Choosing a Travel Backpack and Roller bag
Editor’s Note: Getting all your belongings from Point A to Point B is the subject of this posting. The first step is to pick the right backpack and roller bag. In this article our travel editor, Rob Kay, reviews gear and discusses the merits of bringing all your items in the cabin vs. checking them in.
For my two-month long digital nomad odyssey I used a Rolling Contingency Duffel from VERTX which makes military grade packs (and clothing). It’s a very solid piece of gear that can be separated to create two bags. Combined, its dimensions are 22” x 13.5” x 12.5” making it too big to stash in an overhead bin. So, this bag had to be checked in. (In retrospect, this was not the ideal roll-on luggage).
The upshot? Ideally, as a nomad, you’ll want to bring everything with you into the cabin.
To do that, you’ll need a (22” x 14” x 9”) roll-on bag, place it in the overhead bin and, combine that with a backpack that can fit under a seat.
What type of roll-on to invest in? There is a plethora to choose from. You can go to Wirecutter , Consumer Reports, or “influencers” out there for advice.
Another way to go, if you want to eschew the roll-on bag, is to simply get a large enough backpack that will fit in the overhead bin. (More on that later).
The right travel backpack
A good mid-sized travel backpack (not to be confused with a daypack) can work ideally with a roll-on.
My choice was the 30L Travel Backpack ($229) from Peak Design. This item was recommended to me by Dennis Callan, a respected Honolulu travel video maker who swore by the product. It complemented the roll-on perfectly.
To be honest, I treated it rather ruthlessly, often picking it up with one strap. I was mildly concerned that the strap might rip off (because of the weight–around 25 lbs) but it proved to be steadfast.
It fit perfectly in the overhead bin on the aircraft but is designed to fit under an airline seat.
Why is this noteworthy?
If you have a roll-on that that goes into the overhead bin, the protocol is that you’ll need to place the other bag under the seat in front of you. Mine did not fit under the seat. It wasn’t a matter of design, it’s just that I had unzipped the expansion zips and filled it to capacity.
Thus, you must be discriminating using the expansion zips if you’re going to fit it under the seat. Given that I could keep the pack in the overhead bin, it wasn’t an issue. Had I brought a roll-on into the cabin, it would have been an issue.
I used the 30L bag to stash my tech/computer gear, a camera, shoes, and my toiletry bag. (It has a special deep pocket for a laptop and tablet).
There was also a smaller, zippered, pocket at the top of the bag to keep items such as your passport, keys, etc.
The tech gear, the shoes and toiletry (wash) items all had special pouches, also manufactured by Peak Design. As expected, they fit perfectly in the 30L pack which is of course, designed by the same company.
I really liked the idea of the pouches. They are made from the same heavy-duty nylon material as the bag. Just as importantly, they allowed me to pack systematically. The tech and wash pouches cost $59.95. The shoe bag was $24.
I also liked the luggage pass-through strap for roller bag carry. This allows you to slip the bag through the handle which comes in handy for short bursts. Generally I found that if I had to walk any appreciable distance, it was easier just to put the backpack on my back.
The other features were:
- Expandable side pockets for water bottles, etc. (I’d sometimes stuff my raincoat in a side pocket)
- Internal zippered mesh pockets
- Theft deterrent zipper pulls and zippered pockets
This bag has a hip belt, but I found I didn’t use it that much.
All told, this was as nearly an ideal product as one could want, but there were a couple of improvements I might suggest. The straps might be padded a bit more and the side pockets for the water bottle could be designed a bit deeper. My water bottle popped out a couple of times.
Any digital nomad must have a day pack. Mine was the Freerain22 Waterproof Packable 22L from Matador ($99.95).
Matador is employee-owned company that makes a variety of packs and other outdoor gear for mountaineering and travel. You can carry ice axes with this one if you like. I didn’t use it for that purpose, but I did use it on hikes high in the Pyrenees.
It’s light and extremely strong. You either stuff it into roll-up type of bag or flatten it out and place it in your luggage without sacrificing space.
More often it served as an EDC pack in the city or for day hikes. I used it on mountain trails in Cerdanya but mostly around town, schlepping the computer or groceries.
The Matador day pack came with a padded computer pouch, which was quite useful because I often carried my computer around. In addition stuffed snacks, my rain jacket, my computer, and the mammoth Anker charging battery in there, lest I run out of juice for my phone. I liked the way it can put bundled and efficiently packed in a larger bag. Or, if you’re too lazy to do that, you can simply place it on top of your luggage.
I really can’t think of any way I could improve on it.
Organization, as I alluded to above, is key. (This is especially true for yours truly, who is not always the best organized guy in town). With this in mind, I suggest using packing cubes (from Peak Design) which fit neatly on my roll-on. (They are pictured above, in the foreground).
This was the first time I used them, and it really helped the cause. You can readily keep track of exactly what you have. A lot of people manufacture them, but I stuck with Peak Design’s which according to the reviews, are as good as anyone’s. In case anyone is wondering, used them–one each–for my pants and shirts. Prices start at $29.95 for the small cube.
Lessons learned—get a bigger travel backpack and a smaller roller bag
To reiterate, a true digital nomad does not want to check bags in, so in future trips I’d either get a bigger backpack (that could still fit into an overhead locker) such as a 45L travel backpack from Peak Design or Matador or, a roller bag combined with a smaller pack that will fit under an airline seat.