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

 

If you liked this post, scroll through this awesome resource with all kinds of travel gear and gadgets:


 

 

 

{ 123 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 :/.

Reply

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)…

Reply

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.

Reply

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!

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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.

Reply

Nora Dunn October 14, 2014 at 10:48 am

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

Reply

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

Reply

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?

Reply

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.

Reply

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!

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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.

Reply

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.

Reply

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.

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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.

Reply

Nora Dunn October 23, 2014 at 4:27 pm

Good recommendations – thanks, Alex!

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Tania October 27, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Thank you Alex. These are great ideas.

Reply

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