Gear Review: Patagonia MLC 45L Carry-on Bag

Packed with features and plenty of space for a few days, the MLC challenges us to travel with just one bag.

Maybe it's time to rethink your carry-on bag.

Airlines are getting picky about carry-on sizes, and some overhead bins can be so limited on space they won’t even fit roll-aboards. Even worse, we are in an era of low-cost, no-frills airlines, where you often have to pay for checked luggage. So we set out to find a perfect carry-on bag, and one of the bags we reviewed is the Transport MLC 45L from Patagonia.

The MLC stands for “maximum legal carry-on” and the 45L is for its 45-liter capacity. We’re really digging this bag. Patagonia has made it for years, but the recent redesign is outstanding.

Let’s run through some of the smart elements I've seen in this carry-on:

One of the things I most like about a soft-sided bag is that you can make it fit under a seat or in a small overhead bin. Try that with your hard-shell roll-aboard.

A padded laptop compartment on the bag makes it easy to remove your computer for security lines. It’s designed to fits big, 17-inch laptops, so your smaller 12-inch Macbook might be slopping around in this compartment. Even my massive, old-school laptop fits in this bag. On the front, there’s an organizational pocket with sections for your papers, pencils and work essentials. There is even a sleeve that perfectly fits an iPad.

The main interior area accepts a lot of clothes and gear and has a mesh cover to keep everything in place. Biz travelers, listen up: It’s big enough to fit your suits, plus it can accommodate an extra pair of shoes. There’s even a small area on the lid that’s great for overflow items, or to separate out your workout clothes.

A pass-through feature on the back allows you to mount this bag on the extended handle of a rolling suitcase. If it’s not in use, re-zip the bottom and it doubles as a place to store your reading materials.

Since we're there, let's talk about the zippers. Some are big, but all are sturdy, and they have tabs that are easy to grab—maybe not with mountaineering gloves, but really we're talking about a bag for hotels, airports, cabs and hostels, not coulouir-infested crags. Most of the MLC's zippers move very smoothly and don't snag, but the one zipper that goes around the main organizational pocket area does seem to "grab" every now and then. Fortunately, it can't truly bite on the extra material, so it's not really a bother. On the plus side, I've overstuffed this bag and the zippers showed no sign of giving in to my bad packing habits.

When it’s time to carry it, the bag has both a shoulder sling and two briefcase style handles (one on top and one on the side). But sometimes you need your hands free, and a secret to this bag is that you’ll find hidden backpack straps that can be pulled out and clipped into place. They can be re-stowed when you need the bag to look lean and clean.

The Patagonia MLC 45 retails for $179, and is pretty well priced in comparison to its competitors. Patagonia says this bag is roomy enough for trips up to 5 days, but I think it’s best for trips of 2-4 days. On a 5-day trip to Colorado that mixed some adventure travel with some business travel; the bag performed well, even accounting for having to bring two different style wardrobes and extra shoes. It’s perfect for a mid-week business trip and really excels when used for a 3-day weekend one-bag adventure.

Let's not forget fashion. The MLC comes in both black and “forge grey.” Both colors look good if you skiers and backpackers need to pass this bag off for a business trip after your around-the-world adventure.

In close, I'm giving this bag two thumbs up.

P.S. I'm unbiased. Neither I nor this site received any compensation for the review; I bought the bag for my own tests from a travel gear retailer with the goal of replacing an aging (truthfully: dying) carry-on which always had to be gate-checked on commuter flights with limited overhead space.

Geoff Kohl
About the author

Geoff Kohl previously served as the chief travel editor for Where and Read Geoff's full bio