Updated: Oct 18, 2021
When it comes to flying with Itsy Bitsy, nothing makes life easier than a well-organized backpack. Whether it’s a backpack for Itsy Bitsy’s surprise Travel Pack or my own carry-on item, this Fat Mama loves backpacks. And as airplanes get smaller and smaller, I feel backpacks are the BEST go-to carry-on for all people TWF (traveling while fat). Why? Unlike rolling suitcases that you either have to push in front of you or pull behind you down an unrealistically narrow aisle (inevitably making you more awkward than you already feel), a backpack just sits on your back.
Additionally, carry-on size luggage, while small by airline requirement, is still difficult to maneuver … especially for a large person on a crowded plane. This Fat Mama says check any luggage you did bring and just take one backpack on for you and each person in your party. To find out what I suggest packing in that one backpack, check out my blog post: Fat Mama’s 24-Hour Flight Essentials Packing List.
What are my favorite backpacks for TWF and other travel situations? I’m so glad you asked, dear reader. Let me wax poetic on my favorites and why I love them so.
Choosing the Right Backpack
When I talk about a backpack for travel, be it for my Fat Mama 24-Hour Flight Essentials, Itsy Bitsy’s surprise Travel Pack, or just a good reliable carry-on, I am not talking about a heavy-duty hiking backpack, or a pack-all backpack suitcase, or anything fancy like that. I am always looking for a backpack that is versatile, durable, and most important meets my needs for my specific trip or circumstance.
Until recently, the main goal of my travel backpack wasn’t to hold my own stuff, but to hold Itsy Bitsy’s essentials. Over the years, I have been able to shift our gear around to the point where I get to have my own backpack again (yay)! So I have learned a ton about what kinds of backpacks work best for a Fat Mama at different stages of Fat Mama travel. But most importantly, I learned that the backpack itself will, does, and should change, based on the life stage of your travelers. As you think about the type of backpack you want (and when TWF, a backpack really is the way to go in my opinion), think about the function you need it to perform and who needs it to perform that function.
The Diaper Years
When we first started traveling with baby Itsy Bitsy, I used a baby backpack. Now, I have never been a fan of baby-bags or baby diaper bags. However, to be fair, I have never been a fan of big purses either. However, for our lifestyle, and the fact that Fat Papa was doing just as many on-the-go diaper changes as I was, a baby backpack worked out so much better for us. Our favorite baby backpack for travel was a Jeep brand backpack that had a ton of pockets including insulated pockets for formula and water. A diaper backpack is ideal for the “diaper years” of travel for so many reasons … including:
It's designed specifically for travel with a baby, most will come with diaper changing essential accessories making that ever so vital and constant chore easier on the plane or in the airport.
There are tons of isolated compartments for easy organization. Unlike a giant diaper bag where everything ends up in the middle, as long as you put things back where they belong, everything stays nice and orderly. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
Diaper backpacks are easy to carry and transport. It’s a backpack … just throw it on your back. This frees up your hands for baby, and luggage, and a triple-shot latte. My favorite thing to do walking through the airport was to strap Itsy Bitsy to my front and the diaper backpack to my back; they balanced each other out and made walking easier.
A backpack stores easily. Whether you keep it under the seat in front of you (that’s my recommendation) or in the overhead bin, everything is going to stay put without moving around. You don’t have to worry about stuff falling out or flaps opening. Everything is right where you left it.
A diaper backpack is tall rather than wide. This is great when you are using a public changing table and need to put the diaper backpack on the table with your baby. There is more room for baby, but you still have everything you need because your diaper backpack is tall rather than wide like a traditional diaper bag.
There are some very nicely designed “slim profile” diaper bags (if that is your thing) that hold a ton of stuff but are not as bulky as others. The Jeep backpack I have linked to is a bit bulkier than the one we had, but the model we used has been discontinued. The slim profile is nice when traveling as it adds little to the profile of some who is already TWF.
Need I say more? We liked our Jeep diaper backpack so much it still hangs in our entryway along with our hats, masks, glasses, and purses ready to be used on current family adventures. The insulated pouches once used for baby formula are now great for water bottles and the baby wipe dispenser now holds alcohol hand wipes.
When Itsy Bitsy was about 2 years old, she wanted to start carrying her own backpack in the airport. From 2 years old until pre-K, she LOVED traveling with her Skip Hop backpack. While this obviously isn’t an adult backpack and it CERTAINLY IS NOT a backpack for TWF, it is a great kid's backpack for family travel. Here are some pros and cons:
These backpacks come in both “mini” and “little kid” sizes so your oh-so-grown-up little one will be able to feel like a big kid while having a backpack that fits.
The arm straps do extend to accommodate most adults. As a Fat Mama, I can wear Itsy Bitsy’s Skip Hop backpack. I have no problem putting it on, but need help getting it off. Fat Papa can also wear it but needs help putting it on, and he wears it with some difficulty.
Because it is a kid's backpack, and therefore does not hold nearly as much as an adult's backpack, carrying the thing around isn’t a big deal and still allows you a free hand.
The “little kid” size backpack does fit an iPad or iPad Mini but not the iPad Pro. However, you should test the fit with your protective case, and definitely use a case, as the backpack doesn’t have any padding.
There are a wide variety of fun animals and characters to choose from. So whether your kid likes dinosaurs, unicorns, monkeys, or puppies, they will fall in love with (at least one of) the adorable designs.
If you are worried about your little one getting away from you while traveling, but still want them to feel independent, the “mini” size has an optional … let’s not call it a leash … safety strap(?).
While these backpacks can hold plenty to keep a kid entertained on a plane, they don’t offer much in the way of organization. At most the “little kid” size offers one main compartment, a very small front pouch and a side water bottle mesh holder. This is fine, but it means that things get jumbled together and that makes finding stuff, and then clean up, on a plane difficult (this is the main drawback to these backpacks as a travel backpack).
Despite the small inconveniences, or the not ideal choice for TWF parents who will, inevitably, be carrying this backpack through the airport, I really do like Skip Hop for this age of travel. Especially if you are traveling with older kids who are responsible for their own carry-ons. Skip Hop offers younger kids a fun backpack that they can connect to because of the fun design but they can still carry and feel grown up because it really was made with their little body in mind.
5 Going on 15 (and beyond)
Right around 4 years old, Itsy Bitsy decided she had outgrown her Skip Hop backpack and now needed a big kid's backpack. The kind that big kids took to school on TV. The kind of backpack that she would get to take to kindergarten. She was a big girl now, and she knew what kind of backpack she wanted for travel, and she wanted to pick it out … she also tried to dictate what was going to go in her Travel Pack but that’s where I put my foot down because that, dear reader, is a surprise only revealed at 10,000 feet.
So, being the overindulgent parent that I am, I let Itsy Bitsy pick out a big kid's backpack for her travel backpack … which was too big for her, was a beautiful gaudy sequined thing, that Fat Papa got to carry through the airport. Regardless, she is now using, essentially, the same type of backpack that Fat Papa uses as his travel backpack (minus the sequin unicorn). So, while Itsy Bitsy might be 5 with the attitude of a 15-year-old, the same single (or double, take your pick) compartment, tablet sleeve, zippered accessories pocket traditional JanSport style backpack is now working great … and will continue to work great until our needs or interests change.
Personally, when I am packing up a Fat Mama 24-Hour Flight Essential Travel Pack, I prefer a classic JanSport like the SuperBreak Plus, or something similar. Why?
This bag has a padded laptop or tablet sleeve (for a device up to 15”).
1 zippered storage compartment (with the separated laptop sleeve for easy organization) keeps my entertainment, snacks, and layover essentials orderly and handy.
1 zippered accessory pouch keeps all my random bits (gum, glasses, keys, chargers) easily accessible.
The side pocket means I can always have a bottle of water or sunscreen with me and easily accessible (must-have for travel).
Overall, I just like JanSport as a brand. If you want more pockets for your backpack, they've got you covered. Want a small or mini bag? They've got that too. Looking for a hiking bag? Fanny pack? Cross body bag? They have you covered and the bags last a long time. I even have JanSports I got in high school.
Mostly, I like carrying a backpack when I fly because, in a variety of ways, a backpack is like an adult diaper bag. It’s big enough to hold anything I am going to need in a 24-hour period or for a specific activity but small enough to be easily transported. Backpacks are more likely to have tons of isolated compartments, pockets, pouches, sleeves, etc. to keep me organized. A backpack isn’t big and bulky like a beach bag or fun tote (don’t get me wrong, I love to rock a brightly colored tote); rather, it’s practical and allows me to be more engaged with my surroundings.
Regardless of what kind of backpack you go for, I really do feel that backpacks make the best carry-ons. No other piece of luggage is going to give you the same hands-free flexibility. Or allow you to maneuver around the plane and airport with as much ease (just think about the germs you are rolling around from the airport bathroom floor to the plane, to your hotel with rolling luggage). And if there was an emergency, you’ve got 24-hours of travel essentials already strapped to your back.
Fat Mama Tip: Have too much stuff to fit in your backpack but don't want to deal with an additional carry-on item? Try gate checking your carry-on sized piece of luggage. These days, airlines are packing flights so full that they regularly ask for volunteers to gate check carry-ons at no cost. In fact, I can't remember the last time I flew when the gate crew didn't ask for volunteers to gate check luggage. This is a convenient way to board the plane hands-free while also helping out your fellow passengers and flight crew. Plus, you just got a free checked bag!
Keep Calm and Quack On