A few months ago, Alex Cox put out a call on Twitter asking for someone to help her find a backpack that would suit her needs. She’d tried a bunch, and found all of them lacking.

I have a small obsession with bags, suitcases, and backpacks. For probably 15 years now, I’ve been hunting for the “the perfect bag”. Along this journey, I’ve attained bag enlightenment, and I’m here to impart that knowledge to you today.

Here’s the deal. You won’t find a perfect bag. This is for one simple reason: the perfect bag doesn’t exist. I know this because, at the time of writing, I own 4 rolling suitcases, 3 messenger bags, 3 daily carry backpacks, 2 travel backpacks, and 3 duffel bags/weekenders. They’re all stuffed inside each other, stacked in a small closet in my apartment, my Russian nesting travel bags.

And every last one is a compromise in some way or another.

These compromises are very apparent if you troll Kickstarter for travel backpacks. You’ll find tons: the Minaal, NOMATIC, PAKT One, Brevitē, Hexad, Allpa, RuitBag, Numi, and the aptly named DoucheBags. Their videos all start exactly the same: “We looked at every bag on the market, and found them lacking. We then spent 2 years designing our bag and sourcing the highest quality zippers, and we’re finally ready to start producing this bag.” They then go through the 5 features that they think makes their bag different from the rest, talk about a manufacturer they’ve found, and then they hit you with the “and that’s where you come in” and ask you for money.

Once you watch the first of these videos, the argument is somewhat compelling. Wow, they’ve really figured it out! But once you’ve seen five of them, you know there must be something else going on. How could all these different bag startups claim that each other’s products are clearly inferior and that only they have discovered the secret to bag excellence?

To understand what makes bags so unsatisfying, here’s a quote from Joel Spolsky:

When you design a trash can for the corner, you have to make choices between conflicting requirements. It needs to be heavy so it won’t blow away. It needs to be light so the trash collector can dump it out. It needs to be large so it can hold a lot of trash. It needs to be small so it doesn’t get in peoples’ way on the sidewalk.

It’s the same with bags. You need a big bag so that it can fit all your stuff, but you need a small bag to avoid hitting people on public transit. You need a bag with wheels so you can roll it through the airport, but you need a bag with backpack straps so that you can get over rougher terrain with it. You need a bag that’s soft so you can squish it into places, but you need a bag that’s hard so that it can protect what’s inside.

These competing requirements can’t be simultaneously satisfied. You have to choose one or the other. You can’t have it both ways.

In Buddhism, they say “there is no path, there are only paths.” It’s the same with bags. Once you accept that all bags are some form of compromise, you can get a few different bags and use the right one for the right trip.

Sometimes I want to look nice and need to carry a laptop: leather messenger bag. Sometimes I want to have lots of space and flexibility even if I look kind of dorky: my high school backpack. Sometimes I have a bunch of a camera gear and I’m going to be gone for 3 weeks: checked rolling suitcase. Picking the right bag for the trip lets me graduate from “man, I wish I’d brought a bigger to bag” to “bringing a bigger bag would have been great, but then I wouldn’t have been able to jump on this scooter to the airport”. Less regret, more acceptance.

It’s worth thinking about how you like to travel, what types of trips you take, what qualities you value having in your bags, and getting a few bags that meet those requirements. Of the 14 bags I mentioned earlier, I think I’ve used 12 of them this year for different trips/events.

Finding the right bags takes time. I’ve had the oldest of my 14 bags for some 15 years, and got the newest of them in the last year. Some bags of note:

  • Kathmandu Shuttle 40L — This is my current favorite travel backpack. It’s pretty much one giant pocket, so doesn’t prescribe much in terms of how you should pack, and that flexibility is really nice. Kathmandu is an Australian company, so getting their stuff can be kind of tough, but I’m pretty happy with my pack.
  • I also really like the Osprey Stratos 34. It’s a bit on the small side, but a good addition to a rolling suitcase for a longer trip. It’s great for day hikes and has excellent ventilation.
  • Packable day packs: This backpack and this duffel bag are great. They add very little extra weight to your stuff, and they allow you to expand a little bit whe you get wherever you’re going.
  • Wirecutter’s recommendation for travel backpacks at the time of writing is the Osprey Farpoint 55. It used to be the Tortuga Outbreaker, which I think is absolutely hideous.

Accept that no one bag will work in every situation. The truth will set you free.