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Hands-on Gear Review

Patagonia Headway MLC Review

Patagonia Headway MLC
Top Pick Award
Price:   $189 List | $184.00 at Amazon
Compare prices at 5 resellers
Pros:  Versatile, duffel-like ease of use, Goldilocks award for just the right balance of travel features
Cons:  Backpack straps not comfortable for long distances, gear sags in soft structure when not full
Bottom line:  The Headway is another stellar product from Patagonia: thoughtfully designed, rugged, easy to use, and fortified by the Ironclad guarantee and cutting edge company ethics.
Editors' Rating:     
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Manufacturer:   Patagonia

Our Verdict

The Patagonia Headway MLC was a pleasure to review. We love playing with gear, but we especially love when that gear seamlessly integrates itself into our lives. That's when we know we have a winner. And that's how it was with Patagonia's latest travel backpack.

Color Update - May 2017
Since we originally reviewed this product, new colors are available. Scroll down to learn more.

What was unique about reviewing this bag was how pleasant the researching process was. Normally we have to sift through a complicated and often emotionally charged mix of pros and cons, likes and dislikes, over-statements and self-consciousness. With this contender, consumers had some great ideas of ways to fine tune the backpack, but mostly the reviews online tell stories of the adventures people have had with these packs, how pleased they were with the bag, and in many cases, how they ended up buying this pack for all of their family members. How sweet is that?

This contender is certainly not a perfect fit for everyone reading this review, but we will share the pros and cons, and if you're a match for this pack, we're pretty confident you'll love it.

Don't need all that storage?
Patagonia Headway Brief 22L
This bag has a smaller sibling in the Patagonia Headway Brief 22L. Retailing for $139, this briefcase version has a raised electronics pocket that fits most 15" laptops. The Brief includes both handles and a removable shoulder strip to fit your carrying needs.

RELATED REVIEW: The Best Travel Backpacks Review

Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results

Review by:
Lyra Pierotti
Review Editor

Last Updated:
November 17, 2016


The New Color Options for the Headway MLC versus the Old Color Options

The tan and red color combination featured in the Headway MLC we originally reviewed is no longer available. A Patagonia rep confirmed that the colors have been updated since our last review and that they will be switched up again in July for the Fall/Winter line release. Currently, the travel backpack is available in Big Sur Blue, Gorge Green and Black. No other technical or aesthetic aspects of the product have changed, just the colors.

Take a look at the side-by-side comparison photos below, with an example from the latest color pallette offered by Patagonia on the left (Big Sur Blue) and the original model, we reviewed, on the right.
Patagonia Headway MLC
Patagonia Headway MLC

Hands-on Review of the Patagonia Headway MLC

The Headway MLC is a travel backpack for the duffel lover, with a few features like backpack straps and a laptop sleeve to make modern airport travel a breeze.

Patagonia Headway MLC travel backpack
Patagonia Headway MLC travel backpack

Performance Comparison

Check out the Overall Performance chart below to see how the Patagonia Headway MLC stacked up against the competition.


This pack's suspension is not optimized for long distance treks like several of the packs in this review. It is more of a duffel with great travel features that can be carried like a backpack for quick moves through the airport or hoofing it down the street to your hotel. Used in this manner, we found it to be a very comfortable travel backpack. This is not, however, a pack that will cross over for use on hikes, treks, or backpacking trips.

The backpack only has shoulder straps, no hip belt. Unlike the Minaal Carry On 2.0, this one doesn't have a well-structured backpanel to make up for the lack of a hip belt. We like the simplicity of this design, and found it appropriate on the Headway--the soft sides allowed the bag to conform to our back. If packed well, it can be quite comfortable. If you're carrying a laptop, it can slide in directly next to your back, with the thick fabric providing padding and a little structure. When it was fully packed, it carried very nicely.

The Headway MLC is reasonably comfortable when well packed  and in our opinion did not need a hip belt.
The Headway MLC is reasonably comfortable when well packed, and in our opinion did not need a hip belt.

The next caveat to the comfort, however, is that without that hip belt, it isn't as comfortable under heavier loads. We found the comfort maxed out around 25 or 30 pounds, depending on how you pack it and what you're carrying. Packing a laptop in the back panel helps make bulkier loads carry more comfortably, but it does not help much as you add more and more weight. The Osprey Porter 46 has a similar design, but is much more comfortable when carried as a backpack.

The padding in the backpack and shoulder straps is thin but stiff enough to be supportive while still keeping a relatively low profile.

Carrying the Headway MLC slung over the shoulder.
Carrying the Headway MLC slung over the shoulder.


The features on this pack are very thoughtfully designed. It is featured enough that it adds convenience and organization, but simple enough that you don't get bogged down in the details or lost in a labyrinth of pockets, zippers, and panels.

The pack opens like a suitcase with one big zippered compartment and several other pockets for keeping shoes, socks, or underwear separated. In another external pocket, there are places for pens, pencils, office supplies, electronics cords, odds and ends, in addition to the laptop sleeve. The padding around the laptop is not as thick as many of the other packs in the review, but it was adequate so long as we weren't throwing the pack around. For a more office-friendly featured pack, check out the overall winner, The North Face Overhaul.

The main zippered compartment of the Headway MLC
The main zippered compartment of the Headway MLC
A narrow zippered panel separates shoes from clothing.
A narrow zippered panel separates shoes from clothing.

The backpack converts easily and quickly from a backpack to a briefcase-style bag, or to a duffel with a shoulder strap. The backpack straps unclip from the bottom and tuck into a zippered sleeve. They lay flat and hide away without creating unaesthetic or awkward lumps. The buckles that the straps anchor to on the bottom of the bag also tuck into a "garage" to make the bag more sleek for airport belts and overhead bins. It was a finger workout to get the buckles into the garage--good technique helped expedite the tucking process.

The buckle for the backpack straps can be hidden away in a little "garage."
The buckle for the backpack straps can be hidden away in a little "garage."

There is a luggage tag sewn into the side of the bag, and which slides in and out of a camouflaged sleeve. It is a little hard to find, so we wonder if people would find it easily enough to identify the bag if it did get lost.

Every good travel pack needs a luggage tag. This one is built in... but arguably hard to find for someone unfamiliar with the bag.
Every good travel pack needs a luggage tag. This one is built in... but arguably hard to find for someone unfamiliar with the bag.

The zippers can be locked, except for the laptop sleeve which has only one zipper pull. This was okay for our uses because we wouldn't leave the bag unattended with our laptop in it anyway, and while in transit, the laptop rests against your back (or thigh, if carrying like a duffel or briefcase), so we weren't overly concerned about theft.

Patagonia's Headway MLC travel backpack has just the right amount of features for a modern  tech- and adventure-savvy travel backpack.
Patagonia's Headway MLC travel backpack has just the right amount of features for a modern, tech- and adventure-savvy travel backpack.

Packing & Accessibility

The panel design allows this pack to open like a traditional suitcase, so it is very easy to access anything in the bag. The addition of several useful organizational pockets, for everything from shoes and socks to office supplies, helps keep things where you can find them. And the laptop sleeve makes it easy to slide your laptop or tablet in and out quickly at airport security screening.

The rectangular design of the bag is easy to manage through the airport, stuff into the overhead bin on the airplane, and chuck in the trunk of a vehicle. There is a sleeve on the back panel of the bag with a zipper that can be unzipped to form a tube that slings over the handle of a large rolling suitcase if you're traveling with one.

The Patagonia Headway MLC packed all of our "test luggage" with ease.
The Patagonia Headway MLC packed all of our "test luggage" with ease.

This award winner is a simple, user-friendly travel backpack, with a design that errs more on the side of a suitcase. The only pack simpler (and more "suitcasey") than the Headway, we thought, was the Arcteryx Covert CO.

This odd zippered sleeve turns into a tube when unzipped so you can slide the bag over the handle of a roller bag.
This odd zippered sleeve turns into a tube when unzipped so you can slide the bag over the handle of a roller bag.

We liked that the interior of the bag is a lighter color: this contrasted most of our clothing and luggage, making it easier to find whatever we were looking for.

Due to the soft structure of the pack, if it was not packed fully, our clothing tended to bunch up or sag to the bottom. This could be prevented with the addition of compression straps inside the bag, but it is also easily managed with packing cubes.


Patagonia products are built to last, and this bag is no exception. And rest assured if it doesn't last: it's backed by Patagonia's Ironclad Guarantee.

"We guarantee everything we make. If you are not satisfied with one of our products at the time you receive it, or if one of our products does not perform to your satisfaction, return it to the store you bought it from or to Patagonia for a repair, replacement or refund. Damage due to wear and tear will be repaired at a reasonable charge."


We don't anticipate having to take advantage of that guarantee, at least not for a long time. The Headway is a rugged, durable, and thoughtfully constructed travel backpack. The zippers are smooth and glide easily. The exterior is thick, rugged, and smooth, made of extremely durable 940 denier ballistic nylon Cordura--beat only by the Minaal Carry On 2.0 which is made in part with 1000 denier nylon.

The Headway resists catching and abrasion--but we did manage to scuff it up when hard objects protruded from the soft sides. The stitching is strong, overall, though the D ring connectors and sewn loop seemed small and weak for the pack when stuffed full.

The shoulder strap components and D-ring attachment were the only features that raised durability questions--but posed no issues during testing.
The shoulder strap components and D-ring attachment were the only features that raised durability questions--but posed no issues during testing.

The New Yorker ran a profile of Yvon Chouinard, co-founder of Patagonia, in September 2016, which underlined the durability of Patagonia products. Chouinard, the article reported, is a reluctant businessman, critical of consumerism, and stuck between the economic reality of running a successful business and the harsh reality of our (related) impact on the environment. "Chouinard may walk the walk," the article said, "as far as not buying things—his own Patagonia gear tends to date back to the last century." You might say that Patagonia products are built to last until they come back into style.

Some consumers have been frustrated with the latest iteration of the Headway MLC. Enticed to upgrade their old version for the more modern features, like the laptop sleeve, old fans of the Headway have reported that this new version is not as well designed or as durable as the one they bought a decade ago. Chouinard, we are sure, is equally frustrated.

In this review, we found this award winner to be a very strong performer in a competitive and evolving field of travel backpacks.

Weight & Capacity

The Headway MLC lands in the middle of the road in terms of weight vs. capacity. It is among the more spacious travel backpacks in this review at 45 liters capacity, and strikes a middle ground with weight at just over 3 pounds. It is made of very rugged nylon Cordura fabric, but still has a (comparatively) reasonable weight to capacity ratio of 1.12 ounces per liter. If you're looking for something smaller, in many ways the Cotopaxi Nazca is a miniature version of this pack.

The MLC stands for Maximum Legal Carry On, which is potentially a misnomer. Be sure to measure this bag and know your airline's carry on size restrictions. This one is reportedly 22 x 16 x 9 inches. However, when we packed it reasonably full, we measured it at 21 x 14 x 10 inches (most airlines list 22 x 14 x 9 inches as the maximum carry on size). Lots of wiggle room in these reported specifications: the most reliable way to be sure you'll make it on board with your carry on is to ensure it fits inside your airline's carry on size-checker box, packed with the luggage you plan to take with you.

Best Applications

Just what type of travel are you planning? The Patagonia Headway MLC is ideal for fixed wing aircraft as well as helicopter transport in Antarctica with its soft sides and rugged design.
Just what type of travel are you planning? The Patagonia Headway MLC is ideal for fixed wing aircraft as well as helicopter transport in Antarctica with its soft sides and rugged design.

The Headway MLC is a satisfying compromise between a duffel bag and a suitcase, with the convenient option of carrying it as a backpack. This is a great bag for airport travel and road trips, and will likely suffice for international trips a few weeks long. The soft sides of this pack also make it easy to cram into tight spaces, and ideal for passengers on unusual types of transport (like helicopters or boats) where hard-sided luggage is a hassle or even a hazard.

In newer condition, this pack looks sleek enough for business travel. As it ages, it will likely be relegated to more rugged travel use. For a pack that keeps a more professional look, check out our winner, The North Face Overhaul or the sleek Minaal Carry On 2.0.

This travel backpack is an excellent replacement for the more common roller bag plus laptop bag combination for international travel: it is large enough to carry lots of luggage without being too big that it's unbearable or cumbersome to throw on your back.

This is not a backpack to take on hikes, treks, or backpacking trips, but rather to leave behind at the hotel if you're taking off into the wild.


Patagonia is known to be on the pricier side of outdoor and travel gear, and at $189, this travel pack is no exception. This is presumably due to the ethical nature of the company, but the reality is that it is sometimes out of the price range of some otherwise enthusiastic consumers. Nicknames like "Patigucci" capture the sentiment. However, with Patagonia, you do get what you pay for: if the environmental ethos doesn't capture your heart, the Ironclad Guarantee will at least ensure you're expectations are met.


The Patagonia Headway MLC was an obvious winner from the moment we took it out of the box. The design is simple and intuitive, fully featured but not labyrinthine. The Headway, in fact, seems to perfectly embody the definition of a travel pack: it is a very useful compromise between a suitcase, roller bag, duffel, briefcase, and a backpack. While other packs, like the Osprey Porter 46, nailed the backpack part more effectively, and some pull off a more business savvy appearance, like the Minaal Carry On 2.0, the Headway set the Goldilocks standard for a travel backpack that is "just right."

Many consumers report loving this bag so much they bought one for everyone in their family. Our reviewers have their own behind-the-scenes way of rating the gear we review: The Headway is the travel pack we were most likely to keep after testing the dozen bags in this review.

Did we fall, googly-eyed, for yet another Patigucci product? Perhaps. But pleasantly so.
Lyra Pierotti

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Most recent review: November 17, 2016
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