The Luggage Conundrum (or How I Chose a Travel Bag)

For a traveler, a bag is like the hermit crab’s shell. It’s the last line of defense for your most valuable assets (besides body parts). Many people will give you advice when choosing a travel bag. People, who know lots, people who know little. The salesman, the taxi driver, colleagues at work and your mother. People who have travelled the world, people who have travelled the mall and people who think a backpack is what their kids use to carry their lunch to school.

And now me! I’m not an expert on bags by any means, but I had to quickly upgrade my skillz as my bag was going to be my new home for the next 12 months and I didn’t want to regret my purchase. Below is the breakdown of how I made my decision.

Your bag choice is dependent on 3 key factors.

  1. Where you’re going
  2. What you’re doing
  3. Your body type

In my situation, I am going on a diverse trip that will include cities and mountains, formal and informal. This means that I wanted a bag that would cover a variety circumstances. I am also 182cm (6 foot), meaning I can handle most types and sizes of bag. This is different to someone going on hiking or on a business trip.

Below is what I looked for in a pack:

  1. Easy to pack and access stuff
  2. Easy to maneuver – on average, across all terrain
  3. Durable
  4. Lockable
  5. Designed to suit both formal and non-formal occasions

The Options:

Trekking Backpack

Trekking Backpack

These are your standard, top loading, mountain climbing backpacks. They give you the most back support, the best waste strap and weight distribution of all backpacks, which is obviously helpful if you are climbing a mountain. They are also very durable. Unfortunately most of them are top loaders, which I found from my last trip was incredibly annoying. If you wanted to access something in the middle of the bag, you need to pull everything out. I can imagine this would be more annoying on the side of a frozen mountain, but maybe less annoying than a sore back… they are also not lockable, mostly come in bright colours and generally look pretty sporty.

Travel Backpack

Travel PackTravel packs are fast becoming the preferred choice for post-adolescent vagabonders. Basically they are trekking packs but with a different ‘access structure?’. Instead of top loading the bag, they have zips that go around the bag opening 1/3 – 2/3rds of the bag. This makes it much easier to access things inside, it also makes them lockable. The downside to the change in shape of the pack is less support and weight distribution. But unless you are going on 10+ day treks, you won’t be able to tell the difference. Travel packs also come in tamer designs, sections to pack away the back straps and generally look more presentable.

Wheeled Backpack

Wheeled BackpackThe tool of the flashpacker. Wheeled backpacks are relatively new, especially the models that work well. A decent wheeled backpack will come with wheels and a handle that pops out to move across flat surfaces plus shoulder and waste straps. They will open almost as well as a suitcase 60-80% giving excellent access. They come in formal designs that allow you to pack up the straps and wheel it around to look important like. On the negative side, they are the worst backpack you can get. But again, you probably won’t notice this unless you are going on long treks or you over-pack. They have a frame like a suitcase to keep the shape and they are built for optimal weight distribution while wheeling, not trekking.

Duffle Bag/Wheeled Duffle Bag

Duffel BagAhh the duffle bag, usually sported by athletes (I think they get them for free?), mobsters (AKs and cash of course) and private school kids in Sydney’s North Shore (no idea why – and they’re all from a store called Country Road). Duffle bags open well – about 2/3’s of the bag – making packing and accessing your stuff a breeze. They have a single shoulder strap and some have wheels making them good for inner and inter-city gallivanting. However, a single shoulder strap can become very uncomfortable and is ergonomic suicide for your back if you’re carrying over 10kgs and walk for more than 30 min. They either look sporty or dodgy and no frame means that smart clothes can lose their shape.

Suitcase

SuitcaseI am not going to explain what a suitcase is. If you don’t know what one is, you’re an idiot and should stop reading my blog. Suitcases are good because they open up 100% of the way and have a strong frame. This means packing, unpacking, and accessing your stuff is great and they also keep delicate clothes and other items intact. They will come with wheels, making them good for city movement but try and get on a crowded bus or walk down a pebble airstrip with one and you suddenly find yourself in a world of pain.

My Verdict:

The wheeled backpack. As mentioned above, I was looking for 5 criteria in my selection. The only pack that matched all of these was the Wheeled Backpack. I am not going to be hiking for the next 12 months, I will mostly be in cities and towns. I may have to walk for long distances, but most of the time I will be on a road where I can wheel. It was a close decision between the travel backpack and the wheeled – the argument was “wheeled backpacks are gay and you will look like a geek not like a cool hipster backpacker” – but in the end, I chose functionality over fashion. Function over fashion is key when moving towards a minimalistic lifestyle. Plus I can always open it into a backpack before I walk into hostels so I look cool.

The Pack:

The best rated wheeled pack I found was the Victorinox Trek Pack plus. This thing has more patients than you can throw a stick at. Plus Victorinox is known for its quality luggage, lifetime guarantee and perfect wheels.

Unfortunately, they don’t sell these in Australia anymore… I don’t know why something about being discontinued or upgraded something… and ordering stuff from the US to Australia is a freekin nightmare.

So I went with the Caribee Fast Track 75 pack.

Carabee Fast Track

The Fast Track is a good option. For starters, its 1/3 the price of the Victorinox. It has a good access structure, with a main section and bottom section for breaking up your stuff. Both of these open well giving about 80% access. Both sections are also lockable. It has strong, big, treaded wheels that can go over rough terrain, has wheel covers to protect my precious clothes from the dirt plus is built with a durable, waterproof material (although water can still get in from the zips). The waste strap is good, holding most of the weight of the bag when using as a backpack and it looks fairly professional (black colour) when all the straps are packed.

All in all, I’m quite happy with my purchase. I have not tested it in harsh climates or over razor blades but if it performs particularly well or poorly in a given situation, I will update this post.

UPDATE: After using this bag for 6 months, I am extremely happy with my purchase. There has been literally no damage to the pack anywhere. The wheels are seriously a god send when you’re tired and not having to constantly take your bag on and off while moving around trains and busses is great. I ditched the day bag that it came with for a bigger computer backpack. So not having to carry a bag on both my front and back also makes everything much easier. In 6 months, I have used it as a backpack less than 10 times. This has only been for long walks on rough ground everywhere else I wheel it around. The compressor straps are great, making packing neater and easier. And the internal pockets and compartments are wonderful for keeping things organised. So yes, very the happy.

What kind of bag do you use?