The Dilemma – Backpacks, Duffel Bags or Rolling backpacks?
Backpacks for travel can be amazing. They grant you a freedom of movement roller luggage travellers will never know. But what do you do when your back is killing you from a long day and you still have a 5KM walk to your accommodation for the night? At this point you’d wish you were pulling a roller duffle rather than trudging around with 20Kg on your back.
As travellers we’re conditioned to believe that the torn and beaten backpacks of the world scream “I’m Adventurous” to all who’d listen. In fact, I would argue that a backpack is simply another way to carry the gear you travel with. It’s not a form of travel as so many believe. I’m not anti-backpack you see, as a photographer I carry a camera bag the time. However, I hate the idea of being that dork with a backpack on my back and a photo bag on my chest as I wander the airports of the world.
It’s a well know fact that excessive use of a heavy backpack leads to health problems. But what if you could have the best of both worlds? The mobility of a backpack when the going got rough combined with the convenience & ergonomics of a roller bag. A backpack with wheels if you will! Would you give up your tried and true travel backpack? I would! In fact, I did. And I haven’t looked back!
Wheeled Backpacks? Rolling Backpacks? This is a thing?!
Until recently the only rolling backpacks I’d ever seen were printed with kids cartoon characters and marketed towards grade school children. Then, a few months back I bumped into a luggage rep at Vancouver International Airport sporting a wheeled travel backpack. We got to talking, apparently luggage had been modernized and I’d missed the boat. Wheeled Backpacks are a thing and they’re here to stay!
If you still can’t wrap your head around the idea of a backpack with wheels think sophisticated rolling duffle bag and your favorite travel backpack got together after a booze fueled full moon party in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. The result is something to be proud of, no walk of shame needed here. Roll when you want, carry where you can’t. The best of both worlds, a backpack with wheels, it’s truly ingenious!
Pro’s of a Rolling Backpack for Travel:
When all else fails you can always convert your bag, connect the straps and put it on your back! It seems like such a small thing but if you’ve ever traveled out of the first world you’ll know how important this can be! I can tell you from experience that roller bags don’t roll so well through sand in the heart of Africa or rural Greece’s cobblestone roads. Simply being able to put your bag on your back makes a world of difference! Rolling backpacks win this fight easily.
The next largest benefit of rolling backpacks are ergonomics. Being comfortable in general is a huge part of your wellbeing and state of mind. But It’s even more important when travelling. By getting your bag off your back when possible you’ll be happier and healthier for all your adventures! Wheeled backpacks getting another point here.
Living out of luggage is hard work at the best of times. Travelling with a backpack you’re usually only able to access your gear from the top or bottom. Finding what you’re looking for is downright painful and typically results in clothes everywhere. Rolling backpacks load like a duffle bag but still strap on your back. Best of both worlds!
I hate to say it. I was always taught not to judge a book by it’s cover, but first impressions count. In the real world it happens daily and you are judged by how you present yourself. As a travel blogger, writer and photographer roller bags (or in this case rolling backpacks) frankly, just look more professional. It shouldn’t matter, but it does… I get the best of both worlds with rolling backpacks.
Con’s of Wheeled Backpacks for Travel:
A rolling duffel bag will always be heavier than a similar quality backpack. Wheeled backpacks will always be heavier than a similar rolling duffle bag. You can’t simply combine all the parts from a backpack and a roller and keep it a featherweight! New designs have improved tenfold over the earliest offerings. But you’ll still be adding a couple pounds to your luggage weight with wheeled backpacks.
If you’re the type to pack everything and the kitchen sink, think long and hard. The extra weight of rolling backpacks could mean the difference between a simple check in and an overweight bag fee.
Most backpacks keep a fairly slim form factor. Even when loaded up with a month’s worth of dirty clothes and travellers trinkets they don’t get in the way. Rolling or wheeled backpacks will always be bulkier. This isn’t a problem in most situations. That said you won’t be taking wheeled / rolling backpacks on your next trekking trip in Nepal.
If you’re looking at carry on sized luggage this can be a factor. The wheels, frame and pull handle of wheeled backpacks all contribute to a much less flexible piece of luggage. Less flexibility can lead to difficulty getting these bags into the overhead bins.
Wheeled backpacks won’t replace the real thing. It’s a compromise through and through. Reducing weight and bulk is the manufacturer’s first order of business. Skipping out on some of the features and padding you’d find in a backcountry or travel specific backpack.
Many of the rolling backpacks I looked at had only a rudimentary strapping and suspension system. Almost an afterthought, I wouldn’t want to have to wear them for any real length of time. The quality wheeled backpacks we found (below) seemed to have had real thought put into them. Unsurprisingly it’s the top tier backpack brands that have given us the best options in the rolling backpack niche.
Buying A Backpack With Wheels – What To Look For
Obviously the best luggage for travel is the luggage you own. But If you’re looking to buy new travel luggage, I would highly recommend looking into rolling backpacks! When comparing wheeled backpacks or rolling backpacks you need to keep a few main considerations at the top of your list.
From the canvas, nylon or cordura your backpack with wheels is built from to the foam that pads its straps. The quality of materials used in these rolling backpacks is a great indicator of their long term durability. Nothing is worse than getting a call at the airport that your cheapo luggage has split wide open and its contentslittered across the tarmac!
Look for bags using tight weave, strong but lightweight nylon fabric complimented by heavier fabrics along the edges and backs where the most wear typically occurs.
Aluminum internal frames and handle hardware typically signal a higher quality product than stamped steel and plastic setups. Any wheeled backpack will end up taking some abuse so a robust frame and trolley system is a must!
The most important part of any wheeled backpack is of course the wheels. A rugged undercarriage and large polyurethane (vs cheap plastic) wheels will take all the abuse you can throw at them!
Comfort & Fit
The suspension system of any bag you might be considering should be well padded, highly adjustable and very importantly in warm climates, breathable. If at all possible try the bag on in store and load it with a couple of gallon jugs of water to ensure it sits comfortably on your frame.
Light is right when it comes to travel. The lighter your bag the easier it is on you. But a piece of luggage that is both featherweight and rugged is a unicorn in the world of luggage. While weight is a concern don’t overvalue it at the expense of more important elements such as material and comfort. A more comfortable backpack with wheels may weigh slightly more but the tradeoff could be worthwhile in the end.
No matter what your significant other may have told you, size matters. It’s too easy while browsing bags to buy the biggest bag available. Restrain yourself, buying a bag just big enough for what you plan to carry is hugely important.
As a general rule of thumb 35-50L of space should suffice for ~4 days without hitting the laundromat, 50-70L, about a week and 70-100+L a week in cold weather destinations where you’ll be carrying insulated jackets and warm weather clothes.
No matter what your significant other may have told you, size matters.
While most bags we reviewed had some method of compression strapping buying a 100L bag to hold 35L of gear is a fool’s errand. Lay out what you’ll typically travel with, compress and measure it against a known piece of luggage or do the math to determine its volume!
I personally use a 60L bag and manage 6+ days even carrying all the non-electronic accessories I require to photograph and blog about the locations I visit.
The Best Rolling Backpacks for Travellers Reviewed
Below I’ve put together a list of the wheeled backpacks I’ve had first hand experience with. Each of these pieces of luggage has its own unique pro’s and con’s. Have a read and decide for yourself which you’d pick. Honestly, you can’t go wrong!
For each of the backpacks below I’ve looked into weight, comfort, durability, style and general in-person feel. In my mind, weight and comfort of the bag should be your number main concerns as a traveller. As such, these two qualities carry a heavier importance to me. So, which do we think is the best rolling backpack? See for yourself!
High Sierra AT7 Rolling Backpacks – Budget Honorable Mention
Quality: Features: Price: Available From: Buy Here
High Sierra’s AT7 Wheeled Backpacks were one of the best valued pieces of luggage I was able to put my hands on. Just over 50L of usable space should provide plenty of room for everything but the most extended trips. A built in and detachable daypack is a useful addition to the AT7 but the features stop there.
Rolling Backpacks like the High Sierra AT7 don’t provide all the features of the higher end bags but they represent an amazing value. At time of publishing the bags were being sold online for only $150 well down from their $320 list price
With the low price of these rolling backpacks comes an expected decrease in material quality. It’s not that High Sierra uses bad materials. But it doesn’t use the lightest or strongest on its premier wheeled backpacks. While the material will be durable enough it comes in at over 8LB’s.
Another blow against the AT7 backpack with wheels comes from its lack of an internal framing system. Instead High Sierra is relying on the tote handle and high density foam to maintain this wheeled backpacks shape.
Lastly the harness & suspension system on the AT7 rolling backpacks were sub-par. Seeming like nearly an afterthought the lightly padded shoulder straps were easy to set up. But they won’t be comfortable if you’re planning to pack your loaded bag any real distance.
Even so, the High Sierra AT7 is likely the best value in rolling backpacks currently on the market. If you’re a budget conscious traveller looking to step into wheeled backpacks this could be just your ticket!
Eagle Creek Switchback Wheeled Backpacks – Quality Runner Up
Quality: Features: Price: Available From: Buy Here
The Switchback wheeled backpacks by Eagle Creek are a trick piece of kit. Though one of the smaller rolling backpacks I looked at (30L) the switchback packs in a ton of quality and features. While this might not be a goto bag for someone headed on an extended trip (unless you enjoy mornings at the laundromat) it’s perfect for the traveller taking a break from daily life for the week.
The switchback is truly a backpack with wheels as opposed to a roller duffel with shoulder straps. And it carries like it too. The suspension system and back pad were well thought out with ample padding and ventilation. The sternum strap even comes with a molded in emergency whistle.
Like the AT7 an included, detachable daypack is a handy feature of this rolling backpack. While the main compartment of this system consists of one large packing area the day pack contains a laptop sleeve and enough organization pouches and pockets to sort away all your gear. Easy to grab zipper pulls and beefy puncture resistant zippers make this rolling backpack feel sturdy enough to follow you around the world.
Osprey Sojourn – Best Rolling Backpacks
Quality: Features: Price: Available From: Buy Here
Our last backpack with wheels is the Osprey Sojourn. Osprey seems to have cornered the market on wheeled backpacks. They offer no less than 3 different models of convertible rolling backpacks at the time of writing, each available in multiple sizes.
After getting hands on with the Osprey Sojourn I knew my “buy it nice or buy it twice” mentality was kicking in.
After getting hands on with the Osprey Sojourn I knew my “buy it nice or buy it twice” mentality was kicking in. Time to warm up the wallet. These rolling backpacks scream quality. If Osprey’s reputation in the backpacking world is anything to go on I knew immediately that it would be a top-notch unit. Available in 45, 60 and 80L variants there’s a size for everyone and every trip.
While the Sojourn wheeled backpacks lack some features found on the other bags we’ve discussed (day pack etc) they make up for it where it counts. In quality and comfort. The backpack is made with a 1680 denier nylon (the most heavy duty of any of the bags I’ve looked at) has an impact resistant, high clearance trolley and lockable puncture resistant zippers that seem bombproof.
The suspension system on the Osprey Sojourn Rolling backpacks seems to be something right out of osprey’s technical mountain packs. A tension augmented suspension system floats the bag over your back while real shoulder straps (complete with load lifter adjustments) help steady the load. A breathable, comfortable and moisture wicking waist strap completes the ensemble. This suspension system carried my test load (2 gallons of water ~17LB) the best of all the wheeled backpacks I tested, and this is the only pack i could see carrying for any major distance loaded.
I personally purchased the 60L version of this rolling backpack after playing with it in store (full price, no sponsorships here). I tested not long ago when I traveled halfway across the globe to explore and photograph Greece and Turkey. Backpacks are notoriously difficult to live out of. But the Sojourn 60L rolling backpacks made this a simple task. And the adjustable compression system kept loads in check as the expanded and contracted throughout the trip.
From the wheeled backpacks I was able to put my hands on I’d crown this the best of the rolling backpacks. The price is a bit hard to swallow, but those who know me know I don’t mind paying up for a quality piece of kit… From what i’ve seen this rolling backpack will with me for quite some time!
If you’re thinking of changing up your travel game a backpack with wheels could be just what you’re looking for. A classy looking roller in the streets but a go anywhere pack in the sheets, rolling backpacks offer the best of both worlds however it suits you.
Keep in mind the items we discussed earlier and check out the rolling backpacks we showed here when shopping for your own. As always, be sure to see, touch and try on your new backpack with wheels before shelling out hard earned cash!
No matter how you slice it, whether you’re headed downtown or way out of town rolling backpacks have you covered! Now go find yourself some cheap airfare and get out there to Explore.Create&Educate!
How have you managed your luggage needs? have you gone full backpack? or only roller luggage? perhaps you’ve embraced a wheeled backpack for your travels? Let us know in the comments!