How To Pack A Carry-On Travel Backpack

Traveling with a backpack as your only carry-on creates a bit of a learning curve for those who’re used to walking onboard with suitcases and duffel bags. But here at Knack we’ve been traveling with just One Bag for years (surprise, it’s a Knack Pack), so this week we’re sharing our carefully-honed strategy for efficiently packing out a carry-on backpack.

We’ll cover how to pack a carry-on backpack for travel, and also what to pack in a carry-on. We’ve found that the way that you pack your carry-on backpack can make or break your flight experience, and can impact the rest of your trip.

But first…

Can you use a backpack as your carry-on?

The answer is a resounding yes.

In fact, traveling with a carry-on backpack is a superior way to travel. Unlike duffel bags or clunky wheeled suitcases, backpacks move with your body, which makes it far easier to get in and out of airport shuttles, weave around people on escalators and moving walkways, and run to catch your departing flight. And because backpacks let you keep two hands free, you can sip a coffee and check your phone all the while. 

Carry On backpack for travel

When you travel with only a backpack, we think you’re bound to have a better travel experience. However, there are still a few common concerns that first-time one-bag backpack travelers face:

  • You can’t fit everything into your backpack.
  • Packing everything in your backpack makes it too heavy.
  • You can’t find anything in your backpack.

Don’t worry, we’re going to address all of these issues. So, here are our favorite carry-on backpack packing tips and tricks.

  1. Choose the best carry-on backpack
  2. Make a packing list for your backpack
  3. Lay everything out
  4. Use travel packing cubes
  5. Consider you carry-on backpack's weight distribution

1. Choose the best carry-on backpack

A carry-on backpack is one that fits onto the plane, but the best carry-on backpack has a few extra features that make it idea for air travel:

The best carry-on backpack...

  • Has a clamshell opening that gives you easy access to everything inside.
  • Has LOTS of pockets to keep everything in place (even when your backpack inevitably gets jostled around).
  • Is built with quality materials that are strong but lightweight.
  • Has water-resistant fabric so that your things stay dry.
  • Has tuck-away shoulder straps that won't dangle into the aisle. 

Knack Pack has all of these features (and more). Read about what makes Knack the best carry-on backpack here

Backpack with clamshell opening for easy access during air travel

What is the best size carry-on backpack?

The best size of the carry-on backpack depends on the length of your trip. Obviously, longer trips require more space, but keep in mind that following our tips below, you will probably need less space than you’d think. With a well-planned packing list, a commitment to re-wearing a few strategically-planned outfits, and the comfort of knowing that you can always buy certain essentials at your destination, you can likely get by with a medium, or even a small backpack. 

This chart will help you figure out what size backpack is best for you, based on how many outfits you plan to pack. 

You also need to consider your airline’s carry-on bag allowance. 50 liters is the maximum carry-on allowance for most airlines. Of course, consider that such larger backpacks will have to go in the overhead bins, which means you won’t have the easy access that you get when you can fit a bag under your seat (aka, a personal item).

Always check your carrier’s website for their luggage specifications, and compare it to your backpack size. To make it super easy for you to compare Knack Pack sizes with your airline’s baggage sizes, take a look here.

2. Make a packing list for your backpack

A packing list outlines everything that you’re going to need to bring with you on your trip so that you can make sure that you don’t miss anything important. 

Check out this post on how to make the perfect packing list, or skip to the bottom of this article to see an example of a packing list for your carry-on backpack.

What goes in a carry-on backpack packing list

The best way to figure out what goes into your carry-on backpack when making a packing list is to break the items down by categories. Here are some that we like to use:

  • Clothes - These take up the bulk of the space. 
  • Toiletries - Soap, toothbrush, makeup, etc. (but remember that most of these items can be bought at your destination)
  • Tech - Laptop, phone, chargers, extra batteries, earbuds.
  • Documents - Your wallet, passport, travel insurance, receipts, vaccination card, etc. 
  • Miscellaneous - Anything else you’ll need on your flight or on your trip, like hand sanitizer and snacks.

It’s also important to consider what shouldn’t go in your carry-on backpack.

What you shouldn't pack in a carry-on

  • Liquids over 3.4 oz (except hand sanitizer)
  • Pocket knives, mace, or anything that could be used as a weapon.
  • Inert weapons (like toy guns or anything that resembles a real weapon).
  • Alcohol (you’re federally prohibited to bring your own alcohol on airplanes)

3. Lay everything out

After making your packing list, lay everything out that you intend to pack in your carry-on backpack. This will help you actually visualize whether everything is going to fit. Make sure to remove anything that isn’t going into your backpack from the area. 

Then, group all your stuff together by the categories on your packing list… that way you’ll know if you’ve forgotten anything before it all goes into your bag. You may want to re-categorize some of the items. For example, you may want to make a category of stuff that you want to easily access on the plane, like your e-reader, earbuds, and snacks. Better yet, make a carry-on essentials category:

Airplane carry-on essentials 

  • Phone and charger 
  • For Covid safety: Hand sanitizer and extra face mask
  • For entertainment: e-reader or tablet and earbuds
  • For work: laptop and charger

Also, set aside your bulkiest clothes to wear on your travel days. You can save tons of space in your backpack by wearing your coat instead of trying to stuff it into your backpack.

Strategically Packing Your Backpack For Air Travel

This is the fun part. Take inventory of all of the pockets in your backpack and assign pockets to different categories. You can take a look at Knack Pack’s pockets here

Most backpacks are basically big holes; they lack multiple compartments, so you have to pack them from the bottom-up, with least-used items on the bottom and the most-used items on the top. But because Knack Packs have multiple compartments and tons of interior pockets, you can be much more intentional about how you organize your stuff.

In a Knack Pack, we recommend that you put your clothes in the expandable suitcase compartment, and keep the most-used items that you need regular access to in the front compartment (which has a ¾ opening, so you can actually see everything that’s inside). 

Carry-on backpack that opens like a suitcase

It’s up to you how you organize the rest of your carry-on backpack. But if you have a Knack Pack, here are a few more packing tips:

  • Keep your laptop in the padded, side-access laptop pocket. 
  • Keep chargers and extra USB’s in the cable garage (Series 1 only)
  • Put your tablet in the microfleece-lined interior pocket
  • Dedicate mesh pockets to smaller items, like AirPods and keys.

If you want more tips and tricks for packing a carry-on backpack, check out this article.

4. Use travel packing cubes

Travel packing cubes will add another layer of organization to your carry-on packing. Packing cubes are like drawers for your backpack - you’ll know exactly where everything is, and you can keep your categories separate. These are especially useful for organizing your clothes and small items that don’t go into a dedicated pocket.  

For example, you can pack your liquids in a medium packing cube, and easily remove the cube from your backpack when you go through TSA. 

How To Pack Clothes in Packing Cubes

When using packing cubes, you should roll any clothes that won’t wrinkle, and line the bottom of your cubes with them. Then, fold the clothes that will wrinkle and put them on top of the rolled clothes. 

Hint: You can minimize wrinkles in folded clothes by putting them between dry cleaner bags, or by putting pieces of paper between the folds. 

Knack’s packing cubes have a compression zipper, which gives you even more space in your carry-on backpack. When you use the compression zipper, the cube will effectively flatten the folded clothes against the rolled clothes. 

Packing cubes for travel

Check out our packing cube bundles that fit perfectly in the expandable suitcase compartment of your Knack Pack. When you get to your destination, you can quickly remove the cubes, zip away up the suitcase compartment, and have a slim everyday carry backpack for your day-to-day adventures.

5. Consider your carry-on backpack's weight distribution

Since you’ll be walking around the airport with your carry-on backpack, you want to pack your backpack to be as comfortable as possible. Thanks (again) to Knack’s many pockets and compartments, you can really optimize your bag’s weight distribution so that it’s super comfortable, even when fully-loaded. 

Rules For Good Weight Distribution In Your Backpack

  • Heavier things should go close to your body. So put your laptop in the laptop compartment that lies up against your back, and use a shoe bag to pack any extra shoes in the center of the expandable suitcase compartment.
  • Lighter items should go around the perimeter of your bag. Your snacks, chargers, and little miscellaneous things can go in the mesh pockets that line your Knack Pack’s everyday compartment. 

Knack Packs are extremely lightweight for how strong they are (even the large ones weigh only 3 lbs 4oz).

Example carry-on backpack packing list for one week of travel (Large Knack Pack)

  • Clothes
    • 5 shirts (2LS 3 SH)
    • 4 bottoms (3x pants or shorts plus something comfortable - wear one on plane)
    • 7 underwear + socks (can bring fewer if you plan to do laundry)
    • 2 pairs of shoes (wear one on the plane)
    • 1 coat (wear on plane)
  • Toiletries
    • Toothbrush
    • Toothpaste tablets
    • Hair
      • Shampoo bar
      • Conditioner bar
      • Comb (smaller than a brush)
    • Makeup (only non-liquid)
    • Lotion (small tube)
    • Sunscreen stick (or small tube)
    • Vitamins / prescriptions
  • Tech
    • Laptop
      • Charger
      • External hard drive
    • Earbuds
    • Camera 
      • Charger
      • SD card
      • Extra batteries
      • Lens cloth
    • Phone
      • Charger
    • Misc
      • Extra USB cables
      • Portable battery
  • Misc
    • Snacks
    • Keys
    • book/e-reader
  • Documents
    • ID/passport
    • Wallet
    • Emergency cash

Have you ever traveled with just a carry-on only backpack? Let us know all about it in the comments below!