So you’re going to do some traveling. Serious traveling.
Maybe you’re headed to Peru to see Machu Picchu and spend a few weeks village-hopping down the Andes. Or you have ten days of August snowboarding booked in New Zealand. Or you have a Eurail pass and three months to kill before grad school begins. Maybe you’re planning some deep-water free solo climbing in Thailand, development work in Namibia, or 200 miles on the Camino de Santiago. For serious traveling, you’re going to need a serious bag. But should you go with a backpack or a rolling gear bag?
The longer the trip, the bigger the bag, right? Not necessarily. Many backpackers argue that the less stuff you have with you, the less hassle your bag will be on an extended journey. Longer trips don’t always mean you need more space—in adventure traveling, size is more often determined by what gear you need to bring.
Keep in mind, too, that a large bag can mean a heavy bag. Staying under the 50-pound limit gets challenging when you’re tempted to use every cubic inch of an 80-liter backpack. And with all the cool accessories you can put to use organizing your bags (more on those later), it’s definitely possible to use every cubic inch.
Generally, the more urban the area you are in, the nicer its airports, train stations, bus depots, and sidewalks will be, and the easier a rolling gear bag will roll (though there are exceptions). But if you have room in your budget for cab fare, ease of rolling is a non-factor—throw your gear in the car and head to your hostel, pension, hotel, or villa. Three months in Western Europe by train? Your rolling gear bag should roll just fine. Four weeks down the backbone of the Andes by bus, motorcycle, and burro? Wheels on your bag aren’t going to get you very far.
Also, will you be encountering wet conditions? Waterproof or highly water resistant bags may be heavier, but they’ll also keep your gear drier in a tropical downpour or on the deck of a boat.
Managing a loaded backpack requires a moderate level of physical fitness. If you suffer from lower back pain, joint pain, or any other limiting physical factor, a backpack or a large duffel may not be the best choice for your travels.
A snowboard, boots, and helmet. A couple fly rods, waders, and rain gear. A full rack of trad gear, plus a portaledge and camping gear. If you’re traveling to do activities that require bulky equipment, you’re going to need something to haul that stuff around. Trunk-style rolling gear bags or large-capacity backpacks are the way to go in travel situations requiring you to bring along a lot of specialized gear—just remember to bring a daypack to haul your gear to the mountain, river, or crag. In fact, a lightweight, packable summit bag like the Marmot Kompressor Plus pack is always a good thing to throw into your luggage.
Backpackers have sworn by backpacks (hence their name) since low-cost independent adventure traveling was first popularized in the ’60s and ’70s along the Hippie Trail, then later went household with the rise of Rick Steves and Lonely Planet. Backpacks allow travelers to move relatively easily on foot, which is a good thing if you’re relying on public transit, hitchhiking, trying to save money when getting between train stations or hostels, including wilderness travel in your itinerary, or sprinting across an airport terminal to make a flight.
But backpacks can be unruly. Because of the size of most backpacks, many airlines require they be checked, where straps and frames can be damaged in baggage handling. Larger packs are difficult to stow in overhead bins on trains and buses. In crowded situations, backpackers must be careful not to swing their packs side to side, as being whacked with a 50-pound bag can make locals somewhat less than friendly.
As far as traveling is concerned, backpacks fall into roughly two types: backpacks designed for hiking and camping and backpacks designed for travel by plane, train, or bus. Hiking backpacks are built to freight gear in and out of wild areas, and typically feature either an internal or an external frame. Hiking backpacks include features like water-bottle pockets, sleeping-bag compartments, and shoulder harnesses and waist-belts designed to comfortably carry weight for hours at a time. Hiking backpacks tend to range in size from 2500 to 5000+ cubic inches. Expedition backpacks are similar, but can carry more cargo and therefore have a beefier suspension to help shoulder that load.
Travel backpacks are designed with dimensions to fit luggage compartments and accommodate airline baggage requirements; they generally also have fewer exterior straps and attachments that can snag or break during handling. For the most part they range between 2500 to 3500 cubic inches, though most major brands also make larger- and smaller-capacity models. Most travel packs include features like side carry handles, hidden security pockets, and some come with removable daypacks.
Many travel backpacks straddle the line between backpack and duffel, with shoulder harnesses and hip-belts that are designed to be stowed or zipped away. Some, like the Deuter Transit 65, have fairly burly suspensions so they will be more comfortable on extended slogs, but they’re also removable to make them snag-free for baggage-claim conveyors and overhead bins.
Simple, sturdy, and relatively inexpensive, duffel bags are a perennial favorite for travel, particularly on trips where they will be exposed to rough handling and inclement weather. One disadvantage of duffels, however, is that they can be heavy or awkward, both of which can be problems if you’re transporting them long distances. To address this, many companies are now offering duffels with padded straps that allow you to throw the bag on your back in a pinch; keep in mind, though, that you wouldn’t want to carry them too far, because these don’t represent a true suspension system found in ‘real’ backpacks. Good examples include the Patagonia Black Hole (which comes in a wheeled versions), Osprey Transporter, TNF Base Camp Duffel, DAKINE Ranger, or Eagle Creek Go Duffel Backpack.
Rolling gear bags feature wheels and retractable handles so they can be towed or rolled, but are generally less rigid than traditional wheeled luggage. These bags have large-diameter skate wheels to handle heavy loads and rougher travel surfaces. But with wheels and handle frames, rolling gear bags can push 10+ pounds when empty, a problem for some travelers as airline weight restrictions get tighter and tighter.
Rolling gear duffels feature top zippers and haul handles with a softer bag form. Other rolling gear bags feature square-side designs with sturdier sidewall constructions and wraparound zippers. Sizes on rolling gear bags range from 38 to 45 liters in carry-on models to as much as 120 liters in gear-swallowing trunk styles. Some rolling gear bags include a detachable carry-on bag or daypack, waterproof construction, expandable panels and compartments, or straps to attach a smaller duffel bag or a ski or snowboard bag.
Given tighter airline baggage restrictions and some of the problems associated with backpacks, more and more adventure travelers are turning to rolling gear bag/backpack hybrids with a stowable shoulder harness and hip-belt, giving you the best of both worlds. Some good examples are the DAKINE Sherpa and the Osprey Meridian 28 and Sojourn 28.
If you’re trying to get away with a smaller bag, good bag organization is key. The Eagle Creek Pack-It, Patagonia Black Hole Cubes, or the Arc’teryx Index line of organizers allows you to subdivide large spaces and segregate different items (clean/dirty, shoes/clothes, socks & undies/shirts, etc.) from each other.
Other option for organization is stuff sacks and compression sacks usually used for backpacking; compression sacks have the advantage that they enable you to cram more stuff into a small space. And if you’re not confident of the water-repellent qualities of your bag, dry sacks are a good option.
And last but definitely not least, if you’re traveling to remote locations, a travel lock is a must to protect your belongings. So, be sure to pick up a travel lock before you pack your bags; it could be a vacation-saver.