Photo: Louis Arevalo/Tandemstock

How To Choose the Right Carry-On for Adventure Travel

The right bag makes packing and traveling easy—here’s how to pick one for you.

You’ve got the destination picked, the vacation dates scheduled, the time-off request approved, and now it’s time to pack. But what type of carry-on luggage will be the best choice to transport your gear? As airlines continue to narrow their carry-on requirements, it pays to be savvy with luggage, especially when toting unwieldy adventure gear. Here’s how to make the most of your carry-on opportunities.

Types of Carry-On Luggage

Any bag you bring on the airplane with you is considered carry-on luggage. It stays with you, as opposed to checked luggage, which is loaded into the cargo hold of the plane. Many airlines allow you to bring a “personal item,” but these are usually limited to small bags that aren’t meant to hold clothing and gear for extended stays. Depending on what airline you’re flying, carry-on luggage is sometimes referred to as cabin luggage or hand luggage.

Generally, airlines allow carry-ons measuring 20 to 22 inches tall, 13 to 16 inches wide, and 7 to 10 inches deep. Some carriers impose weight restrictions (usually around 15 to 25 pounds maximum), but most won’t weigh carry-on luggage.

Carry-on luggage sizes aren’t standardized, and the exact dimensions of what’s allowed on the plane varies between airlines. Always check your airline’s carry-on rules before your flight. To make sure your bag is allowed, measure its height, width, and depth and compare them to the carry-on rules of your airline. Keep in mind that some carriers count the height of wheels and handles, but most don’t.

As you shop, you’ll come across three main types of carry-on luggage. 

Backpack

If you’ll be moving frequently once you arrive at your destination, a backpack is often the best choice because it’s easy to carry around from point A to point B and beyond. Most 65-liter backpacks, when packed efficiently (i.e. without items dangling outside and not overstuffed), fit within airline carry-on luggage dimensions. 

Duffel

With their large packing cavities, duffels are a great pick for packing awkwardly shaped items and larger volumes of clothing and gear.

Suitcase

A more traditional option, a wheeled carry-on suitcase makes negotiating airports and urban-scapes a breeze thanks to its wheels plus extendable and adjustable handles. If you’ll be tackling a lot of stairs (or dealing with other on-the-move transportation from boats to buses), however, a lighter weight option that allows for hands-free mobility, like a backpack or an easy-carrying duffel, is a better option.

Choosing What You Need

Knowing how you’ll be using your carry-on luggage—a quick turnaround, a long weekend, or an extended escape—will help you narrow down your shopping. Use these parameters to determine the luggage type and features you’ll need for a successful trip. 

Storage Capacity

First, identify what you need to bring on your trip. Lay out all the items and then use a paper grocery bag (standard measurement: 15 by 12 by 7 inches) to estimate the volume of space your carry-on should have. Don’t buy a bigger carry-on than you need—that extra space will just become an invitation to pack unnecessary items.

Handling Comfort

Traditional wheeled luggage is designed to be pulled along the ground and isn’t always easy to carry; backpacks and duffels are better suited for off-the-ground handling and long-distance travel away from groomed surfaces.

Backpacks, of course, necesitate carrying the weight of your luggage on your back, and duffels require one of your shoulders or hands to bear the weight. Identify what type of infrastructure will be available at your destination (will you have to walk far?) to determine what type of luggage will be easiest to use. Then examine the strap systems on backpacks and duffels (more on that below), as well as the handles on wheeled suitcases to assess how comfortable they are to carry.

Price

High-end carry-on luggage can easily cost you several hundred dollars, but more affordable options are readily available. When browsing, identify the features you need so you can equip yourself well without unnecessarily breaking the bank. Weatherproofed hard-shell and soft-shell materials, for example (only necessary for certain adventures), come at higher costs. Extra-durable materials (like ripstop polyester or 600-denier nylon) can go the distance again and again, but also run up price points. Also, lightweight outer materials like aluminum, plus extra technology features (like USB charging ports and LED lights), can make your travel experience easier, but for a higher cost. All things considered, if you’re looking for a basic system to carry your belongings, you can find something budget-friendly.

Photo: Dan Holz/TandemStock

Focus on Functionality

Beyond the basic categories of luggage, there are a wide range of other features to look out for. Here are some of the most important ones to consider.

Straps and Handles

Carry-ons need to be carried, so they should be comfortable when doing so. For backpacks, look for adjustable shoulder, waist, and chest straps. They’ll allow you to find a personalized fit and keep the weight of the pack distributed across your torso. Also look for foam padding along the back panel—this’ll help reduce back sweat and keep you more comfortable. For duffels, look for padded shoulder straps, which will spread the bag’s weight and prevent the strap from digging into your shoulder. For rolling suitcases, make sure the handles are stable and easy to grip. 

Tuck-Away Straps

Many backpacks and duffels come with small pockets or sleeves where you can tuck in the waist belt, shoulder straps, and any other loose buckles. These stow pockets keep your bag from getting caught on an armrest or someone else’s luggage. 

Compartments

For efficiency and organization, look for internal compartments. The ideal number and size depends on your trip and gear needs, but having spaces for shoes, clean clothes, and dirty clothes is a good place to start. By keeping things separate, you can easily access what you need at a moment’s notice. Pro tip: You can also create your own compartment system by organizing your gear into smaller compression bags or packing cubes before placing them into your carry-on. 

Types of Openings

How and where a bag opens affects how easy it is to access your gear. Most traditional wheeled suitcases will unzip around the middle to open into two halves. Some backpacks and duffels only open from the top or side, limiting access. Bags with top zippers that wrap in a “U” shape, however, provide simple access to everything inside. If you’ve got a singular destination (say, you head to a trailhead straight from airport, or you check into your home away from home), the opening system won’t need to be as convenient, as you’ll be unpacking and repacking just once (or not at all, in the case of backpacking). If you’re moving destinations multiple times or expect to change outfits throughout a day, a variety of access points will help keep your items organized and easy to access. 

Waterproofing

If you’re concerned about rain or spills while traveling, look for hard cases (more on those below) or bags with water-repellent finishes. Expect prices to increase with the more weather- and water-proofness that a bag offers by adding more rugged outer materials and zip or roll-top closures. 

Lock Compatibility

Lockable zippers have a space on the zipperhead where you can thread a small wire lock or padlock. Most duffels, wheeled suitcases, and travel-oriented backpacks will have lock-compatible zippers by default, but it’s always a good idea to double check. (Pro tip: Use TSA-approved locks to streamline the security screening process.)

Hard-Sided vs. Soft-Sided Luggage

Hard-sided carry-ons, with their sleek exteriors and wide range of colors and prints, can be aesthetically appealing, and they offer the advantage of a tough, water-resistant shell. Soft-sided luggage, on the other hand, is often lighter and comes with helpful features like expansion zippers and external pockets that hard-sided carry-ons lack. Plus, soft-sided luggage can be easier to stow in crammed overhead compartments. 

Wheels

Wheels are helpful in urban areas and while navigating airports, and both soft- and hard-sided carry-on bags usually have them. In general, two-wheeled luggage models usually feature larger, more durable wheels that roll better over rough surfaces. Four-wheeled “spinner” carry-ons (the wheels spin toward the direction you’re pulling) trade wheel durability for adaptability: You can push a spinner bag, run it along your side, or drag it like a two-wheeled bag. 

Laptop Sleeves

Are you working while you travel or wanting a computer to edit videos or photos? Look for a protected laptop sleeve built into the interior of the backpack, duffel, or wheeled carry-on. 

“Smart” Luggage

If you’re not constrained by a budget, consider ways that technology can ease your travel experience. Some hard-sided carry-ons offer embedded technologies like GPS tracking, notifications when the bag is opened out of your sight, LED lights, as well as USB and laptop charging ports that keep your phone powered over long travel stints. A number of airlines, however, have banned USB suitcases unless the lithium-ion battery can be removed, so double-check your airline policies.

Daypack Attachments

Some travel-specific backpacks are equipped with attachments for smaller daypacks. If you’re planning on using one location as a home base for day trips, consider a daypack-backpack system that’ll allow you to leave your larger backpack behind while carrying essentials in the smaller daypack. Another option is packing a stuffable, superlight daypack into your luggage to pull out for use when needed.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.