Carry-on travel backpacks for parents: What our globetrotting family chose and why

The story of how we found our ultimate backpacks for traveling the world as a family

The more we’ve traveled as individuals, as a couple, and as parents of a family of four, the more we’ve understood the power of less. Based on various mishaps and experiences, over the years we’ve packed less and less with every trip. As we started planning our long-term global family travels, we knew we were also ready to really ramp down our packing. At the same time, we wanted to travel not just light, but right. And for that, we parents wanted to have carry-on travel backpacks.

Our ideal his and hers travel backpacks would need to be spacious but not too big. Organized but not too persnickety with little useless pockets. And tough enough yet flexible enough to be chucked into the back of a taxi or smooshed under the seat of an airplane.

Too much of an ask?

Not at all.

Below is our comprehensive guide to the travel backpacks we parents rely on. Or, if you’d like something short and sweet, you can also check out our digital nomad backpack guide about our Allpas.

Shop the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L

We wanted to travel not just light, but right. And for that, we parents wanted to have carry-on travel backpacks.

Anthony and Jodie’s his-and-hers backpacks: The Cotopaxi Allpa 35L

@learnersandmakers

Hurry up and wait is a lot of getting ready for full-time family travel. 🙄 #digitalnomad #nomadfamily #familytravel #travelwithkids #fyp #travellife #nomad @Cotopaxi

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We poured through reviews, browsed on-the-shelf selections at travel and outdoor stores, and reflected on our prior experiences with various other backpacks we’ve used over the years. Ultimately, we chose the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L:

  • Clamshell opening design makes it easy to pack, unpack, and organize
  • Zippered compartments give a just-right amount of organization
  • Padded tech compartment secures our computers and accessories
  • Snazzy colors helped us score a his-and-her blue and purple set

We also found the Allpa 35L to be a good sweet spot budget wise. There are definitely cheaper backpacks, and you can also shell out more for your travel backpack. We were willing to spend a little extra, especially since we expect the Allpa to be our go-to carry-on backpacks for many years to come. At the same time, we found the Allpa’s price point a good balance of quality and affordability.

Shop the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L

We found the Allpa’s price point a good balance of quality and affordability.

Why backpacks, and why did we need to make this choice to begin with?

The Cotopaxi Allpa 35L is easy to shift, either on a back or a luggage rack.

Whether you need to pack for an overnight trip, a 2-week vacation, or a year traveling around the world, the luggage market is packed (ha-ha-ha ahem) with options. Sure, there are things like suitcases and roll-aboards. There are messenger-style bags and duffel bags, and there are certainly backpacks much larger and much smaller than our 35-liter hers-and-his choices.

So, why backpacks, and why the size we chose?

  • Carrying a suitcase sucks. They’re heavy, and you have to fist-squeeze a handle in one hand. Schlepping that over any distance is an exhausting, hand-cramping non-starter.
  • Duffel bags are unwieldy and lack good organizational compartments. While they can be good for some trips or activities, the shoulder strap design is not something we want to carry through an airport or up a rental’s spiral staircase after a long day getting into a new country.
  • Messenger-style bags are undersized duffel bags. Unless your travel style is incredibly minimalist, it’s probably not a realistic choice. (Granted, it could be; Anthony once knew a guy who was traveling the world with nothing but a small messenger-style bag.)
  • Smaller backpacks had too little storage space, especially given that we digital nomads are carrying the equipment we need for our business, such as our notebook computers and camera gear.
  • Larger backpacks took away our options for using our backpacks as personal items on planes. Admittedly, putting our packed-out Allpa 35Ls under an airplane is a bit of a squish. But we can do it, and that’s made it easier and cheaper with many of our flights.

We also like that 35L size is a good fit for Jodie. As an amputee who uses a prosthetic leg, Jodie works harder to carry loads like a backpack. With the Allpa 35L, she can carry her pack and get around the way she needs and wants.

We’re going to be gone at least a year, but we packed more like we’re traveling for a week.

Why you trust should us: Our prior experience with travel backpacks and us as a traveling family

The Cotopaxi Alloa's quick-access zip makes it easy to grab  things out of the pack, like this long-sleeve shirt, which came in handy during a chilly trans-Pacific flight from Los Angeles, USA, to Seoul, South Korea.
The Cotopaxi Alloa’s quick-access zip makes it easy to grab things out of the pack, like this long-sleeve shirt, which came in handy during a chilly trans-Pacific flight from Los Angeles, USA, to Seoul, South Korea.

Anthony has lived in a couple of different countries, and got his first large backpacker-style backpack when he was 20 and about to move to Scotland for a student exchange while in college. Over the years he’s traveled with large rolling suitcases, backpacks big and small, and even an attempt with a messenger bag.

Jodie has been an amputee since she was 13, and she has traveled throughout the US and the world with her trusty computerized prosthetic leg. As a mom, she has also traveled abroad with a backpack, a squirmy baby, and a rolling suitcase.

We first traveled abroad as parents when our son was 15 months old. Traveling throughout Japan, we wielded a combination of small backpacks, a small messenger-style bag as a shoulder-slung diaper bag, an Ergo for carrying Connor on Anthony’s back, and a small folding umbrella stroller that Jodie could shoulder carry thanks to a handy strap and some carabiners.

We focus our packing on taking the right amount of what our family needs and wants. When it comes to choosing the right products, we balance quality with durable, well-made, budget-friendly items that help us get the most out of our time traveling together as a family.

Our family is now traveling the world for at least a year. As we road-test our setup, we share our experiences on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and our family travel blog.

We didn’t pack for a year, we packed for a week

One of the secrets to being able to pack as a family with not a lot of luggage?

We’re going to be gone for at least a year, but we packed more like we’re traveling for a week. Actually, whether we’re packing for a week or a month or whatever, our overall packing doesn’t change a whole lot, except for some things about our larger trip which we’ll get to in a bit.

For clothing, we pack about a week’s worth of clothes, and we typically do laundry about every 7–10 days. (We’re also good at doing a little hand washing in the sink and line drying as necessary, such as with Jodie’s Wool& merino wool dresses.)

We used Rick Steves’s Packing List and Packing List for Women as starting points, with adjustments for our particular travel setup… and taking into account traveling with kids. (We’ll be talking more separately about our own family packing list and, or importantly, our family not-packing list.)

A few things we packed and didn’t pack?

Cold-weather gear

Didn’t pack. Our focus is on warm-weather climates right now. If that changes, we’ll alter our packing accordingly. But we didn’t need to pack bulky cold-weather items. Anthony didn’t even bring one of his hand-knit-by-Jodie man sweaters. However, each of us has a thermal underlayer shirt that can give us a warm boost when needed.

Rain jackets

Packed. We are going to areas that can have some rain, so we have our rain shells on hand just in case. Plus, if we do encounter some chilly weather, a rain shell can also help keep our body heat in when combined with our thermal underlayer.

Homeschool materials

While there are lots of school activities the kids fulfill using their tablets, we have a few items we packed for their schooling, such as:

  • Math book for Aster
  • Writing exercises and cursive books for both kids
  • A bag of pens, pencils, and markets
  • Music and rhythm book for practice
  • 3 sets of Rory’s Story Cubes (wee dice that we can roll and use for making up stories together)
  • Family journal and photo printer

Tech

In addition to homeschooling our kids, we parents are digital nomads and we run our own business. Our packing setup also needed to be able to comfortably and securely include:

  • Notebook computers and power adapters
  • External keyboards
  • External mice
  • Action cameras, digital camera, and accessories
  • Drone

We are definitely seeing our choices play out well though: The secret to traveling the world for at least a year as a family is not to pack for a year.

Instead, pack for a week.

Our traveling family’s full luggage setup

Backpack family heading to our gate in Portland, Oregon.
Backpack family heading to our gate in Portland, Oregon.

One of the reasons we waited until Aster was 7 and Connor was 10 to travel the world full-time as a family?

The kids would be old enough, strong enough, and have enough stamina to carry their own backpacks. Whether getting through the airport on a flying day or making our way to our accommodation in town, the kids needed to be able to carry their own stuff.

Here’s our traveling family’s full luggage setup

  • Anthony, Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Carry-on Travel Backpack (blue, naturally)
  • Jodie, Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Carry-on Travel Backpack (purple, of course)
  • Connor, Eagle Creek 30L Wayfinder Travel Backpack (blue, not because of Connor’s preference, but because this used to be Anthony’s, and as we made our travel plans we realized Connor was big enough to wear it)
  • Aster, REI Co-op Tarn 18L Kids Travel Backpack (red, because that’s what was in stock, plus she likes red, though not as much as pink or purple)
  • One 22” carry-on size rolling suitcase (which we sometimes check)
  • One 19” carry-on size rolling suitcase (which we sometimes check)
  • One 30” small duffel bag, which carries mobility and medical supplies for Jodie’s prosthetic leg

Since we have a combination of backpacks and two rollies, we can vary how we carry things. Sometimes the kids both wear their backpacks and move the rollies. Jodie often carries her medical duffel, but sometimes we also put the hand carry loops over the handle of one of the rollies and let it ride.

By wearing our carry-on travel backpacks, the entire family has their hands free. That helps us pass around rollies, get out phones and passports for going through security or immigration, and, of course, managing snacks, beverages, hand sanitizer, and all the other bits and bobs that go with being a traveling family.

Why the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L is our choice for carry-on travel backpacks

Choosing a full-on, carry-on, long-term travel backpack is no small choice, especially for busy, homeschooling, business-running, globetrotting parents. We considered other backpacks and brands, but the Cotopaxi really won us over.

For starters, it was a pack we kept seeing come up as a top pick in other travel recommendations, such as ones from Wirecutter and Travel and Leisure. Now, in full disclosure and to-be-honest mode, sometimes those sorts of picks actually put us off. Anthony is especially fond of Wirecutter, but sometimes finds their picks a little too design-focused. Similar with magazine selections, where a higher price point can often seem a determining factor.

However, we saw the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L pop up in enough rave reviews and best-backpack lists to get our attention. The more we learned, the more we realized we had indeed stumbled onto our backpack of choice.

Here’s why.

The clamshell opening makes packing and organization so much easier

Let’s start with the fundamental love-it-or-hate-it issue affecting most backpacks: Typically, a backpack opens at the top, into a big space below. Reaching for something can mean digging down into the bottom of the pack, without being able to see what you’re looking for, and often causing a big mess. This style of pack can also be harder to organize, especially when you aren’t using your backpack as a kid’s school book bag, but as your personal grownup luggage.

Cotopaxi is one of various makers who offer backpacks that open in a clamshell style. Instead of reaching into a blind bucket, you lay your pack down, unzip it on three sides, and boom, there’s your stuff. We find it easy to get what we need. Zipping the pack back up is fast, and we can keep on with what we wanted to do.

As a nod to further good design, the Allpa also has a quick-access zipper on one side. Cotopaxi color-codes this so it’s easy to tell at a glance which zipper you are going for. On Anthony’s Cotopaxi Allpa, the main clamshell zipper is purple. The quick-access is yellow-green, so there’s no mistaking which zipper pull Anthony is reaching for—especially handy when, say, positioning a backpack in a train’s overhead luggage shelf. Anthony usually keeps a couple of things close to the quick-access, such as a long-sleeve thermal shirt, for times when the plane or bus is a bit, shall we say, aggressively air conditioned.

Organizer pockets are overrated

Anthony has used backpacks that seem to have focused all their energy into designing teeny multipurpose pockets that wind up being useless. It’s easy to think that lots of little pockets for cards and books and pens and such are a sign of good organization. In reality, these pockets can easily just go unused.

Three pen pockets? Seriously? If you need a pen, you can carry one in your pocket.

A phone pouch? Half the time they’re too small for today’s phones. And why in the world would you have your phone in your backpack anyway? Odds are you’re using your phone to do everything from using Grab, Didi, or Uber to arrange a ride, you’re pulling up the PDF booking confirmation in your email so the bus agent can print your ticket, you’re texting your mom that you landed safely, or you’re doing some sort of activity like a game or social media or a language app.

On a practical level, dialing in too many little pockets wastes space.

Here are the Allpa’s different pockets

The clamshell opening makes it easy to pack, organize, and get stuff out of the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L.
The clamshell opening makes it easy to pack, organize, and get stuff out of the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L.

The clamshell main compartment and rear tech pocket (and how we use each)

The Allpa has a just-right balance of pouches and pockets. The main right-side compartment has a zippered mesh cover, keeping everything stowed inside the way you organized it. For Anthony, this is where he stashes our camera bag, the bag with our GoPro accessories, his toiletry bag, a collapsed daypack, and a packing cube with underclothes.

The left side of the main compartment breaks down into three main areas—with some handy under storage. Of the small top compartments, one holds the Allpa’s rainfly. Anthony uses the other to hang onto some receipts as well as our Lacie external hard drive. The larger compartment fits his main clothing packing cube.

Snugged between the main compartment and the Allpa’s breathable back padding, a tech pocket snugly holds Anthony’s laptop, tablet, plug, mouse, and external keyboard.

The at-the-ready top compartment

On top, however, is where Cotopaxi had to tackle the hard task of just enough but not too much organization. The top compartment is perfect for your on-the-day travel gear. And even this is actually two compartments in one, separated by zippered mesh. In the back side, Anthony keeps a few handy small items, such as sanitizing wipes, a travel container of chili powder, business cards, Learners and Makers stickers, lotion, and chapstick.

The front part of this compartment holds easy-grab essentials that Anthony wants close at hand while traveling. For Anthony, that’s things like his Kindle Paperwhite, a GoPro, our chopsticks and silverware bag, and a zip pouch that has charging bricks and cables. If we need a little extra luggage security, it’s also where Anthony stashes a coiled steel baggage cable.

How to get around that whole not having a water bottle carrier thing

We use carabiners and an elastic strap to secure our water bottles to the outside of our hers and his family travel backpacks.
We use carabiners and an elastic strap to secure our water bottles to the outside of our hers and his family travel backpacks.

With many backpacks, having a water bottle carrier on one side of the exterior, if not both sides, is pretty common. The biggest potential criticism of the Allpa has to do with it having no external pouch or pocket that can hold a water bottle. On a practical level, it would seem like it wouldn’t be hard to have included one. However, instead of having a dedicated pocket, Cotopaxi gave us customization.

The Cotopaxi Allpa 35L has a wonderful streamlined design. On the exterior, handles on each side mean you can grab this pack from pretty much any angle. The backpack straps tuck inside the padding, for times where you might be concerned about the straps snagging, or if you just don’t want the straps flapping about if you’re hand-carrying the bag or storing it in between trips.

At each corner of the bag, lash bands make it easy to snap on carabiners or other accessories. And that’s what we realized: we didn’t need a dedicated water bottle holder. We needed options.

If you happen to see us with our backpacks, for starters, please come say hi! (Plus we’ll give you Learners and Makers stickers.)

But seriously. If you see us wearing our backpacks, you’ll also notice that our 24-oz. water bottles are securely attached, even though the Allpa 35L doesn’t come with a water bottle pocket. We attach a carabiner to a top corner, which snaps onto the carry ring on our water bottles. On the bottom corner, an elastic band hooks around the bottom of the water bottle and keeps it stowed, secured and steady.

Is a water bottle holder nice? Sure. But it’s not essential. The Allpa’s design instead makes it easier for you to lash on whatever you need, including a water bottle.

Our carry-on experience taking the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L on board planes, trains, boats, buses, and taxis in different countries

As of writing this, Jodie and Anthony have taken their hers and his Cotopaxi Allpa 35L travel packs on road trips, ferries, trains, and airplanes. Our Allpas have gone through airport security, endured a full bag search, been stuffed into the trunks of taxis, and fallen a couple of times. We’ve wandered with our packs up and down busy streets, through hot climates, and while rushing through a busy airport in order to make our flight. Our Allpas have been squashed under airplane seats, lashed to the supports of bus and train overhead storage compartments, and ridden on laps.

During a mad dash through Mexico City’s airport, Anthony even wore both his and Jodie’s Allpas (his on his back, hers on his front), while Jodie took a wheelchair so we could make it to our gate in time. Was it the most comfortable backpacking experience? Of course not. But given the circumstances, the load actually didn’t feel all that bad—and even doubled up, the padded straps were still surprisingly comfy.

In short, we traveling parents have now road-tested these backpacks across many types of transportation, carried them under all sorts of conditions, and used these packs across two continents.

And we love them.

The Cotopaxi Allpa 35L is the most comfortable and well organized backpack Anthony has ever used

Off all the backpacks Anthony has ever worn, the Allpa has been the best organized and most comfortable. Its design and padded straps have made for a well-supported carry without shoulder or back fatigue. The compartments can be easily secured with carabiners or locks for deterrence security, yet it’s easy to get into what you need, when you need to.

For Jodie, the results have been even more striking. Given her prosthetic leg, how her backpack carries  on her torso can make all the difference in how well Jodie can move around without exhaustion or pain.  The Allpa spreads its load well throughout Jodie’s torso. The waist straps come at a good spot on her body so that the top of her prosthetic doesn’t get rubbed or caught.

What’s the same and what’s different about what we pack in our Cotopaxi Allpas?

Naturally, every traveler will pack their pack the way they need, and every person’s packing needs and wants are different. Given that our kids are now old enough to carry their own backpacks too, how we pack our backpacks as parents is also different than it would have been, say, when we also had little ones who needed diapers or might still go into a baby carrier on Anthony’s back.

Our current packing reflects the state of our lives. In addition to homeschooling/worldschooling Aster and Connor, we also run a publishing business. That entails various tech, such as each of us having a laptop. We also have camera gear, though we try to keep that somewhat minimal so everything can still fit into our backpacks.

Here’s how each of us packs out our Allpas:

Anthony’s Allpa

The left side of the Allpa's main compartment in Anthony's travel pack.
The left side of the Allpa’s main compartment in Anthony’s travel pack.

Orange Top Compartment 

  • Kindle Paperwhite
  • GoPro
  • Zippered bag of charging cords
  • Zippered mesh bag of chopsticks and “spices” (plastic combo forks, spoons, and knives)
  • Apple Pencil
  • Power Bank
  • Sanitizing wipes
  • Business cards 
  • Learners and Makers stickers
  • Sunglasses (plus carry bag and cleaning cloth)
  • Chapstick 
  • Baggie with sunblock, lotion, and sanitizer
  • Gum
  • Travel shaker of chile powder

Main Compartment

Left Side, Top
  • Top left: Rainfly
  • Top right: XHD
  • Behind inner top compartments: Envelope with copies of documents and passport photos 
Left Side, Bottom
  • Big clothing packing cube
  • Travel bidet
Right Side
The right side of the Allpa's main compartment in Anthony's travel pack.
The right side of the Allpa’s main compartment in Anthony’s travel pack.
  • Camera bag
  • GoPro accessory bag
  • Small clothing packing cube
  • Blue daypack
  • Toiletry bag (for Anthony and the kids)
  • House key and mailbox key (you know, should we ever go home again someday)

Tech Pocket

  • Laptop computer
  • External keyboard
  • Mouse
  • Charging cord and adapter
  • Tablet

Jodie’s Allpa

Orange Top Compartment 

  • Kindle Paperwhite
  • Zippered bag of charging cords
  • Sanitizing wipes
  • Learners and Makers stickers
  • Sunglasses (plus carry bag and cleaning cloth)
  • Gum
  • Sleep Mask

Main Compartment

Left Side, Top
  • Top left: Rainfly
  • Top right: Charger for Jodie’s prosthetic leg
  • Behind inner top compartments: Bag of period supplies and bag of jewelry
Left Side, Bottom
  • Purse
  • Leg Charger
  • Travel scarves
  • Period supplies
Right Side
  • 2 Clothing Packing cubes
  • Drone
  • Jewelry
  • Tripod

Tech Pocket

  • Laptop computer
  • External keyboard
  • Mouse
  • Charging cord and adapter

What this backpack is for…and what it’s not

As much as we dig our Allpas, like any product, it is not necessarily the right choice for every traveler. 

If you need to pack more but still want one bag, Cotopaxi offers a slightly larger pack too.

For someone who is packing out additional tech or A/V gear than what we carry, a pack built more around equipment carry may be a better fit. 

The hiker, backpacker, or camper who needs a pack on the trail will likely not be considering the Allpa 35L. This pack is geared much more toward non-trail travel. Could it work on the trail though? Probably. But odds are you could find a pack designed much more for camping or hiking, especially when it comes to shaving off ounces from your pack weight.

On the road, we use our Allpas like suitcases. When we get to our accommodation, we unpack the backpacks, put things away, and typically tuck the Allpas into a closet. For a day-to-day on the go pack, we use a stowable daypack that folds into its own pocket.

Quirks, flaws, cons, and how we work around them

As we mentioned, the lack of a water bottle carrier is usually considered the biggest workaround needed for the Allpa, but that’s also something that’s easy enough to work around. Sometimes stowing the straps can be a little tricky, but that seems to be getting easier with practice.

We travel with both a tablet and a laptop—not an uncommon scenario nowadays—and find that the tech pocket can be a tight fit. However, since Anthony travels not only with these but an external keyboard, he’s also really pushing what the tech pocket can hold. We could probably trim space by putting our tablet in a slimmer case, but that’s not been a priority at this point.

We’ve road-tested our Allpas across continents, on multiple forms of transportation, and in varying states of feeling excited, tired, or even pretty ill.

Other carry-on travel backpacks we considered

With so much selection, figuring out the right pack can be so tricky—especially if you are ordering online. If you go to a store, sure, you can try things on, but the selection will inherently be more limited. Online, though, you might not be able to test the fit, but generally today’s online options have more than enough visuals, info, and reviews to help you feel confident about your choice when you’ve identified a solid contender.

As we considered backpacks, here are a few others that weighed into our decision:

Tortuga Outbreaker. We really like Tortuga, and for a while they actually were our frontrunner. However, the overall design of the Allpa made it a better fit.

We have been longtime fans of Osprey and Eagle Creek, but ultimately weren’t finding packs from them that meshed up with our priorities and preferences. The clamshell design of the Allpa was a seal-the-deal feature for us, and overall preferred Cotopaxi’s slim yet packed-out design and carryability.

At every stage, our Cotopaxi Allpa 35L travel packs have impressed us with their design, comfort, and yes, those lovely hers and his colors.

The Cotopaxi Allpa 35L is a take-anywhere choice for your family’s carry-on travel backpacks

Freshly arrived at the bus station in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and ready to go.
Freshly arrived at the bus station in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and ready to go.

From Jodie using a prosthetic leg as a traveler to packing light while traveling the world with two kids, picking the right travel backpack was one of our most important choices as a globetrotting family. Having the right pack helps us conserve energy, get easy access to what we need, and stores our essentials with overall safety and comfort.

We’ve road-tested our Allpas across continents, on multiple forms of transportation, and in varying states of feeling excited, tired, or even pretty ill. At every stage, our Cotopaxi Allpa 35L travel packs have impressed us with their design, comfort, and yes, those lovely hers and his colors. For an all-in-one travel backpack, the Allpa is a solid choice for the family traveler on the go, wherever you’re going.

Shop the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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