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For anyone who travels frequently, luggage can be a very personal thing. You get to know which things fit best in all the pockets, where to put the awkwardly-sized items, and how to tweak the adjustable parts to get it to move just right. I think backpackers are more prone to this than others–the further you go, the more that pack conforms to your body until it becomes an extra limb (albeit a limb with nifty storage and zippers). Just recently I had to buy a new backpack to conform to the carry-on dimensions set by some of the regional discount airlines as my old pack was too large, but I’m pleased to report that the REI Lookout 40 is everything I needed it to be.

REI Lookout 40 Women’s Pack. Photo by deannanmc

Full hiking bags are a bit large for carry-on, so what I really needed was a school-size backpack with hiking backpack features. I was ordering online and had a youth bag for my toddler from REI that I was impressed with, so I took a leap of faith on the Lookout 40 and was not disappointed.

The Lookout 40 is slightly larger than a campus bag and styled similarly: one main compartment and one front pocket, both with zippered panels instead of a top-and-bottom loading access point. It also has two narrow side pockets, two water bottle pockets, and a small compartment at the top. The side pockets easily held an extra pair of shoes (flats, no heel) in one and my daughters’ stuffed dolls, Violet and Bluebell (I realize most of you won’t have that issue, but hey, the more you know), in the other.

Traveling gnomes. Photo by deannanmc

Their clothes and mine went into three separate half-size packing cubes, all of which fit easily into the main compartment, and a quart bag of toiletries went in front with a lot of room left over for anything else I might have wanted to add. The side and bottom compression straps were great for reducing bulk, so while I have only tried this on a car trip I anticipate no trouble at the airport for oversize carry-on. It’s rated as a 40-liter (2,440 cubic inches) daypack but I tried a trial packing run for our eight days in Provence and if you go by the motto “If you can pack for a week, you’re set for a month” I think many experienced packers will find it suitable for long-haul backpacking.

Main and top compartments. Photo by deannanmc

Now for the cons–there aren’t many but there are a couple. Those side and bottom compression straps were nice but it would have been nice to have a strap that compressed from the top. It is a hiking backpack so the hip belt was padded, but I could have used a bit more cushion there–overall, it was comfortable enough, but I’m used to a very thickly padded hip belt. The straps are adjustable, but smaller women definitely have the advantage–I have linebacker shoulders and it took a bit of time to get a comfortable fit. For the size, I wish there was an elastic criss-cross strap in the front to contain my rain jacket outside the main compartment, but that’s a minor quibble.

Back panel and straps. Photo by deannanmc

At $99, the bag isn’t the most expensive pack out there but the materials feel high-quality and sturdy, and the pros absolutely outweigh the cons. It comes in a nice neutral gray with blue accents, but since it’s my favorite color I went for the dark purple (the mens’ pack comes in blue, black, and orange). One thing I really like about the look of the pack? The REI branding is there, but it’s small and unobtrusive–this bag doesn’t scream “I AM AN AMERICAN TOURIST!” like North Face bags tend to do. Overall, I’m pretty impressed. I think this is going to be my go-to bag for travel for many years to come.

(REI did not solicit this review, nor did they offer any compensation. I just really like their bags.)

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