Our Top 5 finalists for Best Carry-On Bag 2020 are as varied as travel can be, and rightly so. No two trips are exactly the same, with different bags suiting different loads and environments. Each of our finalists has earned their spot for doing a stellar job in their respective niches. However, which piece soars highest? Let’s dig in!
Folks, this is my first bag from Property Of…, a Dutch brand that I’ve been digitally drooling over for several years now. Their products drip with functional style. So the Karl 48h+ Travel Backpack had some very high expectations to live up to. And it met them all.
You’ll first notice this is the only non-black bag in this group, which might come as a shocker since I’m always shouting about my love for all-black products. But with this one, I think the colorways offered are incredibly handsome, which led me to opting for this Moss Grey / Brown option. Despite it looking like it might be a waxed cotton canvas, it’s actually made from a waterproof polyester (they are Dutch based, after all) that is environmentally friendly. And that polyester fabric? It came from 43 recycled PET bottles. Paired up with real leather straps in red/brown and custom brass hardware, these details marry performance and aesthetic into something a modern-day Indiana Jones would lust after.
So, why is this minimalistic, handsome, classic backpack here in this category? At first, it appears this might only be a roll-top bag (which it is). Roll-tops are notorious for being a little difficult to access gear, especially when you have a lot of it. Well, flip the Karl onto its face and then you’ll spot the rear compartment in the back. This makes packing the backpack like a suitcase… a breeze. Additionally, I found that this panel allows for a really smooth transition when I’m going through airport security, with my 15″ MBP laptop and iPad right there at my fingertips. Ultimately that roll-top disguise/function gives you both additional access and a way to compress and expand the overall volume. Clever.
The two exterior pockets provide just enough quick access to small items you may not want in your hands like a water bottle, small camera, passport, etc. The first pocket being a simple drop pocket in front and the second, a zippered small pocket on the side. Additionally, they provided some straps on the side for cinching on a jacket, small umbrella, etc. Not to forget, they also include a small yellow travel pouch where you can keep your essentials, popping it out as you board your plane for the long flight ahead, a nice touch.
Though the product name has 48h+ in it, I can comfortably use this 28-44L backpack for a week or more… and it looks damn handsome while doing so.
Classic, timeless design
Fun personalization and bag finder
I had the pleasure of using Bellroy’s 28L Transit Backpack last year on a 16-day trip to China and Hong Kong. To put it bluntly… I absolutely loved it. The ONLY gripe I had? I wished that it was just a hair larger in capacity. Before I had time to message my friends over at Bellroy with my wishlist that included only one item, they went ahead and dropped the Transit Backpack Plus in 38 liters. Dream come true.
This is one of my top two or three travel bags ever made, no joking. Starting with the obvious, it has one clamshell-style opening massive cavern for a main compartment, which swallows up all my clothing packing cubes, leaving room to spare. I had to practice restraint when packing, since I could bring more than I probably needed, but knowing I’d have to leave lots of room for Hello Kitty gifts for my girlfriend on the way home. Scored some points there, thanks Bellroy designers.
Once that main clamshell is open, there’s additional organization on the inside of the front panel. For me, I switched up various flat items here such as an iPad Pro and even a neatly folded jacket. On the front side of that panel there’s a quick-access proper volume external pocket, which came in clutch to toss in a puffy mid-layer. I could easily shove the jacket in there once the daytime temps climbed and then grab it in just a second as the mercury started dropping in the evenings.
But, I want to talk about my favorite pockets… maybe on any bag… ever? Thinking about it, actually having a favorite pocket on the hundreds of bags I’ve laid hands on is super nerdy. I digress. These two vertical hidden rear side pockets are my dream. They are deceptively massive, each could carry maybe 2-3 liters (guessing) of gifts (candy) for my girlfriend that I acquired along my travels. And they’re so well hidden (or maybe I just didn’t read the instructions… which I stubbornly refuse to), but I didn’t discover them until several days into my trip. Bonus extra volume discovery! Did I mention that I love these two pockets?
If it’s a travel bag, I personally think it needs a well-placed glasses / essentials pocket and the Transit has one right there at the top, next to the comfortable grab handle. But behind that, there’s some more magic. A rear laptop zippered compartment so you can deploy your laptop and/or tablet faster than the TSA agent can say “Any electronics?”, sure. But there’s more hidden organization within this pocket, including a padded zippered pocket down in there for a small tablet or smartphone, or like me, my passport. While in line waiting to purchase train tickets from mainland China to Hong Kong, a Dutch traveler behind me in line commented how clever the backpack was. He asked a few questions about it, who made it, where to get it, etc. He logged onto the Bellroy site while we sat together chatting and purchased the bag right there. If I were to guess, it was my speech I gave him on my favorite two pockets that convinced him. Or maybe it was to just shut me up about them?
Top-tier access and organization
Elegant and timeless design
Tom Bihn, an icon and a legend in the travel and carry universe. The Seattle-based brand rightfully has a cult-like following, as the Synapse 25 has been an all-star for many years. Thousands of folks across the globe have been loving the S25 for travel… but then Tom and his crew went ahead and made the S25 even more travel focused with the launch of the Synik 30 (also available in a 22L version, which you might just find in another finalist category this year).
So, how did they make an icon even better? One word. CLAMSHELL. This was by far the biggest wish that folks were asking for and Tom Bihn delivered. With so many other great clamshell offerings hitting the scene thanks to their easy access and packability, we knew it was just a matter of time. With this one new feature alone, the Synik 30 has already become an instant favorite. That bright blue Island 200 Halcyon liner really screams, making all of your internal stuff easy to find, even in dim lighting. Bonus functional and bag nerd points: that Halcyon is a coated (for water resistance) fabric made from a blend of a nylon base fabric with a ripstop grid made from the same stuff Dyneema comes from. Love that.
The buttery edgeless straps could have a review all their own. Such a simple idea… executed with absolute perfection. In layman’s terms, there is no edge binding, or seam, or stitch line at the edge… which allows them to conform to the unique shape of your body. The EV50 foam hidden inside is plush and squishy, but holds up to actual weight, providing comfort for hours and days on end. Honestly, I wish every bag brand would use this design. On top of that, it comes with an actual framesheet with aluminum half-stay which ultimately means “more comfortable” while you’re carrying all your stuff. Don’t like it or don’t need that? Easy. Remove it and save it for next time.
For me, for the way I like to pack for travel, the Made in USA Synik 30 checks all my boxes. I want that large main compartment (with clamshell) for all my clothes and bulky items, but I also want a fair amount of additional organization for my small travel items and pouches. Five zippered pockets pepper the exterior of the bag. And they all seem, well, intuitive. It’s a bit hard to explain without getting your hands onto and gear into one of these, but, they just make sense. And pocket-wise… a thing I’ve always loved about the Synapse (and included on this bag, too), the centrally located water bottle pocket. I don’t know many sane folks who travel with two bottles and the visual imbalance always tweaks my OCD. Here, the bottle is hidden and centered, which also helps for weight distribution.
The classic just got bigger, better, and more… classic-er.
Top-tier organization and access
Super comfortable straps
Lots of great fabrics options to customize your pack
The Black Ember team are also veterans of the Carry Awards, earning themselves a 1st place spot in the Everyday Bag category with their Citadel backpack. Clearly, they didn’t kick up their feet and bask in their own glory since then… they’ve been going hard. Enter, the FORGE.
I’ve been using the FORGE-MAX since before it officially hit the digital pages of the interwebs and my very first impression when I opened the box was “Whoa, there is a lot going on here!”. Mind you, that’s not a bad thing, I just wasn’t prepared for all the features that were hidden beneath its smooth, unassuming, stealthy 3-layer micro hex waterproof surface fabric. I pulled out the 20L FORGE and wondered how this small bag could be marketed towards travel. Then, there it was… the expansion zipper. I mention this because this is rarely pulled off with elegant execution, but here, it was done with class. And discreetly. It tacks on an additional necessary 10 liters of volume for travel; it all made sense. Impressively enough, this bag could even have a fighting chance in the Everyday Bag category in its 20L configuration.
It took me a bit of proper USING this bag to fully understand it. And then, it became incredibly clear for the perfect use case… a travel/business bag. I’m a huge fan of one-bag travel. Depending on my trip, I’ll bring a backpack between 18-34L. If it’s a longer two-week trip (34L), I’m stuck bringing a giant bag into work meetings and walking around the city with a monster on my back, looking like a tourist. The FORGE crushes it here. It’s a shape shifter. Packing out the bag to its maximum form with all my stuff, I’ll deploy the shoulder straps for comfortable carry. Then, I’ll arrive at my Airbnb or hotel, drop off my clothes and unnecessary stuff, then bring it back down to 20L to have a nice walk about. Heading into a meeting where a backpack might look a bit out of place? Well, the FORGE offers two (removable) comfortable grab handles for hand carry, as well as a shoulder strap (also removable).
Finally, the level of interior organization is astounding. There are lots of interior pockets here. For those who don’t buy into the concept of using 2-10 different pouches, the FORGE has you covered, dividing your gear up into mentally digestible compartments for all of your tech, clothing, and more.
It’s no surprise this bag brought in $328,000 on its Kickstarter release earlier this year, crushing its goal of $15,000. 1,400+ backers and even more voters for this bag for this year’s Carry Awards tell us that the FORGE is right where it should be here in the finals.
Cutting edge materials and hardware
Folks, this isn’t just a pack or bag. It’s not one “thing” at all. It’s an ecosystem of products. Adventure? Travel? Photographer? Yep. Yep. And yep. Enter the do-everything Arris Travel Series.
I’ve been testing a minimalist version of this ecosystem of products for weeks now, which includes the backpack and three modular accessories (LT Dry Bag, Fieldspace 2.0, and Tek Case). First, let’s talk about the main component, the Arris pack. This might be the most feature-rich bag I have ever laid hands on. Features stacked upon features with features inside and on top of features. The ultralight molded composite suspension system is an engineering masterpiece, it’s almost a shame it has to be covered up at all. But more importantly, it works. And it works for a wide range of humans ranging from 5’4″ up to 6’2″ via a quick and intuitive adjustment system. Not an easy feat to accomplish. Bonus, there are load lifters! As this is the carry-on category, the 35L pack is airline carry-on approved. And to access that 35L of gear? It has a massive side clamshell opening with beefy #10 YKK zippers, no messing around. It has locking zips, a luggage trolley pass-through, and the harness can be stowed just in case you need to check it for whatever reason. All this at just 3.5 lbs thanks to their high-tech materials and construction techniques.
Even without the modular accessories, there are nearly endless organization options for whatever you carry with you on your adventures. I particularly love the LT Dry Bag, which comes included free with the Arris pack. I’ve been utilizing a similar setup for years now… bringing along a dry bag for clothes (keeping dirty/stinky clothes away from my clean ones) and it can be used for whatever else in a pinch as well. This can be attached securely into the base of the Arris with four toggles or removed to use on its own.
And here’s the real beauty of the Arris Travel Series… the absolutely extreme level of modularity. With nearly a dozen additional accessories, you can customize the Arris to your liking. The Stasis Sling is an incredible sling in its own right, but it also becomes an additional add-on panel to the front of the Arris pack. The Rift Pack is also a wonderful hip bag or sling, but effortlessly attaches onto the brain of the Arris. So you can arrive at your destination, pop it off, and use it as a walk around camera bag.
I sincerely mean this when I say it… there is absolutely not enough room on the Carryology server to discuss all the features and details of this Arris Travel Series. To see why this has earned its spot as a finalist this year, head on over to their site to dig in. And if you love it, be sure to drop in your vote!
Adjustable harness system
Adaptable travel system
Wins in features