Somewhere between the packing/organizational efficiency of a top-drawer business bag and the carrying comfort of a suspension-system-equipped leisure bag lie the dual-purpose offerings. Such bags offer features from both categories: multiple compartments designed for optimal packing, coupled with a carrying system that distributes the weight across both shoulders.
Travellers often find themselves occupying the same middle ground. Leisure travellers might well wish for a more compartmentalized organization than is typically found in bags with high-end suspension systems. And ultra-practical business travellers (who are not put off by occasionally exhibiting what some might consider an "un-businesslike" appearance) might seek luggage that offers the option of being carried on their backs (i.e., like a backpack). The latter can also be appealing to those who find themselves — for whatever reason — incapable of carrying a bag on one shoulder for extended periods of time.
Make no mistake: dual-purpose bags are compromise solutions. They gain weight and lose storage space in order to add backpack straps and the panels that conceal them when not in use. They lose the sophistication and comfort of a full suspension system (with padded hip belt, sternum strap, supporting struts, etc.) in order to provide more compartmentalization. They will never be as optimal as bags designed for one or the other specific purpose. You can't eat double bacon cheeseburgers with fries and stay thin. But for those who don't travel enough to warrant owning both types of bag, or for those whose trips contain elements of both usages, they may well be ideal. Fortunately, there are at least a couple of products that fill this niche admirably.
Recommended Dual-Purpose Bags
An early entry in this category was the Tough Traveler "Tri-Zip #4032". Its manufacturer may be best known for its legendary "child carriers", but also makes a considerable variety of bags, all of which feature commendable craftsmanship.
The Tri-Zip, pictured at left, measures 20 × 13 × 9", well within the usual carry-on limitation, and weighs 3.5 pounds (1.59kg). It features a strict rectilinear design, Cordura construction, three main full-length packing compartments (two of which have wrap-around zippers that allow them to be opened flat) plus an outside zippered front pocket for convenient access, (removable) aluminum stays for backpacking support, full inter-section padding (also removable, should you wish to increase storage space, but great for laptop protection and to provide some structure to the bag for packing purposes), and more. Plus, of course, hidden backpack straps (shown exposed for use on the right). When I saw this bag for the first time, I could think of only one potential improvement (a change in the design of the internal tie-down straps), which they immediately implemented. Tough Traveler sells this bag, in eight colour choices, for $270.
Some of the very best products are simply not available at your local shopping mall. This is often because they are made by companies that eschew large distribution networks and sales intermediaries (and their associated markups) in favour of higher quality manufacturing (and better warranties). Fortunately, the Internet has made the worldwide availability of such items much easier. So, where possible, I provide contact information for many of the products & manufacturers mentioned on this site; you'll find this information on the Suppliers page.
The Red Oxx "Sky Train", another quintessential dual-purpose bag, comes from a company reknowned for its "take no prisoners" approach to rugged bag construction.
Pictured at left, the Sky Train also measures 20 × 13 × 9", allowing it to be overpacked a bit and still fit within carry-on requirements, and weighs 3.1 pounds (1.4kg). Its rectilinear design includes two main compartments (3" and 6" deep, both with storm-flap-protected wrap-around zippers, plus tie-downs in the larger main section), an outside full-length zippered pocket, and an internal 9 × 12" floating pocket for loose items. Handy grab handles on the top and one end ease stowing the bag in tight places (like overhead compartments), and are comfortable for hand carrying when desired. The backpack straps (shown at right), along with their attachment points, slip out of the way behind a zippered panel when not in use. Construction is 1000 denier urethane-coated Cordura nylon fabric, with #10 YKK chain zippers throughout, and bomb-proof D-rings for the shoulder and backpack straps (included is the stellar "Claw" strap and a heavy-duty luggage tag). All seams are double-stitched and bound with #92 bonded SolarMax nylon thread. The discreet use of inter-compartment closed-cell foam padding (in the rear and interior panels) gives the bag some structure for packing purposes, without compromising flexibility. The Sky Train, available in twelve different colours, sells for $255.
I provided some consulting advice to the manufacturer of the Sky Train, though I received no compensation for this, nor do I obtain any monetary benefit from the sale of the bags. I did get a free Sky Train, however. Actually, lots of companies send me bags for review, though few of them ever show up on these pages.
So which of the above two bags is "better"? As you might expect, there is no unequivocal answer: it depends on your individual needs. On a scale ranging from "business" to "leisure", it's probably fair to say that the Trip-Zip leans slightly more toward the business end, and the Sky Train in the direction of leisure/adventure travel. But it's really more useful to consider how specific details meet your needs. The Tri-Zip has three main compartments vs. the Sky Train's two, so if you need a larger space in which to pack a bigger clothing bundle, the latter would be preferable; the former is a better choice if you want more compartmentalization. The Sky Train is more strongly constructed (and more tolerant of inclement weather), so will better satisfy those looking for "bomb-proof" longevity. But the Tri-Zip costs a bit less.
A Smaller Alternative.
A surprising but welcome recent offering in these days of ever bigger everything is Tom Bihn's "Western Flyer". Mr. Bihn is well known for bags that combine quality construction with very stylish lines. That flair for style sometimes — in my view — clashes with functionality, which is why I have not previously recommended his otherwise appealing bags. Even this one is not immune, but more anon.
The Western Flyer, pictured at right, measures a scant 18 × 12 × 7", making it less than two-thirds the size of the above two bags; it weighs 2.53 pounds (1150g). Exhibiting the rectilinear design that I consider so important, it includes two main compartments (3" and 4" deep, both with wrap-around zippers), two 9.5"-wide zippered outside pockets, and a tall narrow sleeve pocket. Three grab handles (on the top and both ends) ease maneuvering the bag in cramped quarters, though only the top handle is sufficiently comfortable for hand carrying. As in the above bags, this one also hides backpack straps behind a side panel, though the Flyer's straps are more contoured (but less padded) than the others, and incorporate an adjustable sternum strap, a nice feature, albeit one of limited value on such a small bag. The principal fabric is 1050 denier Ballistic nylon, #10 YKK Aquaguard zippers (a water-resistant coil style, with cord pulls) close all exterior openings, and sturdy metal attachment points are provided to fit most shoulder straps (none is included with the bag). One panel (the rearmost) is padded, and a 3"-wide zippered internal partition divides the front main.
There are elements of this bag that are less than ideal. The main compartment lacks tie-downs. The sleeve pocket seems more a nod to style than a functional component, especially in a bag designed to be carried with backpack straps (which render this pocket horizontal, thus mostly decorative). The internal partition is unnecessary, adding weight and cost and decreasing volume (I prefer to organize contents, when desired, using storage pouches, and not be constrained by the bag). Along these lines, there is also an internal webbing strip that mounts two "annex clips" for compatibility with the company's laptop cases (although they would seem to function correctly only when the bag is carried horizontally, another peculiarity of a bag designed to be worn as a backback). And finally, the larger of the two main compartments is not very deep: four inches will not allow for much in the way of a bundle wrap (4.5:2.5 might have been a better dividing ratio). All this said, it's difficult to make everyone happy with a very small bag (which partially explains the dearth of such bags on the market). If you're one of those rare souls searching for an even smaller bag for extended travel, this one is worth considering.