I’m a roll-aboard girl only, and here’s why I made the change, and the 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
I started traveling full-time with a backpack, before getting a different backpack, before deciding I hate backpacks. (Read here to find out why I hate backpacks).
Despite my seething dislike for backpacks, they are suitable for long-term travel:
- If you like to go hiking/camping on backcountry trips
- If you walk a lot with your bag (instead of just going from the airport to accommodation and leaving it there)
- If you travel in places with really rough terrain where wheeled luggage is useless, you’ll need a hiking backpack.
- You travel with carry-on luggage only, so at least the backpack won’t be ridiculously heavy.
- If you’re young and eager and haven’t discovered back pain yet
2023 Update: The Best Backpack for Travel
While I’m not much of a fan of backpacks for travel, I’ll also admit I had all the wrong kinds of backpacks. I used backpacks meant for backcountry camping trips, not for travel. Also, when traveling with larger (and thus, heavier) checked-sized luggage, hauling it around on my back was downright painful at times.
Between my experience of the lack of travel utility in backcountry packs and the weight of large backpacks, it’s no wonder I don’t like them! Ha ha!
Tortuga Backpacks saw this article and took it upon themselves to change my mind about travel backpacks. So they sent me their carry-on sized Travel Backpack 40L. I recently took it on a week-long international trip, and as far as travel backpacks go, and it’s great. (My back doesn’t think so, but that’s not the fault of the bag).
But that’s just me. After looking at their website (and hearing glowing testimonials from all my backpack-wearing travel friends and colleagues), here’s why I decided Tortuga would be worth re-evaluating my backpack hate-on:
- You get the space and organization (and accessibility) of a suitcase, with the comfort of a super-technically designed strap and harness system so that it will fit you perfectly and not overly strain your back.
- It fits carry-on size requirements for most airlines and fits into the overhead bin.
- The main compartment opens up fully (just like a suitcase) so you can see everything in the pack with minimal rummaging.
- It has water bottle pockets, hip pockets, and other external pocket features to give you easy access to things you want to have handy along the way.
- The front organizer pocket has space for all kinds of nik-naks, including a padded sleeve for e-readers.
- Your laptop and tablet are kept at the back of the pack (which is more secure – nobody is getting in there without you knowing) in special padded sleeves.
- The material is waterproof, and the zippers are water-resistant and lockable.
- It’s made from recycled polyester, saving 25 water bottles from landfills PLUS more than 1.25lbs of CO2.
- You can try it on at home for free, and if it doesn’t work for you, they’ll take it back (and pay for shipping).
Tortuga offers their (newly designed) Travel Backpacks in 30L and 40L sizes. Here’s how they compare. When I first landed on their site, I got a bit overwhelmed at the various packs and sizes they have available. If that’s you, check out their bag finder quiz to figure out which pack is best for you (be it a carry on travel backpack, laptop bag, or daypack).
I’m not sure Tortuga Backpacks has the power to convert me from a roll-aboard girl back to a backpack girl when it comes to my long-term travel trips, but for short excursions and outdoorsy adventures, it’s a sturdy, thoughtfully designed, well-made backpack. And I will say the waterproof exterior saved my skin (or rather, my stuff!) when I got caught in an unexpected downpour.
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 was recently redesigned). I also suggest checking out the Osprey Fairview/Farpoint family of Wheeled Travel Packs.
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
At one point I stashed my wheeled backpack somewhere and did a few trips lasting as long as three months with my rolling-carry-on travel bag only.
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 which is lightweight, sturdy, has nifty security features, and some handy organizational features on the inside.
2023 NOTE: Tragically, supply chain issues forced Pacsafe to discontinue their lineup of anti-theft rolling luggage. I have left this blurb above intact in the hopes that they’ll bring it back to life, or I find some comparable anti-theft luggage to love and feature in its place; whatever happens first. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, I’ve been testing out the Osprey Daylite Carryon Wheeled Duffel 40L. While I just noted that backpack straps are unnecessary for carry-on luggage, these particular straps don’t eat up packing space in the same way, and you can detach them entirely if they’re not your speed. The bag’s overall features are very travel-friendly.
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
Before making a new luggage purchase, ask yourself, does the luggage have:
- A telescoping handle
- Lockable zippers
- Zip pockets
- Is it top loading (and is that something you want)
- Does it fit in an overhead bin
- Does it have premium spinner wheels (and if it does, do they come at the expense of packing space)
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, also known as a personal item. 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 unintentional Pacsafe poster girl, my daypack for years was a 25L Pacsafe Venturesafe Daypack. I (literally) loved it to pieces. Pacsafe now offers a ton of different-sized and styled backpacks that you can check out here; personally I find 25L to be a good size and best backpack for travel.
Lately for my personal I’ve been trying out the Peak Design Everyday Totepack – which gets me compliments everywhere I go. It has some amazing pros (and a few cons); check out my video review here to see if it’ll work for you.
2023 update: I’m currently testing out (and have the highest of hopes for) the Knack Bags S2 Medium sized Expandable Backpack. With the ability to expand from 24-35L, and with a ton of organizational and security features, I suspect this will be my new fav daypack for travel.
Want to know what I pack into my daypack? Check out this video where I unpack it for you and show you all my carry-on essentials!
If you want an ultra-light packable day pack, I suggest:
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Day Pack – This multi-award-winning 20L packable day pack stuffs into its own pouch that is smaller than a tennis ball. It’s great for day-hikes, grocery shopping, and simply having an extra daypack on hand without taking up any space or weight. Here’s a video demonstration I did of the pack.
2023 Update….The Sea to Summit daypack is lightest packable backpack that packs down the smallest. But it comes up short with a lack of water bottle pockets on the sides, and no internal organization. To solve these problems, the Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack comes to the rescue.
Getting confused? Join the club. Check out my comparison of the Top Packable Backpacks for Travel so you can figure out which one will be best for you.
Now that I have a home base, I can 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 might 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 five-month trip and I took rolling carry-on luggage (specifically the Level8 Grace EXT expandable hardshell spinner luggage – as my first foray into hardshell spinner luggage).
Interested in some of the decisions that go into choosing checked luggage versus carry-on 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)