The Backpacker Pack Versus the Wheeled Convertible Carry-On


I see you here in Europe, backpackers, hobbling across the continent strapped to the bottom those crushing mobile billboards for everything that’s wrong with your travel philosophy: backpacks.

This photo by Antoine K; above photo by Peter Christoph Ross

Yes, those 70-liter-and-up backpacker packs are what you live out of for weeks or months on the road, so it’s natural that you want them to contain everything. The impractical but common wisdom from travel bloggers and review sites is to use a backpack rather than wheeled luggage, and some even claim that you’ll want to haul around at least 70 liters, like the poor girl at right, for trips of more than five days.

But the decision over whether to take a full backpack or just a small carry-on — and many don’t even realize that this is a decision to be mulled over — gets to the heart of travel philosophy itself.

Stuff vs. Experiences

The essential conflict for travelers boils down to this: stuff versus experiences. Due to the limitations of travel, the more you have of one, the less you necessarily have of the other.

So consider: do you want to arrive in a city new and expend:

  •  time looking for places to secure your bags
  • energy in hefting them around
  • money for taxis, luggage storage, and places with better security for your precious stuff?

Or would you rather hop on a city bike or take a roundabout stroll to your host’s flat (say, someone you met on Airbnb, Couchsurfing, even Tinder…)? Or maybe you even head straight out for dancing and stash your small carry-on bag or purse behind the bar?

And: do you really want to bring home souvenirs? Will you actually use them? Are knicknacks made in China and stamped with the word “Barcelona” really going to carry much meaning for you?

Or: Would you rather take home a new talent for dancing with a wine carafe on your head, stories of flirting in Catalan, or memories of those uniquely delicious Barcelona brunches?

Your money, time, and energy are always limited, and this is even more true when you’re on the road, experiencing new cultures. Traveling light and free ensures that you don’t expend these commodities on lugging around stuff that you will rarely use — which brings us to the next point.

You Will Not Use Half of What You Pack

What specific things you really need to carry is a rather personal decision, but that experience of arriving home and unearthing the stuff at the bottom of our luggage that barely got used is universal.

As we travel more, we learn not to pack certain things. You’ve maybe heard the axiom; the more seasoned that you are as a traveler, the less you pack. You know that if need be, it’s better to pick up, say, a small umbrella or a swimsuit on the road. There is no sense in being prepared for each and every eventuality. It’s not worth the weight and the trouble.

Who Should Carry a Large Backpack?

If you’re trekking through forests or jungles and need to carry your own food and camping gear for a few days or more, you definitely want a good backpacker pack.

Who Shouldn’t Carry a Large Backpack?

Everyone else.

The Alternative to Backpacks for World Travellers

"Convertible" carry-ons like the Osprey Ozone are usually wheeled around but can also pop up on your back with the slide-out straps. Head to our sister site for full reviews of this and other such bags.
“Convertible” carry-ons like the Osprey Ozone are usually wheeled around but can also pop up on your back with the slide-out straps. Our sister site has full reviews of this and other such convertibles.

I recommend carrying a small wheeled carry-on, preferably a convertible style that also has backpack straps; I have myself been living out of one as a digital nomad/permanent traveller/tipsy pilgrim for the last five years. This has been a great improvement over the previous weary half-decade I spent lugging around a backpacker bag or large suitcase.

I almost always use the wheels, but occasionally it’s great to be able to pop the piece up on my back for a set of stairs, rough street, or when I get on a bike. Straps are not strictly necessary if you’re limited to urban environments with decent pavement.

I’ve had a pretty good unbranded bag that I picked up in Paris for a couple of years; if I were going to buy a new one, I’d get one of the ultralight wheeled carry-on backpacks reviewed over at our sister site SelectoGuru (where we do meta-reviews of travel gear).

The Ultimate Travel Minimalist’s Disposable Luggage

My dear brother has taken the idea of minimalist travel a step further, and no, this is not a joke. He generally travels with his worldly possessions in a small, sturdy trashbag. There are obvious disadvantages to this (the lack of durability, protection for electronics, definitely not for airlines, etc.), but also some clear and interesting advantages:

  • It’s cheap and disposable; when your bag (inevitably) gets a tear it can be instantly and cheaply replaced.
  • They’re theft-deterrent; thieves are not likely to target someone who is carrying a trash bag.
  • They’re light and collapsible; what other suitcase can be wadded up and stuffed in a pocket when not in use?

The disadvantages still outweigh the advantages for me, but you’ve gotta appreciate the creativity.


Head over to our site for travel gear reviews for the minimalist nomad. 

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