In 12 years of full-time travel, my backpack/suitcase/whatever has assumed the functionality of my “house” (and then some) – keeping all my possessions safe while enduring the hard knocks of travel.
I’ve lived out of a bag for over 12 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).
While this post was originally published in 2012, it is constantly updated with relevant information and links.
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 was a Lowe Alpine 60-80L trekking backpack.
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 bag. (I still had a few lessons to learn why backpacks suck).
I applied the above lessons by getting a day pack that had a zipper for side-access (as well as top and bottom), some extra pockets, side pockets and a padded hip belt. 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 high quality Gregory Deva.
Although this backpack was great for proper mountaineering and trips into the wilderness, it sucked for short trip travel. Or rather, it sucked for me – and I realized that I hate large backpacks in general. Here’s why:
- They kill your back. Hoisting them on and off is awkward, not comfortable to wear, 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, and it irrefutably labels – and targets – you as a tourist).
- 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 at under $200, and solved so many of my problems!
The High Sierra Overpass (unfortunately, discontinued) rolling 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).
- 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.
A Note about Carry-On Sized Wheeled Backpacks…
…They don’t do it for me. When it comes to traveling with carry-on luggage, I prefer to maximize space and lose the straps. If I need to carry it by hand (up some stairs for example), it’s light enough that I don’t need straps.
Check out this post to determine which type of luggage best suits your style of travel, and then this post to select the best carry-on or checked type of bag for you).
My next wheeled backpack: Osprey Wheeled Travel Packs
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 the Osprey Sojourn (since replaced by the Osprey Farpoint for men – only available at Osprey – and the Osprey Fairview for women – available at Osprey and Amazon) ended up being a pretty good option:
And although the Osprey wheeled backpack is only a hair larger at 65 litres, it 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. And while that meant the Sojourn was heavier, Osprey fixed that and the Farpoint 65L wheeled travel packs weigh only 6 pounds.
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 the 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. As a point of comparison, Osprey’s compatible-sized travel backpacks (no wheels) weigh 4 pounds, in comparison to the 6 pounds their wheeled backpacks weigh.
Don’t expect to go hiking into the wilderness with the backpack straps on, or even walking super far, because wearing the straps can be 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 (ideally waterproof) summit pack. It is one of my favourite pieces of travel gear.
(For a packable daypack that weighs less than a pound, check out the Free Spirit 30L Adventure Backpack, by one of my favourite travel gear companies. Here’s a video review I did).
Tips for Finding The Best Wheeled Back Pack for International Travel
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.
UPDATE: 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 is the best wheeled backpack for adults.
…and even more recently:
Checked vs. Carry-On Luggage (and Why Checked is Best) – with a comprehensive overview of and recommendations for different types of checked and carry-on luggage.
And if you’d prefer to do the carry on backpack thing, here are the Best Carry On Backpacks for One Bag Travel.
Want more Travel Gear Ideas? Check out…
All of my annual Travel Gear Review Posts