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

by Nora 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


Want more Travel Gear Ideas? Check out…

9 Perfect Travel Gifts (2015 Edition)

Awesome Travel Gear, Gizmos, and Services (2014 Edition)

Perfect Travel Gifts (2013 Edition)

My Search for the Perfect Travel Sandal

The Ultimate Packing List for Full-Time Travel

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

Smartphone Camera Showdown: Nokia Lumia 1020 vs Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

Stashbelt: A New Take on my USB Stick Trick

25 Smartphone Apps for Full-Time Travel: 2014 Edition


{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim May 1, 2014 at 11:20 am

I wear mine in the front, it always has my passport (in a separate zipper closest to me). It also has Tylenol, band-aids, chewable Pepto, antihistamines, misc. over the counter remedies, mini sewing kit from a hotel, dental floss, small pack of Kleenex, roll of camping (travel) toilet paper, pen and paper, toothbrush and mini-toothpaste, etc. Most of those things take surprisingly little space. The biggest is probably the TP which is about the size of an empty TP roll since there is no roll inside.


Nora Dunn May 3, 2014 at 10:33 am

Hi Tim,
Brilliant. I’m on my way out to get one! 😉


Sunanda May 2, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Very helpful article. Finally I got some good tips …Thanks 🙂


Nora Dunn May 3, 2014 at 11:06 am

Thanks Sunanda. Happy Travels!


Tim May 3, 2014 at 1:39 pm

I think I got mine in Ecuador. It looks like it is probably Leather, has lots of zippers.
1) the one hidden in the back closest to you (for passport)
2) One straight across the top to access the main compartment without spilling stuff.
3) One that curves around the top for full access to the main compartment.
4) One across the top of a small compartment on the front.
5) one across the front of the small compartment with a separate section that only holds a few thin things ( I keep a sheet of Dramamine pills there) for quick easy access without hunting.


Diana Lara May 26, 2014 at 11:59 am

Hello fellow traveler. My cousin and I are traveling South America for about 5 months. I read your article about wheeled backpacks. That’s definitely what we’re going to buy. You said you wouldn’t buy the Osprey again. Which other backpack would you recommend? Do you have an article that talks about what clothes to take and how much of it? I would love to get a woman’s perspective on things. You’ve been doing this for many years so any advice would help us. Thanks for your help!


Nora Dunn May 26, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Hi Diana,
I believe Eagle Creek makes a solid wheeled backpack at a decent price, although I haven’t tried it. High Sierra seems to have discontinued the model that I got, but there are others that might fit the bill quite nicely. And the Osprey was a great bag, but for the price I was disappointed that the zipper pulls broke so quickly.

As for clothes and pacing lists, maybe this packing list post will help you:

Happy travels!


Bianca June 19, 2014 at 12:24 am

Hello! Thank you for all the info here … I travel a lot but I am not a backpacker … Im finally venturing in october to do a backpacking type trip to southeast asia (vietnam, thailand and cambodia) … Im short … 5″1′ … Not very strong … I dont hike really and if i did it would definitely be a day trip with no need for the big luggage … So with that said i definitely think the wheeled backpack is for me … Although I see they come in different sizes … I will do my best to keep it very light but … What size can you recommend for the bag I get? Thank you thank you!


Nora Dunn June 19, 2014 at 10:42 am

Hi Bianca,
Ooh! Exciting trip! The size of your luggage depends very much on how long you’re traveling for and how much you want to pack. I’ve now transitioned my entourage to carry-on sized only, so I don’t have a bag with straps now – I’m all wheels!
Here’s some more food for thought on that topic:


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 :/.


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)…


J March 15, 2015 at 6:56 pm

Hi H,
Can you tell me what the back packs with the attachable wheels/frame are called or send me links to them? This sounds ideal for me! Thanks, J


JJ Wong October 11, 2014 at 12:21 am

Thanks for the great life experience sharing. Been researching a lot on which type of backpack/luggage bag should I get for my next trip.
Since my cabin luggage can only allow for 7KG, normal hard luggage bag of 3KG seems too over, while backpack lighter, wheel backpack seems to be the best fit of both world with bit extra weight but convenient to move around, at least light for my back.


Nora Dunn October 11, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Hi JJ,
I’m glad this article helped! Just to note, if you’re looking to go with carry-on luggage only and stick within the 7kg limit, you’re going to lose weight/space with a wheeled backpack. However Eagle Creek does have a carry-on sized wheeled backpack; I considered it when I went to carry-on luggage only, but decided that I didn’t really need the straps and went with straight wheeled luggage, which is actually very light.
You may want to check out my updated post about what I currently travel with: http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2014/05/best-luggage-long-term-travel-backpacks-vs-rolling-luggage/
Happy travels!


Jelena October 14, 2014 at 3:20 am

In almost 10 years of travel I’ve finally decided I’ve had it with backpacks after my new one got a puncture after I waved it off to be loaded on its maiden flight. I’ll be looking at a wheelie when I finish this trip for sure.


Nora Dunn October 14, 2014 at 10:48 am

Hi Jelena,
Awesome! Since going with wheelies, I haven’t looked back. 🙂


Vengama October 18, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Hiya Nora, such a great review very useful I move travel a lot around London and with various bits and bobs. Some day are more of a practical event where I need to carry extra protective clothing or just a gym day. The Osprey seems like a great option but I also found this item from North Face so I thought I’d return the favour lol. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJEtO18o7QE The North Face – Doubletrack 28″ ’09 SKU:#7285327.

Good Luck


Nora Dunn October 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Hi Vengama,
I’ve heard good things about the Doubletrack. But 28″ looks really big! Is it not too bulky on your back?


Tania October 22, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Thank you so much for this post. My bf and I are about to set out on a 4 month trip around SE Asia. The pressure from people to get backpacks is crazy. We have really great wheelie suitcases that are carry-on size but peoples shock at wanting to use them is making me doubt the decision. They are sturdy with only one access point but not water proof which is my main worry. It’s not rainy season when we go but do you think this will be a big problem?
Thank you for this post. It has helped a huge amount.


Nora Dunn October 23, 2014 at 10:46 am

Hi Tania,
Your challenges in Asia with a wheelie suitcase might be the terrain – with rough pavement (and often no pavement at all), it might be difficult to wheel around when going to from your hostels. However if your bags are carry-on sized, they won’t be that heavy, so for particularly rough patches you can just carry it by hand. I’ve done this in Malaysia and Vietnam (and Europe and elsewhere) – no problemo.

As for waterproofing, sometimes it rains at just the “wrong” time when you’re enroute to your hostel! I guess it depends on how *not* waterproof your cases are….I’d probably chance it since it’s not all that often that you’re wheeling around. If the rain is really hard, you can just take cover until it lightens up.

Glad this post helped, and happy travels!


Mark October 26, 2014 at 6:10 pm

You are crazy. I’ve lived and travelled in SE Asia for more than 8 years. Wheeled suitcases are completely inappropriate for any kind of trip that isn’t whisking you in a taxi from one 4 star resort to another.

Get small backpacks that can be taken carry-on (30L or so). The weather is hot so you don’t need bulky winter clothes in most places, and supplies are plentiful. You can buy anything you don’t have.

Trust me on this, you’ll feel and look pretty dumb about two hours after arrival with wheeled suitcases.


Nora Dunn October 27, 2014 at 11:32 am

Well, there you go, Tania – Mark has spoken, with lots of experience under his belt. (I’d still take my wheelie carry-on, as I have before, and will again).
And although I don’t usually taxi from one 4-star resort to another, Mark has a good point: travel is different for everybody. Your own travel style might determine your best luggage choice.


Tania October 27, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Thank you so much everyone for your advice. It’s so great to get some first hand perspectives from long time travelers. You have all definitely given me something to think about.
I live in Asia right now and have already traveled to Thailand, China, Taiwan and Japan with them as well as Europe, but for some reason it feels different when talking about a constant 4 month long haul instead of a few weeks here and there. I may risk it and take them since they’ve been so great in the past on the Beijing streets and Thai beaches…and they are only small (I think they/re the equivalent of 38L) but Mark you have definitely given me more to think about. Thank you so much lovely people.


Alex October 23, 2014 at 10:58 am

I wouldn’t worry too much about waterproofing. Most decent cases should be fairly water resistant. There’s a good article on carryology about the difference and it points out that most of the time when it rains heavily you just take shelter. http://www.carryology.com/liking/industry/waterproof-vs-water-resistant/

I’d get a cannoe bag with a strap and keep anything that might get damaged, like electrics, in that. If you get one with a strap it can double as a beach/day bag etc.

You could also get some waterproof spray to give your bags some extra protection… Not sure if it would definitely make much difference, but it’s usually cheap.


Nora Dunn October 23, 2014 at 4:27 pm

Good recommendations – thanks, Alex!


Tania October 27, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Thank you Alex. These are great ideas.


Peter Gill January 4, 2015 at 5:31 am

Hi Nora
Great post (and I thought I was the only one anal enough to preach the virtues of wheeled backpacks)
Being 65 now and spending a lot of my dotage travelling around Asia, generally travelling in 6-10 week trips. I used to travel with a cabin sized wheel on, it took me a couple of trips dragging the samsonite over cobbles and tracks before observing everyone else’s problems and solutions and here is what works for me
For my passport, iPad and paper maps I have a lightweight leather shoulder bag.
I now travel with 1 t shirt and 2 long/ short sleeve zipable light weight hiking shirts
1 zipable lightweight shorts/trousers and one pair lightweight jeans, 1 pair of Merrell lightweight walking shoes and a very lightweight canvas shoes that fold and zip which I wear in the evening, all this packs easily into a BlackWolf Grand Tour 45 wheeled backpack ($99) this has never been checked in, always coming in under 7 kilos when checked.
When flying I wear my heaviest clothes leaving the lightest in the carry on.
As I find myself every now and then caught up in monsoon season I have sprayed the bag with silicon spray available from a yachting supply store for a few dollars.
I hope this helps others even though much of it has been mentioned by others
Cheers, keep travelling


Nora Dunn January 4, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Hey Peter,
Thanks for sharing your packing list and techniques! Happy rolling….. 😉


Diane May 12, 2015 at 7:44 am

Thanks for this great post. I’ve been travelling a lot for the past 2 years and my bag is about ready to fall apart! I loved the techniques you shared, they are very helpful. Uber Park is actually giving away a folding backpack on their site and anyone can WIN. Check out the site http://bit.ly/coolbag11


Nora Dunn May 12, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Thanks for the tip, Diane!


Mianne July 8, 2015 at 11:15 pm

Ooooohhh I love you and I love this site! 🙂 I’m so glad I found this site and thanks for this fabulous article. ….I will be having more of a look through for other ideas.

I have been travelling constantly for the last 11 years as a result of my previous career, which has now sadly come to an end. Problem is that I have come to love travelling so much that I’m finding it hard to be in one place for this long. I can’t do it anymore! ….. 🙂

As a golfer I have gotten used to lugging around 50 kg’s of luggage, in 3 bags, so travelling with just one bag is going to be a, ummm, …holiday! lol

I need to get out again and have decided that a backpack with wheels is the way to go for me. ….and also one with a detachable day-pack. I saw one the other day which was an Osprey (meridian – 70L) and looked pretty fab.

One thing that does concern me is the comfort aspect for the times when I would need to carry it on my back, so I’m going to have to go in and try it out I think?

Thanks again for the great tips 🙂


Nora Dunn July 10, 2015 at 10:54 am

Hi Mianne,
Glad you’re hitting the road again! You must be excited.
As for the comfort factor of carrying a wheeled pack on your back, of the two that I owned neither were particularly comfortable – as in, I wouldn’t want to go hiking with it. It’s okay for the odd schlep here and there, though.
And yes, if you can find a place that has a selection of wheeled backpacks to choose from, go in and try some on! Otherwise, have a peek at the user reviews on Amazon – I tend to find them helpful.
Happy travels!


Mélanie September 25, 2015 at 1:23 am

Hi Mianne,

Did you buy the Osprey Meridian? I am thinking of buying it. What do you think of it? Do you like it? Did the zippers broke? 😉

Thanks, Mianne! And thanks Mianne for this article! 🙂


Nora Dunn September 26, 2015 at 10:32 am

Hi Melanie,
In my experience, the Osprey zippers are solid. I had no trouble with mine. Happy luggage shopping!


Liana July 24, 2015 at 5:20 am

I been searching for wheel-backpack this review is just right on time i was looking at osprey backpack too maybe smallest version those with attachable daypack


Nora Dunn July 24, 2015 at 5:26 pm

Hi Liana,
Cool! Glad this article came on time. Good luck in your wheeled backpack search! I don’t know if Osprey has models with detachable daypacks, but it’s worth a search. If worst comes to worst, you can use a separate daypack and put it on your front whenever you need to put the wheeled backpack on your back….


Rob Billingsley January 6, 2016 at 6:03 pm

Regarding one of the threads above about water proofing, I once took a paddle down the Missouri River in Montana through the Missouri Breaks for a week. Everything (including food) had to be prepared for a canoe going over through rapids, or sudden rainstorms in the middle of the Big Muddie. Aside from the usual little see-through sealed bags (especially for a camera), I had a plain old garbage bag fully twisted at the top that I used as a liner inside the packs. Didn’t get dunked, but I was well prepared.


Nora Dunn January 6, 2016 at 7:09 pm

Great advice, Rob! I used to use a garbage bag as a liner when I did multi-day camping/trekking trips.


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