one bag to rule them all

This past Friday I took advantage of a rare burst of energy and headed downtown to REI to test out a few bags. For some time now, I’ve been on a quest to find a backpack to serve as a carry-on travel bag (with no additional luggage) and as a day pack once I’ve reached my destination.

I’d already done a packing test at home with three bags in my possession—Trager Cross Country, Dakine Eve, and Ogio Operatrix—and found each bag wanting in key areas. After a lot of online time reading reviews and product research, I’d narrowed the field to three promising candidates:

  • Osprey Porter 30
  • The North Face Surge II
  • The North Face Surge II Women’s

(I’d also been interested in a few bags from Tom Bihn, but their only store is in Seattle; I wasn’t going to purchase a bag without seeing it in person, and I don’t have the energy for a road trip right now.)

So I loaded up the Dakine Eve with my standard pack test items (for ultralight travel):

  • MacBook Air 13″
  • iPad Mini
  • Royal Robbins Cardiff pants
  • black skirt
  • 2 pairs socks
  • 2 pairs underwear
  • L.L. Bean down parka
  • L.L. Bean rain shell
  • air sickness bag (seriously, it’s always good to have one of these on hand)
  • cosmetics bag
  • toiletries bag (x2)
  • Camelback rain cover for backpack
  • 24-ounce water bottle
  • Anita sports bra
  • Columbia Sportswear Omniheat leggings
  • Columbia Sportswear half-zip top
  • tech accessories bag (headphones, USB cables, flash drives, etc.)
  • REI Sahara hat
  • Gamma Ray computer glasses
  • wallet
  • moleskin bullet journal with DIY pen quiver
  • C Wonder viscose and lambswool sweater

(Just a generic pack list. A specific destination would require the addition of some items and allow the elimination of others. Also, I am aware that I don’t have any shoes on this list!)

As I walked through REI’s doors and passed the climbing pinnacle, I waited for an employee to stop me. In my experience, retailers aren’t too keen on people walking around their stores wearing backpacks. But at REI, maybe this is a fairly normal occurrence. I headed upstairs and grabbed an Osprey Porter 30 and one each of the men’s and women’s North Face Surge II packs, then looked around for a clear area where I could get down to business. I found the perfect space over in the rock climbing area: a wide bench meant for people trying on climbing shoes, but no one actually using it (yet).

I started unloading the Dakine, then thought maybe I should inform someone of what I was doing. I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to steal gear or something. I found the nearest REI employee and managed to get out something along the lines of, “I brought some stuff from home and am just over here doing a pack test” before he shrugged and said, “Sure, whatever you want. Just let us know if you have questions.”

I then spent at least ninety minutes packing, unpacking, repacking, walking around, and sighing, and even in a wilderness supply store I caught some strange looks from other shopping adventurers. I tested each bag for capacity (could it fit all my stuff?) and comfort/fit (what did it feel like on my body?) with both the full travel load and the “tech load” of what I’d carry in a day bag. I conducted these load and fit tests several times over and was beginning to fret that no such dual-purpose bag yet existed.

The first REI employee who stopped by to offer assistance and engage me in conversation was Lindsey. I gestured to the three packs in contention, explained the research I’d done to narrow it down this far, and then shook my head. “Each of these packs is perfect in its own way, but there’s also something critically wrong with every single one of them.”

Lindsey understood. She herself has the Osprey Porter 45 for travel and had been eyeing the Porter 30, but she agreed that while the Porter 30 is an awesome travel bag—seriously, the thing packs like a suitcase, holds everything with room to spare, and feels like a cloud on my back—it leaves a great deal to be desired in the day bag department. Without enough weight in the bag, the top handle rises above my shoulders and my head bumps against it whenever I look up or sit down. Even with the fancy padded straps the Porter 30 feels ungainly when it doesn’t contain a full load. I’m not crazy about the fact that it doesn’t look like a regular backpack, so it might make me stand out as a tourist. (And I’m not keen on the available colors, but that’s a low priority.)

Despite glowing online reviews and the practically religious reverence of digital nomads across the globe, both Surge IIs were disappointments when fully loaded. The waist strap on both is a joke when the bag is weighed down; pressing into my belly, it felt more like an afterthought than a mechanism of support. The women’s Surge II at 27 liters was a tight fit with test pack items, and the waist strap was practically at the bottom of my ribcage. As someone who can (and occasionally does) wear children’s clothing, I hadn’t thought I had a long torso. The curved shoulder straps felt nice, though. With the men’s model (32 liters) there was plenty of room for my stuff and the non-supportive waist strap was at an appropriate spot on my body, but the shoulder straps became really uncomfortable in the space of a few minutes and the sternum strap wasn’t doing my cleavage any favors.

Getting tired—I had, after all, been engaged in this folly while in the midst of a serious health crisis—I took a seat and looked up at Lindsey. “All I want,” I said, “is one bag to rule them all.”

She erupted into a hearty belly laugh. “Me, too! You’ll have to get back to me if you find it.”

Lindsey suggested that I check out the technical packs—<i>i.e.</i>, backpacking backpacks—in the camping section, something I was doubtful I’d do.

Left again to my own devices, I tried packing and repacking again and again. I’m not sure what I thought was going to change from one test round to the next. It was still the same selection of backpacks, still the same packing list, and still the same little body looking for the right fit. I was one frustrated Goldilocks. At least I managed to help a man pick out a pair of climbing shoes while I was working my fingers raw, zipping and unzipping dozens of times.

I’d spent far longer in my quest than intended, and I was ready to call it quits. I was tired and disheartened. I closed up the contender packs and started filling the bag I’d come with. As I stuffed my last personal item back into my Dakine Eve, another REI employee—I didn’t catch his name, but let’s call him Ryan—stopped by to check on me. I told Ryan that while I now had more information than I did before I entered the store, I wasn’t any closer to making a decision.

“Let me offer you another option, just to confound you further,” Ryan said as he grabbed another pack from a nearby display. He produced the Osprey Ozone 35. I’d never even heard of this bag before. Ryan described it as a compromise between a travel bag and a day pack.

Osprey Ozone 35 in summit blue
I didn’t feel hopeful. Sure, the bag looked cool and Ryan seemed excited about it, but why should this one be any different? I decided to give it a shot anyway. Ryan promised I wasn’t in anyone’s way with my prolonged, exasperated quest so I started pulling my stuff back out of the Dakine. Ryan wandered off to give me some space.

First I did the day pack test, slipping my MacBook Air and iPad Mini into the dedicated laptop compartment and stowing my tech accessories, computer glasses, and Moleskine in forward compartments. I cinched the compression straps and slipped the bag onto my back. The Ozone 35 felt as light as air. While the padding and buckles of the Ozone 35’s waist strap aren’t as robust as the Porter 30’s, the combination is a far-sight better than that offered by the Surge II packs. I was also surprised to find that the Ozone 35 features an honest-to-goodness suspension system—something not found on the other three packs.

With a third REI employee—JR—looking on, I did a brute-force packing job with the rest of my stuff without even bothering to ponder what might fit best where. There was plenty of room inside. I pulled the stuffed pack onto my shoulders and buckled the sternum and waist straps. I took a few steps and paused. The expression on my face must have been something to behold.

“Holy cow!” I exclaimed in astonishment as I marched passed the displays of climbing shoes, harnesses, and webbing. “I think we have a winner!”

JR beamed back at me. He explained that it was a brand new pack but that he expected they were going to sell a lot of them. I pulled out my phone to search for online reviews, but the Osprey Ozone 35 didn’t show up anywhere—not even on the Osprey website. Brand new indeed.

I ordered the bag in “summit blue” (they had only black and “hoodoo red” in the store). I felt both relieved and trepidatious. Part of me is really excited about this new solution that meets my commuter and travel needs, but I’m also wary of discovering some significant letdown in design or function once the bag arrives—not only would I be stuck without an awesome backpack, but I’d be back at square one in my search. (Also, I paid for this flurry of activity later: I ended up having to spend most of the weekend in bed. I used up a few days’ worth of spoons that morning, and I’m not sure when I’d be able to repeat such an endeavor.)

When I told Mike about my adventures, he gave me a skeptical smile. “Does this mean I don’t have to listen to any more about your backpack obsession?”

“Hardly,” I replied. “Just wait ’till it gets here. If it’s as good as I think it is, I’ll be insufferable.”

(And who knows? Maybe I’ll do my first YouTube video review when it arrives.)

Posted in writing & publishing.


  1. I travel extensively for work, and find a backpack to be a perfect carryon. My requirements are pretty high, and I run through a good pack in a couple of years.

    Weekend before last I realized I had a trip coming up, and it was time to bid adieu to my current backpack, so I found myself at REI too. After spending about an hour evaluating EVERYTHING that they had in stock, I was leaving empty handed when I found a new section of travel items outside the pack area, and there was the Ozone 35. After an extensive examination, I realized I’d found a genuine contender.

    From the suspension system to thoughtful organization features, this pack is designed for the traveler in mind. Tonight I packed it up for the first time, and it is everything I hoped it would be. I’m a bit taller than you at 6’1, and while the bag is a bit short in the torso for me, I’m not planning on needing the waist straps for anything other than stabilization. A solid 5 star pack.

    Best, Marty

  2. I’ve been home from my trip for a couple of days now. And while not perfect, I’ll stick with my previous assessment. The Osprey Ozone 35 should be on almost any traveler’s list for an aviation carry-on.

    On the down side, my last pack had a few more ‘zippered’ compartments. When traveling, organization is key. I’ve already got three dittie bags (one for cables / electronics, another for the items I want in flight and as storage for wallet and phone, third for lost luggage survival – overnight toiletries) and upon return I purchased a fourth for odds and ends.

    I do find that the pack is a bit short in the torso, but I’m taller than average. Additionally, I wouldn’t call the pack material bomb-proof, but the reduction of weight is a good trade off.

    On the up side, the compression straps are wonderful, and I got the same amount of stuff (lots) into a much smaller area by organizing and then pulling it all in tight. I was traveling with my camera gear, and I had that in a Lowe-Pro belt pack, and the Osprey sat on top of that nicely (the short length helping in this instance), making for a tidy carrying package.

    The pack rides nice and high when unaccompanied, and reduces fatigue by keeping the load close to the body. Straps allow lots of adjustability and customization.

    I give it a solid 4.5 stars out of 5. (Excellent, not perfect)

  3. I travel for work, usually 4 days/3 nights, and like to travel light (although I do need a different shirt for each day 🙂 ). The ozone 35 looks very promising as a replacement for my current system (which consists of a 40-liter backpack plus a laptop bag, but the backpack is not usually completely full and I really wish I could put my laptop in it).

    I’m curious how the ozone 35 worked out once you actually used it? Also, when fully packed does this backpack fit under the seat on an airplane? That would be desirable to me as I hate have to vie for overhead bin space.

    • Sarah: I keep trying to make my video/photo review of the bag happen; circumstances just haven’t been cooperating. The only time I’ve had the bag fully packed—with tech gear, toiletries, clothing, etc.—was when I was at REI to test and select a bag. I have been carrying it as an everyday commuter since then and it’s been wonderful, but I’m hardly touching the bag’s capacity.

      The dimensions of the Ozone 35 are comparable to the smaller capacity backpacks I’d carried previously, so I would imagine the full Ozone 35 (with use of compression straps) would fit beneath a seat in an airplane. The bag is advertised as “carry-on,” though not specified for under-seat specifically. (I dislike dealing with overhead bins, too.) I don’t have air travel immediately pending, so it will be awhile before I can report on those results.

      • Thanks for the reply! (I thought I subscribed to comments but apparently not successfully, so I just saw this now.) I did go ahead and buy the Ozone 35, but I haven’t used it yet (I work from home so my only use for it will be actual travel). I will probably be traveling in June so I’ll see how it goes. I think it has promise for fitting under the seat if I don’t overstuff it and use the compression straps.

        I was at REI again yesterday and was tempted by the Osprey Nova 33 as an alternative. It has two features that seemed better than this one: a front kangaroo pocket (good for stuffing a jacket in) and a completely separate laptop compartment instead of it being in the main compartment (that unzips fully for going through security). However, it is heavier than the Ozone and has an inferior hip belt, so I think I will stick with the Ozone for my next trip and see how it goes.

        • I’m glad you made it back! I don’t think I’d seen the Osprey Nova 33 when I was on my search—probably a good thing, as it may well have crowded the field even further. Will you let me know how the Ozone 35 does for you during your June trip? It seems like I settled on a bag just in time to not go anywhere for a good while.

          • It seems I’m still not subscribed to comments (I definitely checked the box, though, and checked my spam folder, so I’m not sure why it’s not working). But anyway, apparently I also got a new bag just in time to not go anywhere — looks like I may not be traveling until August! I’ll try to remember to check back and let you know how it goes, though!

  4. I am looking for an Osprey for overseas travels and have also been considering the Porter 30 along with the Ozone 35. This is difficult considering we have no REI nearby. Will you be posting any photos of the main compartments as REI’s website is woefully lacking in description?


  5. Hi! I’m so glad I’m not the only out there with a backpack obsession. Over the past two weeks I bought 11 different backpacks to find the perfect one and all of them were lacking. I currently have an old North Face Surge which has two features that none of the newer bags have: 1) bottom pocket for shoes or in my case my laptop charger and 2) extra front area with organization pockets. The new Surge is missing both. A lot of newer packs have extra small pockets that would fit a cell or glasses, but not an extra larger area with multiple small pockets.
    I’m still hunting. I got the Osprey Celeste (too small) and the Nova (getting closer). I guess I’ll have to try the Ozone out next thanks to your great post!

    • Holy cow! Eleven different packs? That’s dedication.

      I have been finding that the Ozone is a bit long for me. I’m 5’4″, but the shorter-torso packs haven’t met my needs. I did take a look at the Osprey Nova a couple of weeks ago and thought for a bit about trading the Ozone for it. I like the Nova’s external mesh pocket, and I might prefer the Nova’s internal pockets to the Ozone’s. But for now I’m sticking with the Ozone. I have had some trouble with the bottom of the bag curling under rather uncomfortably into my lower back when the pack isn’t completely full (due entirely to my height), but I remedied this by sticking a lightweight foam roller in the very bottom of the back-most pocket. I imagine a well-placed packing cube might also be a solution.

      When backpack shopping in the future, I might take a look at hiking backpacks as well as the commuters. The hiking backpacks have the sturdier waist/hip belts for weight distribution and are structured to keep perspiration from building up on your back. I don’t imagine many of those backpacks come with a dedicated laptop compartment, but a separate padded sleeve should cover that requirement.

      Good luck with your search! Will you check back in to let us know what you decide?

  6. I just spent 3 hours in REI and purchased the Ozone 35. this evening. What sold me was that it was lightweight, has waist straps and zippers you can lock with a travel lock. I am sure you can easily break these locks but it is better then nothing. I just returned home from two weeks in Europe and my Swiss Army pack I have made my shoulders sore and just too heavy. I had to unload items to make it semi comfortable. I have not given the Ozone a test ride yet and am concerned about the water pouches, my concern is that the water bottles might slip out. Yes they are elastic, but do they secure the bottles or retain strength over a period of time, or flat out keep them from falling out? The Swiss Army pack had zip up compartments that were superior. Lastly, I love the lifetime guarantee, this was the icing on the cake. If my investment proves faulty, I can return it. Thank you in advance for your response!

    • Hello, Steve!

      For the water bottle pockets, I’ve used the cinch straps to hold my water bottle in place. I’ve also used these pockets (with the cinch straps) to hold things like spare pairs of socks, snacks, and so forth. I have had the water bottle slip out a couple of times; this happens when the bottle lid gets snagged by something like a seatbelt, or if the backpack is turned at an awkward angle allowing gravity to steal the water bottle. Otherwise, I’ve had no trouble.

      I hope this helps.

  7. I just spent 3 hours comparing packs in REI and purchased the Ozone 35 this evening. What sold me was that it was lightweight, has waist straps and zippers you can lock with a travel lock. I am sure you can easily break these locks but it is better then nothing. I just returned home from two weeks in Europe and my Swiss Army pack I have made my shoulders sore and just too heavy. I had to unload items to make it semi comfortable. I have not given the Ozone a test ride yet and am concerned about the water pouches, my concern is that the water bottles might slip out. Yes they are elastic, but do they secure the bottles or retain strength over a period of time, or flat out keep them from falling out? The Swiss Army pack had zip up compartments that were superior. Lastly, I love the lifetime guarantee, this was the icing on the cake. If my investment proves faulty, I can return it. Thank you in advance for your response!

  8. Hey Jennifer!

    Googling reviews on the Osprey Ozone 35 and your blog came up. Just purchased this pack today for a RTW trip. Originally had been planning to go with the Osprey Kyte that I use for backpacking/camping, but wasn’t satisfied with the weight. Think this bag might be the winner…! Felt like Christmas when everything fit in the bag and walking around felt pretty freeing.

    What have you used it for, and are you still loving it? 🙂

    • Great! I’m glad this information helped. For me, I finally had to accept that the bag was too big for my frame and I reluctantly returned it. I did love the bag — the structure, color, etc. — but my torso is just too short for it. Right now, I’ve got an REI Traverse 28 waiting for the next adventure.

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