpack. I was immediately impressed with this lightweight backpack with lots of well-thought-out features. It’s made of water-resistant material and zippers. 

Knack Pack Straps and Buckles

The molded foam padded back is comfortable (though lacks breathability in hot weather). There’s also an adjustable removable sternum strap for heavier loads. The shoulder straps also tuck away in case you need to check the bag or prefer to carry it by the top handle
Note: The Series 2 bag has a side handle so you can carry it like a briefcase after tucking away the backpack straps.

The Knack Pack magic happens with its hidden expandable backpack luggage compartment. This expands the capacity of the bag from 27 litres to 39 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). 

 Knack Pack Pockets

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. (The zippers for the other compartments are lockable though; just not the front triangular pocket). 
Note: In the Series 2 bag, the front compartment has been redesigned to have more space and is also lockable, easier to open, and thus much more practical. It also has some secret compartments for valuables.

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 up to a 700ml (24oz) bottle. 

Lastly, at the very back of the pack, is a subtle side zipper revealing a large padded 15″ laptop compartment. 

Note: the Series 2 bag also has a hidden pass-thru sleeve so the Knack Bag can slide over a wheeled luggage handle.

Knack Pack Medium Expandable Backpack Specs (Series 1)

Pack Dimensions (L(height)xWxD): Expanded – 19″ x 12″ x 9.5″ Unexpanded – 19″ x 12″ x 4.5″

Volume: Expanded – 39 Litres  Unexpanded – 27 Litres

Weight: 2.68 pounds (1.22kg) 

While volume-wise, Knack Pack’s Medium 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 even unexpanded I felt like it was overkill, even though in its stead I would have taken a 25 (or even 30) litre daypack. 

Knack Pack beside Day Pack
Even though the Knack Pack is 27 litres unexpanded, it looks much larger next to my 25 litre daypack! From the side though, the Knack Pack is much thinner.

If you need more space, Knack Pack’s Large expandable backpack expands from 30 litres to 46 litres. That said, I believe for short trips of up to a week, the medium size is the best bag for weekend travel.

For longer trips, you may want the large size, especially if you’re bringing lots of technological tidbits like laptops, cameras, and other hardware. However the large size is large enough that it ceases to be truly practical as a day-pack in the spirit of one bag travel.

Taking Knack Pack on a One-Week Business Trip

Knack Packs One Week Trip
My Large Knack Pack with one week’s worth of gear.

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).
Knack Packs Daypack
Using the Large Knack Pack in its unexpanded form as my day pack during the conference.

Here’s how the trip rolled: 

  • While I wasn’t super attentive to ultralight packing, I was surprised in that the Medium Knack Pack was pretty full. I probably could have used the large size, as the medium was a tight fit. 
  • 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

Carry On Packing List for one week trip with Knack Bags
Everything I packed for my one-week trip (minus my laptop and what I wore for my travel day)

Pictured above is everything I took with me on my one week trip. This carry on packing list includes the following: 

See also: Pro Packing Hacks – Best Travel Accessories for Saving Space and Organization

Packed into the Hoboroll (top left):

  • Pajamas
  • 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

Electronics/Business Stuff

Extra Stuff

Overall Experience: Knack Bags Expandable Travel Backpack

Knack Pack Collage Packing List for One Bag Travel

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 medium size, fully packed, fits most carry-on guidelines (even on smaller commuter planes). 
(The large will also fit most carry-on guidelines, though fully expanded and packed full you might have to check it).

The biggest cons is that the bag’s dimensions make it appear larger than it really is when not expanded. 

I think the medium size Knack Bag is the best carry on bag for trips of about a week (give or take), and the large size is ideal for longer 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. 

Shop for Knack Packs here

Peak Design Travel Backpack 45L – Best Carry-On Backpack for Adventure Travel and/or Photographers

Peak Design Travel Backpack 45L

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). 

Peak Design expansion

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. 

Peak Design Travel Backpack features

FEATURES: 

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

Peak Design Nine Day Adventure Business Trip
My Peak Design Travel Backpack on a 9-day 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

Peak Design Ultralight Travel Packing List One Week Travel
Everything I packed for my 9-day trip (minus my laptop and purse contents and what I wore for my travel day)

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):

  • Pajamas
  • Workout Clothes
  • 5 pairs Underwear
  • 1 bra 
  • 5 pairs Socks
  • Bathing Suit
  • Buff
  • 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 (doubles 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)

Extra Stuff

  • 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:

Overall Experience: Peak Design Travel Backpack

Peak Designs Travel Backpack Packing Collage

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 EXP21 Wheeled Carryon) at 7 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). 

Shop for your Peak Design gear here

My 1st Choice for One Bag Travel: Standard Luggage Travel Backpack & Versatile Packing Cubes

Standard Luggage Carry On Travel Backpack

Their website does it justice, but even I didn’t truly understand how awesome the Standard Luggage travel backpack and its nifty features (like multi-functional packing cubes, floating laptop sleeve and more) were until I got my hands on mine. In fact, I was so excited, I turned on the camera and went live. (You’ll see that video below).

Standard Luggage combines the best of the backpacks above and makes one bag travel truly possible. Here are a few of the features I adore:

It’s Expandable. Not as much as the Knack Pack (which has 12 litres of expansion space to a max of 39 litres), and in fact it’s the same as Peak Design, expanding from 35-45 litres.

Multiple Ways to Carry. The top and side handles are strong and feel good in your hand. The padded backpack straps zip away and the hip belt detaches entirely if you don’t want to bring it along. All the straps are adjustable (6 points of adjustability), and the back of the pack is both padded and ventilated to keep you cool.
And the shoulder strap has a really nice touch with neoprene for a considerably more comfortable carry than most shoulder straps allow.

Lockable Zippers. Both main compartments can be locked; an important security feature.

Rain Cover Included. The material of this travel backpack is water resistant and durable, but if you’re stuck in a downpour, Standard Luggage has you covered (literally). This is especially important given that in the name of one bag travel, this bag will be holding important things like your electronics. And they don’t like water.

Floating Neoprene Laptop Sleeve. Here’s where this backpack really starts to shine. The neoprene sleeve that holds your laptop and/or tablet is designed to slide in and out of your pack to make pulling out your electronics at airport security a breeze. It also detaches in case you want to put your bag in the overhead compartment and carry on your laptop (in the sleeve) by hand.
And – this is what blew my mind – the sleeve is actually suspended inside the pack. This is a really thoughtful extra layer of protection against breakage in case the bag is dropped or gets banged around.

Just Enough Pockets. I’m like Goldilocks. If the Knack Pack had too many pockets and Peak Design had too few, then Standard Luggage got it just right. Enough pockets to access and organize things easily, but not so many that I lose stuff in it.

But The Multi-Functional Packing Cubes Blew My Mind

Here’s where it gets crazy, and ultimately why I decided I wanted to feature Standard Luggage here.

Carry on travel in general, and One Bag Travel in particular is all about making judicious packing choices and making sure everything is multifunctional. PJs that double as workout gear. Shoes and clothes that serve multiple scenarios from hiking to attending conferences. A dress that doubles as a coffee maker (haven’t found one yet, but I’m looking).

And in my opinion, Standard Luggage’s packing cubes are what makes it stand apart from the competition.

They are sold separately from the pack itself, so you don’t need to get them (but you really do). In addition to the fact that they are designed to fit perfectly into the backpack, here are some nifty features:

The 3 piece packing cube set from Standard Luggage, which doubles as a hanging wardrobe

One of my favourite packing tools when I’m traveling with checked luggage is the Rolo; a hanging wardrobe that rolls up and compresses for packing into your luggage. I love it because unpacking is as easy as unrolling it and hanging it up. But the Rolo is a shade big for one bag travel. Standard Luggage makes the packing cube equivalent of the Rolo.

The three separate packing cubes are unassuming enough. They’re made of a nice material, have a strong (ie: won’t stretch out with time) mesh front so you can see what’s inside, and there’s a smaller pocket on the back to separate clean from dirty laundry, carry underwear, etc.

When you arrive at your destination, simply attach the three packing cubes together using the strong velcro, and use the loop to hang your newly transformed travel wardrobe wherever you want.

Standard Luggage Packing Cube that doubles as a Packable Daypack

Standard Luggage already had my heart at “travel wardrobe”. But they clinched their top spot as my favourite carry on backpack for one bag travel with the fourth and final packing cube (pictured above). It’s a packing cube that is also a packable daypack.

The Knack Pack has admirable expansion abilities, which is intended to allow you to use it as a daypack while compressed and expand it on travel days to get all your stuff from A to B. But it’s still a large bag at 27 litres (which means it’s not always an ideal daypack at my destination) and a bit too small for everything I might need to bring when fully expanded at 39 litres. That’s why it’s great for short trips, but might be a challenge if you need to bring a variety of gear.

And Peak Design is extremely high quality, rugged, and thoughtful in design. But it doesn’t even pretend to be small enough to be used as a daypack. Sure, it expands and compresses, but who wants to carry around a 35L pack to hold their sunglasses, some granola bars, and tablet?

Thank you for listening, Standard Luggage.
Their Backpack Packing Cube is 8 Litres, which is enough to hold your camera, jacket, water bottle, and more. There’s not much to the inside from an organizational perspective, but it does have a pocket to keep something like a tablet separate and easily accessible. The separate lined pocket at the bottom is perfect for a water bottle or even a small pair of shoes.

The straps are minimalistic, but at 8L you won’t be able to pack so much stuff in it that it’s heavy. You’ll have room for just enough stuff to be fully functional to get around town at your destination.

Thus, with a packing cube that doubles as a packable daypack, Standard Luggage truly understands what One Bag Travel is, and how to get you to – and around – your destination with nothing more than one bag.

Standard Luggage Carry-On Travel Backpack Specs

Pack Dimensions (L(height)xWxD): Expanded 21.5” x 13.5” x 9.5”;
Compressed 21.5” x 13.5” x 7.5”

Volume: Expanded – 45 Litres; Compressed – 35 Litres

Weight: 3.7 pounds (1.68kg)

  • Laptop pocket: Fits 15.6″ laptops and 15″ MacBook Pro
  • Tablet pocket: Fits 10″ tablets
  • Made of 1680 denier high tenacity ballistic nylon
  • Water resistant, durable, and easy to clean
  • YKK brand buckles & zips & buckles
  • ITW Nexus sternum strap
  • Lifetime Warranty and Satisfaction Guarantee

Watch me Salivate.

Don’t take my measured words for it. you can actually watch me salivate over my next trip in this video which I filmed live after receiving Standard’s full monty:

Or click here to watch this video on my (most excellent) YouTube channel.

Learn more about Standard Luggage Co. and their answer to one Bag Travel here.

BONUS: Senderisto Modular Travel Pack – Best Small Travel Backpack With Detachable Briefcase; Most Versatile for Digital Nomads Who Travel With Checked Luggage

Note: This is a bag that was originally made by a company called Nayo Smart – who since discontinued it. But I left this review here because I knew eventually there would be another backpack, another day, that works in a similar way, and my observations about what makes for the most versatile travel backpack for digital nomads who travel with checked luggage…still stands true.
Lo and behold, a fellow traveler and entrepreneur read this review and was so enamoured with the concept that he hunted down the manufacturer and arranged to bring the bag back to life! It is now called the Senderisto.
There are a few small differences in the new bag from what you see pictured and described here, but for the most part it is the same, and all changes (such as the zippers) are improvements.

I was already neck-deep in one-bag-travel backpacks when 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. 

Combo Small Travel Backpack Modules by Senderisto

The magic of this 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. 

Combo pack vs Knack Pack

As you can see above, this 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 4 litres smaller than the fully expanded medium size Knack Pack. It just doesn’t seem that big. I consider this a plus. (Though after using it, I still don’t believe it’s almost the same size). 

Combo backpack separate pieces

And, in the name of one bag travel, this backpack fills some of the gaps left by the other bags profiled in this article, with great flexibility in separable modules. I would go so far as to say it is the best business travel backpack. 

That said, I worry about it over the long term, in terms of construction. While it appears to be well-made, the lockable zippers aren’t 100% smooth in operation, and separating (and reattaching) the modules and changing over the straps is a bit fiddly. (Note: this has improved with the new model by Senderisto).

But for the overall flexibility – and price – of this bag, these are small concessions. 

Combo Backpack grey – Best Small Backpack for Carry-on Travel

In addition to the 3-in-1 multi-functionality, 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 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 backpack to a rolling suitcase handle for ease of getting around on travel days

Senderisto 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: Best Small Backpack

I didn’t actually take this pack 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 EXP21 Wheeled Carryon luggage. 

This was a gamble, because the dimensions of this bag 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 combo backpack 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 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 it 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 this combo pack 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. 

Check out Senderisto and why this is a great carry-on backpack for digital nomads here.

Do you have any experience with one-bag travel? Any luggage or packing recommendations?Please share in the comments! 

You Might Also Be Interested In:

The Ultimate Packing List for Long-Term Travel

Pro Packing Hacks: These are the Best Travel Accessories

Backpacks vs. Rolling Luggage

The Best Anti-Theft Bags and Backpacks

Sharing is Caring!

8 thoughts on “The Best Carry On Backpack For One Bag Travel”

  1. Nora this looks so incredibly awesome. I am becoming more of a minimalist every day. Travel with less, experience more. Like, the less I carry around, the more time I save and the freer I am to experience the world.

    Ryan

    Reply
  2. Great reviews. A couple years ago I bought an Osprey Farpoint 40 for my four leisure days in Japan. I had a suitcase full of “work stuff” that, after the work portion I had shipped (thank you Yamato) to my departure hotel. I’ve been using the Farpoint as my only bag domestically for leisure travel since then. I also took it to Japan again for a 10-day trip, since I’ve learned coin washing is better than pounds. I did buy a camera bag during the trip to free up gifting space. I can take my clothes, laptop, camera and personal care in the one bag, but it is tight. I wouldn’t go bigger again,

    Reply
    • Hey Marty,
      I’ve heard good things about the Osprey Farpoint 40 as a “traditional” carry on backpack. What it lacks in comparison to the bags above, is the ability to expand/compress, which – as you point out with your camera bag – can be handy for gifts and such.

      Reply
  3. Hi Nora,

    When my wife and I are travelling, it’s suitcases and luxury, and I don’t think about light travel.

    When I am travelling on my own, the bag I am currently using is a Rab 50litre. It might be something for the UK market only.

    I took it to Nepal earlier this year. I don’t take a lot of stuff. I have a Fuji X100s camera and that is about the heaviest thing I take.

    The shoulder straps on the bag are detachable, and the bag has retains its shape when I open the zip. I like decent shoulder straps just in case I have to walk a longish distance.

    The bag a just a bit too long as cabin luggage. I could put a strap around the length and compress it that way and it would pass as cabin luggage. That said, I flew to Nepal with Qatar Airways and they are pretty relaxed about size. I use an Eagle Creek daypack as cabin luggage. I like it because it has a lockable zip and because the straps are comfortable.

    Once I am out of the airport I put the daypack flattened into the Rab bag. That’s mainly because I prefer to be in charge of just one piece of luggage. Any more than one piece of luggage and I start to fret about where everything is. Same for pockets and different ways to access luggage, I prefer luggage with just one container and one way to get into it.

    Best,
    David

    Reply
    • Nice strategy, David!
      I too, can get confused if I have too many pockets. That said, I do like a few different ways to organize stuff for ease of access on the go. With just one space in luggage without any pockets, I dislike having to dig around for what I need. (Though, packing cubes and other similar packing tools like the Hoboroll help immensely with that).

      Reply
  4. I like the ebags Motherlode Weekender Junior. I got a week’s worth of (warm weather) clothes in it, plus a first aid kit and an 8″ tablet. Three different ways to carry it: handle, shoulder strap, or as a backpack. No airline employees even gave it a second look.

    Reply

Leave a Comment