I’m a fairly recent backpack convert, especially after spending 16 months on the road during my Career Break travels. Gone are the days where I open a wheely suitcase and just fling stuff in willy-nilly – now I tote my backpack everywhere, try to be carry-on only as far as possible and I’m really conscious of what goes into my backpack whether it’s just a weekend trip or a longer journey.
Why carry-on only? It’s just easier to travel when you have less to manage on the road – you move lighter, more easily and deal better with tight cramped spaces like hostel rooms and train carriages for example. I’ve found that I don’t need that much to survive, and quite often I can get what I need on the road if I really have to.
It all started when I first acquired the blue CabinZero Classic backpack sometime in 2015 – I was looking for a decent carry-on backpack for weekend trips, and the idea of a bag that maximised regulatory cabin sizes just struck me as a really good idea. This 44L backpack soon became my main travel luggage, and I chose to carry the black CabinZero Military version all through my Career Break travels over 5 different continents (update 2018: see the new CabinZero Military pix and upgrades below). More recently, I got my hands on the new waterproof CabinZero Urban version to give it a test run.
A quick disclaimer – while all bags were sponsored by CabinZero, distributor BOIA Pte Ltd, or the-Expedition, I definitely wouldn’t have ended up with 3 versions of the bag if I didn’t like it at all. Spoiler alert – I love this bag and still use it on most of my travels, but I’ve also found that each version has differing features that make quite a big impact on the user, so I wanted to be able to test them all for myself, show you these different features, and let you decide which version might fit your own travel style best if you’ve been thinking about getting one.
THE ULTIMATE CABINZERO REVIEW
OVERALL CABINZERO FEATURES
Stuff I like about the CabinZero:
- All around loading – zippers open on 3 sides of the bag so you don’t have to yank everything out just from the top like a lot of hiking backpacks which are top-loading only
- Relatively lightweight – the bags weight in at a lightweight 760g (Classic), 950g (Military) and 1,300g (Urban – it’s made of tarpaulin which is heavier)
- Cabin friendly size – its 55cm x 40cm x 20cm dimension fits into most cabin regulations so you could go 100% carry on all the time. But that’s also if you don’t stuff the bag too full…
- Very spacious – I’m not kidding when I say you can pack a ton of stuff in here. The problem I faced was that while the size passed, some budget airlines have a very low weight limit for carry-on luggage. At one point I was carrying 12-14kg in the Military version!
Stuff I don’t like about the CabinZero:
- Lack of pockets – while having less pockets means you can maximise that 1 large bag space however you want, it can make it hard to find stuff some times. Packing cubes are essential
- Boxy shape – the rectangular shape is meant to absolutely maximise your carry-on dimensions compared to more cylindrical backpacks, but it can look a bit overwhelming or awkward, especially if you are very small framed
- Laptop pocket – located on the inside back area of the bag, the position makes it such a bitch to yank your laptop out of your very full bag when going through airport security. I end up using it mostly for separating relatively flat papers or hiding emergency cash in, and only putting my laptop in if my bag is not very full
- Varying waterproofness – Have you ever wondered what exactly it means when a brand says its material is waterproof or water resistant? I’ll go into this in detail for each version because all the materials are different. My test basically involved me pouring a mug of water onto the bag and seeing how the material reacted to the water and whether it seeped through. I found that the main point of weakness for all the bags is the zipper area which totally lets water seep through, even in the waterproof Urban version. So yes you still need a separate raincover for your bag!
A selling feature of the bag is also the Okoban tracking tags which essentially give your bag a tracking number in the Okoban database so it’s easy to match a lost bag to an owner. While I registered mine, it honestly doesn’t seem particularly useful because I’m not sure people even know how to use the Okoban system – I’m curious if anyone has actually lost and found their bag with this system? What would be actually awesome (but probably super expensive) – an actual RFID tracking chip to see where my bag is at all times.
- So many colour options omg – there are such pretty coloured and limited edition patterned options available for this model! Back when I got this there were less than 10 options – I picked the lovely Royal Blue, but given a choice now I’d consider the Samui Blue or the limited edition flags version
- Side compression straps – this helps control the bag size, useful when you are carrying less things in the bag. It stops the bag from sagging outwards, which is both aesthetically and ergonomically pleasing
- 36L and 28L versions available – if you find the 44L too big for you, there are smaller options available, though to me that kind of defeats the purpose of the CabinZero bag which is to max out your carry-on luggage requirements
- No waist/chest strap – carrying this for awhile can get tiring without waist and chest straps to redistribute the weight
- Not completely waterproof – The material is described as ‘waterproof nylon’ – when I poured water on to it, it does repel most of the water – there were little puddles of it on my bag surface. It does soak the material but not through to the inside – what that means is that your stuff is mostly safe from heavy rain apart from the vulnerable zipper area (make sure the zips are tucked in so they are covered and not bulging out), but you do need to sun or dry off your bag because carrying around a soggy backpack is gross.
MILITARY CABINZERO (OLD)
I got the Military in preparation for my Career Break travels, largely because of its straps which I’ll expand upon below. It spent a good 16 months on the road with me and has travelled to 5 continents, and has probably been carried on, checked in and tossed around just about everywhere.
- Padded chest and waist strap – this makes such a difference especially if you are carrying a lot in your backpack. I occasionally use the chest strap to help keep my smaller shoulder bags from sliding off when I am walking a fair distance
- Adjustable and padded shoulder straps – besides the strap length, the Military shoulder strap has an additional clip that lets you adjust the angle of your bag at the shoulders. This helps to redistribute the weight to different parts of your back which means you don’t tax your back in one spot too much, and I can carry it for a longer time
- Limited colour range – there are just 3 colours: Black, Olive and Tan, and I went with black since I didn’t like the other 2 colours. Well these are military colours obviously, but it’s just a pity there isn’t something a little more exciting
- No side handle – for some reason they decided to do away with the side handle, which means you can’t carry it briefcase style, and is one less helpful handle to haul it out of the luggage compartment. Not a big dealbreaker but just a tad inconvenient
- Not waterproof at all – Of all the CabinZeros, this is the least waterproof of the lot. I had a backpack cover permanently attached to the top handle of my bag just in case it rained because when water gets poured on it, it soaks right through – anything in my outer pocket would definitely be wet if I got caught in the rain, as with anything on top of the bag. The zips are even more exposed than the Classic’s so that doesn’t help things, and while the bag is lined on the inside which gives you some scant protection against a drizzle perhaps, you definitely need to dry off that bag and your stuff if you get rained on. (Note: The CabinZero folk told me after they saw this review that the bag should be more waterproof than this, so I’m not sure if it’s just my bag or an actual material issue, but hey I’m only telling you what I’ve experienced and tested for myself – water seeped through the bag when I poured water in it, i.e. my bag isn’t waterproof or resistant)
MILITARY CABINZERO (NEW)
In 2018 I received the new Military CabinZero and I’m happy to report that there have been many great upgrades that I have been waiting for!
What’s New in 2018 Military
I’m assuming you’ve read the review above so you know what the Military is about, but here’s what they’ve updated:
- NEW colours: There are 3 new colours in the Military range – a dark blue navy, a light brown khaki and a medium grey colour which I got. I would have gotten navy ( I love blue) but it was not available from the-Expedition
- Stronger top handle + NEW side handle: YAAS SIDE HANDLE. They did away with the useless side straps and put in a nice side handle which makes it so much easier to pull out of the luggage compartments. The handles are also much less dinky than before, with added padding so it makes carrying more comfortable and they are more securely attached to the bag.
- NEW expandable water bottle holder: They’ve added in a little pocket with a button that you can use to stash a water bottle, useful if your bottle doesn’t have any carabiners or if you use the bag for hiking.
- NEW bands on side compression straps: This is a pretty small addition but it’s meant to neaten up the appearance of the bag so it doesn’t look like a million little straps are flapping around. Small change but I like it.
- NEW mesh inner pocket: mine used to be a solid opaque pocket, but now it’s become a mesh pocket
- More water resistant: I can also happily report now that my new CabinZero Military is definitely more water resistant than the old one. I did the water pouring test and it definitely fared better overall, but note that I’ve found water still seeps in via the seams, so I would still recommend a bag cover in heavy rain and not putting anything too vulnerable/precious in the front pocket, but this should stand up to a drizzle quite well
I got back from my Career Break and was pretty eager to see how this new version would compare to the others. I brought it with me to Beijing and Batam.
- Waterproof BUT SOME CAVEATS– YES this is such an important thing especially when you have such erratic weather patterns these days! It’s made of tarpaulin so water just rolls right off the bag – just take a cloth to it and wipe it off, no need to dry the bag. However, I wouldn’t go prancing around in the rain just yet – the way the bag is designed, the zips are exposed to the elements whether you carry it as a backpack or a messenger bag (they face upwards) which is honestly quite silly as these are the bits most vulnerable to water seeping through on the sides, and they are designed to almost form a catchment for rain so you’re guaranteeing yourself possible water seepage. Otherwise, the bag is pretty damn waterproof.
- Convertible from backpack to messenger bag – this is a pretty cool feature, and is done via detachable shoulder straps and a long side strap so if you rather carry it messenger style, you can swap it over pretty easily and stylishly
- Hidden shoulder straps – there is a zipper pocket in the outer back panel where you can stash the straps that you aren’t using. Good I think if you forced to check your bag in and don’t want the shoulder straps to catch on things
- Large mesh inner pocket – I like being able to easily see what’s in my pockets so I don’t have to stick my hand in and dig around
- Uncomfortable shoulder straps – the shoulder straps can be removed and tucked away so that they aren’t dangling and getting caught in stuff, but the flat design of the straps means that this bag is just not meant to be carried around for too long. I could feel the straps biting into my shoulders after awhile, quite a big no-no for me. The selling point here is the convertability and not the comfort.
- No side compression straps – not being able to control the bag size with the compression straps is one of the biggest pitfalls of the Urban – my bag just looked huge all the time and I could feel it pulling backwards which isn’t very comfortable when you’re walking around
- Weird zip placement – instead of opening around the side like the Classic and Military, the Urban has a bit of a lip so that when you place the bag down, you open up the top flap like a suitcase. On the one hand it means stuff doesn’t spill out as much when you open a very fully stuffed bag, but it also makes it harder to squeeze in extra stuff into the bag. I could put 2 layers of packing cubes in my Military, but there’s no way it was happening in the Urban. It doesn’t help that the Urban is also slightly smaller at 42L compared to its 44L siblings. This bit also contributes to the waterproofing issue point above.
- No outside pocket – sometimes you just forget to pack stuff or you want something un-valuable that’s easily accessible without having to unlock your bag – you can’t do that with the Urban
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
I actually thought that I would love the Urban best – it’s the sleekest looking, the waterproofing was a big plus for me and I thought being 2L smaller wouldn’t make much difference, but it turned out to have the most cons for me as I just didn’t like the top-opening configuration and the straps were more of a dealbreaker than anything else.
I suggest that if you get the Urban, to pack as light as possible or reserve it for weekend trips – the messenger configuration and uncomfortable shoulder straps aren’t great for carrying too much or for too long.
Obviously you can tell that my favourite is the Military version, not just because of sentimental value (it’s travelled the most with me) but because it’s the most functional of the lot when it comes to packing a ton and comfort. It’s got the best straps of the lot so if you are planning a long trip like my Career Break or will be carrying quite a full pack, this is your best bet. Get a simple backpack rain cover and the main issue of not being waterproof is taken care of.
The Classic is basic, and if you aren’t looking to carry too much or too heavy (so the straps aren’t so important), and are more fashion conscious than anything else, the Classic gives you the widest colour choices so you’ll never have to worry about losing sight of your bag because of its distinctive hue.
If you look around on Instagram, CabinZero is doing some serious promotion with bloggers which has made their brand much more visible than when I started carrying it, which is awesome because I think it’s a great brand more people should know about, but with this sort of travel gear, I thought it would be much more useful to hear details from someone who has actually been carrying their bags intensively for almost 2 years now. I’m happy to try and answer any questions you might have about the bags as someone who’s personally tried them all.
In addition, the Cabin cubes set accessories are also extremely useful in organising your bag and 1 large and 2 medium fit into one layer of the CabinZero perfectly, so if you don’t already have packing cubes, I’d consider getting these (or other cubes with these dimensions – they’re not super strangely sized so you can probably find these dimensions on the market) as they fit in just nice. I have actually fit in 2 layers of the cubes (bottom layer very full, top layer not so full) into the Military version, but often my packing style is bottom layer cubes, top layer everything else in various small pouches.
WHERE TO BUY CABINZERO
You can buy online directly through the CabinZero website here. Use my discount code to get 10% off your purchase.
This is an affiliate link which means clicking through and making a purchase on this link may give me a small commission but it does NOT increase your cost in any way whatsoever. Small things like these help me keep the website going!
For Singaporeans who want to get their hands on the CabinZero, you can check out their Singaporean distributor BOIA, which also lists down the retail outlets where you can find the bags. Singaporeans can also check out the-Expedition to buy online and get their bag within 2 working days.
If you are a CabinZero user, drop a note in the comments and tell me whether what you like or don’t like about the bag – everyone’s experiences and needs are different so I’d like to hear what you guys think.