After working at a backpackers hostel for the past 4 years I have witnessed numerous backpackers day after day struggling to carry heavy and usually overweight backpacks which are, more often than not, bigger than themselves. This is when I first started thinking about the whole backpack vs suitcase conundrum, because I’ve watched people trying to lug huge backpacks on and off buses, up and down stairs, and struggling to even walk down the road without doing themselves a serious back injury.
It leads me to ask this question to the new wave of “flashpackers” currently travelling our shores. Is a backpack really an essential travel item? Or do we just sit at home preparing to travel thinking to ourselves “I’m going backpacking that means I must buy a backpack”.
Backpack Vs Suitcase – The Pros and Cons
- Backpacks are often far too large
I’ve seen so many people who can’t even lift their own backpack. How many backpackers does it take to safely maneuver one backpack? Answer… three. One the owner, to pretend it’s all okay and they can manage on their own. A second to help lever it off the floor. The third to help get the pack securely on the owners back without them losing too much dignity and self belief.
- If you fall over with a backpack strapped to your back can you get back up?
Then you have the recurring fear that once the backpack is securely on, if you were to somehow stumble and fall, would you ever be able to get back up? Or would you be left lying on the floor like an upside down turtle unable to right itself?
- You can just wheel your suitcase behind you!
So here’s where I start to think that maybe the good old fashioned suitcase with wheels is the way forward. If you do have to walk any great distance, the suitcase simply gets wheeled behind you. Because let’s face it most backpackers aren’t crossing the Sahara desert or attempting to climb Mount Everest.
- Clothes are much easier to find in a suitcase
Also clothes and other belongings are more easily accessible via a suitcase, (with most backpacks you have to empty the whole contents just to get dressed!). You also have the added bonus of not losing your favourite top for 6 months only to discover it was at the bottom of your backpack all along.
- Backpacks tend to be more lightweight than suitcases
Not to be totally biased I have been informed that there are some legitimate reasons for having a backpack. For instance a suitcase can weigh a lot to begin with, even before all your treasured belongings and travel essentials have been added eg. first aid kit and toothpaste because of course you’re going to the other side of the world and they can’t possibly sell those things there! Whereas backpacks are usually light weight so won’t eat into your 20kg weight limit which if you go over will almost definitely incur a $50 or more fee.
- You won’t run over people’s feet with a backpack!
Another pro backpack reason. If you do find yourself in a confined space with your nose constantly in someones armpit, it is a lot easier to control your luggage when it’s strapped to your back rather than dealing with a suitcase that has supermarket trolley wheels and keeps crashing into the ankles of the 60 year old granny in front of you, who you then end up sitting next to on the 12 hour plane flight!
Should You Buy a Backpack or Suitcase?
Different things work for different people, some prefer the suitcase on wheels, some prefer the backpack and some prefer to have a boyfriend who carries your bag for you (I call these people smart). However choosing the right bag, backpack or suitcase for you is important and for anyone who is still figuring it out here are some things to consider.
Look for quality
I am speaking from experience when I say there is nothing worse than your bag breaking halfway through a trip. Sometimes you are unsure where your journey will take you and you, and your bag, need to be prepared. Ensuring that you have a bag which will withstand all sorts of activities and terrain is vital. I know sometimes parting with money can be difficult before your trip but it will be worth it in the long run.
Size does matter
Think about the size you need before buying a backpack. Are you looking for a backpack that is going to carry all your luggage for 3 months or just for a few weeks. My advice would be to have a big bag and also a smaller one for day to day use. After all, you don’t want to be taking all your luggage with you on day trips around the area. Before you buy your bag think about what you need for your trip and choose a size reflecting this.
How much does your stuff weigh?
Replace your heavier items with lighter items. This should be common sense, but I see a lot of backpackers carrying the strangest equipment around with them… do you really need to travel with a hairdryer, hair straighteners, 6 pairs of shoes? Think about the things that you really need during your travels and get rid of the unnecessary items, bearing in mind that most hostels have hairdryers or hair straighteners for rent, or you can normally find someone who has some anyway!
Plan your clothes around season and weather
Where are you going and what will the weather be like? If you’re heading to Tropical North Queensland then you don’t really need 4 pairs of jeans and 2 woolly jumpers. If you’re coming to visit Queenstown in winter then maybe leave out your bikinis, jandals, summer dresses etc. What I’ve done in the past is send my winter clothes to a destination I’m heading to so I didn’t have to carry them around for the 6 months I was in South East Asia. As long as you know where you’re going to be then it’s easy to do this.
Share your stuff
If you are travelling with a friend, or with people you met during your travels, you can share your stuff. This also gives you an opportunity to wear something different for a change! Sharing your gear will allow you to carry a less heavy bag but you will still have all the things you need with you!
Look for items that have multiple uses
Look for clothes or equipment that have a few different uses. This helps by reducing the weight of your backpack but you can still have all the items you need. The classic example of a multiple use item is a sarong. You can use it as a beach towel, as a wrap-around dress / skirt, or even hang it from your bunk to give you a little bit of privacy in your dorm room.
Last but not least, take a bag that suits you. It should be one you love looking at and want to take with you everywhere and feels comfortable.
Having a good backpack / bag / suitcase is important, you’re not called a backpacker for nothing! It is the one thing you take with you all the time, so make sure it’s right one.
So next time you’re packing for that overseas trip stop and think do I really need a backpack or would a suitcase work better for me?