Travel Backpack Review: Patagonia MLC 45L

I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot in my life, and I’ve long been a fan of the travel backpack. 

When I was in high school, my family moved from suburban Maryland to Tokyo, Japan. Every summer, I would travel home to spend the break with my grandparents and sometimes see a friend in New York City. 

If you’ve ever traveled to Tokyo or NYC, you’ll know that as soon as you leave the airport to take public transportation or walk down the streets, your rolling suitcase becomes a liability. 

Hauling that thing upstairs? A feat of superhuman strength. Getting the wheels caught in sewer grates? Terrifying. Uneven pavement? Crowded train cars? The gap between the train and the platform?? They’re all your enemies when you’re hauling a rolling suitcase around town.

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Niki with her US GI Duffle Bag. © Caleb Gribi
Niki with her US GI Duffle Bag. © Caleb Gribi
Niki holding up her Eddie Bauer Duffle Bag. © Caleb Gribi
Niki, holding up her Eddie Bauer Duffle Bag. © Caleb Gribi

The Backpacks I Dated Before I Met THE ONE

US GI Duffle Bag

My first solution to this problem was the US GI Duffle Bag. A no-frills option if there ever was one! I traveled with this baby for 3 or 4 years and still use it for camping gear like tents and sleeping bags. 

Pros: affordable, durable, and extremely spacious

Cons: unwieldy when full, can’t stow straps for baggage handling, no internal organization

While I appreciated the practical strength of this bag, it wasn’t the best long-term option.

Eddie Bauer Expedition 34 Duffle Bag

When I left Tokyo for college in California, I upgraded to an Eddie Bauer rolling duffel similar to the Eddie Bauer Expedition 34 Duffle 2.0. My older version of this design does not have a pull-out handle, making it a little lighter and more flexible. 

I know you’re thinking, “That’s not a travel backpack! Why is she talking about that bag in this post?” And the answer, my friends, is that I used it as a backpack. In airports or on smooth pavement, I would drag it along on its wheels. I would sling it over my shoulders in rougher terrain by the two short straps. 

Was it ergonomic? No. Did it get the job done? Yes. 

Pros: spacious, structured, durable

Cons: not an actual backpack

I still have this bag and only use it for car-based travel now.

Related: 11 Unique Road Trip Gifts All Adventurers Will Love

Niki wearing the Patagonia MLC 45L backpack. © Caleb Gribi
Niki wearing the Patagonia MLC 45L backpack. © Caleb Gribi

Finding My Perfect Match 

In 2013, I took a job requiring me to travel all over the world – to Indonesia, Peru, Brazil, and beyond – and I knew it was time to upgrade my travel bag again. I needed the grown-up, professional, serious version of the travel backpack this time. 

I researched this investment (good bags cost money) and eventually landed on the Patagonia MLC, now called the Patagonia Tres MLC 45L or Patagonia Black Hole MLC 45L

MLC stands for maximum legal carry-on, and that’s one of the best parts of this bag – it is carry-on size! Since it’s soft-sided, this bag even fits under the seat in front of me most of the time.

Related: Packing for Long-Term Travel in a Carry On

The Patagonia MLC is a briefcase-style bag before taking the straps out to make it a backpack. © Niki Gribi
The Patagonia MLC is a briefcase-style bag before taking the straps out to make it a backpack. © Niki Gribi

What Makes the MLC So Great?

Patagonia knows its way around a quality bag, and you get what you pay for. The higher sticker price on this bag is 100% worth it, given the quality and durability of the materials and the efficiency of the design. 

The Patagonia MLC is smaller than my previous travel backpacks but fits a surprising amount of gear in its many useful pockets. I easily fit in all the clothes, toiletries, and shoes I need for a weeklong trip, with room for my laptop, book, and water bottle. And if I pick up a few things along the way, the soft sides are forgiving enough to accommodate squeezing in a bit more.

Easily convert the Patagonia MLC to a backpack with hidden straps. © Niki Gribi
Easily convert the Patagonia MLC to a backpack with hidden straps. © Niki Gribi

One of the things I love most about the Patagonia MLC is how quickly and easily converting it from a briefcase-style bag to a backpack is. The straps slip out of their designated sleeve and clip into place in seconds. I can put the straps away and stash the bag (either overhead or underneath) without annoying any people trying to board the plane. And at the end of the flight? I’ve got my straps out and my bag on before the cabin doors are even open. 

Other great things about this bag are: 

  • The reinforced zippers never get stuck
  • The padded straps are extremely comfortable
  • The fabric holds up well and stays looking great even after years of hard travel
  • The internal organization makes stashing and finding all your things a breeze 

And when you arrive at your destination, there’s none of that awkward and noisy dragging of luggage along broken sidewalks or busy city streets. 

Read more carry on bag reviews:

Niki's only complaint: It's a little slouchy when standing upright. © Niki Gribi
Niki’s only complaint: It’s a little slouchy when standing upright. © Niki Gribi

The only thing I would change about this bag would be adding a bit of structure to the sides to stand up on its own. Perhaps Patagonia has addressed this issue in newer versions of the bag.

Testing the Relationship 

A couple of months ago, I took my first flight in over a year and decided to take a regular duffle bag instead of my trusty MLC. I regretted it as soon as I got off the plane and had to walk 15 minutes to a train station. 

I tried using the handles as backpack straps, but they chafed my shoulders so badly I couldn’t stand that for more than a minute. I also tried carrying it in my hand but didn’t want to risk dislocating my shoulder. In the end, I wore the shoulder strap across my chest with the bag bouncing against my rear end and made it to the train sweaty and in pain. 

Never again. 

The Patagonia MLC is the only travel backpack for me. I’ve had one for seven years, and we’ve been around the country and the world together without any signs of slowing down. My bag looks as good as it did the day I bought it, and I’m looking forward to the two of us going back to NYC later this year.

Learn how to pack for carry-on-only travel:

By Niki Gribi 

Niki left a globetrotting job in early 2020 to work as a stay-at-home parent for her two school-aged children. She also runs an orchard care business, has a huge vegetable garden, and volunteers with food and housing justice organizations in her community. You can find Niki on Instagram @nikibi6.

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