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Confused about whether you should take a backpack or wheeled luggage when traveling? Read this post to help you choose the best option for your trip!
Backpack or Wheeled Luggage
Travel Fashion Help! Reader asks:
“I was just wondering if you could help me; I am really torn as to whether to take a backpack or wheeled luggage?
I am going to move over to Thailand for a few months teaching English. From there I am unsure but I basically want to travel as much as I can – as far as I can!!! I am looking at doing working holidays everywhere / anywhere.
In the past, I have always preferred a rolling bag as it is easier for me to lug around. Also, I am a bit of a neat freak – I like things tidy and organized.
I took a big backpack with me a few years ago when I went for a 3 week holiday in Asia, and found my bag got very messy very quickly!
I also had to unpack everything every time I wanted to find something; however, that was a holiday – moving place to place every day or two. (Editor’s Note: this is the perfect solution for this problem.)
My upcoming travel I will be staying put for a month or so at a time. As I am also going to be traveling cheap, I want something that is going to be easy to take on buses etc.
Can you please give me some advice as to what you would recommend for someone in my position in regards to luggage? Any suggestions would be GREATLY appreciated!”
First, start by reading this article on whether you should choose a backpack or rolling bag. It walks you through the pros and cons of each one.
Then read this free downloadable guide on how to pack for Southeast Asia. Tourists on vacation in Southeast Asia are always quite a sight as they maneuver a massive suitcases for a two-week beach vacation. By understanding what you need you’ll avoid overpacking the things you don’t.
tourists on the narrow walkway in Koh Samui about to board the ferry
As someone that spends quite a bit of time in Southeast Asia and has used both wheeled suitcases and backpacks my instant response is that a travel backpack is better than a wheeled suitcase for this part of the world.
Read this post to learn how to choose the best travel backpack!
Southeast Asia has so much adventure to offer that I’ve felt like I was constantly getting “off the beaten path” quite literally as can be seen in the image below.
getting off the broken path in Bali in 2013 with this convertible wheeled backpack
As you can see in the above pic, walking on a sidewalk might not be what you’re used to at home. While this road in Ubud was busy, it’s no where near as busy as some roads in Bangkok when there isn’t space on a sidewalk because it’s cluttered with food stalls, vendors, motorbike, and people.
Whether it’s Southeast Asia, Central America, or even Europe – be prepared to encounter various terrains. While Southeast Asia may have many unusable sidewalks the cobblestone streets in Europe (along with the many staircases) can also make it difficult to manage a heavy, cumbersome suitcase.
When choosing a backpack or wheeled luggage, keep these things in mind as you decide what type you will travel with as well as how much weight you pack:
Many times there isn’t a sidewalk available so you might find yourself walking on a road. When you’re dodging motorbikes, tuk-tuks, people, dogs, chickens, and whatever gets in your way then you can do this much easier without wheels to get caught along the way (especially in the busy streets of Bangkok or Saigon).
Uneven Broken Sidewalks
If there is a sidewalk you might find yourself scaling up and down the paths various heights. Most commonly, though, you’ll find broken concrete, holes, or rough patches desperate for repair.
This is much easily traversed without the need to lift and pick up or maneuver a suitcase around every few minutes. With a backpack you can just walk around it with ease.
Ubud is beautiful but the sidewalks don’t reflect that beauty
In addition, roads may not be paved and your destination may lead you to a ground filled with gravel, rocks, sand, mud, dirt, or just about anything else.
One of the biggest cons of traveling with a rolling backpack was that whenever I actually needed to use the straps I was on the go and didn’t feel like stopping to get them out of their compartment. It was just easier to pick up the bag by the handles and quickly cross whatever it was I needed to cross.
While some travelers love wheeled backpacks, I found that I never used the straps so it was better for me to just have the wheels and cut down on the weight. I ended up replacing my Meridian with the lightweight Osprey Ozone 22″ and it was a good choice.
everyone’s luggage piled on each other aboard a ferry in between Koh Phi Phi and Phuket.
There are also many beautiful islands to explore requiring you to board on a ferry, speed boat, and more often than not a long tail boat.
You’ll have to carry your luggage on; sometimes climbing various flights of narrow unstable ferry stairs or walking on a makeshift tightrope-like wooden plank (no more than 12 inches wide). I’ve cursed the world every single time I’ve traveled with wheels on and off some boats.
Wheels are not just an issue in this part of the world but you definitely need to be mindful of size especially if you’ll be taking local transport as a budget traveler. Seats are smaller and so is storage space if available.
Avoid bags over 65L max. If you can downsize to 35L, that’s the best!
Since I no longer travel with a backpack due to back issues, I dealt with the dilemma of choosing wheels that would work for the terrain (or lack of) that I would encounter in Southeast Asia or similar parts of the world such as Central America or even Europe.
Read this post on the importance of a healthy back for traveling!
Now if you do choose a rolling suitcase there is one feature that is most important! The wheels.
When you’re dealing with the types of terrain mentioned above, flimsy standard suitcase wheels just won’t do unless you feel like carrying your suitcase most of the time – but then you may as well use a travel backpack.
You want strong, sturdy, durable wheels that are made to last. Look for luggage that has “off road” style wheels with ridges and grooves made for rough terrain.
I have to say I have been extremely pleased with my choices. First I traveled with the Osprey Meridian but then decided it was too clunky and even a bit too heavy so I traded it in for the feather light but efficient Osprey Ozone.
You can read my full comparison here!
I dragged these suitcases over anything and everything and refuse to pick them up unless I absolutely have to. Rocks, holes, even sidewalk curbs – these suitcases easily wheeled over them. Picking up my wheeled suitcase instead of rolling it can easily cause to much back strain and discomfort.
Trust me, I am cruel with my gear. I have to make sure it’s tough and I can recommend it to you, too!
While I am a loyal Osprey fan and absolutely love their products there are a few other brands that I’ve found that also feature sturdy wheels that would work well for the demands of long-term travel:
- 45L Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffle (shown below)
As of Sept 2016, I’m using the Patagonia wheeled suitcase shown above because I’m traveling with all of my scuba diving gear (minus wetsuit) and my Scubapro Seawing Nova Fins are two inches too long for my Osprey Ozone.
It’s a fantastic bag because it’s only two inches longer than a carry-on bag but it fits my ultra-light scuba gear PLUS all my clothing, toiletries, and shoes too! I surprisingly even have space to spare.
Rolling duffle bags are an awesome alternative to wheeled backpacks. Take a look at these top styles!
Ultimately, you have to choose what you feel most comfortable with. While I would prefer a small 35 L backpack for my Southeast Asia travels, I now use a 44L wheeled suitcase and it works well, too. You’ll get used to what you have and then get on with it.
Now that I’ve succeeded in traveling luggage free, I’d even be able to travel with just my 28L Jansport backpack if I didn’t have my diving gear. On shorter side trips that’s all I’m currently using!
(My Jansport backpack is AWESOME by the way! Review coming soon.)
How to stay organized:
Staying organized in a travel backpack is just as easy as a suitcase if you have the right tools. As you see in this post, packing organizers enable me to pack and unpack in 15 minutes or less!
There is even one specific suitcase and backpack organizer that allows you to unpack in seconds. Learn more here!
My favorite organizers are these packing cubes. Watch this video to learn how to use them! When each of your belongings has a “home” in your luggage that ensures you’ll have a less stressful packing experience.
Whatever you do, just pack light!
It won’t matter if you have wheels or straps if your bag is too heavy. Read this guide to learn how to pack light on each and every trip!
These tips are most relevant to budget travelers or those that plan to travel for an extended period of time. They may not apply to you if: you don’t plan on walking more than a few minutes with your belongings, you plan to book private not shared shuttles, or you prefer to utilize taxis from point A to point B.
What type of bag do you prefer to travel with? Comment below!
For more tips on choosing a backpack or wheeled luggage, please read:
- How to Choose a Suitcase
- How to Choose the Best Travel Backpack
- Backpack or Rolling Bag, which one should I choose?
- Minimalist Travel: What’s in My Bag for 4-Weeks
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