May 14, 2014

Keep Calm and (Only) Carry-On: a Backpack Review

The Jansport & me in Jamaica, 2013
My trusty blue backpack has been with me through a lot of space and time. Together we've seen four time zones, three countries, and perhaps the furthest distance by now—the 7th grade. It’s held everything from sleepover PJs and Shakespeare anthologies to a full week's worth of clothes crammed into spaces you would never expect it to fit. It has truly been larger on the inside and an excellent companion to have by my side. If you’re nerdy enough to get the Doctor Who references, then you also know that there comes a time to say goodbye to every great companion. With one strap tied together and the other slowly ripping out of the seam, the Jansport has reached its limit.

Knowing how long it lasted and how many places it went, I set out to find the perfect replacement, a bag to make Mary Poppins proud. I took to the internet and researched travel backpacks, then familiarized myself with prices and styles and compiled a list of qualities I wanted out of my new companion:
  • Carry-on compliant. The non-negotiable bullet. If it measured more than 22x14x9, I closed the tab.
  • Flexible/No wheels or internal frame. I wanted something pliable that could be shoved under a seat if necessary or squished a bit in a full trunk.
  • No dedicated laptop space with extra padding. This one made the hunt a lot harder. I don’t normally travel with a laptop and a lot of the backpacks out there have built-in padded laptop compartments that eat up valuable packing space.
  • Capacity of at least 34 Litres or 2100 cubic inches. i.e., no smaller than my old Jansport.
  • Two large compartments. Why do all the backpacks out now only have one large compartment? Oh yeah, because of the dedicated laptop space.
  • Cute. I know, now I’m just being picky, but if I’m going to spend a decent amount of money on something I intend to use for years, then I get to add “cute” to the list.

The Solution
A backpack where the only thing larger than the capacity is the name: the eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior. It met all of the above requirements and had the added bonus of being on sale (so naturally I added a set of hideously charming gummy bear packing cubes). I found an extra coupon code plus free shipping, and the decision was made.

The Test
So exactly how much does it hold? I'm packing for its maiden voyage, and tomorrow we set out for a five-day trip to Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains, the rain comes out of nowhere, and if you're lucky the sun will make a quick appearance too--and that's just on Thursday. I planned outfits for every day plus a few backups, laid it all out, and hoped it would all fit.

The Conclusion
The capacity is excellent, but you have to be careful not to fill it to beyond carry on capacity. I will never use the expanding option if I'm carrying it on a plane, but the luxury is there if you can afford the added space. In general I travel with a carry-on bag and an extra (empty or mostly empty) tote bag that will fit under a seat so I have room for any items I might acquire on the trip. Everything on the packing list fit inside the backpack, but I opted to put the denim jacket and extra purse in the tote instead to cut down on some of the bulk. Even with the extra purse, jacket, and my filled regular purse, there is still plenty of room for me to come home with more things I don't need in the tote.

For anyone considering this bag AND packing cubes, I would recommend the small or slim cubes. Though the large cube does fit inside this bag, it fills the largest space completely, which to me is the equivalent of packing without one. The medium fills most of the inside and the small fit nicely with room to spare in the outer pocket.

The jury is still out on durability and comfort since I haven't left yet, but I'll update when I get home next week with a recap of the pros and cons of taking it out for a spin (as well as a new dorky picture, I'm sure).

Update 5/23/14: 

With everything listed above, the packed bag weighed in around 20 lbs, so I'm not going to lie to you and say it was a pleasure to carry and felt like nothing on my back. It felt like, well, 20 lbs going for a piggy back ride (it was sort of reminiscent of my days working with toddlers, only it didn't demand Skittles or kick me in the spine). And on the way home after I had spent all weekend lifting and moving things? It felt more like 47 lbs on my back, but then again I really can't blame the fact that I'm out of shape on my luggage choice.

In the positive column, it DID help me catch a connecting flight I fully believe I would have missed if I was lugging a suitcase. I landed in Atlanta around 9:10 PM. My connecting flight departed at 9:47, which means boarding began right around the time my first flight landed. My connection turned out to be two terminals away, and then an escalator and EIGHTEEN gates down from where the skytrain dropped me off. No moving sidewalks, no shortcuts, just a small, tired girl with a big backpack and very limited time. I pulled my usual move of weaving quickly in and out of slower pedestrians and managed to land myself in the boarding line just as my zone was called, and I did it all without taking anyone out by dragging a suitcase behind me. I'm sure there are many more tests for it to pass before I fully embrace it as the permanent replacement, but it served me well this weekend and I stand by my backpack choice.

Do you have a great travel bag? Tell me about it in the comments!


Chrystina said...

As somebody who travels a lot I totally understand the importance of a good travel bag - and I'm super impressed how much you managed to fit in this one. And as for the 20 pounds, not bad, not great. Yay for keeping it simple and just using one bad though.

breakmydreams said...

Looks and sounds like a great travel bag :)
Hope it continues to work out for you in the future :)

Beebee Vavoom said...

I had a larger snags, pre-motherlode that I got way back in 2005. Its pink, and still kicking, just way to big for how I travel now, though still carry on compliant by size. 2 years ago I got the junior weekender, it has served me crazy well. 2 week to 2 month trips, mostly in Autumn, mostly in Europe. I am not a hiker, out of shape too, and also fly for bands :) I love this thing, keeps me organized. I've been flying WOW air across the water lately as its awesome and cheap, I pay a wee bit e,yes for weight, so it can go up to about 23 lbs carry on. Last 2 trips well below that at 18 lbs for 3 weeks and 5 weeks. Looked stylish, easy to find everything, and we were on trains buses, RyanAir and EasyJet. I don't know, I just live my turquoise bags weekend. Best damn thing ever. Oh, random, the waist belt it comes with is just not enough for me, I wanted something wider with some cushion to really distribute the weight, I totally McGyvered a black clip off clip off back pack waist strap from a pack at Goodwill that cost 60¢. I didn't want or need the bag, just the strap. So bought the bag for 50¢, then donated bag back. The hooks work great with my weekends, and when you are running through Barcelona Santa train station with 18lbs on your back in the heat, with an epic hangover, well, lets just day it helped, a lot. Epic hangovers aren't that cool at 44 years, lol. ANYWAY! From another "she who flies for gigs girl" loved your review and other stuff. Travel on :)

Beebee Vavoom said...

Not snags, EBags, on phone, at ANS, tired. Excuse any typos :)

Holly said...

Beebee- That waist strap sounds like an excellent hack to get a better fit! Thanks for the tip. I'm glad to hear I can probably count on this bag to last me for quite a while; I'm still loving it so far.