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?
12 thoughts on “The Backpack versus a Suitcase”
Suitcases are so much more convenient but having my backpack strapped to me when traveling reassures me that I won’t be able to easily lose my luggage.Most countries we travel to aren’t always the safest and I have first-hand experience in one moment having your suitcase next to you and having it disappear the next moment without you even noticing. It is just crazy.
However, if you aren’t planning on going somewhere where the crime rate is through the roof then you should be fine.
I did recently buy both a backpack and a wheeled suitcase from http://www.bestbackpack.com and I love having both. The backpack is great for traveling to somewhat dodgy or adventurous area and the suitcase is for everything else.
I’d say that it wasn’t a legit discussionwhen you were clear foremost that suitcases are better.
However, being a backpacker,
I’d like to add some pros and cons too.
It’s easier to carry a backpack (and do note that not every backpacker is not a maximalist and tends to overpack). When you’re really out there in the world, you better be prepared to face all sort of shit. Like having your suitcase stolen, traveling in monsoon with tons of water and puddles on the road, generally traveling on poorly made roads (India for example), having to check in your suitcase and we all know about cases of our luggage being lost in transition or having something inside it broken,, and then having to wait at baggage claim.
Furthermore, you can sleep on your backpack in worst case scenario,, suitcases are just too thick and harsh for that.
Did I mention the stairs? Yes. Those too are an issue for suitcases.
Yes, having to carry it on even on smooth roads.
Fragile items has more chance to break because there isn’t a hard shelf to it.
That’s it I think.
Because if you’re packing your cloths in cubes (which most travelers do,, tourist may not but travelers do) then you won’t lose your cute top at the bottom of your backpack.
I mean, this post really didn’t sound like you’ve met a proper traveler (yes, even in your 4 years of studying travelers). It sounds like you’re talking about tourist and tourist isn’t a traveler. There’s a huge difference between the both. And tourist tend to overpack to death. Travelers however do not tend to make such silly mistake. They’ve traveled for long enough to really know their weight carrying limit.
Also, Tortuga has a much more nonbiased post on the same matter. It talks about pro and cons without taking sides.
I’ve seen travelers on the road who carry a huge 90 liter or 120 liter expedition pack on their back, and another smaller backpack on their front. (Turtle backpacker)
I have to wonder…… Why do they need to bring so much stuff ? ? ?
So what do you think about this……? Buy a smaller backpack and don’t take so much stuff. I bought a small 35 liter Minaal 2.0 (I used to use a 45 liter bag, and decided to go smaller.) It’s all I take, whether I go for two weeks… or six months or longer. If I decide to go for longer than six months… It’s still all I will carry… nothing more than my 35 liter Minaal. ( I have a small daybag that packs into its own small pocket for day to day use at my destinations.)
If I want, I can zip the backpack shoulder straps and waist belt behind a panel of my Minaal…and use a duffel bag shoulder strap and carry it over one shoulder. It opens up like a clamshell so I can find anything right away, and has a built in raincover in it’s own tiny pocket. Some of us call it “Minimalist, One Bag Carry-On Travel”. I’m always allowed to carry it on the plane with me, anywhere in the world.
I’m 67 years old now… but as long as I have my strength… I will always carry my Minaal. I’ll never use wheelie luggage unless I lose my strength. I’m one of those who believe a real man does not get the planet to help him carry his luggage.
After backpacking and camping for years, I’ve come to love using a backpack for travel mostly because it frees up both hands/arms to do whatever you have to do, and you can roll with whatever comes your way. That said, it also really depends on the type of travel you’re doing. When it’s me, my wife and kids, we definitely take a suitcase or two just for the volume of space and storage.
Thanks for all your thoughts on this! I’m definitely a traveller rather than a tourist and I do love a backpack, not least for how fit you get carrying it. On my next trip I am a single mum of 2 girls age 6 and 2. The 2 yr old will be on my back in a carrier and I will need to carry absolutely everything else that the three of us need in something. We will be in south East Asia, or india for an indefinite period, world’s choosing. Any thoughts or advice on the best piece of luggage ???
One poster above is super butt hurt about the fact that you came to the logical conclusion – wheeled suitcases are infinitely more convenient and practical than carrying your house on your back. (They even suggested you’d observed people and judged them wrongly – how ironic).
I have travelled the remotest parts of India, China, South America and across Africa with a wheeled suitcase with friends/travel partners who have had backpacks. Me and one particular friend had this exact debate before we travelled Turkey together. Guess who always took the longest to pack, unpack, sort themselves out and just generally… move? It wasn’t me. Whilst I was free to enjoy the sights around me with barely anything weighing me down (a little heavy on the wrist perhaps), she was pretty much weight lifting and working with her whole body the entire time.
She also had to end up fitting the trinkets she’d bought into my suitcase because there was no way to logistically put them in her backpack without damaging them. And, of course, she couldn’t take the weight. She’d hardly brought anything with her and her bag was relatively small in the grand scheme of travel backpacks. But then, so is she.
When we packed or unpacked she’d literally have to dig everything out and then put everything back in one by one. I just opened up my suitcase and I had everything laid out in front of me in view, like a table.
When it came to mountain passes, dirt roads and woodland, my suitcase got dirty and her backpack remained clean but it was still easier to travel with if you’ve got a robust model and good arm strength. She however had to drag her entire body weighed down.
The only time a backpack was truly easier was when we crossed streams and brooks or climbed very steep mountains (less steep mountains were still easier with a suitcase). And that depends on how often you cross water and climb mountains proper. And let’s be honest, how often do ‘travellers’ do that without a local to help them across?
Could she admit that suitcases were the smarter choice for travelling when we returned though? Of course not, because she’s a PROPER TRAVELLER and proper travellers use backpacks.
I will agree with one poster who said that having your backpack on you makes you feel more secure with your stuff – because it’s literally strapped to you. They’ll have to take you if they want to steal it. With a suitcase, because it’s so much lighter to manoeuvre and you’re not constantly struggling or noticing the size and weight of it, you can often take for granted that you’ve got everything you own with you and so may not be as careful with keeping a watch over it.
This fervent belief that you need to have a Proper Backpack to be a backpacker is as hilarious as all those Apple fanboys who literally won’t hear a bad word about their beloved tech brand – like no amount of logic would even get them to contemplate otherwise and, frankly, it’s an absolute outrage and insult(!) Go figure.
I see a very interesting article. Making a decision between a backpack and a suitcase can be tough but your article has helped us make the decision. the last point of carrying articles that have many uses was really interesting. Thank you for posting this wonderful article.
I think it ultimately comes down to three things. #1 is how much stuff you realistically need/how unwrinkled or “clean” you need your clothes or other misc. items to be, meaning if you plan to bring dress clothes and 3-4+ different pairs of shoes, then you’re likely better off with a suitcase. #2 is how smooth the roads or sidewalks are in the general places you are going, or how often the roads are flooded. Dragging a suitcase in places like rural Thailand, India, and Cambodia was horrible, though I was a complete fool and brought a two wheeled suitcase (common for US domestic/plane travel) instead of a four wheel one. #3 is how large you are as a person (male/female, height, weight, muscle strength, etc.). If you’re a short ~95-110lb woman, you may be more inclined toward a suitcase than an 180lb man (though everyone is different).
As I was unsure of which I’d like better, I brought both a large backpack and an old used suitcase, with the mindset that I’d end up ditching or giving away one or the other. I ended up choosing to keep the backpack, though it would have been a closer “tie” if the suitcase was four wheeled.
For those traveling as a couple, I’d highly recommend one person bring a large backpack and the other a suitcase, along with two small travel/string bags for daily in-town use.
I always prefer a backpack because it is very comfortable and easy to carry as compared to briefcases. By the way, the article is very informative and helping