The Minaal Carry-on 2.0 Review: The Best One-Bag Travel Backpack?

Summary

This is the bag that started it all for me. The Minaal Carry-on 2.0 is a unique ultralight backpack with very few downsides. And after three years of use, it is still the best one-bag travel backpack out there.

ProsCons
Great size, pushes the boundary of one-bag travelThe front two pockets are a bit tight when the bag is packed out
Built-in packing cubesA bit pricey
Rugged materials that won’t let you downIt’s not great as a day bag or hiking backpack
Comes with a rain cover
The load lifter straps are a rare feature on travel bags
Can often pass as a personal bag on airlines
All the small details, from the zippers to the handles, are incredibly well done.

Specs

  • 35 Liters
  • 55 x 35 x 20cm (21.7 × 13.8 x7.9in)
  • 600D/1000D Nylon
  • YKK Zippers
  • Woojin and Duraflex buckles
  • Custom molded foam backing with vent channels
  • Aluminum hook compression and security system

“Where the fuck is my other sock?”

As I was rifling through my backpack, my blood pressure slowly rose. The travel fatigue had overtaken me, and I was ready to rage quit on my backpack mid-trip to Belgrade, Serbia.

To be clear, this wasn’t the fault of the backpack. I was using a Columbia hiking backpack, which isn’t even made anymore, for my travels. Like most, I figured that the utility of a hiking backpack was perfect; I could use it for hiking and ultralight travel! I was wrong. The black-hole nature of these bags isn’t really designed to be used as a travel backpack, especially for us digital nomads or minimalist travelers.

I realized the importance of design for everyday carry (EDC). Products designed with a specific purpose, a philosophy, if you will, can change the way we travel.

Is that too much?

In any case, my journey for a minimalist backpack, specifically designed for digital nomads and one-bag travel, began.

After scouring the internet for an ultralight travel backpack, I finally settled on the Minaal Carry-on 2.0.

About Minaal

Minaal started in 2013 when a pair of guys launched a Kickstarter campaign for their original Minaal Carry-on that had incredible success.

After the launch of the first bag, the team eventually released an updated version of the bag, the Minaal Carry-on 2.0 (and recently the Minaal Carry-on 3.0). Nowadays, they sell a smaller daily carry backpack and some other bags and accessories.

Kickstarter campaign for the Minaal Carry-on 2.0.

They even have a Used & Refurbished section where you can buy refurbished Minaal products and even sell your old gear. This is seriously cool, and not many companies offer a marketplace like this. I love seeing companies take sustainability seriously and setting up infrastructure like this for their customers.

Finally, a fantastic lifetime warranty, where they’ll repair gear if they have a defect. From their website:

We offer a lifetime guarantee against all manufacturing defects. If your gear has a defect, we’ll send you a replacement or organise a repair – anywhere in the world.

This second paragraph is where some companies might list their endless conditions, exclusions, and sub-clauses to their reckless first sentence. But we’re big believers in common sense – a defect is a defect – and we won’t use legal jargon as a rock to hide under when you come knocking. Problems with our gear are incredibly rare, but we know how good it feels to have a solid warranty backing you up when you’re on the road. If any of our gear falls short of our high quality-control standards, we’ll make it right.

Ultimately, any gear that takes a severe beating over a long period of time will eventually show signs of wear and tear. This isn’t considered a defect – but drop us a line if you’re in doubt, and we’ll be straight with you either way.

minaal.com

The Minaal Carry-on 2.0

Their flagship, the Minaal Carry-on, is one of the most well-built and unique bags I’ve ever tested. Before we get into the details, it’s essential to understand a few things about the bag.

First, this bag comes with a perspective, a philosophy about how you should travel. It is designed to be a THE backpack for minimal backpackers and one-bag travelers, specifically the digital nomads out there that work and/or live on the move.

With that in mind, it’s not a particularly large bag. Coming in around 35 Liters, this bag is on the smaller end of what many people will feel comfortable being able to fit all their essentials in. Typically, the sweet spot for me is around 35-45 Liters. Being on the bottom end of that, the Minaal really makes you ask yourself, “do you really need to bring that?”

But what you get by succumbing to its constraints is a highly compact, streamlined carry. I often find larger bags a pain in the ass to carry around. You constantly feel like you’re taking up too much space, especially in tight crowds or walking through the airport. And you tend to get tired after a bit of walking.

Not with the Minaal Carry-on. You feel compact and ready for whatever travel can throw at you.

Alright, time to get into the details.

Materials & Aesthetic

The materials of the Minaal team uses are superb. The 600D Cordura on the outside feels awesome; really nice to the touch and extremely strong. I have no worries that something will poke a hole or tear through this bag’s exterior.

600D Cordura attracts a bit of lint and pet hair.

Though it does tend to pick up some lint and pet hair, it’s something to keep in mind if that’s an issue for you. Personally, I don’t care. It’s a backpack.

One of my favorite parts of the bag is the handles; they are surprisingly padded and really comfortable to use. With so much of our interaction with bags involving the handle, they are underrated on a backpack.

Gotta love some quality handles!

As far as the aesthetic goes, I would put say it looks modern and industrial. There aren’t really extraneous webbing or straps hanging outside like you get with some hiking backpacks. There isn’t much branding outside of the logo on the top of the bag (which oddly looks like the Gitlab logo). Honestly, it seems relatively unassuming…which is a good thing.

Outside the bag

First and foremost, this is a backpack, so you need some backpack straps. The ones on the Minaal are great, surprisingly padded, and comfortable to use even for extended periods with a heavy bag. The back panel is also comfortable and nicely padded with air vents to help circulation. However, these vents didn’t do much to help with airflow in practice.

Comfortable harness, but not a ton of ventilation.

Like many travel backpacks nowadays, the backpack straps stow away. There’s a back panel cover that you can roll down and zip shut to hide the straps. This effectively turns the Minaal Carry-on into “briefcase mode.” In theory, this is a nice feature, though I don’t use it much in reality. The bag is a little too big and kind of awkward when carried as a briefcase. Maybe in a pinch, but I can’t see most people taking advantage of this feature.

I haven’t found briefcase mode very useful (minaal.com)

One of my favorite features and most underrated features are the load lifters. Similar to a hiking backpack, these load lifters add a bit of additional support when you’re out and about. The straps connect with magnets, which are really easy to snap together. These load lifters are a great example of craft and detail from the Minaal team.

Magnetic load lifters are a great detail.

There are two compression straps, one on each side of the backpack. These help to compress the size and act as a security layer, preventing someone from quickly getting into the bag’s main compartment. You can also use these to strap a jacket to the outside of the pack, saving a little room on the inside.

On one side of the pack, there is a water bottle pocket situation. Unlike a more traditional mesh or elastic water bottle pocket, it’s made from the same 600D fabric the rest of the bag uses. I assume this was to make it more durable, but you end up sacrificing some flexibility. But the pocket itself is big enough to fit a 32 oz Hydro Flask so you shouldn’t have any issues, but when the bag is packed out full, it can take a second to put it in.

An odd water bottle holder, but it works.

Pockets

There are four main pockets on the Minaal Carry-on.

First the laptop pocket. As I mentioned, this is a minimalist backpack focused on digital nomads and those who live/work traveling. Naturally, you’ll need some good organization for tech gear.

The laptop pocket opens with some beefy YKK zippers, but only 3/4 of the way around the bag (it extends all the way on the 3.0). Inside the pocket, you’ll find two padded elastic laptop sleeves. One is big enough to fit a 15″ MacBook; the other is more iPad/Kindle-friendly. These two sleeves sit a good way up from the bottom of the bag, offering your laptop good protection from drops.

Document and pen pockets (left), laptop and tech sleeves (right).

Opposite the sleeves, you’ll find three small inner pockets: one for a small pen, one for small documents like a passport or notebook, and the other for larger documents. This conveniently added organization comes in surprisingly handy for all kinds of random shit you pick up on the road.

It’s worth noting that there isn’t much depth to the laptop pocket. Once your laptop and a Kindle/notebook are in, there’s not much else that’ll fit (though I will stuff my laptop charger at the bottom of the pocket, which works pretty well).

Next, you’ll get two nearly identical pockets on the top of the Minaal Carry-on. These are designed to be quick access pockets, where you store things you’ll need on a relatively regular basis. Think chargers, toiletries, sunglasses, keys, etc. One of the pockets is larger with more depth, and the other is smaller with a small inner mesh pocket and a key lash.

Quick access pockets can be a little finicky in use.

These pockets are great but are also one of the biggest pain points I have with the Minaal 2.0. Their capacity is directly correlated to the main pocket, so if you stuff the main compartment, these two will get pretty damn tight and hard to use. They also have a smaller YKK zipper, so it gets a little scary really trying to close these two pockets. After a few tries, you’ll get the hang of it, but it can be frustrating.

Finally, the main pocket. This pocket opens clamshell, giving you ample room to work with. Two interesting features that you’ll notice right away are the built-in packing cubes. Now on the original version of the Minaal Carry-on, these pockets didn’t have any dimension or depth, but they do with the 2.0 version. This was a fantastic upgrade to the backpack that goes a long way when packing. Typically, I use the bottom for socks and underwear and the top for miscellaneous items like a Turkish Towel, jump rope, ab wheel, etc.

Built-in packing cubes and a big clamshell opening (minaal.com)

Other than that, there’s no organization in this pocket, so you’ll have to bring your own. You can use any kind of packing cubes, but Minaal does sell a set of three packing cubes made to fit perfectly in this pocket. I started off using some Amazon Basics packing cubes but recently switched to the Minaal ones, and it was totally worth it. With some clever organization, you’ll be able to fit a surprising amount in here.

When packing this bag, the Minaal team recommends that you fill the front of the clamshell first, then, when you’re ready, fold over the rest of the backpack. I haven’t found it to matter too much in practice, but I guess it makes it close easier?

This pocket opens and closes with some heavy-duty zippers that can withstand a good amount of yanking and pulling to get this thing shut. But remember, the more you pack this pocket out, the less room you’ll have in the quick access pockets.

Performance

I’ve taken this bag across the world and put it to the test. It’s been my only bag on day trips to the cafe, weekend trips in the USA, two-week-long international trips, and even 6 month-long trips. It’s my favorite bag I’ve used and one that I recommend to anyone willing to listen to me rant about one-bag travel.

Like I mentioned earlier, at 35 liters, it can be a tight fit. You’ll need to be pretty selective with what you pack, opting for some gear well suited for travel. Think items such as Merino wool, some minimalist footwear, and some clever travel tips like rolling clothes. Check out the ultralight packing list if you’re curious about everything I can fit in this bag.

This bag is primarily made for urban travel, so how it performs in transit is extremely important. On planes, it’s small enough to be considered a carry-on, even by more stringent European airlines (I’m looking at you, Ryanair). The Minaal can even pass for a personal item since it doesn’t extend past your shoulders when you’re wearing it and can just barely fit under the seat in front of you. But technically, it’s too big, so attempt at your own risk (I’ve never been caught).

Another part of urban travel is those weird times between your flights, trains, hotel/Airbnb check-ins, etc. – making it one of the best travel backpacks for Europe. This thing is effortless to carry, so you won’t be feeling that dreaded travel fatigue quite as quickly. No problem if you need to bop around a city for a few hours waiting for check-in or a flight.

The included rain cover is a nice touch, and I’ve actually had to break it out a few times.

Even further, I’d say this bag is designed to be the only piece of luggage you bring with you. You can definitely pair it with another carry-on, but it’ll be a bit overkill. If that’s you, I’d suggest something a bit smaller, such as the TOM BIHN Synapse.

As a one-bag traveler, you also can’t have your backpack let you down. Not once have I feared for the Minaal Carry-on. The materials are tear and stain-resistant, and after three years of use, my Minaal Carry-on could almost pass as brand new.

Despite all these praises, there are a few gripes.

I mentioned that the two quick-access pockets can be frustrating and that the briefcase mode is mostly useless. But there are two areas where it doesn’t perform optimally: daypack or hiking backpack.

You see, for one-bag travelers, we are genuinely traveling with, well, one bag. But like most, we need a day bag for casual walking around the city/destination when we don’t want to carry all of our belongings. The Minaal Carry-on is just a touch too big for that, and when the main pocket isn’t fully packed out, it has an odd slouch to it.

An odd slouch when the bag isn’t fully packed out.

The second, more obvious, is as a hiking backpack. This bag isn’t meant to be trekking 10 miles through the forest. Sure it might be able to do a few miles on an easy trail, but there’s no actual frame, support, or breathability that you’ll want for long distances. In a pinch, you’ll probably be ok for some day hikes, but not recommended.

The easiest solution for this is to bring a small day pack like the ones the team at Matador is making. It’s not the most elegant solution, and packing space is limited for minimal travelers, but it is a viable option.

Overall

One of the intangible qualities of backpacks and gear, especially for us travel nerds, is how it makes you feel when you use it. And the Minaal Carry-on is an absolute joy to use. When I’m using it as my travel bag, I feel like I can go forever and am ready to take on anything.

I’ve had this thing for three years now, and I haven’t found a bag that works better for me than the Minaal 2.0. I’m about to embark on a year-long trip abroad this year, and unless things drastically change, I plan to use this as my only backpack.

This backpack isn’t cheap. At $299, this backpack certainly isn’t cheap. But for a bag with very few downsides and one that just might outlast you, it’s certainly worth it.

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