Moving Overseas with Two Carry-On Bags: Macpac Contrail 35L

Macpac Contrail 35L travel pack.

Recap: In July 2023, I sold all my stuff in New Zealand and moved overseas with just two carry-on packs. I’ve been promising a full review of the bags for weeks now, and here it is!

Going carry-on-only has made it a breeze to navigate things like Toronto’s rail network and the 12-hour ferry from Aberdeen to the Shetland Islands. When I slept overnight in Atlanta airport due to mass flight cancellations, I had everything with me. I didn’t have to worry about where my checked luggage might end up. As for walking half an hour to an apartment, it’s far easier with a travel pack than a heavy suitcase, I’ll say that much!

As I was writing this review, it grew too long, so this will be a two-parter – one for the Macpac Contrail and one for the Sherpani Camden.

The Packs
Right: Macpac Contrail 35L travel pack
Essentially my suitcase. Fits neatly into the overhead bin on the plane.
Left: Sherpani Camden 19L laptop totepack
My everything else bag. Convertible between backpack, shoulder tote, and crossbody carry. Fits comfortably under a plane seat.
Bonus, front: Sherpani Skye 4L
Everyday wallet/phone bag. Usually tucked into the Camden when I’m travelling.

Macpac Contrail 35L Travel Pack

The Contrail 35L travel pack from Kiwi outdoors company Macpac has all the comfort and features of a good pack combined with the accessibility of a suitcase. It’s one of the small sorrows in life that Macpac discontinued it the very week I bought mine. It appears to have been replaced with the Macpac Quest travel pack, available in 23L, 30L, and 45L capacities. Judging from the timing, I bought the last Contrail 35L in New Zealand.

Oddly, the same thing happened with my yellow puffer vest.

This pack is packed (ha, geddit) with features. It’s sleek enough to look the part in downtown Toronto and sturdy enough to handle a water spill or being thrown onto a dirty luggage rack. Importantly, it’s big enough to hold everything I might need without looking too big – something that, as a 5″2 woman, I’m always aware of! I prefer not to look like a snail carrying my house when I’m standing in an airport security line, thanks.

Carry Options
There are grab-handles and carry-straps galore. I tend to use either the side handle (to hold it like a briefcase) or the shoulder straps (to wear it as a pack). There are also options for top-carry and a longer shoulder sling. All straps tuck away when you’re not using them to present a seamless look. As a bonus, the shoulder sling converts to become a hip belt, which is great in conjunction with the sternum strap when lifting heavier loads.

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The main luggage compartment opens out with U-shaped lockable zips at the top and bottom. It’s a bit of an odd design compared to a single large zip, but the more I used it, the more I liked that design aspect. When you’re on the bus or in the middle of a chaotic terminal, you don’t always have space to open out your full pack. It’s much easier and more subtle to just use the top zip.

A slim secondary compartment sits snugly between the padded back and the main compartment. It offers a padded laptop sleeve as well as smaller pockets for pens and notebooks. I will say I don’t use this compartment much, preferring to keep my laptop in the Camden, but it’s great to have that option. I also love the design of the zip on this one: it’s an L-shape, making it far easier to slip your tech in and out on the long side.

There are zip pockets on the interior of both top and bottom flaps in the main compartment. The top flap is RFID-blocking, while the mesh pocket in the bottom flap is a great spot to stash quick-grab items like a rain jacket. A hidden, padded zip pocket on the side offers space for sensitive items (this may also be RFID-blocking but I can’t quite remember.) And the left shoulder strap holds a stretchy mesh pouch. While not really big enough for a mobile, it would be ideal for a metro pass or sunglasses.

Oh, and there are large water bottle pockets on either side of the pack. Pockets galore!

Pros and Cons

I love the Contrail. Love, love, love it.

  • At 35L, it’s the perfect size for me. Any bigger and it wouldn’t be carryon-friendly, not to mention I would indeed look like a snail carrying my house. Any smaller and I wouldn’t be able to fit three large packing cubes, my trail shoes, and an assortment of jackets, toiletries, and other bits into it.
  • The design is just *chef’s kiss*. It doesn’t scream ‘urban yuppie’ or ‘hardcore mountain climber.’ It’s not minimalist to the point of frustration, nor is it overgrown with pockets and pouches. It sits nicely in the mid-range of all of those aspects, resulting in an ideal final product for all-round adventuring.
  • I thought the colour might be boring, but I actually like it. The slightly mottled charcoal grey blends in on any city street or country lane while shrugging off water and disguising those inevitable dirt spots.
  • The padded back is super comfortable, both while wearing it and as an impromptu backrest for naps.
  • It’s a neat trick to use a convertible strap as both the hip belt and the shoulder sling. Saves carrying two different padded straps.
  • I adore the adjustable sternum strap. My shoulders are fairly slim, so the presence of a sternum strap is a critical element for me when considering a pack. Personal preference here, but I particularly like that it’s on a slider, not a daisy chain.

Frankly, it would be faster to list the things I don’t like about the Contrail. It’s a very short list.

  • Unlatching the padded shoulder straps and stowing them can be a fiddly process. The metal clips are very stiff. That said, I’ve only done this as a test run.
  • The tuckaway space for the hip belt is really small. I have small hands and I still struggled to shove it into place.
  • The flax-design back is comfortable, but it isn’t ventilated. This makes it quite sweaty in warm temperatures. It also feels bulky, both visually and while wearing it.

All told, the Contrail 35L is a masterpiece of a travel pack and I couldn’t have moved across the world without it. I’ll be honest, I’m disappointed that Macpac discontinued the design. The new Quest pack might offer more options at 23L, 30L, and 45L, but none of them hit the sweet spot that the Contrail 35L has: not too big, not too small, just the perfect size and design for a global traveller.

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