After two years, my girlfriend finally saw the light and decided to get on the one-bag travel bandwagon. Pretty early on in our relationship, we took a trip to Ireland over Thanksgiving. Before that trip, I told her she had to pack in a single backpack and that roll-a-boards would not be allowed – I wasn’t about to listen to the sound of rollaboard wheels get destroyed on some cobblestone. And plus, I was just kinda curious if she would do it.
And she actually bought a backpack! Granted, it was a $30 Amazon Basics backpack. But to her credit, she bought a backpack. Already, I knew she liked me.
Fast forward a few years and many trips later, she is craving an actual travel backpack. The big impetus is probably our pending year-long trip abroad, where a shitty amazon basics quality pack isn’t going to quite cut it. Or it also could be my incessant droning on about one bag travel and how superior it is. Sometimes you just need to let people come to their own decisions, ya know?
In any case, she started asking me about how to actually choose a travel backpack. If you’re thinking, “Is this the moment he’s been waiting for?”… yes, yes it is.
While talking it through with her, I figured it would make a good post for those trying to dip their toes into the warm waters of minimalist travel. So, here are a few tips on how to choose a minimalist backpack:
Size does matter
When choosing a travel backpack, the biggest consideration is going to be the size. Since we’re talking minimalist or one-bag travel, the typical range is about 30-45 liters in capacity. Which, if you’re moving from a big rollaboard or duffel bag, could be quite a dramatic decrease in carrying capacity.
While we’re talking size, another consideration is airline baggage fees. One of the numerous benefits of minimalist travel is the ability to skirt most airline baggage fees. The maximum legal carry-on size for most United States carriers is 45 liters. However, most European and budget airlines have MUCH stricter limits. So understanding what your typical travel profile looks like is essential. If you’re mostly flying domestically in the United States, you can probably opt for a bigger size. But if you want to use it abroad, you’ll have a more challenging time.
Around 30-35 liters, you’re talking about a pretty small backpack. You’ll have to have a wardrobe and gear kit that’s optimized pretty well and be fully bought into some of the quirks (aka laundry) when packing minimally. I’d probably recommend this for more experienced, one-bag travelers.
The 35 – 40 liters is the sweet spot to me. The extra 5-10 liters of capacity makes a world of difference with what you can bring while still managing to be easy to carry. And bags at this range still look pretty unassuming as well, not necessarily like big travel bags that you’re trying to cram as much shit in as you possibly can.
The 40-45 liter range starts to get pretty big. Sure the extra capacity is excellent, but the load does start to get pretty heavy as well. So if you’re going to be in transit often and plan on walking through the city with your bag, fatigue will undoubtedly set in.
Not all bags are created equal
Now that I’ve said size is essential take all of that with a grain of salt. Each bag does carry the volume and capacity differently. I’ve packed so many damn bags in my life, sometimes the way a backpack is organized makes a HUGE difference. For example, my Minaal 2.0 sits at around 35 liters in capacity (though don’t ask the Minaal team). Still, I swear I can fit more in that bag than the Aer Travel Pack 2. I’ve done a few different packing tests, and not only can I pack more, but the way it carries just feels better.
Use Packing Cubes
For the love of god, use packing cubes. And some pouches, for that matter. And get a few different types and sizes, too, since each bag will have slightly different dimensions. Packing cubes may seem like a superfluous organization, but it really does make a difference. Especially when you get to your destination, it makes unpacking more seamless and not like a bomb exploded in your hostel.
Using packing cubes also streamlines packing more too. I have a set of two packing cubes and one pouch I use with my backpack. I know exactly how they fit in the bag and what fits in the packing cubes. So the Jenga puzzle has already been solved, I just need to load up my gear. It’s minor, but it does take some of the stress out of packing and simplify it to a 10-minute task.
What type of gear do you bring?
Undoubtedly the gear you bring should impact the backpack you choose. Are you a digital nomad? Then a dedicated laptop sleeve and some tech organization are essential. Maybe you’re a photographer, in which case, fitting some camera cubes to protect your gear could save you thousands. Or, perhaps, you’re a hiker/camper, so you’ll need a sleeping bag, water filter, etc.
In reality, you could be all of the above. At that rate, you’ll probably need a couple different backpacks to choose from, depending on the type of trip.
How does it feel to use?
Alright, so admittedly, I can get oddly philosophical when it comes to wearing a backpack. But since this thing will be strapped to your back for a good chunk of the trip, it better be nice to use. For example, one of the most common interactions with the backpack is picking it up off the floor and setting it back down; so little things like the straps and handles start to matter for me. Another example could be stowing/removing your laptop.
A lot of these will be very personal, too, so you might have to do a few practice runs to get the feel of it.
Opt for Indie Brands
Minaal really got me into minimal travel. Other brands like Peak Design, Aer, Tortuga are doing some fantastic work on minimalist backpacks and everyday carry items. Tom Bihn is another excellent bag maker (based in my hometown of Seattle, WA). In general, I like finding smaller indie manufacturers rather than larger companies. I find these brands tend to make bags with a level of attention to detail that I don’t see in larger companies.
What I’m using right now
Currently, my favorite is the Minaal 2.0 (they just released a 3.0 version but haven’t tried that one out quite yet). The Minaal is the perfect, minimalist backpack that I use on every trip. The size is excellent, though it might take some getting used to if you’re an over-packer. I’ve traveled indefinitely, for months on end with this bag, though, so it can be done! And with that compactness, you won’t have any issues with airlines and their pesky baggage fees; I’ve even used it as my “personal item” before. For leisure travel, it’s one of the best you’ll get. It looks sleek and blends in with any other backpack, so you don’t look too much like a tourist. For adventure travel, it depends on how intense your trip is going to be. It works as a hiking bag just fine; there’s enough structure to distribute some weight. Though you’re doing some intense backpacking, you’ll want to get a dedicated pack with an internal frame and probably more space.
At the end of the day, there are many great options to choose from and no right answer. Buy a few backpacks, do a couple of test runs and see which ones work out the best for you.