The perfect carry-on bag or backpack has several key characteristics: lightweight, efficient, slim, modular, and most importantly it must fit various aircraft storage dimensions. This can be extremely difficult because overhead storage bins and under seat storage areas vary depending on the aircraft on which you are flying.
Unfortunately, you can't plan a trip around the specific storage space of your particular aircraft. As great as Google Flights and SeatGuru are, they simply don't have information that granular (yet). We don't know which aircraft have been retrofitted with new overhead bins such as Boeing Space Bins or the Airbus Airspace XL Bins and which airframes still sport the old, smaller bin designs. This creates a challenge for us when we’re trying to decide what carry on bag to bring with us on our flight.
Under seat storage areas are equally unpredictable. Some aircraft have IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) hardware in the footwell that take up a significant amount of space that interferes with your foot space/legroom. Trying to store a relatively average size backpack in an already crowded space is quite the challenge. New aircraft are being equipped with stream-to-device capability which has allowed airlines to remove the under seat IFE hardware. Unfortunately streaming-equipped aircraft are not yet universal and this level of information is also not readily available.
This brings us back to our original question, “What makes a great carry on bag or backpack?” First, you need to decide backpack or roller board suitcase? I strongly prefer a backpack over a roller board suitcase for three main reasons:
1. Efficiency: backpacks do not waste a single cubic inch to wheels and handles, allowing you to use every cubic inch of storage volume your carry-on luggage footprint can muster.
2. Connections: I have to catch a connecting flight more than half of the time I fly and sometimes that means running across increasingly large terminals. Rolling suitcases don't "run" well. So, there are actually two lessons here: do your cardio and make sure you can run with your carry-on lest you miss your connection and waste even more time in an airport terminal that is not your final destination. Backpacks "run" better than any roller board I've ever used.
3. Versatility: I can use a backpack when I'm on the ground at my destination for business meetings, tourism and hiking/outdoor adventures.
Now that we have decided on a backpack for our carry-on bag, let's dive deeper into the advantages a backpack offer. Backpacks fit in all of the different compressed spaces that you may encounter, regardless of which aircraft you choose (or are assigned). Increasingly, for 2-5 hour flights where 90% of our travel is done (mostly domestic travel, but single-aisle aircraft on international routes are increasingly common in this era of ETOPS-everything) means you are likely flying on one of two families of single-aisle aircraft: the Boeing 737 (the most popular commercial airliner ever built) or the Airbus A320.
As the Embraer E-Jet, rebranded Airbus A220/C-Series and Mitsubishi Regional Jet gain in popularity, the in-flight storage challenges discussed in this article will only increase. However, the Vertx EDCU Gamut fits well even in the confined spaces of the Canadair CRJ-200 overhead bins which is no easy task!
An expandable bag with a detachable "in-seat essentials pod" (MacBook, Bose Headphones, IcePlate) would be ideal. If you are on an aircraft that has limited storage space you can keep your bag in its original configuration. If you happen to be on an aircraft with a larger storage area you would be able to expand your bag and utilize the added storage space, precisely filling the available dimensions on any given flight. Either way, the detachable "in-seat essentials pod" would allow you stow your bag in the overhead bin quickly to get out of the aisle during the boarding process even quicker. No more "in-frequent flyer boarding faux pas."
Unfortunately, if this bag exists, I haven’t found it yet.
The next best alternative is the Vertx EDC Gamut. If you're looking for an “around the town” bag the EDC Gamut is easily the best bag I've found. I'm not just saying that, I'm constantly on the quest to find the perfect travel bag and despite this perpetual search, I’ve been running the EDC Gamut everyday for nearly three years and over 200,000 "butt-in-seat" miles on four airlines.
I particularly like the multitude of external pockets in the Vertx EDC Gamut design. You are not limited to one or two internal storage compartments. In fact, there are five pockets that can be accessed easily with the bag in a confined space such as the overhead bin. The nature of confined aircraft spaces often prevents you from accessing your entire bag for fear of either disrupting other passengers nearby or creating a mess in the overhead bin and standing in the aisle way too long. Having multiple external storage pockets allows you to store essential items in a manner that can be easily accessed without having to open up your entire bag. I might need items such as my laptop charger, iPad, snacks, first aid kit, notepad, or my laptop mid-flight. The Vertx EDC Gamut allows me to access those items without having to move my entire bag (difficult) or remove it from a confined storage area (see previous: "in-frequent flyer faux pas"), putting the "carry-on Jenga puzzle" in the overhead bin at risk.
There are many bags that have a multitude of pockets, but the Vertx EDC Gamut by far has some of the most well thought out and intuitive designs that I have encountered. The pockets practically tell you how to pack the bag. With two external side pockets, a top flap zipper-pocket and a hide-out external front flap with internal MOLLE, you have multiple options for easy access storage and zero mall cop footprint. Vertx was extremely smart when designing these pockets because they all open away from the body and outward. This is a big deal because it allows you to get to those pockets while the bag is laying flat (like in an overhead bin or on the floor under the seat in front of you. You can store quite a bit of gear in these external pockets. Personally, I keep Bamboo Utensils, pens, Anker PowerCore external battery, Cholula Hot Sauce, and my business card case all in the two external side pockets. My keys, chapstick, AirPods and Spy Optic sunglass case reside in the top flap pocket. The hide-out convertible flap pocket holds my North American Rescue CAT Tourniquet while my SOARescue SOARFAK medical kit is kept in my main compartment.
Another great feature of the Vertx EDC Gamut is the internal EDC/armor pockets that are separate from the main storage compartment. While I don’t personally carry a firearm off body there are lots of end users who do. There are multiple companies making holsters that are specifically designed to be used in conjunction with the internal Vertx compartment and Vertx also makes their line of proprietary Tactigami pouches and holsters. This added compartment that is designed specifically for body armor/defensive tools is a fantastic option to store items like my MacBook Pro and spiral notebook, which are easily accessible in the overhead bin because of how this pocket is designed to open while the bag is flat. I love that this compartment is separate from the main compartment which allows me to access these items without disturbing any of the contents inside the main storage area of the bag since the main compartment is where I keep my clothing on business trips.
The mesh zippered pockets inside the main compartment are awesome. These pockets are great for random EDC items such as bandaids, cough drops, chapstick, keys, passports, etc. The mesh pockets are also perfect for your messy collection of random cords and power chargers that we all have to carry everywhere. These items will stay fairly flat inside the main compartment and not take up a lot of space.
Last, but not least is the internal laptop compartment. Vertx originally designed this to fit a variety of laptops (I run a 15” MacBook Pro) but I prefer to store an IcePlate here. It’s almost as if the compartment was designed specifically for an IcePlate. If you pack your backpack so that you can use it on an overnight trip you have no room left over for legacy cylindrical water bottles. Flying by nature is dehydrating. Carrying your own water on board is so important we wrote an entire article about it here. Cylindrical water bottles are great for cupholders, but they are terribly inefficient when it comes to confined space storage. This is where the thin design of the IcePlate is phenomenal. You can put it in the main compartment of the bag and access it without disturbing the rest of the items you have stored. The IcePlate allows you to ergonomically store 50oz of water. You would have to carry multiple water bottles to equal this storage capacity and this is simply not practical. Where would you put them?
If you don't have the good fortune of running a Vertx EDC Gamut backpack, but you'd still like to stay hydrated in-flight and want to know if IcePlate works with your backpack, check out our article with chart on Backpack Compatibility.
So there you have it. The EDC Gamut from Vertx is our favorite carry on backpack and it should be clear why. With the multitude of well thought out storage pockets along with a large main compartment you can easily pack everything you need for a short trip or the in-flight essentials on a longer trip.