8 Reasons why Backpackers Shouldn’t Use Backpacks

Backpacking with a backpack is crazy

Backpacking with a backpack is crazy

I don’t understand why anyone would travel with a backpack. That’s such a barbaric way to travel, especially if you are traveling long-term. A good hard shell suitcase like my Samsonsite is far more convenient and effective and here are 8 reasons why.

1. Why carry a backpack when you can roll your gear?

It’s insane to carry heavy stuff on your back when you can easily roll everything. It’s not like most backpackers are trekking through mountain trails. For the times you are trekking, you don’t need a full-size backpack anyway.

The huge wheels on my Samsonite make it easy to roll over any terrain. When I was younger, I didn’t mind carrying stuff on my back. Unfortunately, my shoulders and neck don’t like that punishment anymore.

2. You can’t carry your backpack on board anyway.

With stricter carry-on luggage limits, most backpacks will have to be checked in anyway. A good hard shell suitcase is more durable and will protect your belongings much more effectively.

3. You already have a computer bag, you don’t need to carry two backpacks.

Almost every long-term traveler has a separate carry-on backpack for their computer, camera and other valuables. Carrying two backpacks at that same time is damn heavy and uncomfortable.

4. Backpacks are dirty.

Your backpack will be set on the ground repeatedly. It’ll be on the floor in public bathrooms. It’ll ride in the back of trucks and luggage compartments on buses. It’ll be on the floor of restaurants and hostels. It’s going to get abused and soon become filthy. A hard shell suitcase is very easy to wipe clean.

5. Backpacks are hard to access.

Even with well designed backpacks, you will inevitably have to repeatedly sift to the bottom of the bag to get stuff out. Suitcases have much wider openings so it is much easier to get what you need. In fact, for shorter stays you don’t even need to unpack, because all of your stuff is always there.

My Samsonite Suitcase

My Samsonite Suitcase

6. A hard shell suitcase is a great safe.

Combined with a hard to open suitcase strap, a good hard shell suitcase is the perfect place to store valuables. The built in lock on most suitcases is enough to deter most thieves. That makes it impossible to access in crowded tourist areas. You can’t stop a crowd of gypsy kids from rummaging through your pockets on a packed train, but there is nothing to grab from a good suitcase.

I also use a an old feed-through-the-loop suitcase strap because it takes time to open.  Sure someone with a box cutter and screw-driver could get in if they really wanted to, but that is unlikely in any hotel or public place.

7. Hard shell suitcases are waterproof.

The plastic shell on the suitcase and rubber seal are very water resistant. I have no worries about my suitcase getting wet. A wet backpack on the other hand, will stink you right out of your own room.

8. The suitcase is better protection for your belongings.

It’s possible to check in semi-fragile items like liquor bottles, glass, and other items that are unlikely to fair well in a backpack. There’s always about 10 to 20 cm (3 to 7 inches) of empty space above my things in the suitcase, so breakable items are well protected.

It’s also very possible to take apart an electric guitar and bring it in the suitcase. I haven’t done this yet, but I likely will on future trips.

What suitcase should you buy?

I’m a huge fan of hard shell Samsonite suitcases. Don’t buy the fancy ones that are ultra-light, have complex locks or small wheels. Make sure you get the old-fashioned ones that are made of the thick plastic. They have large wheels that role over everything and the large simple locks are extremely durable. They weigh about 4 or 5 kg, but that is probably only a couple of kilograms more than your backpack.

My wife and I bought our first Samsonite in Europe about 7 years ago, and have gone through three other cheaper suitcases in that same time. Spend a little extra money and get something that will last.  The small wheels and locks frequently break on lower quality suitcases.

A couple of years ago, I was lugging around a heavy bag in Montreal and was killing my back so we went and bought our second Samsonite. Normally, we only travel with one suitcase between the two of us, but for longer trips we still sometimes bring the second suitcase. It was one of the greatest travel purchases we have made. (I am not making money from promoting Samsonite either. They really are that good.)

All you really need in life are good friends, a good suitcase, a good computer (that means Mac) and good coffee. The rest will take care of itself. 🙂

The Case for Backpacks

Collin Ferry shared this picture of his small backpack. If you are traveling this light and plan to do some overnight trekking, then yes a backpack is the better choice.

Collin Ferry and his Backpack

Collin Ferry and his Backpack

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

26 Responses to 8 Reasons why Backpackers Shouldn’t Use Backpacks

  1. Collin says:

    Two counterarguments (and why I still use a backpack):

    1) I pack light. Everything fits in my small pack (Kelty Redwing 3100). It’s also easy to access (different compartments) and I carry it with me onto buses and planes.
    2) I can walk with all my gear attached to me and have two free hands.

    • John says:

      Greetings Colin,

      Fair enough, but I would argue that you are unique. Most people bring way more stuff than they really need. If you can get all of your belongings into carry-on luggage then kudos to you! On the discount airlines that is only 7kg now, so I don’t think most travelers can get away with that.
      I am not sure I see the need to have two free hands though. If I need two hands, I can just let go of the handle.

      • Collin says:

        Hey John, that’s true enough, though I’ve yet to have anyone ask me to check my bag even if it’s closer to 11kg. Added bonuses for the backpack: I can walk with all my belongings and simultaneously take photographs, hold someone’s hand and a water bottle, or eat messy street food. Also, I like my stuff to be attached to me. If I’m at a counter filling out paperwork or buying a bus ticket, I’d rather not have my suitcase sitting on the ground. While it’s not likely to be stolen I still like to make it impossible for a grab-and-run.

        • John says:

          Thanks for the photo Collin!

          We don’t do too much walking with our stuff anymore. The priority is to get to our apartment and get settled as fast as possible.

  2. Kevin says:

    I always used to be a classic backpacker, it was nothing but a rucksack for me. I regarded “roller luggage” as only fit for sanitized corporate travellers, package tourists etc.

    But I’ve since become a convert to roller luggage myself. I’ve spent too many years lugging giant rucksacks around. A heavy rucksack is doing things the hard way.

    I use a compromise solution: an Eastpak roller holdall, has about 90 Liters capacity and only weighs about 3.5 Kg. So it’s “soft case” rather than “hard case”, although it’s said to be waterproof. I also added extra waterproofing. Of course things can also get squashed so you have to be careful how you pack if you opt for a soft-case solution.

    I also have a cabin-sized carry on rucksack, but that’s as far as it goes now as far as rucksacks are concerned. My packhorse rucksack days are over!

    • John says:

      I hear you Kevin. I always thought roller luggage, warm clothes and getting to bed early was for old farts. I may not be much wiser, but I am definitely older. My shoulders are killing me just from carrying my computer backpack around, I definitely will not go back to a backpack or rucksack anytime soon.

  3. Neil Mullens says:

    John, your post title is all wrong, buddy! I think you are really arguing why location independents shouldn’t use backpacks, and I would agree with that entirely. BUT…location independents ARE NOT BACKPACKERS…it’s a whole different sport!

    When I think back to my own backpacking days the idea of trying to squeeze onto a crowded charabanc in the outbacks of Morocco with my rolling luggage sounds ludicrous! There are many, many occasions when you simply need to move quickly and have hands free, both for your own safety and to stand any chance of catching that one ride out of there. Otherwise, you’re the sucker left stranded in the middle of nowhere for a week until the next ride comes along.

    Yes, it does force you to travel light, something you learn from experience. Having said that, I returned from my first backpacking expedition incredibly toned! LOL! Your ‘hard to access’ argument is also a moot point for the seasoned backpacker. They will want access to their stuff in the crowded carriage of a train, and will have the things they need stowed in easily accessible pockets. Try opening a big Samsonite suitcase in a similar situation!

    • John says:

      Neil, I thought we agreed that you would always support me. 🙂

      When I first started backpacking, I traveled very light as well. Those were the days before laptops, digital cameras, iPads, iPods etc. Very few people travel like that anymore. I see the backpackers every day struggling with their huge over-sized backpacks and other electronic gear.

      Also, we have small backpacks for the stuff we need to access on planes and buses (just like the backpackers) so there is no need to get into the suitcase until we are at our guest house or apartment.

      • Neil Mullens says:

        Backpackers always took cameras and Walkmans, the only thing that’s changed are the laptops. How much space or weight does an 11″ MacAir, a netbook or a tablet take up? About the same or less than the big, chunky journals we used to carry. And a MacAir is more than you need on the road if you’re a traveler for the sake of traveling, as opposed to someone who wants to work and make money while staying in nice places.

        You’re missing the point about ‘small backpacks for the stuff we need to access on planes and buses’. In many places, the transport you use doesn’t include places to stow your luggage or, if it does, you’d be unlikely to find it still there by the time you arrived!!! You have to keep your stuff with you, at all times!

        Maybe it’s not the backpacks but the whole way we traveled that seems barbaric by the standards of many of today’s travelers…

        • Lissie says:

          I totally agree. I take less and less weight because of the gadgets – the Kindle alone has taken at least 2kg of books out of my backpack. I can travel with a netbook etc and still get it into carry on 7-10kg weight. I carry less now than I did when I started backpacking in the 80s.

          • John says:

            Awesome LIssie,

            It definitely takes travel experience to realize that you don’t need to take much with you. In Sydney, we have seen many young backpackers with two backpacks and huge suitcase each. Are they bringing a TV and sofa with them? 🙂

  4. James Clark says:

    Yes, I’m over the backpack, though having back problems had a say in that. I have a wheelie bag/backpack hybrid which I have found the best for me.

  5. John says:

    Hey James,

    Thanks for the comment!

    Wheels rule. For the naysayers out there, try both rolling and carrying and see for yourself which is better. I won’t be carrying any type of large luggage again.

  6. This brings up a fascinating discussion. Although, I’ve only backpacked with a backpack I would be very open to alternative options – for security, comfort and practicality.

  7. Neil Mullens says:

    Ha! Those guys with the oversize backpacks are either newbies or they’re not they’re not ‘real’ backpackers; just budget holiday makers! Seriously, I don’t exaggerate – some of places I’ve been, it would have been physically impossible to have used a suitcase! Having said all that, for any other kind of traveling, I use a….yes, you guessed it…SAMSONITE! I’ll have to take you off for some real backpacking one of these days, John! We’ll see how you do with your roller…!!!

    • John says:

      That is kind of my point, most ‘backpackers,’ at least the ones I see regularly, are not really doing much backpacking. They can barely walk with that much stuff. I definitely admit that I am not a ‘real backpacker’ either. My goal at a new destination is to get set up in a decent apartment with fast internet as fast as possible. I am definitely not in the jungle hunting for my next meal. 🙂

      • Neil Mullens says:

        Yes, there are certain places in the world (Lonely Planet’s fault!!) where you will always see backpackers with those massive packs. For most of those people, it’s their first time away. And, yeah, for the places they’re going to go, they probably don’t need a backpack either. In fact, they didn’t need to take so much stuff with them in the first place!

        The backpack I used to hike up Kitadake (3120m) last summer was 30/35l. I was carrying warm gear (0°C at the summit), rain gear, food, and water. That backpack is perfect for traveling. In fact, the last time I was in Thailand I took it as a carry-on. Colin’s above looks perfect, too!

        You asked Colin why you would need two hands free. In some places you need them to protect yourself from hawkers, thieves and would-be guides and, if you’re traveling with a female partner, maybe to protect her from being molested, too! Yes, you could let go of your suitcase but by the time you’ve dealt with the situation, someone will have made off with said suitcase!!!

        Yes, as I said on FB, that kind of traveling is not for everyone and there is no way my wife would accompany me on such a trip, nor would I be comfortable about taking. But, if I’d never traveled that way ever, there are so many wonderful things I would never have experienced….

  8. Ernie says:

    I am a backpacker myself and I think backpacks are the way to go at least for me. I only travel for a limited times. In the morning, I go to Singapore and the next day, then I am on the bus to Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam Bringing a suitcase would be very inconvenient on my end but I agree if you will be staying in a specific area for a long time suitcases are the way to go.

    • John says:

      Thanks for the comment Ernie,

      If you can travel light, then I would definitely go with a backpack. For example, I have a small backpack for day travels.
      However, there are so many travelers with giant, over-stuffed backpacks and separate front backpacks. If they are going to go that overboard with gear, they’d be better off with a suitcase.

  9. Tim L. says:

    You’re obviously not doing the Inca Trail, staying in guesthouses at the end of 5 flights of stairs, or traversing the beach looking for a cheap place to stay. I travel with both depending on the situation. If it’s just airports, hotels, and taxis I use a rolling suitcase. But if I’m headed out to go backpacking around Peru, Nicaragua, or Cambodia, no way I’m bringing a suitcase. I’d be carrying it literally half the time. It makes far more sense to wear your belongings on your back than have all that weight hanging from your arm. And by the way, I’m in my 40s, so don’t tell me this is an old fart preference. It’s a matter of whether you’re traveling on the cheap or just changing hotels now and then and you’re really working.

    • John says:

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, you are correct. I wouldn’t bring a suitcase up a mountain either. My wife and I have small backpacks for day use and computers. The reason I wrote this post is because of so many young travellers I see with over-stuffed backpacks on their front and back. Many are probably carrying 30 to 40 kgs. That is more weight than my wife and I combined. These people are not hiking trails or walking along beaches. They have enough trouble getting their bags from taxis to guest houses.

      The post is a little facetious. I am trying to poke fun at this unquestioned idea that young travelers must use backpacks, even though they are clearly not ‘backpacking.’

  10. Simon P says:

    I have a bag with wheels that also turns into a proper backpack but over the past five years that I’ve been travelling with it I’ve literally never used its backpack function! Dragging your luggage around on wheels is just so much easier!

    • John says:

      Thanks Simon,

      I certainly agree. I mindlessly started using a backpack years ago and never really considered why. Wheels make so much more sense for most modern travelers and their excessive gear.

  11. Shanelle says:

    My partner is in a wheelchair and we have recently started travelling often. We usually have 1-2 wheeled suitcases with us and I am having loads of trouble (and stress) trying to get around while pulling wheeled suitcases and pushing him in his chair. For this reason, I have decided a backpack would be a better option for me. Personally, I now despise wheeled suitcases; it has added to the stress of travel. I like one of the comments above about a backpack / wheeled hybrid! I may have to look into one of those so I can finally find an easy solution that does not involve growing a second set of arms!!

  12. Charles says:

    Thank you John, for echoing my thoughts exactly. Been living and travelling overseas, mostly to “backpacker” type destinations, for more than 15 years. The first couple times I traveled through India and SE Asia for extended periods I indeed had a backpack, a very small NF that required discipline to pack the bare minimum. It worked OK, but I needed to do laundry way to frequently, or, god forbid, I bought something on my travels, and had to carry an extra bag for my swag – defeating the purpose!

    At some point I did a careful needs analysis and determined that 99% of the time my pack was being taken from bus-to boat-to hotel-to tuktuk-to guesthouse-to jeepney-to airport-to tro tro to… well, you get the point. I wasn’t doing any multi-day camping or trekking that actually required a large backpack.

    I’ve been happily traveling with a medium-sized two-wheeled suitcase since then, and the heavier softshell ones with strong frames + expanding storage are what I’ve found to be the most versatile option for me. I also carry a small Arcteryx daypack that has been absolutely bulletproof and I suspect will outlast me! This is perfect for day hikes and city trekking, and can hold a small laptop, plus valuables, plus some extra food and clothing for airports or long bus rides.

    I agree 100% with your assessment. Very few backpackers actually need their large trekking packs, and indeed very many would be better served by wheeled suitcases. (I still cringe when I see a 120lb lady having her spine compressed by a massively over-packed 60 liter pack).

  13. Riley says:

    The don’t carry a backpack is great for those travellers u see going thru the airport with 2 huge trekking backpacks but I disagree with using only a wheeled suitcase I only travel with 1 15 inch backpack. Having a backpack is great with all the violence going on at airports it’s pretty hard to run with a suitcase learn to pack and use a 30L-45L backpack.

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