The ultimate CabinZero backpack review: Which version is best for your travels?

Trying to decide which CabinZero backpack is right for you? Many of my friends have seen me toting around the CabinZero on my travels and asked me all about them, so I decided to put together a detailed CabinZero review covering everything I know and have experience about all the versions that I’ve tried – CabinZero Classic, CabinZero Military, as well as the CabinZero Urban – to help you decide which version is the best for you and your travels.

Looking at the latest CabinZero ADV Pro? I’ve covered my thoughts on it in this detailed review.


Why CabinZero?

Jac Changi Airport Departures
Toting the Classic – all packed and read to go for 4D3N in San Francisco!

My love affair with the CabinZero backpack started when I first acquired the blue CabinZero Classic 44L 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 backpack soon became my main travel luggage, and I chose to carry the black CabinZero Military 44L version all through my Career Break travels over 5 different continents (update 2018: see the new CabinZero Military pix and upgrades below). Later on I got my hands on the new waterproof CabinZero Urban 42L version to give it a test run. More recently I’ve also tested out the CabinZero ADV Pro 42L.

My backpacking style

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 wheelie 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.

Disclaimers

While all my bags were sponsored by CabinZero [affiliate link], distributor BOIA Pte Ltd, or the-Expedition, this is a review based on my personal experiences and opinion which is definitely not paid for.

I wouldn’t have ended up with so many different versions of the bag if I didn’t like it at all. I personally love this bag and still use it on most of my travels. I wrote this review because I found from my experience that each version has different features that make quite a big impact on the user, so I wanted to show you what these different features are, and let you decide which version might fit your own travel style best if you’ve been thinking about getting one of these bags.

Some of the links are affiliate links and may give me a small % of sales if you buy through the link, which goes to helping me upkeep this blog. Also awesome – DISCOUNT CODES SAVE YOU 10%Sign up for TOTmail or find out more here.


Overall CabinZero Features

CabinZero All Lineup Back scribble
From the back

Pros

What I like about CabinZero bags

  • 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 weigh 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!

Cons

What I don’t like about CabinZero bags

  • 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 rain cover for your bag!
CabinZero All Straps Comparison scribble
The straps of all 3 bags for comparison – this turned out to be one of the most important things for me

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.


Classic 44L

This was my first CabinZero ever! I carried it first on a long weekend to Koh Samui and a week in South Sumatra, as well as the whirlwind trip to San Francisco.

South Sumatra Ranau Lake WIsma Pusri Jetty Shot
This is typically what my luggage situation is like – one large backpack, a smaller sling for important stuff. This is me at Lake Ranau in South Sumatra waiting to check in
CabinZero Classic Front-Back scribble
All the basics in the Classic
CabinZero Classic Interior-Pocket-Side scribble
The Classic was the first CabinZero on the market

Pros

What I like about CabinZero Classic

  • 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 fewer 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

Cons

What I don’t like about CabinZero Classic

  • No waist/chest strap – carrying this for a while 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.
CabinZero Classic Wet
You can see that it’s somewhat waterproof – the water does seep into the material but it does pool as well. I had someone spill an entire cup of coffee on this bag once and I needed to wash it, but my stuff was mostly intact and dry

Check out the Classic on the CabinZero website [affiliate links]


Military 44L (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.

Career Break CabinZero Military Japan
Considering how much I carried this, it surprises me that I never took any photos of me actually carrying the bag. I think it’s because it was always too dang full! This was before I headed off to Tokyo
CabinZero Military Front-Back scribble
You can see the padding on the back and the straps, making this the most comfortable of the CabinZeros to carry
CabinZero Military Interior-Pocket-Side scribble
Why no side handle??

Pros

What I like about CabinZero Military Old

  • 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

Cons

What I don’t like about CabinZero Military Old

  • 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)
CabinZero Military Shoulder Strap Top scribble
I usually tug or release these straps that are positioned above my shoulders when I carry the Military. They shift the angle of the bag on my body and redistribute the weight accordingly
CabinZero Military Wet
You can see how the bag just soaks up the water, and when I peeked underneath, the water had seeped through to the pocket. The bag itself is lined so the main compartments would be a little bit safer, but having to dry your bag (or have it stink) is a bleah

Military 44L (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!

CabinZero Military New-Old Front
New on the left, old on the right. There aren’t any major cosmetic changes
CabinZero Military New-Old Back
From the back – the arm straps look a little different eh?

What’s New in 2018 Military

CabinZero Military New-Old Front Scribble

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.
CabinZero Military New Handle
A proper handle – if you look at the old one, you can see it’s literally a strap sewn across, whereas this actually looks like a purpose-build handle
  • 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.
CabinZero Military New Bottle Pocket
See the new pocket! My bag is usually pretty full so I haven’t really had a chance to use this yet, but I like that maybe I could stash easy to reach things like maps or maybe my shades here as well. Also, note the bands on the side straps to keep things from being too flappy
  • 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
CabinZero Military New Wet
As you can see, the water doesn’t soak into this material as much compared to the old one – most of the water seeps into the straps and how it seeps into the front pocket is mostly through the seams. Note that this is a brand new bag that I’ve only just started carrying around compared to my old Military which was definitely much more weathered when I tested it, but I daresay this material looks more water resistant regardless

Check out the Military on the CabinZero website [affiliate links]


Urban 42L

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.

CabinZero Urban Batam Back
Carrying the Urban in Batam
CabinZero Urban Front-Back scribble
Sleek, black beautiful
CabinZero Urban Interior-Pocket-Side scribble
See how when the bag is on its side, the zips are exposed on top? This… kinda defeats the purpose of making the rest of the bag waterproof

Pros

What I like about CabinZero Urban

  • 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 – there are detachable shoulder straps and a longer 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

Cons

What I don’t like about CabinZero Urban

  • 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 a while, quite a big no-no for me. The selling point here is the convertibility 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
CabinZero Urban Wet
Water doesn’t soak into the bag at all, just wipe and go
CabinZero Urban From Side
You can see how the bag tilts outwards because there are no additional shoulder straps which the Military has to adjust the tilt of the bag. It’s not a big deal when your bag is light, but it makes such a difference when it’s heavy!
CabinZero Urban Transformation scribble
How the straps are hidden away

Check out the Urban on the CabinZero website [affiliate link]


My recommendations

Best utility: Military (new)

Obviously, you can tell from the review that my favourite is the Military (New), not just because of sentimental value (the old one travelled the most around the world) 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 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 backpack rain cover and the main issue of not being waterproof is taken care of.

CabinZero Military Front scribble
CabinZero Military – Yes, and an even more resounding yes with the new version! If only it was fully waterproof it would be perfect

Best colour selection: Classic

The Classic is basic, and if you aren’t looking to carry too much or too heavy (so the strap design isn’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.

CabinZero Classic Front scribble
CabinZero Classic – can’t go wrong with a classic!

Not for me: Urban

I actually thought that I would love the Urban best – it’s the sleekest looking, the waterproofing was a big plus and I thought a 2L smaller size wouldn’t make much difference, but it turned out to have the most cons for me. I just didn’t like the top-opening configuration and the straps were more of a dealbreaker than anything else.

It might work for someone else though – 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.

CabinZero Urban Front scribble
CabinZero Urban – More cons than pros for me!

Additional essential: Packing cubes

In addition, the CabinZero Packing cubes [affiliate link] are also extremely useful in organising your bag and 1 large and 2 medium cubes 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.

CabinZero Classic with Cubes scribble
The Cubes are designed to fit in perfectly
CabinZero Cube Large Bottom Layer
To give you a sense of how I pack – this is the Large cube – I roll all my stuff, and then I add in more flat folded stuff on top of this layer until the cube can’t close. You can pack quite a lot! This is 6 tops, 3 dresses, 2 pairs of pants – I piled on another 3 pairs of shorts, 2 Uniqlo Heattech tops and probably a scarf or two!

Where to buy CabinZero


CabinZero is doing some serious promotion with Bloggers and Instagrammers which has made their brand much more visible than when I first started carrying it, but I hope you found this detailed review helpful – I thought a detailed breakdown from someone who has actually had quite a lot of experience carrying their bags would be more informative. 

Looking at the new CabinZero ADV Pro with a more streamlined shape and the laptop pocket in front? Check out my detailed review on how I think it matches up to my favourite Military.

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.

22 thoughts on “The ultimate CabinZero backpack review: Which version is best for your travels?”

  1. I have the 44l military and I find that it’s a tad too big for my build. I’ll also hit the 10kg airline limit when it’s about 80% filled, so it feels like I’m wasting the excess space. So tempted to get the 36l classic now!

  2. Clicked on your link even after i add to cart my cabin zero military!
    great review, helped me decide easily on which i should go for. too bad the classics dont come with chest and waist straps.

  3. Ankesh Khandelwal

    Hey. Great article. It was a very detailed explanation on each of the CabinZero bags and helped me decide on which one i really need. :)
    Also, do you have any recommendation on the backpack cover to save it from rain? I am from Singapore as well so can buy here either online or from some shop.
    Cheers!

    1. I was using the 55-80L orange rain cover from Decathalon previously and am currently using the sea to summit 30-50L blue cover, but I think as long as the cover fits 44L it should be fine!

  4. Thanks alot for doing this review (it’s the most comprehensive in my opinion). I’m really digging the Military option for the comfort, looks and durability. But I’m very concerned about the lack of waterproof protection which is very important to me. My second option is the Classic, but it doesn’t seem as comfortable without the pads. I plan to cycle daily to work with my office clothes & shoes + laptop etc (and travel of course) need a bag to brave the element. Any updates on new Military 44L options? Appreciate your advice!

    1. I just received the new Military and so far it’s definitely proven a bit more water resistant than my old one! It’s not completely waterproof though – if you get caught in heavy rain it will still get wet but your stuff will probably be ok in a drizzle. The Urban might work for you as it’s messenger style though personally I’m not a fan of it…

      The padding and the chest/waist strap of the military do make a big difference if you are carrying it for longer periods of time as compared to the classic! They also do have smaller military sizes now so that might work for you too as the 44L might get pretty bulky

      1. Thanks for the reply! I totally agree with you that the Urban doesn’t seem to measure up in terms lack of comfort.

        But how does the new Military compare to the Classic in terms of waterproof?

        Can share pics of your new grey Military? Look forward to more reviews from you! Thanks so much!

  5. They have the Military in more colors and sizes now (still not as many great colors as the classic). I have the 28L Classic ice gray that I’ll be using on a trip in a few weeks, but I’m wondering about getting a Military for the better straps, for longer trips. Maybe I’ll go up to the 36L size (gotta justify getting another one somehow!)

    1. I know! I just got my hands on the new Military in Grey, will update this blog soon with my thoughts on it. I definitely like the Military’s straps best :)

  6. Would you recommend the Classic 44L as a school bag? Since kids here in the Philippines carry at least 9 books and 12 notebooks per day. I bought a couple of H****l bags before and my boys had to carry their notebooks in a separate bag. Do you think this bag can withstand a year of everyday use?

    1. I think the 44L would be way too big for a school bag if you ask me – maybe the 36L or 28L might be better… but wow 21 books is a lot to carry! Maybe consider the military because it has the waist/chest straps to help redistribute weight, might help your kids posture in the long run!

      And yeah it’s pretty tough, I carried my military for 15 months of backpacking and it’s still holding up pretty well even now!

  7. Great article and objective and informative- I’m all set to go!!!!! Can you share you discount code so I can pack more in :-)

  8. Glad to see a no-holds-barred web review of a sponsored product for once! I have a 44L Vintage which is practically like the Classic. I love using it but the mesh has become slack, so it’s useless now. Detachable straps like those on the Urban would be nice and allow it to be checked-in if needed. Do you know of any roller bags with such a feature?

    1. Heh thanks! Well the Vintage is the only one I don’t have but it looks useful especially for wet ground! Yeah I don’t use my Classic mesh pocket much but yeah I know what you mean. Not too sure about roller bags because I honestly haven’t used one in a long time haha ;p

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