Suitcases vs. Backpacks
It's finally time to make a case for these popular forms of luggage.
If you've recently delved into the travel scene, we're betting you have a little experience with this oh-so-frustrating question. Deciding on your best luggage option, particularly when it comes to determining whether a suitcase or backpack is better for travel, is no easy feat. After all, aside from being highly subjective, the backpack vs suitcase conundrum tends to be determined by numerous factors from the season of travel to the length of the trip being undertaken. Nevertheless, there are a few points you should keep in mind when it comes to determining the best luggage for your trip. As we here at the Scrubba wash bag are familiar with navigating both urban and rural landscapes in all four corners of the globe through virtually all possible temperatures and weather conditions, we thought we'd lend our expertise to the debate.
Traditional, capacious, usually fitted with wheels for maximum convenience - what's not to love? The tried and tested suitcase boasts a huge number of benefits that easily make it one of the best luggage options out there and which would be highly remiss to ignore, as several members of our team were quick to point out:
- Capacity: Suitcases usually offer more space than backpacks while remaining relatively compact. For instance, it's not uncommon to find 100 litre suitcases that are relatively portable thanks to modern additions like wheels, while backpacks rarely offer anything in excess of 80 - for the obvious reason that you need to carry them on your back! This makes wheeled suitcases preferable to backpacks for anyone who struggles to pack light and keep their gear to a minimum.
- Organisation: The standard rectangular suitcase shape is not only highly compatible with organisers like packing cells and tech sleeves, but also enables you to easily fold and pack your clothes from the least to the most used, keeping your gear accessible and organised throughout your trip. On the other hand, backpacks, due to their less structured exteriors, demand their own packing strategy that tends to require a little extra problem-solving on the part of the traveller, which can be problematic for fast-paced travellers who require easy access to gear.
- Accessibility: As suitcases boast a wrap-around zipper that enables complete access to all your belongings at once, you're unlikely to waste too much time hunting through your bag for your belongings. By contrast, if your backpack offers only one partial opening, you'll likely find yourself spending quite a bit of time rummaging around for the specific item you want, which could cost you valuable minutes on the road.
- Weight: Portable and lightweight suitcases are abundant in today's society of avid travellers, but even heavier suitcases tend to be relatively easy to cart around thanks to those aforementioned wheels.
- Versatility: Not only do these much-loved pieces of luggage come in virtually all sizes and colours imaginable to suit the needs of even the fussiest globetrotter, they enable you to easily travel and commute with day packs, handbags, and other types of carry on luggage, increasing your versatility on the road.
- Airline travel: If checking a bag is a must, it's usually easier to lodge suitcases than backpacks due to the latter's loose straps and buckles, which can more easily become victims of airport conveyor belts. If checking a backpack at the airport, be sure to cinch all loose components down tightly and to wrap and clip the waist belt around the shoulder straps for extra security. If in doubt, consider using a bag cover to keep your backpack safe and secure on the conveyor belt.
Less traditional, perhaps, but soaring in popularity with increasingly improved design and engineering techniques, backpacks are becoming a choice for young and old travellers alike. Backpacks are one of the best luggage options for trips of all shapes and sizes because they greatly complement the fast-paced edge of today's travel adventure scene. It's no surprise that our team didn't hold back when it came to listing off the unique benefits of backpacks and rucksacks:
- Capacity: We know, we know, we listed this as a suitcase pro, but this one really depends on your mindset. Indeed, if you're the kind of traveller who thrives on minimalism and who is looking to challenge yourself to pack light and travel with only carry on luggage in order to avoid airport queues and potential excess baggage fees, the limited space offered by backpacks can be a blessing in disguise. But the benefits of lightweight backpack travel can be felt far beyond the hustle and bustle of the airport. For one thing, many countries charge for luggage on their public transport systems (usually anything more than a daypack or a small wheeled case), slapping you with an unnecessary fee every time you want to jump on the train or ride the bus. For another, lodging your luggage in a locker at the train station can be even more costly and inconvenient. You can solve these problems by taking a small, carry on sized backpack that is harder to overfill and that doesn't tempt you to over pack (when you need to carry your gear everywhere, that extra woollen jumper you're not sure you'll ever wear becomes a lot easier to resist). This will ultimately help to keep your wallet heavy and your load light!
- Security: Backpacks are strapped securely to you, making it more difficult for thieves to gain access, especially if you've invested in additional security measures like locks or cable ties. Wearing your luggage also carries the benefit of keeping it on your person at all times, making you less likely to leave your possessions behind at, say, the train station or bus shelter in a fit of exuberant traveller-induced amnesia.
- Portability: Backpacks are hands-free and the infinitely easier option when it comes to navigating stairs, uneven pavements, and steep, rocky, sandy or snowy terrain. Our team has a little experience in this area and wants it on the record that wheeling a suitcase through a snowstorm in Norway is never a good decision.
- Customisation: Backpacks may not offer as much space as suitcases, but discovering all their hidden pouches and pockets is half the fun - at least in our team's opinion. Many backpacks come equipped with gear loops, side pockets, and similar external storage pouches, enabling you to easily and securely attach weatherproof gear, like raincoats and boots, to the outside of your pack for enhanced accessibility and increased internal space.
- Weight: Okay, backpacks may force you to do a little more heavy lifting than their wheeled counterparts, but the backpack itself is usually super light due to a more flexible frame and the absence of heavy features like wheels, saving you some precious kilos from the get go. Furthermore, if you're careful about your packing strategy and invest in a quality, ergonomic backpack that distributes weight evenly, you'll quickly realise just how comfortable and easy it can be to carry gear on your back as opposed to trying to do the heavy lifting with your arms.
- Move through crowds with ease: Wheeled suitcases can become a bit of a hazard in dense crowds, threatening to trip people up and roll over feet or the hems of dresses. Although backpacks don't totally alleviate this problem - you need to be aware of your bulkier frame when attempting to slot through narrow spaces or make abrupt turns, for instance - walking with a backpack tends to make thick crowds much easier to navigate.
When to travel with a suitcase?
Suitcases aren't favoured by thousands of people for nothing and there are certainly a number of occasions that warrant suitcase use, as our managing director, Ash Newland, shares:
Over the years I've become accustomed to travelling with a lot of gear for trade shows and other business events. Large suitcases that are both easy to check in at the airport and transport from place to place are fundamental on these occasions.
Basically, if you have to travel with a lot of gear or you hate the thought of going without that extra pair of jeans or spare camera lens, opt for a suitcase that is easier to check in, super lightweight to manoeuvre, and simple to pack, unpack and repack, all while keeping your gear organised and accessible. The biggest mistake we routinely see backpackers make is carrying too much stuff, so if you can't or won't lighten your load and pack light, simply choose a bigger case that is easier to carry.
When is a backpack better than a suitcase?
Backpacks seem to be taking over the luggage scene, and not without good reason. Although the idea of carrying your possessions everywhere may seem daunting, there are many occasions when backpacks stack up better than wheeled luggage, as I've learned from numerous long-term trips across Europe carrying only 5kg of gear in the 32l Lowe Alpine Eclipse ND backpack. In my experience:
Europe is the perfect destination for backpackers, especially in the winter months. There's nothing like strapping on a pack and breezing past everyone struggling to lug their bags through ankle-deep snow or across the bumpy cobbled streets and narrow, rough-hewn staircases that characterise so many of Europe's old towns. I also love the convenience and security of keeping my gear close by in the pulsating crowds of cities like London and Paris.
If you're a minimalist packer who wants to keep things lightweight and potentially even cut down to carry on luggage in order to save yourself some extra cash, nothing quite beats the hands-free convenience of a backpack, especially if you expect to encounter sand or snow throughout your journey. Just remember not to overload it, as backpacks work best when they're kept small, light and functional, and less gear means easier unpacking and repacking. In fact, we believe that backpacks over 60l for standard travel defeat the purpose a little, so cut down with the help of the famous Scrubba wash bag or multifunctional Scrubba stealth pack, and start travelling clean, light and free, no compromises.
What about a wheeled backpack?
If you've got this far you may, justifiably, have turned your attention to the backpack with wheels, a hybrid of backpacks and suitcases and therefore twice as good, right? Well, not quite. Indeed, nothing comes without its faults and although a rolling backpack will provide you with a certain degree of versatility, you'll be paying a much larger price for that flexibility and will unfortunately lose out on weight and space. Indeed, the bulky frame of rolling backpacks tends to make them quite heavy, cumbersome options from the outset, rendering them less attractive to lightweight, space-conscious travellers. Nevertheless, as technology continues to improve there are bound to be some massive advances in this area, so keep your eyes peeled if you think a backpack suitcase hybrid option might be good for you.
The Bottom Line:
You know your own travel and packing habits so no one can truly decide whether a backpack or a suitcase is best for you, but to help make your decision a little less daunting, keep this handy checklist in mind:
Need more advice before making your choice? Check out: