Wheeled Backpacks: Why They’re the Best, and Tips for Buying One

by Nora Dunn on December 10, 2012

wheeled backack

In six+ years of full-time travel, my backpack/suitcase/whatever has assumed the functionality of my “house” (and them some) – keeping all my possessions safe while enduring the hard knocks of travel.

I’ve lived out of a bag for over 6 years.

Or rather, a few bags.

 

And I’ve determined (and demonstrated by example) that wheeled backpacks are the best for travel – any kind of travel.

(And I’ve done most kinds).

 

I started with a backpack…

…as many budget travelers do. Actually I started my full-time travels with my second backpack, thinking I was smart for ditching the first one. (This turned out to be a smart move, but sadly not smart enough).

 

My First Backpack – Lowe Alpine

My first (pre-full-time traveling) backpack is a discontinued version of this Lowe Alpine backpack, as pictured here.
It was a pretty simple, bare bones deal, that I took to South Africa for a month.

 

There, I realized three impracticalities of this bag:

  • Walking into fancy hotels with a backpack is no fun (it was a pretty swish trip)
  • Accessing the contents from only the top or bottom is painful. I usually couldn’t see what I needed in the dark abyss of bag contents, and had to remove everything just to find it.
  • The total lack of extra pockets or reasonable ways to segregate gear further exaggerated the above problem.

 

So I ditched the backpack…

…and bought another backpack. (I still had a few lessons to learn about why backpacks suck).

I applied the above lessons by getting one that had a zipper for side-access (as well as top and bottom), and some extra pockets. As for traipsing into swishy hotels with a backpack, I didn’t think my full-time travels would allow much luxury so I conceded to the “practicality” of a backpack.

 

My new pack of choice was the Gregory Deva:

Although this backpack was great for proper mountaineering and trips into the wilderness, it sucked for travel. Or rather, it sucked for me – and I realized that I hate backpacks in general. Here’s why:

  • They kill your back. Hoisting them on and off is awkward, uncomfortable, and rarely graceful.
  • Two words: airport lineups. You either have to wear your pack the whole time you’re in line (which can be hours), or you have to unceremoniously kick it along, two feet at a time.
  • They’re incompatible with daypacks. I need a daypack to house my laptop and other carry-on essentials. So it means I’m one of those dorks with a big backpack on my back and a daypack on my front. (Sorry if you’re one of those “dorks” – but I think it looks ridiculous, and I know from experience that it’s hot and uncomfortable).
  • No matter how many zippers they add, I still couldn’t find what I needed, and regularly had to pour out all the contents to find it. (can you feel my aggravation building?)
  • Rogue backpack straps and airport conveyor belts do not play well together. I was perpetually worried that my bag would be ripped to shreds (with all my precious contents) on every flight.
  • Lastly, although I hadn’t anticipated luxury in my full-time travels, it has happened from time to time. I’ve received sponsorships and travel opportunities through my freelance writing career, and I just don’t like lugging a backpack. It’s a stigma. And when first impressions count I like to look professional (as any Professional Hobo should!); doing it with a backpack is an uphill battle.

 

My journey to the wheeled backpack

Living and volunteering in a hostel in Kona, Hawaii was a great way to suss out gear and destinations through recommendations from the steady stream of travelers. I saw so many bags come through that place, and then one day, accompanied by a beacon of light and angel-song, I saw this:

It was love at first sight.

The news got even better when I discovered it was very inexpensive – under $200 (at the time of writing it’s under $100!), and solved so many of my problems!

 

The High Sierra Overpass wheeled backpack with detachable daypack changed my life because:

  • The main bag opens completely up, allowing me to easily see and access the contents.
  • There are a few mesh dividers and such to help keep stuff separate.
  • The zip-away straps are available for use whenever wheels are inconvenient (for example on rough terrain or when navigating a lot of stairs).
  • It has a matching daypack that zips onto the main bag meaning you only have one ultimate bag to cart around (though admittedly I usually preferred to wear my daypack since it had my laptop in it).
  • The wheels….oh my….the wheels. Although I was doubtful as to how much I would use the wheels (somehow I felt they’d be impractical), I ended up using them all the time. In fact, in the three years that I lived out of this bag, I used the straps….twice. Yup, twice. (Once in Spain when I had to walk for 45 minutes on a cobblestone street, and once in Malaysia when I had to walk on a non-existent road).

 

Given how rarely I used the backpack straps, you might wonder why I bothered getting another wheeled backpack when this one bit the dust after three years of abuse. But I have to admit, straps are still a practical feature to have in a bag, to help you get through whatever craziness your travels might throw at you.

 

My current bag

When traveling, a warranty policy is only as good as the nearest dealer, which is rarely around the corner. So when the zipper irreparably broke on my High Sierra bag while in northern Sweden, I had a week to buy another bag before immediately putting it through its paces on the Ultimate Train Challenge.

There wasn’t much choice, and nothing was cheap (it’s Sweden). But this Osprey Sojourn ended up being a pretty good option:

It doesn’t have a detachable daypack, but I still had the High Sierra daypack (which has since been replaced with a Pacsafe backpack – one of my Passports With Purpose wins, and since I rarely use the straps, attaching the daypack isn’t paramount.

Although it’s technically the same (approx) 60 litres that the High Sierra had, the Osprey feels like it has way more space.

When I don’t pack it to the gills, the outer compression straps reduce the overall bag size.

It’s very sturdy, and feels solid. Unfortunately this adds to the weight of the bag.

BUT…despite this aura of durability, both zipper pulls broke in less than a year, which I had to improvise fixes for on the fly. I wouldn’t have expected this so quickly from a name like Osprey. I’m also waiting for the extendable handle (a crucial part of the bag for me) to break – it felt loose in its casing right from the start and I can’t figure out how to tighten it.

So would I buy the Osprey Sojourn again? Probably not. But would I buy a wheeled backpack again? You bet.

 

Wheeled Backpacks: The Good

The wheels are invaluable – and almost always usable. My compadres on the Ultimate Train Challenge were immediately enamoured with the bag, whilst lugging their backpacks around Europe and Asia. They both vowed to replace their packs with something similar to mine.

The straps are there if you need them. And sometimes, you do.

Because of the easy access to contents, they’re a dream to live out of.

 

Wheeled Backpacks: The Bad

They’re heavier. This is the price you pay for having wheels on your pack.

Don’t expect to go hiking into the wilderness with the backpack straps on, or even walking very far, because wearing the straps is very uncomfortable. Both of my wheeled backpacks were murder on the lower back with the hard base and wheels at the bottom. So if you’re a traveler who enjoys trips to the wilderness, bring along a lightweight summit pack – like the Outdoor Research Dry-Comp Summit Pack – which is one of my favourite pieces of travel gear.

 

 

Tips for Finding Your Own Wheeled Backpack

Look for padded shoulder straps, as well as a proper waist belt and chest strap. The waist belt is imperative, otherwise you’ll destroy your shoulders and back, and the chest strap keeps the pack closer to your body so you aren’t pulled backwards.

Look for really sturdy side and top handles (yes, you need both); they’re imperative for lifting and carrying the bag – which you’ll inevitably need to do.

Check those zippers; they’ll be the first thing to go, so make sure they’re solid to being with.

Water resistant is good, since you never know when you’ll be stuck in the rain.

With any bag, try to limit the number of zippers accessing the main contents. I use a TSA lock on my bag (for general security on the ground, as well as when flying). Too many zippers means either a ridiculous number of locks, or compromised security.

 

 

What are your experiences? What’s your favourite travel bag of all time?

 

 

NOTE: My luggage strategy has changed again! Although I still stand by everything in this post, you may want to see how – and why – I’m now a roll-aboard girl only, and what criteria you need to decide what’s best for you. 

The Best Luggage for Long-Term Travel: Backpacks vs Rolling Luggage

 

 

 

 

{ 109 comments… read them below or add one }

H July 30, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Really useful post. Thanks. They may not be of use to you but thought it worth a mention. Did you know you can get daypacks with a detachable wheel and handle frame thingy. When you want to wheel it you just attach the daypack to the base and the handle goes through like a back pocket thing specially designed for it. I’ve had no problems with mine and it’s lasted for ages. I, too, have rarely used the straps. Actually I don’t think I’ve ever used them. So you could leave the detachable frame in your hotel room when you know you’ll be trekking on rough terrain. Or keep the frame in when you’re having a wheely day.

My mum bought it for me. Though if I see one that’s not bright barbie pink and snoopy I’m definitely changing it. That’s the only downside-colour and brand wise-it’s just not my style :/.

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Nora Dunn August 1, 2014 at 9:52 am

H – Ha ha ha! You don’t like bright barbie pink and snoopy? Aw, c’mon – where’s your sense of adventure?! ;-) I don’t find I need a wheely-thing for daypacks, which I rarely fill enough to be really heavy; I just chuck the daypack on my back (for now)…

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