Backpack or Suitcase for Older Travellers?
PODCAST: Prefer to listen rather than read?
So you’re finally planning a trip! Where are you going? On holiday? A well-earned vacation?
Where are you staying? Hotel? Cruise ship? Villa? Apartment? Hostel?
Will you be staying in just one place or is this going to be a multi-destination trip?
How long will you be away? A weekend or a week or two… or perhaps longer?
And… will you be taking a suitcase on your travels or packing a backpack?
To help you decide between the dilemma of packing a suitcase or taking a backpack, I want to share with you my own considerable and sometimes painful experiences of battling with baggage as a (slightly) older person while travelling.
Indeed, having travelled around the world twice, first with a suitcase and then with a backpack – while in my late 50’s / early 60’s – I now feel qualified to offer you my honest and tried and tested recommendations, so that you won’t ever have to suffer the burden, the expense, and the consequences of choosing and travelling with the wrong type of luggage!
Looking back to when we travelled as a family, taking our two-week annual holiday, we’ve always favoured soft-sided suitcases without wheels. I recall my husband and I had one big suitcase each and we had one extra large-sized one for the kid’s stuff (we have three sons) and we usually bought our luggage cheaply from a discount store. Consequently, it never lasted from one year to the next.
Of course, we’d each have a carry-on bag too for our essential in-flight accessories.
To be honest, travelling with three kids in tow and usually flying off somewhere, we always had way more baggage allowance than we ever needed and so I never even thought to pack light.
Although, I do remember that it always took some effort to manhandle our luggage into our people carrier and from the car park across to the airport, where we’d have to commandeer a wayward luggage cart – usually one with wonky wheels – to get to the check-in where we could happily rid ourselves of our luggage burden knowing the next time we’d see all our carefully packed stuff (hopefully) would be at our final destination.
Our destinations of choice back then were either budget flights to the Canary Islands or package tours the USA – the kids loved beaches and theme parks – and whatever kept the kids happy made us as parents very happy too.
Fast forward ten plus years. The kids are off doing their own thing. We are empty nesters.
We are empty-nesters who (this was seven years ago) at 54 years old decided to sell everything we owned – house, cars, furniture… everything – so that we could boldly travel the world as adventurous nomads on what would hopefully be a long-term basis.
At this point – realising everything we now owned would be transported around the world with us – I decided to rethink how we would carry our luggage and I decided that this time we would need two good quality and extra-tough suitcases that would last us over many years of world travel.
I decided that this time we would need two good quality and extra-tough suitcases that would last us over many years of world travel.
I did my research online and soon found a travel website putting ten different branded suitcases through their paces. I was delighted to see this meant dragging them industrially about at an airport. Then bashing them around on luggage conveyor belts and even throwing them from a great height off a plane and onto a concrete runway to see if they’d burst open!
Impressed, I invested in two of those declared the outright winner.
I bought two large-size and hard-sided stylish suitcase with wheels by a manufacturer called Delsey.
I also bought two quality cabin sized suitcases and treated myself to a flight-size handbag.
At the same time, I invested in lots of discreet and travel-savvy accessories, including crossbody wallets to keep our passports and our cash and credit cards safely on our persons while we travelled.
Travelling with Suitcases
Fully equipped and fully packed to the exact weight restrictions for the economy flights we’d booked, we travelled west over the Atlantic to explore the USA, the Caribbean and parts of Central America. Then, we headed across the Pacific to visit our son who lives in South Korea, all with our wardrobe sized suitcases now plastered in souvenir destination stickers.
But to be honest, even on their super sturdy wheels, it still felt like really hard work to manoeuvre our large size suitcases when we were travelling so frequently from one destination to another.
And, the effort required in getting them onto busses or hauling them in and out of taxis – or tuk-tuks – was getting all too much and we were starting to feel heavily burdened with our baggage.
After visiting South Korea, our plan was to complete our trip around the world by returning home to the UK to see family and friends for a couple of weeks, while we finalised plans for our next trip. This meant getting some more travel vaccines and acquiring the necessary travel visas for several months of travel in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
This return also gave us the opportunity to rethink our suitcase situation.
We’d both come to realise that to travel more easily through Asia – travel that would certainly involve taking many flights, buses, and then various types of boats to our planned destinations, where we’d be expected to carry or drag our own luggage across beaches or along dirt tracks or through jungle terrain – we were going to have to travel lighter and with much more flexibility.
I suggested abandoning our suitcases and acquiring backpacks.
But we weren’t entirely sure if they would be up to the job of carrying all our stuff.
Or convinced that WE would be up to carrying all our stuff on our backs.
We were in our mid-50’s after all and my husband travelled with lots of scuba diving gear.
Travelling with Backpacks
With all the enthusiasm of my previous research, I investigated the ‘best backpacks’ for long-term travel and soon settled on some very attractive looking Highlander Outdoor backpacks.
I chose them primarily because I liked the choice of colours and because they had an accessible all-round zip opening – suitcase-style – rather than the single top loading style of a typical trekking backpack. The Highlander backpack also came in different sizes. A larger (black) one for my Backpacking husband and a slightly smaller (pink) one for me.
I also favoured them for being Scottish – as we are proudly Scottish ourselves.
The Highlander backpacks had padded straps for shoulder comfort and a useful attachable/detachable matching daybag too that would replace our current cabin bag suitcases. The backpacks looked to be made of good quality tough-looking canvass type of fabric (with optional pull on waterproof covers) and with a zip-out expandable panel section for extra room. They looked to be good quality and they looked to be durable.
With our new backpacks bought, packed, and fully expanded, we carried them proudly on our backs and we carried our daybags attached to our fronts. Looking like real backpackers, we set off from Edinburgh to Bangkok, from where we’d planned to travel across Thailand and then island hop down the Andaman Sea until we reached Malaysia.
It was a dream trip. It turned out to be one of the best and most memorable in all our travels. But our backpacks proved to be far too heavy for us and our poor middle-aged spines soon began to suffer. It was no fault of the backpacks of course. They just didn’t suit us, all our gear, or our poor old backs.
I struggled so much to carry my backpack that sometimes my poor backpacking husband had to carry mine too. His backpack took all his scuba diving gear but that didn’t really allow room for many clothes. So he tended to carry his clothes in his day bag. I’m sure wearing our backpacks we looked like travelling giant tortoises with our homes on our backs.
I realised I’d made two expensive mistakes. The first was in buying the large super-sturdy but unyielding suitcases.
Then, secondly, in thinking that we could actually carry everything we owned in backpacks on our backs.
Although, I’m sure that would have been perfectly okay for much younger backpackers than ourselves.
It was clear we were going to have to find a more comfortable and adaptable and much lighter way to travel that suited us as older travellers in future.
Travelling with Wheeled Rolling Backpacks
For us, the solution was to get travel bags with wheels and also straps that tucked away but were fully accessible for all those occasions when you want your rolling travel bag to also be a backpack.
Because sometimes you need to keep your hands free for climbing out of longtail boats into knee-deep water and while having to walk the entire length of a sandy beach to find your accommodation.
The backpacks/travel bags we chose were soft and waterproof and also had a strong retractable handle to pull out when we needed wheels for easily hurrying along the smooth floors in hotels and airports or city pavements and sidewalks.
In a wheeled ‘rolling’ backpack we knew we’d found the best of both worlds!
So, dear travellers, after travelling for seven years and having explored 56 countries while circumnavigating the whole world twice with our luggage… this middle-aged backpacking housewife and her scuba diver of a backpacking husband… heartily and absolutely recommend to you a ‘rolling’ backpack with wheels!
What To Look For In A Rolling Backpack
Materials: We found that sturdy and high quality not only added to the price but also meant heavy when it came to luggage. In a wheeled backpack, you should perhaps look for a compromise in weight and quality for the fabric, the zippers, the pull handle, the frame, and the wheels. Is it waterproof or water-resistant? Is it robust and tearproof?
Comfort: Do the wheels glide? Is the handle the correct height for you? You should check if the stowaway harness and shoulder straps are padded and a comfortable fit. What about the back panel? Often, roller backpacks don’t offer as much padding for spine protection or back ventilation as regular backpacks.
Size: Consider what you need to carry with you when you travel so that you can choose the correctly sized dimensions for your purposes and for your travel arrangements. As I said, my husband needed a bigger size backpack than me because he has lots of professional dive gear. Backpacks sizes are offered Litres. Smaller backpacks are around 35L. So 45-55L would be medium-sized and suited for most purposes. 60-70L is a large-sized. Extra-large is anything over that and some packs are available in 110L and 130L sizes. The larger the backpack the heavier it is of course.
Storage: How easy is it to pack and organise? Is everything accessible or are you going to have to unpack everything again just to find a scarf or your sunscreen? Are there handy internal and external compartments? Are the external ones secure?
Where To Find The Best In Rolling Backpacks
Are you a suitcase or a rolling luggage fan?
Have I convinced you to be a backpacker yet?
Do let me know your backpacking luggage stories!