A while back, I wrote a ridiculously popular post about Wheeled Backpacks, and Why They’re the Best luggage for long-term travel. It inspired a massive string of over 100 comments from readers with their own luggage experiences, preferences, and questions.
Pursuant to the title of the post, I extolled the virtues of long-term travel with a wheeled backpack, given the ease of using the wheels, with the additional convenience of having backpack straps to navigate long stretches of cobblestones or rough pavement, stairs, and other circumstances when rolling luggage isn’t practical.
Since writing that post however, my travel luggage preferences and practicalities have changed; I’m now a roll-aboard girl only. Here’s why I made the change, and criteria for when you should choose backpacks, rolling luggage, or a hybrid of both as the best luggage for long-term travel.
When a Backpack is the Best Luggage for Long-Term Travel
My choices of backpacks probably weren’t ideally suited to travel, however the vast majority of travelers I know with backpacks use the same kinds. I don’t know how – or why – they do it.
Despite my seething dislike for backpacks, they are good for long-term travel when:
- You like to go hiking/camping on backcountry trips
- You walk a lot with your bag (instead of just going from airport to accommodation and leaving it there)
- You travel in places with really rough terrain where wheeled luggage is useless
- You’re young and eager and haven’t discovered back pain yet
When a Wheeled Backpack is the Best Luggage for Long-Term Travel
When I discovered wheeled backpacks, I was in heaven. As a “recovering backpacker” I still had an umbilical need for straps, but also a burning desire for wheels. In the ensuing years, I wheeled my way through two wheeled backpacks – the High Sierra Overpass (which has been discontinued) and the Osprey Sojourn 60L (which has also been discontinued, but thankfully replaced by the even cooler Osprey Fairview Wheeled Travel Pack for women (which you can buy at Osprey or Amazon), and the Farpoint Wheeled Travel Pack for men (only available at Osprey).
I LOVED my wheeled backpacks.
Curiously, however, I rarely – if ever – used the zip-away backpack straps. Why? Because just to do a flight of stairs, it was hardly worth the hassle of pulling out the straps and putting the pack on my back. More often than not the wheels worked just fine, and when they didn’t I simply carried the pack by the top and side handles until I could set it down and wheel it again. Carrying it wasn’t entirely ideal, however, since my pack weighed a good 20kgs.
I still like wheeled backpacks, and if I hadn’t made some recent changes to my travel entourage (read on), I’d still own one.
Wheeled backpacks work best for long-term travel when:
- You travel with checked luggage (as opposed to carry-on only)
- You mainly like to wheel your luggage around (ever-so-handy in airport lineups)
- You occasionally end up in places where wheeling your luggage isn’t practical and you want to strap it on your back
- You want easy access to the contents of your luggage
When Rolling Luggage (My Current Choice) is the Best Luggage for Long-Term Travel
For the last few years, I’ve stashed my wheeled backpack somewhere and done trips with carry-on luggage only lasting as long as three months. Initially I just stuffed what I needed into my waterproof packable daypack which wasn’t exactly ideal for long-term travel, but which I loved as a useful component to my full-time travel entourage.
But eventually I realized if I could survive for months on end (even in varying climates) with carry-on luggage only, I didn’t need the larger bag at all. Thus, I converted my full-time travel entourage to carry-on sized luggage only. It’s occasionally a wee bit stressful since there’s no room for additions, but the ease of traveling with carry-on luggage is not to be underestimated.
And more importantly, my carry-on luggage is pure and simple rolling luggage. Why don’t I need backpack straps any more? Because if and when I can’t wheel the luggage, I can simply carry it by the handle. Since it’s carry-on sized, it’s not bulky and doesn’t weigh much more than 10kgs, thus it’s easy to carry by hand. I could get a carry-on wheeled backpack, but the zip-away backpack straps use up valuable carry-on luggage space, and fitting a full-time travel wardrobe into carry-on sized luggage is enough of an ask as it is.
My wheeled carry-on luggage of choice is the Pacsafe Toursafe 21 (since replaced by the EXP21 Anti-Theft Wheeled Carry-On) wheeled luggage (pictured below, available at Pacsafe and Amazon) which is lightweight, sturdy, has nifty security features, and some handy organizational features on the inside.
Rolling luggage isn’t always the perfect fit for long-term travel, but here is when it makes sense:
- You travel with carry-on luggage only (and can easily carry it when it can’t be rolled)
- Your travel days are concentrated and linear (ie: you travel directly from one place of accommodation to the next, without too many detours)
- You “rough it” less
- You fly a lot
- You have back problems and don’t like to (or want to) haul a backpack on and off
- You want easy access and organization of your luggage contents
A Note about Portable Luggage Carts
I recently met a 76 year old woman who wears her “backpacker” status as a badge of pride…solely because she owns a backpack. However she never actually puts the backpack on her back; instead she uses a portable luggage cart and wheels it around. (She looked at me like I was the messiah when I told her about wheeled backpacks).
Although portable luggage carts can be handy, they also add some degree of weight and bulk, and are generally intended for conventionally-shaped luggage. And truly – if you never use your backpack as a backpack, why would you own a backpack to begin with? Just get rolling luggage – it’s not a sign of defeat, trust me.
Having an Extra Daypack
My carry-on luggage system wouldn’t work without my daypack, which houses my computer and other essentials that never leave my side. Most carry-on flight regulations allow for one piece of carry-on luggage (ie: my Pacsafe), plus an extra “purse/briefcase” type of bag. My daypack is that additional bag. (Although I carry a small purse as well, if I were challenged on it I could put the purse in my daypack).
This daypack is practical for outings to cafes with my computer, carrying shopping and groceries, and even for multi day treks such as the 5-day one I did in Peru. (Although realistically, if you want to do a day-trek through the mountains of Peru, leave the wheeled luggage behind, and bring along this bag instead)!
Here’s what I look for in a daypack:
- Side pockets for a water bottle
- Padded shoulder straps for comfort
- Separate compartment(s) for ease of organizing things
As an inadvertent Pacsafe poster girl, my daypack (which I won a few years ago) is the Pacsafe Ventursafe Daypack. I love it to pieces. Pacsafe offers a ton of different-sized and styled backpacks in their Venturesafe line; personally I find the 25L pack the perfect size.
If you want an ultra-light packable day pack, you might want to check out the Free Spirit 30L Adventure Backpack, created by one of my favourite travel gear companies. It easily fits into carry-on luggage, and is great to have on hand. Here’s a video review I did of it.
I’m no longer a carry-on girl (sadly). When I left Peru in 2016, I did so with a few more bits and bobs than could fit into my beloved Pacsafe carry-on rolled luggage; bits and bobs that included shamanic nik-naks, a foldable yoga mat, and a more comprehensive wardrobe suited to three seasons. So, I left the Pacsafe with a friend of mine, in the hopes that one day I’d pare down my entourage once again to befit my carry-on moniker.
So, I’m still using rolling luggage, but just bigger…and without the backpack straps. I recommend the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 26″ (63 litres, expandable to 67 litres – available at REI and Amazon), as pictured here:
Here’s why I’ve chosen checked rolling luggage without the backpack straps:
- I don’t tend to “off-road” it much these days. Wherever possible, when I have my luggage I go from A to B in the most efficient way possible.
- At 20kgs (and now in my 40s), strapping rolling luggage to my back feels like I’d be begging to throw my back out.
- Wheeled backpacks, convenient as they may be, are not comfortable to use. I’d rather haul it with the handles when I have to.
- The wheels on Eagle Creek’s luggage are really sturdy and can take the knocks I give it. (In India one fateful day, I found myself walking on a dirt road for 20 minutes, and my luggage took it like a champ).
Now that I have a home base, I have the ability to pack in a strategic way for every trip I take. Even if I’m traveling for months at a time, the nature of the trip will entirely dictate what kind of luggage I use.
For example, if I know I’m going from A to B and then staying at my destination for an extended time, I’m more likely to go with checked luggage so I can carry some discretionary items that will make my stay more comfortable. Or if I’m going on a long trip that will involve multiple climates and/or technical activities: again I’m likely to choose checked luggage.
But at the moment that I’m writing this update, I’m on a three month trip and I took my rolling carry-on Pacsafe. Why? Because this trip involved about 7,000 miles of train travel (most of which was with a colleague) and I knew our train cabins wouldn’t have room for checked luggage. Also, I knew I’d be in summer climates so I didn’t need much in the way of heavy clothing.
Interested in some of the decisions that go into choosing checked luggage versus carryon luggage? Let this article be your guide.
Other Travel Gear Posts
Looking for some more travel gear inspiration? Get some ideas here:
The Ultimate Packing List for Full-Time Travel (Updated to include my full checked entourage which I still use as of 2020)