A whole industry has sprung up to cater to adherents of the one-bag (and 1.5 bag) travel movement, devising solutions for people who optimize their packing list with
neurotic mathematical precision. Devotees of one-bag travel (me included) obsess endlessly about packing light.
Two weeks before an extended trip last spring, I started the frantic search for a totepack*: a sturdy, convertible bag that will fit valuables–laptop, travel documents, glasses, chargers and miscellaneous dongles–toiletries, and a change of clothes, so I can forego a carry-on if need be on certain legs of the trip. I also wanted this bag to be compact enough to serve as a daypack.
* What’s a totepack, you ask: it is a personal-item size piece of luggage with convertible or multiple straps that allow for it to be worn as either a backpack or a tote. It is differentiated functionally from convertible satchels and sling backpacks by being a shade more capacious. Totepacks perfectly complement a rolling carry-on for 1.5-bag travel. I used to own the Fjällräven Totepack No. 2 Bag (a great bag that I reviewed here) but donated it during a COVID-era closet clean-out.
Due to indecisiveness, I ended up with three overly similar totepacks: the Carhartt Legacy Hybrid Convertible Backpack Tote Bag, the Carhartt Convertible Durable Tote Bag with Adjustable Backpack Straps, and the Osprey Daylite Water Repellent Tote Pack.
The first options I considered are Carhartt’s convertible tote bags: the “legacy” totepack (shown above in black) and an updated version (shown above in “Carhartt Brown”). Unlike many totepacks on the market, which look like packing cubes with straps, Carhartt’s convertible totes, with their simple and clean design, have a timeless yet casual look that appeals to me.
Carhartt’s totepacks are made from rugged 600-denier (updated) or 1200-denier (legacy) polyester, which has a sturdy, canvas look. At 20-ounces, it is heftier than its 100% nylon competitors, which usually weigh less than 10 ounces with comparable or larger volume.
This bag can only be spot cleaned as the exterior has been treated for water repellence.
The Carhartt totepack measures 17″ long, 13.5″ wide, and 3.5″ deep, well below the personal item cut-off of 18” x 14” x 8” (45 x 35 x 20 cm) set by domestic airlines. If the bag is half full, the top can be folded down and snapped in place, reducing the height to ~12″.
The bag has a 12-liter capacity, which is on the small side for totepacks, but can’t be easily packed away or consolidated due to its more rigid structure. You should only bring it on a trip if you can commit to wearing it every day to maximize its usefulness.
Because the heavy-duty polyester is unyielding, you can’t overpack this bag or stuff it with bulky items. The list I made above–valuables, a small amount of toiletries, and one lightweight change of clothes–already approaches the limits of this bag.
The zip-top main compartment has a built-in padded laptop sleeve (which fits a 15″ laptop) and two smaller slip pockets. As the top opening does not span the full width of the bag, loading and unloading may be uncomfortable for those with large hands.
Most backpacks have water bottle compartments that are mesh, but here Carhartt chose the path less taken: the exterior water bottle compartments are integrated into the design using the same stiff fabric, instead of being elastic and losing a degree of design cohesion. As such, when the bag is fully packed, the slash pockets won’t fit water bottles, which doesn’t bother me as I prefer to use one pocket to house my mini umbrella and the other to keep small items that I struggle to keep organized (i.e., receipts, hand cream, lip balm, etc.).
The only other pocket on the exterior is a front zippered pouch to house smaller items.
HOW TO WEAR
The design of the backpack strap creates the biggest functional difference between the “legacy” and “updated” Carhartt totepacks. The “legacy” totepack’s backpack strap is one long strap attached at the bottom corners of the bag that runs through two rings at the top: in theory, you can swiftly manipulate this long strap to be a top handle, a shoulder strap, a crossbody strap, or backpack straps; but practically speaking, since the strap cannot be secured, you can’t easily change how the bag is worn while you are on the go–the strap will slide and tend toward unevenness, requiring that you stop and readjust the strap before you can wear it as a backpack.
The fussy strap described above is one of the main complaints that people had about the “legacy” totepack, which led Carhartt to redesign a few aspects of the bag and introduce the updated totepack: The update totepack is a little lighter-weight than the legacy bag and has two separate sets of straps (shoulder straps and backpack straps). The top opening on the updated totepack also seems a little bigger.
If you want a totepack with more built-in organization, the Peak Design Totepack is designed for photographers and has numerous functional pockets and dividers–it is also 30%-40% more capacious than Carhartt’s offering. Another well-designed totepack is the Bellroy Tokyo Totepack, which comes in two sizes (a “compact” 14L option and a 20L version) and is priced at $179 for the compact and $199 for the larger size. A “premium” version of the Tokyo Totepack with leather panels is available at $289.
A lightweight and extremely voluminous nylon option is the Patagonia Ultralight Black Hole Tote Pack, which compensates for its less sophisticated exterior with unrivaled practicality.
At $69.99, Carhartt’s Convertible Backpack Tote is one of the more affordable totepack options from a known, if more casual, brand. It also carries a Limited Lifetime Warranty.
I realize I spent the better part of this review highlighting the bag’s flaws, but I ended up keeping both versions of Carhartt’s totepack. The “legacy” totepack also became my default commuter bag once I better understood the limitations of its long strap. If you aren’t looking for a full-size backpack and versatility is your top requirement, you might find Carhartt’s Lagacy Convertible Backpack Tote as useful as I do.