The Best Travel Backpack: How to choose the right luggage for you

Guide to finding the perfect backpack.
Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

This guide teaches you how to choose the appropriate pack for your needs. It has details about your options and the situations best suited for each type of luggage. It compares the pros and cons of backpacks vs suitcases vs duffle bags. 

Big companies like to hype up the backpack; they call it “backpacking” and we all instantly think of far away places and grand adventures. But with the hype can come anxiety about making the right choice: What is the best backpacking backpack? How do I find the right luggage for me? What is the best backpack for international travel? What kind of pack do I need for months of backpacking abroad in Asia, Europe, South America, and the world? Do I even need a backpack?

What are your luggage options?

Three general types of packs that are useful for backpackers are the

  • backpack
  • suitcase 
  • and duffle bag


The backpack is the automatic go-to for many travellers. But should it be? 


  • Shoulder straps: By definition, a backpack has shoulder straps so you can carry it on your back. Carrying your luggage off the ground means you can take it anywhere. It also helps protect it from street grime.

  • Pockets: Most backpacks have assorted pockets that make keeping things organized a breeze.

  • Collapsable: Manu backpacks have straps that can be used to collapse any spare capacity and thereby decrease it’s overall size, making it easier to maneuver when not full.


  • Bulky and unruly: A backpack is not compact. It is usually oblong in shape with protruding straps and/or a hip belt. Those can make using public transportation a nightmare: backpacks rarely fit overhead or under seats because of their weird shape.

  • Expensive: Many backpacks from top brands come with a hefty price tag.

  • Stereotypes: Carrying the classic backpack immediately pins you as a traveller. It can make you a target for higher prices and even scams.

What to look for when picking a Backpack?

  • Fit: It is important that a backpack sits in the proper position or it can cause additional strain. Make sure the backpack you select is adjustable. A waist/hip belt is highly recommended if you plan to carry your pack for long periods of time (meaning longer than the trip from the hostel-bus station-hostel). 
  • Frame: Frames can be internal or external but they perform the same function: added support and weight distribution. Frames are not essential, but they do make things more comfortable if you are wearing your pack for long stretches in one go. 
  • Access Point: Backpacks can open several ways, such as top load and side load. Top loads are best for accessing on the go, but it is a hassle if what you need is at the bottom of the pack. A side load opens like a suitcase and makes it easier to access all the items in your pack, but it does require the bag to be laying down, which can be downright gross if you are at, say, a muddy bus station. 
  • Ventilation: In warm climates, having a bit of ventilation between the pack and your back can make things a lot more pleasant. But that’s all it is, extra comfort. It comes at the cost of added bulk and an added surcharge. 
  • Raincover: Some packs come with a raincover, but many do not. It is a factor you must consider in the total price. Although a large trash bag can work in a pinch.
  • Optional Detachable Day Bag: Some travelling backpacks have a day bag that clips or zips onto the main pack. The only unique benefit of having a detachable day bag is that it can securely attached to your main bag. This can also save you the trouble of shopping for a seperate day bag, but otherwise, it is just a smaller backpack that performs the same functions as any other small backpack. It’s convenient if you are new to travelling, but soon you will ditch it for something tailored to your exact preferences. 
  • Optional Wheels: Some backpacks have a set of built in wheels. It adds to the bulk and the price, but comes in very handy in urban areas. If you think you will only need to carry your backpack a few times, opt for a pack with wheels. 

The final verdict on backpacks

The backpack is the best option for travellers that plan to walk long distances over rough terrain, such as hikers. If that is not your situation, consider another option. A backpack is recommended for the beaches of Central America and parts of South America (Chile, Argentina, and the Amazon delta). A backpack is not the recommended selection for Europe or East Africa.


A suitcase has a hinged lid and is essentially a travel box. In 1972, someone thought to put wheels on, and it’s been the most popular luggage option ever since. 


  • Convenient: Suitcases are easy to open and often have partitions for organizing its contents.

  • Easy: The wheels on a suitcase make it easy to move around. They also take most of the weight for you, requiring less overall effort.

  • Durable: A range of case materials are available, from hard metal to sturdy cloth. They tend to do a better job of protecting fragile items.

  • Expandable: Almost all modern suitcases come with a way to extend the sides to increase volume. It’s a great feature to accommodate a growing souvenir collection.


  • Heavy: The additional elements within a suitcase, such as the handles and wheels, add to the overall weight.

  • Inflexible: Most suitcases have rigid outer shells. They are the shape they are, they cannot be squashed into oddly shaped spaces.

  • Clearance: Many suitcases are low to the ground, so if you encounter rough terrain, you may be forced to carry them. Similarly, they are terrible in sand. Those situations, however, are less common than most people suspect.

What to look for when picking a Suitcase?

  • Case Material: Hard cases are more durable, but tend to be heavier than cloth cases, unless you want to spend an entire paycheck on them. Most backpackers will get enough protection from cloth cases. Remember that while travelling, it’s best practice to carry all of your most expensive gear (like cameras and computers) on your person during longer bus/train/zephyr/whatever rides, so an impenetrable case will mostly go unused. 
  • Wheel Size: Outside of developed nations, you will need larger wheels to manage street conditions. 
  • Number of Wheels: Fewer wheels means less to go wrong. Don’t rush to exchange your current four wheeled case if you already have it, but otherwise look for one with two wheels. 
  • Handle: It’s nice to have a handle that is long enough to walk with comfortably. If that’s not the case, they do make affordable ways to extend the handle’s reach

The final verdict on suitcases

Sometimes the simplest option is the best one: suitcases are convenient and practical. They are best for those who prefer ease of use in terms of movement and access to contents. They are recommended for Europe, Australia, Antarctica, and any developed nations. They are not recommended for areas with rough terrain such as East Africa.

Duffle Bags

Many people use a duffle bag for the gym, or sometimes for a weekend away. But they may be a backpacker’s best friend during a long trip.


  • Convenient: Duffles usually have a large opening along the top so you can access everything.

  • Collapsable: Because most duffles do not have a rigid structure, they can collapse down when not full and be arranged into a variety of tight spaces.

  • Streamline: Duffle bags have fewer frills, like pockets and bulky straps, so their shapes are more streamline. They are the easiest option to fit in an overhead bin or under a seat.

  • Straps: Every duffle has carrying straps, but it’s important to consider the right one for you. A long strap allows a duffle to be slung across the body, but is more likely to get caught on something. Shorter straps are designed for carrying a duffle by hand, but if you are dexterous enough, you can slip them over your shoulders and wear them as shoulder straps, effectively making your duffle into a backpack. It’s not ideally comfortable for long periods, but is great for trips between your hostel and the bus station.

  • Affordable: While backpacks and suitcases frequently start above the $100 mark, it’s possible to get a high quality duffle bag for much less than than.

  • Camouflage: Having a duffle bag doesn’t immediately immediately shout “tourist.” So don’t be surprised when people start asking you for directions.


  • Few Pockets: Most duffles have 2-3 pockets. They are not ideal if you want to separate lots of little items.

  • No Frame: Duffles are basically cloth, so they lack internal frames to distribute the weight.

What to look for when picking a Duffle Bag?

  • Material: Duffle bags come in a variety of material, but are usually fabric. There are many, however, that provide full waterproofing and added durability in one. They are the best choice for travellers who will encounter wet and humid conditions. 
  • Number of Pockets: A few pockets are helpful, but not essential in a good duffle. Packing cubes are a great way to keep things organized when more order is needed. 
  • Strap Options: Duffles usually come with a shoulder strap, two hand straps, or both. 
  • Optional Wheels: Some duffles come with wheels. For backpackers, these are not recommended because you lose the simplicity of the duffle; if wheels are your main attraction, a suitcase is a better option. 

The final verdict on duffle bags

Duffles are the hidden gem of the backpacking world. They fill the sweet spot between accessibility and versatility. 

Duffle bags are recommended for: everywhere. 

What are essential pack features? 

No matter what type of bag you select, there are several universal features to consider. 

  • Volume: For most, around 50L is enough. 60L is more than enough for if you plan to buy a lot of souvenirs. When travelling to colder climates, however, you may need up to 70L if you are bringing a lot of specialized gear, like a large jacket, sleeping bag, or tent. Make sure your bag will have enough space: figure out what you need first, measure how much space those supplies take up, and then shop for a bag.

  • Durability: It goes without saying that your bag will get a lot of wear and tear. Most of its life will actually be spent sitting peacefully at the hostel, but it does need to be sturdy enough to survive a 42 hour bus ride. So do you, for that matter.

  • Weight: There is a balance between durability and weight. Luggage made of wood and iron is durable, but unless you're hauling Spanish doubloons, opt for something lighter, even if it means sacrificing a smidgen of durability.

  • Waterproofing: Your bag will need to be waterproof, or at least resistant. Some packs include waterproofing, via its material or a rainfly, but many do not. If you protect your gear with nothing but a trash bag, great! Just make sure you have some way to waterproof it, and factor that cost into the total price.

  • Warranty: A warranty protects against defaults and malfunctions. It may not help you during your trip, but it allows you to replace anything once you get back.

  • Security Features: Impenetrable material and key/combination locks are some ways packs deter thieves. While no method is 100% guaranteed, it is recommended your pack have some security, even if it is just added loops on the zippers where you can put your own lock.

The obvious conclusion

Unlike the clever marsupials, humans do not possess anatomical pouches to carry things. However, humans are notable for their highly dexterous phalanges. These digits allow them to manipulate tools precisely. Hence, they rely on their tools-using abilities to create packs. 

A human of the subspecies “backpacker” may be identified by the possession of a specific type of pack that has shoulder straps and is carried on one’s back. This type of bag is commonly referred to a backpack, knapsack, or rucksack. Wanderlustable humans do not have to manufacture their own pack: Due to the global marketplace- a relatively new human construct- there are countless options. In fact, one does not need to specifically carry a backpack to be considered a “backpacker”, and in many situations, another type of pack may be more appropriate.

There is not one right bag for you.

While the backpack is the forever classic choice for a “backpacker”, there are more options. Backpacks, suitcases, and duffle bags are widely available in any major department, outdoor, and sporting goods store. Consider physically inspecting a range of options before choosing the right one for you. While you shop, come back and reference this list if you need to.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission or compensation if you click through and/or make a purchase. The opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own. 

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Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.

―  Gustav Flaubert

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