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Backpack vs. suitcase? Our decision. | Don't Ever Look Back

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Backpack vs. suitcase? Our decision.

Backpack vs. suitcase? Our decision.

With 85 days until our round-the-world adventure, each day of planning and pre-trip preparation is becoming more and more important. With that in mind, we recently journeyed to the nearby outdoor supplies store determined to find ourselves some backpacks for our upcoming travels.

After spending nearly an hour browsing and trying on the different sizes and types of packs available, a revelation suddenly hit us.

Do we even need backpacks?

We went home and did some serious thinking, quickly realizing that the answer to our question was a strong and resounding no!

Despite all the great reasons provided by our Facebook fans as to why backpacks were a better option for them than suitcases, the reasons they provided just didn’t match the requirements for our journey. So when we do depart for Hawaii in under 3 months time, we’ll be wheeling a pair of suitcases behind us.

Suitcase

Amy's pink suitcase will see more action on our RTW!

We’re aware that the whole backpack vs. suitcase debate has been done to death but we still thought it would be worthwhile sharing our reasons for choosing a suitcase instead of a backpack, particularly as it is going against what many of our readers believe.

A suitcase is easier to pack/unpack

Although we’re traveling as slowly as we can, having easy access to our luggage is important. Not having to rummage through an entire backpack to find what we’re looking for is a big advantage for us!

We’re not planning on walking extensively with our luggage

Our current plans don’t involve hiking (or walking extensively in urban areas for that matter!) with all of our material possessions on us. The plan when arriving in a new city is to drop off our luggage and then go exploring. This obviously plays a big part in our decision to choose a suitcase over a backpack.

The destination

Our first destination had a big impact on our decision. Because we’re starting in the USA, we’re confident that the roads and sidewalks in America can handle our suitcases with wheels. Rough terrain such as gravel roads or cobblestone footpaths will surely be a rarity. Plus, we’re more likely to look like tourists in America if we’re walking around with backpacks than we would with suitcases (at least that’s what we’re thinking).

Easier to handle/no physical exertion

The last thing we want is for Amy to fall on her back and not be able to get up again, looking just like a turtle! That’s a strong possibility if we’re carrying around backpacks (it’s happened to a friend of ours!) – so being able to wheel around our luggage is the favorable option until we have a greater need to travel with backpacks.

We can always change our mind!

When we do decide where to go after North America, then we can re-assess our options and decide whether to make the switch to backpacks for the next leg of our journey. Perhaps all we need is a visit to REI and we’ll be converted? But that’s a decision for another day.

We do understand that there are downsides to taking a suitcase with wheels. There may be occasions where we need to carry our suitcases up stairs but we definitely see this as the exception and not the norm. Regardless, I think we’ve made the right decision… do you?

Do you travel with a backpack or a suitcase? Share your reasons in the comments and tell us whether you think we’ve made the right decision.

42 Comments

  1. Posted May 3, 2011 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Oooo I have to say, I am a backpack girl through and through. Unless of course i’m being treated like royalty in an extravagant hotel (ie Park Royal KL) in which time it is inappropriate to waddle in with your life strapped to your back and bits hanging off;)

    To combat the annoyingness of packing, I bought a backpack that zips all the way around (so no stuffing) AND bought a couple of little packing pods to keep things tidier and easier to find!
    You’re so right tho, just have to go with what works for you!!
    Jess Jones recently posted..Kuala Lumpur- Finally- The FBFT2 Reviewed

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      You’re right Jess, I don’t think a backpack would be appropriate in a 4 or 5 star hotel!

      If we do make the switch to backpacks then we’ll definitely get something that’s front-loading. Top-loading backpacks must be a nightmare!

  2. Talon
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    I wrestled with this decision as well. Because we are going to mostly third-world countries, I went with backpacks. It is also easier for Tigger to maneuver than a suitcase.

    For the US you will fit in far better with suitcases than backpacks.

    To me the bottom line is what works best for you.

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      I think if we were visiting third-world countries early then our decision might have been different (and is why we’re open to switching later). A backpack would definitely be easier for Tigger (and more fun too, right?!).

  3. Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    I’m curious to see how this plays out. I think Talon put it best when saying that they were visiting third world countries and so were taking backpacks. It really is up to you, but I hope you haven’t overestimated the amount of smooth sidewalks in the U.S.!
    Bryan recently posted..Bargaining Abroad

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      We’re curious too! Haha. Hopefully our luggage won’t be a major issue though – even if we do encounter the odd rough sidewalk, hopefully our suitcases will be safe at our accommodation or in the back of a rental car.

  4. Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    I’m a backpack dude all the way. It is more of a pain in the ass to pack. I like being more mobile and plus having limited space forces me to really think about everything I bring.

    Like you said, it all depends on where your’re going and what works for you.
    Nick Laborde recently posted..Burning bridges and why you should bring the matches

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Definitely see the benefit in having to think more about what you’re packing – though we must admit it’s slightly daunting at the beginning of a long-term travel adventure! We’re slowly becoming more minimalist but it’s definitely a work in progress.

  5. Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    I have almost always been a suitcase girl, with the exception of a trip to Norway and a trip to Peru when I used a 65L backpack. I generally much prefer the suitcase. Even with a side/front loading backpack, I like the structure of the suitcase for packing (and I literally pack mine exactly the same way for every trip). I’ve used a suitcase along cobblestone streets in Italy and dusty roads in Egypt and find it much easier to pull the suitcase along than carry the pack on my back. Even going up/down stairs, I have an easier time carrying the suitcase by the handles. I’m pretty in shape, but the pack just weighs on my back/neck too much.
    Katie recently posted..Having the Time of My Life

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Good to see someone agrees with us! Haha. The structure of a suitcase definitely makes packing a lot easier and at the moment, the benefits of a suitcase with wheels far outweigh the benefits of a backpack for the two of us.

  6. Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Better yet – why not have the best of BOTH worlds: a small backpack WITH wheels? The tricky part is finding a small one with both padded pack straps and lightweight wheels/retractable handle. Mine is an Olympia Rolling Backpack just 13″ x 6″ x 18″, weighs about 4# and has a capacity of 25 liters. Combined w/ a small rucksack (for netbook, and day trips), it’s perfect for months on the lam if you’re serious about traveling light. HERE’S a pic of it with my entire kit ‘n kaboodle for a recent trip to Egypt and Israel.
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..MOO MiniCards – Perfect for the Trail

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Very impressed with how light you’re traveling Dyanne! Unfortunately we’re carrying a lot more than that (electronics are our biggest enemy!)

      As for the hybrid packs, we read some not-so-favorable reviews on these so didn’t really consider them.

  7. Posted May 3, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Oh wow now that I have been traveling with a backpack for 2 months I can not see myself traveling without one anymore (of course as others have mentioned I am traveling in Luxury). I am traveling with a small backpack so I love that it fits everywhere and is easy to carry around. As for dealing with the contents I use packing cubes.

    The only thing that matters is what is going to work for yall so congrats on your suitcases and I am going to love to see how this works out.
    Jaime recently posted..Music Monday – Fast Car

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      We were contemplating traveling with small packs that would fit anywhere (including carry-on on planes) but after our recent experiences in Asia we decided this just wassn’t practical as they took away a lot of our liquids (including deodorant!).

      Even though we’re taking suitcases, I think we’ll still invest in packing cubes as we’ve heard great things about them!

      There will definitely be a follow-up post to let everyone know how we got on with suitcases!

  8. Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I marched on over here after reading your comment over on So Many Places all fired up for a suitcase intervention. Now that I see you’re going to be in North America for the first part, I’ll make my retreat. As you were… 🙂
    Raymond recently posted..The World is Flat and You Can Be Too

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Hahaha – I guess we’ll take as a thumbs up for our reasoning for taking suitcases! 🙂

  9. Posted May 3, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    We are most definaiely part of the overwhelming backpack majority, but I think starting in N.A. is the one part of the globe where you should be fine…I have a 6 pack of your finest imported beer saying that you will switch to backpacks somewhere before Africa/Asia (if you are going there…) 🙂

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

      There definitely is an overwhelming backpack majority on here! Maybe we should have made this decision quietly? Haha.

      Not sure if we’ll fit Africa into this RTW but we’ll definitely be in Asia. You could be right on us making a switch but I don’t say no to a bet involving beer! 🙂

  10. Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I definitely prefer to travel with a backpack when I’m on an extended trip – my pack has been with me for six years and through every country I’ve ever visited and it would just feel wrong to travel without it 😀

    Though that said, every time I’ve been on a work trip and taken a suitcase on wheels (especially if it’s carry on sized) I’ve almost been convinced to switch sides…!

    You certainly make less of an entrance on crowded public transport with a suitcase than with a backpack taking out half the commuters every time you shift position slightly.
    megan recently posted..How to get to Mongolia by train

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      Wow, you’ve definitely had a great run with that pack! I can imagine how big of an attachment you have to the backpack now.

      One day you might switch sides… one day! Haha.

    • dancebert
      Posted August 1, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      You get on public transport wearing a backpack knowing that “with a backpack taking out half the commuters every time you shift position slightly.” It’s never occurred to you to take the pack off and carry it by the straps in front of you? This also has the advantage of being able to see who’s going into your stuff.

  11. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m all about a small suitcase! Granted my last year in Oz wasn’t a RTW, but wherever I’ve been, a suitcase has been just fine. Once you get started, you’ll have to let us know how it goes!
    Heather recently posted..Time to Go Home

    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      That’s the next decision – what sized suitcase to take! We’ll be sure to write an update on how our luggage situation is going after a few months of travel. 🙂

  12. Posted May 4, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Hahahaha pretty certain I’ll topple over backwards with my backpack at some point! I’m so weak!!

    Sounds like suitcases fit in best with your plans, so good on you for not following the crowd! 🙂
    Lauren recently posted..A Private Tour of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN

  13. Posted May 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Is NY part of ur USA plan? : ) Anyways, I think most of the road in USA are fine, but like other people mention if your destination changed to other country, you can change your mind later.

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      New York is a BIG part of our plans – it’s probably the one city that we’ll spend the most time in. We think we’ve made the right decision to take suitcases but only time will tell.

  14. Posted May 8, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I’m sure that a suitcase will work fine in North America for getting from point A to point B. I’ve used one on every local trip I’ve taken up until now.

    I’m really preoccupied trying to come up with a good day bag that will allow me to carry a laptop and SLR camera comfortably, with quick access to the camera, without being too conspicuous, and light enough that I can fold it up and carry it in my regular pack on transportation days.

    Since your already thinking about packing, I thought I’d throw it out there and fish for suggestions.
    Mike Lenzen recently posted..Traveling in Your Own Hometown – A Pat LePoidevin House Concert

  15. Posted May 11, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    I do wheelies for biz travel and times when i know I’ll be connecting through huge airports (DFW or ORD). Backpacks for almost everything else (REI has a nice travel pack that unzips U style to get at everything.)
    But choose what YOU are comfortable carrying. 🙂

    • Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Thanks fredlet, we’ll definitely be checking out an REI once we get to the US and that might be enough to change our minds! We’ll know soon enough!

  16. Posted May 11, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Think you guys have definitely made the right choice here. Requiring a backpack to be a backpacker is a total myth imo. As you guys stated, you can easily get around so much of the world with a suitcase, and a backpack is just overkill. It’s really a bit of a “look at me, I look indie and like a nomadic vagabond with my backpack” image that people try to project I reckon.
    Justin Morris recently posted..Featured Photo – Venice

  17. Posted May 12, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    For our 1-2 years abroad we’re actually thinking about each carrying a suitcase, backpack, and computer bag! Which is a ton, I know. But we plan to move infrequently and hopefully stay put in one place for a few months at a time, so there will be very little lugging anyways. I imagine we’ll eventually downsize, though, so we’ll see. 🙂
    Christy recently posted..Saying Farewell to Mayhem

  18. Posted May 15, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    It certainly sounds like the best decision for you. It’s great to know that you can always get something new in the States. REI is a great place to buy a pack (or anything) and you can always return it- for whatever reason. 🙂

    After going through a few packs myself, I think I’ve found the best that works for me. It’s an Osprey ‘travel pack’ and it opens like a suitcase, but carries on my back. I use packing cubes (I highly recommend them for packs/suitcases that are square) and they act like drawers in my bag. Eagle Creek makes nice, durable ones (you can get them at REI).

    Of course, each person has different needs and desires and it sounds like what you have fits your trip! 🙂
    Amy recently posted..Bring International Luck to Your Friday the 13th

  19. Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I travel with a backpack and in many of the situations I’ve found myself in, a suitcase would have been difficult. I’m just thinking about all the times when transport stuffs you around by either dropping you off a couple of km from where you’re supposed to be or when you have to walk a couple of km to the bus station. It’s hot, you’re walking in the gravel on the side of the road and every local taxi guy that offers to pick you up is charging heaps for the privilege because he knows how much a pain in the arse it is! Even traipsing from guesthouse to guesthouse is tiresome… But that’s the nature of budget travel, I guess.

    I really hope the suitcases work out for you guys. I’m sure most of the time they will be fine.
    Adam @ SitDownDisco recently posted..Foursquare Sucks

    • Posted May 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      Definitely see some major issues in the situations you described Adam. You’ve really outlined well why backpacks are ideal in certain circumstances and that’s why we’re a big chance to make the switch over before the European/Asian parts of our RTW.

      But for the US, suitcases are our preferred option for the reasons listed above and fortunately we can ship them back home if/when the time comes.

  20. Posted May 17, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Totally agree on your decision guys! Don’t know why people create this myth that you need a backpack for backpacking. Backpacks are THE most impractical thing ever! I’ve travelled all over the world with a split-level, soft Dakine roller bag and it is the best thing ever. I’ve seen people trying to carry backpacks and their backs really suffer so they end up buying a suitcase and chucking the backpack! I’m 5’1″ and I could never carry one. I’ve never come across a situation where I would need one either. It’s not that hard rolling it up and down stairs or on cobbled streets…and you leave it in your hostel anyway.
    Victoria recently posted..Where to Eat in Mallorca

  21. Rob Lowry
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I had been a back pack fan for the last 20 years, but as I got older, decided to give rolling bags a shot. I have to admit I REALLY like having the roller bag, but for most of the places have found them to be somewhat a hassle – great for the US and Europe / awful for Asia and the Mid East.

    One thing to keep in mind … while my front loading back pack and smaller top loading back pack are still in awesome condition after something like 8 years of rugged beating around, I’ve replaced my roller bags 3 times in the last 4 years. Twice, the airlines have ripped one of the wheels off my bag and while I was just in Spain the wheel snapped off while walking into the hotel (I had noticed the wheel was loose early in the day and thought I should get it tightened before it cause a problem … oooops).

    What I’ve found particularly troubling in these instances … unless it’s a very current model, getting it repaired may be impossible. And with the airline (both instances with United) I’ve been told damage to the bag itself is not covered, as it’s considered natural wear and tear.

  22. Posted August 23, 2011 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    When I was working I used to use a suitcase with shoulder straps built it. It was awesome. For general travel though I will always be a fan of the backpack!

  23. Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Interesting… I’m trying to plan my RTW trip and the whole idea of taking a backpack is foreign to me!

  24. Posted September 27, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I’m curious how this is working out for you guys – have you posted an update?

    We’re doing small rolling suitcases that can convert into backpacks, although I’ve been told by friends who have done RTW trips that they never used the backpacks.
    Jan recently posted..We Recommend – Rovinj, Croatia

    • Posted September 27, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

      We haven’t actually posted an update yet – we compromised and went with a backpack on wheels and like your friends, they never found their way onto our backs. So don’t go that way, choose one or the other!

  25. Posted December 15, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Ha! Ha!! OK so you wrote this post a few years back but since I’ve just found your post today…
    Let me tell you, when the train porter ran off with my suitcase in India, I switched to a backpack which I’m still happily using! When we went to America, I still insisted on taking it and we looked pretty strange rolling up to a 5 star hotel in Vegas in a big rocking American car, with backpacks but whatever. I love my backpack LOL.
    P.S. I ran after that porter and recovered my-by-now-very-battered suitcase!
    Victoria recently posted..Oh, but the Highlands are bonny!

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