What to Pack in a Carry On Backpack

by Jeanne
Airport Luggage Travel Anxiety SeaTac Airport

We like to travel light, so we stick with a carry-on bag when we can. Yes, there are times when large luggage is a must (like on longer trips or when I took an empty suitcase to Koreatown LA to go grocery shopping), but we try to be minimalist. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting my packing list for what to pack in a carry on backpack. 

If you’re planning to downsize, it’s a good idea to check the carry-on allowance on different airlines before your next flight. Some low-cost airlines are incredibly stingy with space, so using the right backpack can make a huge difference. What you pack will depend on the types of trips you’re taking, but the travel items listed in this blog post should get you off to a good start! 

What’s in this post:

  • Choosing a carry-on backpack
  • Travel essentials
  • Health and wellness
  • Electronic devices
  • Snacks and drinks

Heads up – This post contains affiliate links for your convenience, and we may earn a very small commission if you make a purchase through an affiliate link. 

Choosing a Carry-On Backpack

Backpacks come in all shapes and sizes, and while you might be able to get away with the kind you’d use to go to school, you’ll probably need something a bit bigger and more structured. If you’re planning to use a small backpack for air travel, again, it’s essential to know the size limit set by your airline. Then, verify the actual dimensions since it might look like a smaller bag than it actually is. 

Man standing at airport with carry-on backpack

Things to consider when picking a carry on backpack:

  • Are the shoulder straps adjustable and comfortable?
  • Does the front pocket allow easy access to smaller items?
  • Will it meet carry-on size requirements from airlines?
  • Is it practical for airport security checks?
  • Can it hold packing cubes? (a must for us!)
  • Do you need a laptop compartment or laptop sleeve?
  • Is the main compartment large enough for your needs?
  • Does it include a back panel and/or side pockets?
  • Will it fit under the seat or need to go in the overhead bin?
  • Is the weight limit something you can handle?
  • Does it match your travel style?

We know that many people will consider bags like the Tortuga Setout to be the gold standard — and they are. In the pandemic, I’ve found it hard to justify the price for the amount of traveling I’m doing. Unless you’re doing a lot of traveling right now, try something more affordable and play around with it to see what you really like and need. Then, invest in a more expensive bag (if you need to). 

Our Favorite Travel Backpack: eBags Mother Lode Travel Backpack

We’ve been on budget airlines like Spirit and Allegiant with this backpack stuffed and never had a problem. I’m not saying you won’t or that we won’t in the future, but no one’s ever looked at us twice. We’ve been thrilled because this backpack (exterior dimensions – 22″ X 14″ X 9″) *almost* has everything we need! 

The main issue for me is the lack of a trolley sleeve. When we travel with a rolling suitcase, it’s just so much more convenient to be able to slide your backpack onto the handle while making your way through the airport. 

For Business Travelers: Samsonite Xenon 3.0 Slim Backpack

Are you heading out on a business trip? This bag holds a 15.6-inch laptop in a padded compartment designed to absorb shocks while traveling. With multiple pockets and a main compartment for carrying your personal items, you’ll have enough space for everything you need. 

The overall dimensions are 16.5 x 12 x 6 inches, and the Smart Sleeve allows the backpack to slide onto the upright handle on rolling carry-on bags or larger luggage. 

Best Travel Backpack with Packing Cubes: Asenlin 40L Travel Backpack

If you’re looking for a very affordable carry-on backpack, look no further. This one even comes with three custom-made packing cubes! I’ll admit that we haven’t used this, but it stood out due to its excellent ratings on Amazon! 

The exterior dimensions are 18.5 x 12.5 x 9.5; it holds up to a 17-inch laptop and has a trolley sleeve. If I’m honest, I’m probably going to have to buy one of these very soon because it’s pretty great! 

Travel Essentials

Once you’ve found the perfect travel backpack, it’s time to get ready. Sticking with carry-on bags is a great way to travel, but you need to learn how to pack light. Most of us are guilty of packing too much stuff when we travel anyway!

Make sure you have the following in a pocket that is easy to access quickly when needed (especially if it’s an emergency):

  • Travel documents, passport/identification
  • Credit cards
  • Extra money/cash
  • Health and travel insurance

Of course, you’ll also need clothing for your trip. It’s easier to keep everything organized if you use packing cubes (we love these!), but you can also use Ziploc bags or even rubber bands. What you bring will depend on the type of trip and the weather at your destination, so you’ll need to decide if you need a warm jacket or a bathing suit. On the blog GetService, we saw them reference the classic 1 to 6 rule. 

Here’s what that looks like:

  • 1 hat
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 3 pairs of pants
  • 4 shirts
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 6 pairs of underwear

We try to put the bulkier items at the bottom of our backpack so that the things we will need on our flight (like headphones or snacks) are on top. We also bring a packable daypack like this one from Eagle Creek. It takes up so little space but is lightweight and spacious when exploring our destination. 

Health & Wellness

When gathering essential items for your trip, the first thing you should pack is your daily medication. The last thing you need is to get to your destination and realize you’ve left it behind. I’ve got a small pill organizer that I use when I’m away so that I don’t have to take the big bottles with me.

Here’s a list of health and wellness items you should consider among what to pack in your carry on backpack:

  • Prescription medication 
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Extra masks
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Earplugs
  • Contact lenses and solution
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Facial wipes
  • Travel brush or comb
  • Hair ties
  • Lip balm
  • Tissues
  • Lotion
  • Deodorant
  • Compression socks (to prevent blood clots on a long haul flight)
  • Eye mask
  • Travel pillow
  • Flip flops (to wear in your hotel room)
  • Plastic bag (for storing garbage during flight)

The first thing we do is sanitize our seats, armrests, and tray table to avoid getting sick on our flight. We’ve done this for many years and have always recommended it. While we don’t use eye masks, travel pillows, or earplugs, it’s important to get rest on your flight if you can. If this helps you take a nap, don’t leave home without them! 

Electronic Devices

We don’t usually bring our full-size laptops with us, but we know many people do. We use the laptop pocket for our small Chromebook, though. It’s also a good spot for tablets! 

We use an organizer for keeping our earbuds, splitter (because we like to watch shows and movies together), and chargers in one place. We’ve been known to put these items in baggies also, though! 

Here are some electronic devices you may want to pack in your carry on backpack:

  • Noise-canceling headphones or earbuds
  • Phone and device chargers
  • Laptop, tablet, or Kindle
  • Portable Wi-Fi (we use the Skyroam Solis)
  • Portable battery
  • Splitter (if you plan to listen to music or watch something together on one device)
  • Power adapter

Unless it’s fragile, we put our electronics in the front pocket of our backpack so that we don’t have to go digging through the main compartment. 

Snacks & Drinks

Ever think back to the old days when you’d get on a flight, and they served all kinds of goodies? I remember being very young and being on the receiving end of a seemingly unlimited supply of apple juice (served in a glass!) on a flight to Jamaica! 

Unless you’re flying First Class, those days are over. You never really know what you’re going to get on a flight, and sometimes you may even have to pay. That’s why I try to bring my own snacks and drinks, especially for long flights. 

Here’s what we pack:

  • Reusable water bottles (collapsible ones one take extra space!)
  • Gatorade/Powerade/Propel (purchased at the airport, in side pockets)
  • Mixed nuts or trail mix in individual packets
  • Jerky/Slim Jims
  • Ritz Cheese and Crackers
  • Muffins or Croissants
  • Pretzels
  • Dried fruit

I’m a person with severe food allergies. I’m allergic to fish, seafood, and citrus fruits, and it makes me feel physically ill when I’m trapped on an airline with strong smells. One of my favorite people is allergic to peanuts, so I’m mindful of that too. 

On top of that, “Forty-eight percent of airplane passengers surveyed by the airport shuttle service GO Airport Express said they considered it rude to bring food with strong odors onto planes.” One smelly fruit even grounded an entire flight. Don’t be that person! 

Reconsider packing the following:

  • Whole oranges
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Peanut butter sandwiches
  • Blue or Camembert cheese
  • Onions
  • Kimchi (so sad)
  • Hot broccoli
  • Strong smelling garlic
  • Anything that requires refrigeration

Whether it’s food allergies, pregnancies, or something else, try to consider those who might be sensitive to smells on your flight. 

Traveling with a Carry On Backpack

Whether it’s a short trek or an overnight flight, your carry on backpack will be your best friend. Narrowing it down to the best backpacks is a matter of personal preference, and you’ll need to weigh several factors. The most important? What are you packing?

Make a list of things you’ll need whenever you travel. Don’t think about one specific trip, but in general. This will help you figure out the kind of bag to buy. This will also determine the ideal size of your backpack. 

Most airlines allow travelers to bring one small personal item, but you need to know the rules ahead of time. Before you purchase or pack a carry on backpack, make sure it meets the size requirements. You don’t want to miss your flight (or be forced to abandon your things) by overlooking this step. 

We hope this guide helped you prepare for your next trip. Happy (and safe) travels!

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