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Searching for my "Unicorn" bag

Please help me find my “unicorn” bag. I’ve spent hours and hours looking online and am so frustrated. I don’t need a name brand bag and I am willing to pay $$ for the right bag. Here’s my wish list…

Must have:
Convertible backpack (wheeled bags need not apply)
Carry-on size (40-ish liters, 22 x 14 x 9 inches)
Shoulder strap for crossbody carry
Stowable backpack straps
Clamshell, not top load
Wide open internal space (I’ve got packing cubes and I know how to use them)

Nice to have:
Hip belt
Subdued colors, rather than basic black or neon bright

Prefer not to have:
External cinch straps or other “technical” straps (I’m more of a minimalist)
Laptop sleeve or other padded device area
“Office” organization (pens, cards, etc. – that’s what my personal item is for)
Water bottle holder (and other features that catch on every thing I walk by)

For the past ten years, I’ve used Rick’s Convertible Carry-On, and it has many of the things I want, but I really dislike the external compression straps and the mesh water bottle holders. My favorite bag is my Osprey Arcane Duffel Bag, but it’s only 30L. Many articles recommend the Peak Design Travel Backpack, and I love that it can expand from 40 to 45 liters and also can snap down to 35 liters, but all the different access points in the main cavity seems like a security nightmare.

So, my fine friends, does anyone have any recommendations that hit most of my wants in a carry-on convertible backpack?

By convertible, you mean cross body or backpack, correct?
Does it have to be 22” long? That seems kind of long for a cross body bag. You may need to look at convertible weekender bags. These usually do not open clamshell style. This really may be a unicorn bag. There are convertible bags. The stated dimensions seem boxy and awkward to carry cross body.

Posted by
8520 posts

How about the Cotopaxi Allpa - 35 or 42 L? Might find one of the colors subdued.

Posted by
701 posts

I read your Must Have and went right to the Cotopaxi 35L. Pretty sure you’ll hear from Jean-she LOVES hers.

One drawback might be color as they are pretty rich, but oh so fun!

Posted by
86 posts

You and I were on the same hunt and came to the same conclusions! I was disappointed the 35 liter Osprey seems to be discontinued but it didn't have the non- hiking look I was after, anyway. Also, as an older solo traveler at 5"2" I didn't want to look like a backpacker. I went to my local REI where they had the 40 liter Peak Design and Coxapatli (as well as some others from my researching). Being able to actually see the features in person and try them on in front of a mirror was really helpful- could that work for you?
I chose the midnight blue Peak Design in the 35 liter, the 40 looked big on me. It's very sleek and about as unobtrusive as a backpack can be. Even the solid Coxapatli options are too vivid for my very neutral taste. I am not sure what you mean by the access points issue on the interior, unless the 40 is very different. The only weird (to me) opening besides the exterior zippers is on the side where there's a small opening you could theoretically keep an ID -or? It's too small for a passport anyway.
I am hopeful this is going to work for 3 weeks this summer, a mix of hiking and cities with lots of trains. I am going to take a zip-into-itself little duffel in case any purchases don't end up fitting. And use only a small crossbody and moneybelt for phone, passport, etc.

Posted by
21 posts

Cotopaxi Allpa 35L - have used it for 2 14 day trips, fits overhead bins easily, comfortable to carry. You can buy attachments for water bottles also. Many color options on their website, although they do favor the bright colors.

Posted by
86 posts

Thank you for all the suggestions! I'll look into them and report back.

Sun-Baked in Florida: To clarify, "crossbody" wasn't the best way for me to describe using a shoulder strap; I was trying to differentiate between a shoulder strap and the backpack straps. What I'm hoping for is to be able to carry it three ways: backpack, shoulder strap, and handle on the bag. It doesn't need to be 22" long, that's just the dimensions given by the big three US domestic airlines.

Bon voyage!: Yup, the exterior zippers on the sides. The videos show they line up with their specialized camera packing cubes, which I don't have or need. Tell me more about your Peak Design in 35L - is it the backpack or the travel duffel?

For all the recommendations for Cotopaxi, I may have dismissed it because of the bright colors, so I'll need to go back (with sunglasses on!) and take another look.

Posted by
1386 posts

I use the now discontinued Osprey Fairview 40L XS. Because it is XS, it's 38L not 40L. It clamshells and has stowable backpack straps and hipbelt and stowable shoulder strap. I have used it as a backpack, shoulder bag and with just the handles. It does not have a separate laptop sleeve in the back. It does have exterior compression straps and a front pocket for organization. Because of the bulky design of the Osprey I got the Cotopaxi 35L in a solid light blue (no sunglasses required). I gave it to a friend. The Cotopaxi has interior zippered mesh pockets which do not work with my packing cubes. And I am a dedicated packing cube user. The newly designed Osprey Fairview and Farpoint now have laptop sleeves in the back. The Fairview also has an adjustable shoulder harness (which is why they don't need the XS size). The adjustable shoulder harness makes the bag even bulkier and heavier. If you haven't already ruled out the Osprey Fairview/Farpoint try to get one used from REI. That way you will at least eliminate the adjustable harness and the laptop sleeve.

Posted by
86 posts

Thank you all for your suggestions! Some are definitely contenders. A couple follow up questions and a comment:

  • Anyone here have experience with a 45L being rejected/gate checked as too large? I know it is a possibility on some airlines, but on American/Delta/United does a "normal" 45L fit in the sizer?
  • Several of the bags have an internal mesh divider that splits the bag into two or three large compartments. I really like my packing cubes and I wonder if the mesh is compatible with packing cubes. Anyone have any experience with this?
  • Some of the Cotopaxi colors aren't too bad!

The llbean one has “tongue” shaped, zippered flaps. (I don’t have this bag.). You can probably just lay your cubes in the bags and zipper the mesh flap over the cubes. Alternatively, looks like you could roll up the mesh flap and tuck inside the bag and ignore it.

Posted by
1216 posts

External compression straps allow you to squeeze down the contents so that your bag can fit any sizer. Also, the external straps keep a loosely packed bag from flopping around or having all the contents sag to the bottom of the bag.

Posted by
441 posts

I fly almost exclusively on AA. I have seen some huge backpacks go on flights, so I think if you are taking a 45 L backpack, there shouldn't be any issue at all taking it onto the plane. I've never seen a gate agent on AA make a passenger put a backpack into a bag sizer, either. AA often requires gate checking bags with rollers if the passenger is in one of the latter boarding groups, but I have never seen them say a word about a backpack..

In reading your description of your preferred backpack, I you might check out the Ebags Motherlode Junior backpack. It has stowable backpack straps and measures 19.5 x 14 x 9 inches so approximately 40 L and weighs about 2 3/4 pounds. I have one and it holds so much and it opens up like a suitcase. I have tried to figure out a way to make it a crossbody but haven't been successful at finding a way. I would carry it more often but it isn't that comfortable on me (about 5'4").

Posted by
1327 posts

I really want the bag Hermione Granger uses in the last Harry Potter movie. A smallish sized handbag, that can contain clothes for three people, A family sized tent, and a medium sized library.

Posted by
19 posts

Patagonia or Tom Bihn - I have the Patagonia MLC 45 litre and is a very nice bag and have had not trouble using it as carry on. However I mostly use the Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30 as it hits the sweet spot in size for me. They also make an Aeronaut 45. TB is not cheap but excellent quality. Patagonia middle range in terms of price but I have several of both these makes (a bit of a bag problem, like so many others on this forum) and the quality is so good with both.

Posted by
86 posts

l.p.enersen - that sounds ideal! LOL

I think I need to put all this great info into a spreadsheet and rank them, then take a field trip to REI to check some of them out. Thank you all!

Posted by
86 posts

khansen - interesting option, and I don't hate the colors. Currently sold out on the site, but it's going on my spreadsheet. Thanks!

Posted by
246 posts

Posted by SueH OP

khansen - interesting option, and I don't hate the
colors. Currently sold out on the site, but it's going on my
spreadsheet. Thanks!

Check out their other styles too. They have some "regular" looking backpacks and suitcases too.

One thing I thought was good was their rolling backpack, which I know you don't want. But the backpack straps are on the front of the bag, so when worn, the wheels are on the outside and the zippers against your body. Having exposed zippers while wearing a backpack is one of the things I would not like about wearing one.

Posted by
1386 posts

I was at the REI flagship store last night and saw the topo design 30L bag. It looks good, with a streamlined appearance. It has two large mesh zipper compartments on one side of the bag which I think can be “ignored” if using packing cubes. My one personal objection to the bag is that it is longer, 22”, than the Cotopaxi 35 or osprey 40. That length could present problems on the budget European airlines. And uncomfortable for a shorter torso. I think it lacks an internal frame so it would be squashable. Good for carry on, bad if you will be doing a lot of walking while carrying the bag.

Posted by
86 posts

Thanks and adding to my list. I hope to review these options over the weekend.

Posted by
7343 posts

Hi Sue, I’m back from our Spain trip, so I can comment on the Cotopaxi 35L. Mine is a Pacific blue with black sides & back so no sunglasses needed - LOL! And, yes, I do love it!

You could still use packing cubes which I always did previously with my roller bag. But, I found clothes stay in place well on the right side half of this clamshell without them. I place my toiletry rectangular bag at the bottom, pants or dresses above, and shirts at the top of that side.

I do still place underwear in an old RS mesh drawstring bag. And I use a gallon Ziploc bag for my misc. stuff. Both of those are on the left half of the clamshell.

If you don’t want to carry it as wearing a backpack, I don’t think you will like it, though. It’s not a crossbody or duffel design. If that’s important to you, pass on this one.