If you’ve tried dragging a suitcase with cheap plastic wheels over the cobblestone streets of Europe, you know why rolling luggage doesn’t work in a city.
Cylinder-shaped packs for "backpackers" aren't much better. Since you pack them from the top, like a garbage bag, they leave your stuff a jumbled mess. They're also too big to be carried onto a plane, so you’re stuck with checked bag fees, the hassle of baggage claim, and the stress of lost luggage.
Zip past everyone at baggage claim and stay organized with a backpack designed for city travelers. This guide will help you choose the right backpack for your travel style.
Table of Contents
Find the Best Travel Backpack for You
So… which one Should I get?
We hear that a lot. It can be tough to choose the best travel backpack for you when different models appeal to you for different reasons. By the end of this post, we hope you’ll be able to decide on the right carry on for your packing style, typical trip length, and type of travel.
Should I buy a large carry on, or a medium-sized carry on?
This is the first consideration: how much packing space do you need?
A large carry on maximizes the space most airlines allow for carry on travel: 22" x 14" x 9". Typically, that translates to approximately 45L of packing space -- more than enough room for a week's worth of clothes and toiletries, plus small souvenirs.
A medium-sized carry on is slightly smaller at 26-35L and is a great choice for travelers looking for a more compact option or who are traveling on budget airlines with stricter carry on requirements. A medium-sized carry on is enough packing space for 3-5 days of clothes and toiletries. If you're a pro at packing light and don't need to bring bulky clothing (like sweaters or shoes), you can pack for about a week in a medium-sized carry on.
Who Should Choose a Large Carry On
If you’re packing for long-term travel (think months or years), a large carry on is probably for you. You’ll have enough room to bring everything you need for all seasons on the road without checking a bag. Here’s our guide to packing for long-term travel if you need some help lightening the load.
If you’re new to carry-on only travel, or like to bring a little more rather than just the bare essentials, a large carry on is the right bag for your packing style. It’s tough to transition from checking a bag to traveling carry on only, and maximizing the space that airlines give you will make it easier.
If you typically pack light, but like to buy things on the road, a large carry on is for you. Pack light on the way there, and you’ll have plenty of room in your bag for art and souvenirs to bring home with you.
Specialty Item Packers
If you need to travel with medical supplies, or prefer to bring a hair dryer, or often need extra outfits and shoes for special events during your trip, a larger carry on is probably right for you.
Who Should Choose a Medium-Sized Carry On
Budget Airline Flyers
If you frequently fly on budget airlines (like RyanAir) or on airlines with stricter requirements, consider a medium-sized carry on. We’ve flown on budget airlines with larger carry ons without issue, but it’s technically breaking their rules. If you mostly fly on budget airlines and want peace of mind at the gate, choose a smaller bag.
If you’re a minimalist packer, a medium-sized carry on is probably for you, no matter the duration of your trip. Here are our best tips for minimalist packers (plus a packing list to make it easy).
If most of your trips last for 3-5 days and you rarely travel for longer than a week, consider a medium-sized carry on. A larger bag might be too much bag.
What Fits Inside
Large Carry On:
Here’s a sample packing list for a large carry on:
- 4-5 short sleeve tops
- 2 long sleeve tops
- 2 bottoms: pants, jeans, etc
- 1 pair of gym shorts, leggings, or lounge pants
- 6-7 pairs of underwear
- 6-7 pairs of socks
- 1 bra or bralette
- 1 jacket
- 1 pair of lightweight, packable shoes (we love Allbirds)
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 scarf
- 1 pair of gloves
- 1 belt
- Laptop Charger
- Tablet Charger
- Smartphone Charger
- Travel Adapter
Medium-Sized Carry On:
Here’s a sample packing list for a medium-sized carry on:
- 4 tees
- 2 tank tops
- 1 pair of jeans
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 set of PJs
- 1 swimsuit
- Flip flops
- 4 pairs socks
- 6 pairs of underwear
- 1 bra or bralette
- Laptop Charger
- Tablet Charger
- Smartphone Charger
- Travel Adapter
Which carry on should you buy?
Now that you know what size you want let's compare features.
We offer three carry on backpacks: the Setout Backpack, the Setout Divide Backpack, and the Outbreaker Backpack. The Setout Backpack and Outbreaker Backpack are both offered in a medium (35L) and large (45L) size, while the Setout Divide Backpack is a medium-sized 26L-34L expandable backpack.
The Outbreaker Backpack is a fully-featured backpack with premium ergonomics, obsessive organization, and highly technical materials.
It’s our most premium bag for a pro traveler. It has the most organization & padding out of all of our backpacks and features pro-level materials like waterproof sailcloth and an advanced, height-adjustable suspension system. The tradeoffs: it’s heavier and more expensive, and more pockets means that the main compartment can feel smaller. if you want one big open space, this isn't the right bag for you.
The Setout Backpack is an excellent choice for a more casual traveler and those who prefer a lighter carry.
Its internal organization is less demanding, it has more packing space in the main compartment, and is considerably more affordable. Maximize carry on requirements at the best value on the market. The tradeoffs: the outer fabric is less weather resistant, there is less internal organization, and the suspension system is not height-adjustable.
The Setout Divide Backpack is very similar to the Setout Backpack except that it has a split main compartment for added organization and expands from 26L to 34L.
In the Setout & Outbreaker Backpacks, you can pack fo ra week or more.
The Setout Divide is a compact 26L backpack that expands to 34L so you have extra space when you need it -- like for bringing home souvenirs.
Unexpanded, it can hold 3-5 days worth of clothing, toiletries, and accessories. Expanded, you can pack for a week or more.
The Setout & Setout Divide use a 900D polyester for the outside fabric. It feels soft in the hand and looks sleek and sophisticated up close. It doesn’t scream “tourist” like brightly-colored hiking bags. It has enough water-resistance for most situations, but it won’t be stormproof like Outbreaker, which uses waterproof sailcloth.
Outbreaker’s X-Pac waterproof sailcloth is more waterproof than traditional choices because it has four layers of protection. An ultrathin layer of PET acts as a waterproof barrier because it is a film, not a woven fabric. Sailcloth is also more durable than traditional materials, with abrasion resistance and fray prevention built into the fabric. It offers the best strength to weight ratio on the market.
All three backpacks feature YKK zippers and Duraflex buckles throughout – widely considered the best components on the market.
Ergonomics, Suspension System, and Fit
The Setout & Setout Divide Backpack are offered in two fits -- men's and women's. The men's fit uses injection-molded shoulder straps that will conform to your body and get more comfortable over time, just like sneakers.
The women's fit has cushy, curved shoulder straps that are better for people with breasts.
Tuck away the shoulder straps into your backpack's back panel for protection when carrying your backpack down the aisle of the plane or when stowing it in an overhead bin. Rest assured your straps won’t get caught on other people’s luggage.
Outbreaker’s straps feature thick, soft padding and a more advanced, height-adjustable suspension system similar to those found on hiking backpacks. This makes it easier for people with longer or shorter torsos to find a more comfortable fit.
When using the hip belt, the men's Setout & Setout Divide will fit most torsos of 17-19” comfortably, the women's Setout & Setout Divide will fit most torsos of 15.5-18", and the Outbreaker will fit most torsos of 16-20” comfortably. Find out how to measure your torso to determine which backpacks will fit you.
The tradeoff of a height-adjustable suspension system and thick padding is that Outbreaker’s shoulder straps cannot be tucked away. If you prefer stowaway straps to a highly adjustable suspension system, consider Setout.
All three backpacks feature a padded, removable hip belt to transfer up to 80% of your backpack's weight to your hips. Stash your phone and boarding pass in the hip belt pockets while en route.
The laptop compartment in the Setout & Setout Divide holds your laptop & tablet as well as any other flat items you want to stay safe. It opens from the top and is easy to access while en route.
Outbreaker features a TSA-friendly lay-flat laptop compartment to help you speed through airport security as well as additional mesh compartments to organize your cables.
All three backpacks can hold up to a 17" Macbook. The 35L Setout and Setout Divide hold a 9.7" tablet while the Outbreaker holds up to a 13" tablet.
The main compartments of these three bags open like a suitcase for easy organization, quick access, and painless unpacking. You’ll be able to pack on your bed or a luggage stand with ease.
Like Outbreaker, the Setout Backpack's main compartment has two mesh organization panels for small stuff like socks and toiletries. Outbreaker contains additional side pockets in the main compartment for small things like socks and underwear. Unlike these two, the Setout Divide features a split main compartment with a mesh zippered section on one side (think of it like a large built-in packing cube) and compression straps on the other for added organization.
All three backpacks feature a pocket with an organization panel and sleeve for an e-reader, as well as a pocket in the front for flat items like travel documents or a small guidebook. The pocket on the Setout & Setout Divide extends to the bottom so you can store something like a light jacket in here. Outbreaker contains an additional pocket on the bottom front of the bag for extra organization.
Water Bottle Pocket
All three backpacks' water bottle pockets lay flat when not in use for a sleek, out-of-the-way profile. The Setout Divide's water bottle pocket unzips to fit larger water bottles.
When it's Not Your Only Bag
The Setout, Setout Divide, and Outbreaker Backpack are ideal for light packers using it as their only bag. However, the Setout Divide also pairs well with a rolling suitcase.
When wheeling through the airport with your rolling suitcase, slide your suitcase handle through the Divide's back panel for a seamless trip to your gate.
Still have questions?
We’re here to help. If there’s anything you’re curious about that’s not answered on this page or any of the product pages, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d love to help you have a great trip.