For my April 2017, 2.5 week trip to China, I decided to ditch rolling luggages. I’ve long disliked rolling luggages. They force you to shape your plans around them to some degree, even if your destination has smoothly paved roads everywhere.

After researching travel backpacks, I decided to get the Tortuga Air because:

  • It fits my travel style: mostly urban with occasional forays into rural or undeveloped areas. I also liked its minimalist appearance.
  • Even though the internets overwhelmingly recommended the Osprey Farpoint 40, I was sure that 40L was way too large for our needs.
  • I was pretty sure that 27L would be plenty of space, but the fact that this backpack expands to 35L really clinched it for me.

After our trip, these are the things I discovered I did not like about the Tortuga Air:

  • The front pocket is pretty useless when the main compartment is full. This is because it has no depth of its own, so when the main compartment is full you can’t put anything in the front pocket, except maybe something less than a half inch thick.
  • The side pocket might be able to hold a small plastic water bottle (350 mL), but anything bigger would not be secure.
  • The backpack doesn’t seem to stay high up on the back. Neither of us found it comfortable for extended periods over one hour.

So now I’m interested in trying something else.

So for this trip we set out with the Tortuga Air, and our trusty High Sierra Curve. The High Sierra has a 30L capacity, and back when we got it a few years ago it cost a hefty $20. We have used it for everything from weekend trips to grocery shopping, it’s great. The combination of one technical, well designed travel backpack with an arsenal of features geared toward traveling, plus one trusty all purpose backpack that really just consists of two big compartments, couldn’t have turned out better.

Here’s what we packed in the Tortuga for our 16 day trip (x2 people), I did not expand it to 35L, it was not packed to the gills:

  • Seven sets of clothes changes, each set consists of socks, undies, t-shirt.
  • One pair of backup pants.
  • One dress shirt and one nicer short sleeved shirt.
  • 13 inch laptop plus charger. HDMI cable that I should have left at home.

Here’s what we packed in the High Sierra setting out:

  • All toiletries — toothbrush, hair brush, toothpaste, shaving razor/cream, lotion.
  • Plug adapters, phone charger.
  • Mesh bags for dirty laundry.

I couldn’t really think of anything else to pack. If we were going somewhere really rural then maybe we’d have more stuff but for a Xi’an – Chengdu – Hangzhou – Shanghai trip (with day trips to rural areas), where all of the hostels and hotels would provide slippers and necessities, and lots of shops everywhere, this was plenty. The High Sierra was practically empty. I could have distributed the weight more evenly, but then the tortuga would actually have been limp. All these travel backpacks definitely look more photogenic when they are packed until slightly chubby; otherwise they look depressingly caved in.

As the trip went on my carefully rolled clean laundry of course expanded into haphazardly packed dirty laundry, and that was fine. Somewhere along the way we went from cold weather to hot, so our two fleeces had to be packed in the backpacks as well, so there were a couple of days when I had to expand the Tortuga to 35L. Then we came back to Chicago and we had to put all of our clothes back on. At the end of the trip the Tortuga was at 27L again, and the High Sierra still wasn’t full, even though all of our laundry was dirty and not packed very well.

In the future I MIGHT get packing cubes if I see a really cheap set, but it would only be for organization purposes, we definitely did not need packing cubes for compression purposes.