For frequent travelers, convenient packing options are almost as important as your passport. I like to think I've finally nailed packing, locking on a great system using my trusty Delsey carryon rolling suitcase for trips of any length. I can easily go from airport to destination without hassle or delay. I know exactly what to pack, how to roll my clothes perfectly and where all my vital items are located in the hidden pockets.
But when it comes to my work bag, the one that carries my laptop, tablet and every possible cord and charger, I've been a bit stymied. I've run through a number of bags and backpacks, looking for the perfect option that gives me the space I need without too much extra space -- that I would inevitably feel the need to fill up, creating a monster backpack that kills my back and barely fits under the seat in front of me. My Swissgear backpack, though uber-durable, was too heavy and just too big. I switched to an ultra-thin generic option that couldn't hold everything I needed and ultimately fell apart because of my rigorous travel routine. Discarded backpacks and laptop bags litter a closet in my basement, a graveyard of the "almost but not quite rights."
So, when Solo New York offered me the chance to try out and review its Unbound backpack, of course I welcomed the chance. (Solo New York is the same company that creates our absolute favorite rolling duffel bag, which makes regular appearances on even the longest trips. Read our review of that one here.) Here's what I thought of the TSA-approved Unbound backpack, which I've taken on trips in the U.S., the Caribbean and Greece this fall.
What I Loved
For starters, the weight of this backpack -- just under 2 pounds -- was a big reason I agreed to put it into my rotation. My abandoned Swissgear bag was 3.3 pounds, which, when fully filled, can feel like carrying an elephant when you're schlepping through airports and across cruise ships. The Unbound backpack feels light, even with my 15-plus-inch laptop inside.
I'm also a fan of the padded laptop compartment, which unzips fully so is TSA compliant. I drop my laptop into the padded spot, and my tablet in the pocket in the same compartment. For me, having a packing habit is important -- I put everything in the same spot every time, so I know where it is (no digging through my bags!) and I won't forget anything -- so having the structured pockets is a great starting point for my packing.
The bag features four zip sections, including the laptop zip at the back, so there's a lot of space for putting in my odds and ends. The biggest section is the middle, and I've found I can fill that one with my bulky items, including my noise-canceling headphones, two bags of cords and chargers, my quart bag of liquids and even a book. It's surprisingly spacious. The third section is just the right size for a couple of notebooks and pens -- essential travel writer items. The fourth is really just a pocket, but it's the right size for my mobile hotspot. The Unbound backpack also has two side pockets, ostensibly for water bottles, though I manage to use it to hold small miscellany, like business cards I've collected or facemasks I need to access quickly.
I love the look, which is sleek and modern, even when I pack this thing full. It's also durable: I've thrown this bag into cabs and Uber vehicles, overhead bins, underseat storage and through security, over and over, and it still looks new, with no fraying of straps or even scuffs. The backpack has a comfortable padded back panel that slides over telescoping roller suitcase handles, creating a secure hold that means I don't have to carry it on my back when maneuvering through airports and the like. I'm also a fan of the oversized zipper pulls, as I don't fumble to unzip even on dark airplanes.
My biggest complaint with this backpack feels a bit like nitpicking, but it drives me nuts: Straps sit above the side mesh pockets. You can't unclip them, as they're permanent, so the strap gets in the way of the zippers in two of the compartments. It's a minor annoyance that nonetheless irritates me every time I go to dig into the bag and have to regrasp the zippers. (The straps are important; they are designed to keep tall water bottles in place.)
This other issue is on me, I know.
I still tend to overpack this bag, and when I do, it causes two problems: I can't use the side pockets for water bottles, because there's simply no room, and the bag is a tight fit under airplane seats. I've never had an issue with it actually not fitting, but it's been a squeeze a few times. I'm holding my breath waiting for the day when an airline gate agent stops me from carrying it aboard.
The Bottom Line
After banging around the Soho Unbound backpack for a few months, I've decided to make this my regular bag. The space, design and style are all big positives, and while I have a few minor quibbles, overall, it's the best option I've seen in a while.
The Unbound bag sells for around $80, a pretty budget-friendly price in an era where backpacks can run you $150 or more. You can find it online at solo-ny.com or retailers like Amazon.
How About a Great Weekender Bag?
Review by John Roberts
I got the chance to try out the sleek Able Carry's Daybreaker Backpack on a few shorter trips.
This lightweight 25-liter pack is the perfect addition to my travel gear.
I have already been using an Able Carry Max Backpack for all my regular travel, which usually sees me on the road for more than a week at a time. But the Daybreaker is an amazingly durable and compact option for weekend getaways and outdoor adventures.
This bag is constructed for aggressive outdoor use, made with Cordura nylon, which makes it water resistant and able to carry heavier loads. Plus, it only weighs 560 grams.
It's got a tall and slim profile, with an adjustable sternum strap. This creates less stress on the back when the backpack is loaded.
About the storage and other features: I can slip my laptop into the divider, with room in a long zipped pocketed area behind that for cords and chargers and other items. The main compartment then fits any snacks, drinks, toiletries and other essentials needed for my outings. A mesh "hidden" pocket under the lid of the backpack allows for easy-to-reach items such as passports, power banks and phone chargers.
There is an external side pocket with holes that allow any wet items to drain. On the other side, a zipped pocket with mesh interior has a leash for keys. The backpack also has several loops and hooks on which you can hang an item attached by a carabiner.
The Daybreaker now comes with me on all my hiking, biking and kayaking trips.
Thanks for checking out these reviews of our favorite new backpacks.