What Are Travel Backpacks and Why Are They Awesome?

Meet the travel backpack: a new type of carry on luggage that packs like a suitcase, but carries like a backpack.

 

Checking Luggage is a Nightmare

You pay $50 in baggage fees and still risk having your luggage lost, delayed, or damaged. Waiting at baggage claim is the last thing you want to to when you arrive at an exciting new destination. And even if your luggage arrives unharmed, you’ll still be weighed down by too much stuff. You shouldn’t be paying money just to have more bags to drag around.

Using carry on luggage is a better, safer choice. But what type of carry on?

If you’re hopping from city to city on an international trip, the best bag is a travel backpack. Not a suitcase, not a hiking bag -- a backpack that blends the best aspects of both luggage options into an ideal backpack for city travel.

Why Not a Hiking Bag?

You’re gearing up for your big trip abroad and need to buy a backpack. Like so many other travelers before you, you buy the stereotypical top loading backpack – tall, cylindrical, colorful – from North Face, Osprey, or the like. Everyone else uses them, so it must be the right move.

Right?

While your new bag may look the part, it’s from from ideal. Hiking backpacks are made for hikers, not travelers, and marketing them for city adventures is misleading.

Most travel backpacks are top loading and are too large to carry on to a plane, making them wrong for city travelers. Let’s take a closer look at why a top loading bag is wrong for city travel.

The Problem With Top Loading Backpacks

Most hiking bags open from the top, like a garbage bag, not from the front, like a suitcase.

The problem with a top-loading backpack becomes obvious when you need to get something out of it. Need the pair of jeans at the bottom of the bag? You’ll have to dump out everything else to get to them.

Every time you need something that isn’t at the top of your bag, you’ll have to unpack, then re-pack, everything you brought. Doesn’t that sound fun on the bunk of a hostel, or at the gate waiting to board your plane?

Not exactly a recipe for organization. Or quick and easy packing and unpacking.

Contrast this with a suitcase where the entire front opens, allowing you easy access to any item in your bag, without disturbing the rest. By opening the side with the largest surface area, you have the largest possible space from which to access your gear.

Unfortunately, suitcases have their own drawbacks.

Why Not a Suitcase?

Suitcases are great for air travel and keeping your stuff organized. Using carry-on-sized luggage will save you hundreds of dollars in baggage fees and plenty of time at the airport.

The problem with suitcases is that they're ill suited to urban travel. Wheeled suitcases are fine on the polished floors of an airport, or an office building. Suitcases have cheap plastic wheels that break easily on uneven sidewalks. The cobblestone streets of Europe and dirt roads of underdeveloped countries render them all but useless.

When hopping from city to city on an international trip, the last thing you want is to haul around a broken suitcase. Or try to drag a “working” one across Lisbon’s tiled roads in search of your hotel.

What’s the Best Backpack/Suitcase Combo?

Let’s start with what you shouldn’t buy: a backpack with wheels. You've probably seen other travelers carrying them or spotted them, in stores.

The problem is that backpacks with wheels combine the worst elements of backpacks and of suitcases. You might be able to roll them through an airport, but that convenience is far outweighed by the disadvantages of wheeled backpacks.

Weight

Adding plastic handles and wheels to a backpack significantly increases its weight. The increased weight makes the bag more difficult to carry and more likely to exceed airlines' carry on baggage weight allowances.

A random sampling of rolling backpacks on eBags showed an average weight of nearly 7 pounds (3 kg). The bags ranged from 4.5 pounds (2 kg) to 8.5 pounds (4 kg).
Airlines' rules for carry on bag weight vary dramatically. Most North American and European airlines allow carry on luggage up to 22 pounds (10 kg). Some are as low as 5 kg, meaning that you’d carry an empty backpack and still be charged for an overweight carry-on.

On average, a wheeled suitcase would take up 20-40% of the allowed weight. Good luck filling that bag without going over the weight allowance.

Wheels

Rolling backpacks are heavy. You will want to put them down and take advantage of their wheels as often as possible.

Using the rolling backpack as a wheeled suitcase leaves you at the mercy of easily broken plastic wheels and eliminates the benefit of carrying a backpack.

Once your wheeled backpack hits the streets, the wheels are likely to break. When they do, you'll be left carrying the bag exclusively as a backpack. But, because it has wheels, you'll be carrying an extra two to six pounds of now-useless plastic.

Rolling backpacks have the worst features of suitcases (delicate wheels and extra weight) and of backpacks (poor organization) and negate the best features of both.

Let's focus on the good features of each luggage type that should be combined into a high-quality backpack/suitcase combo.

The Best Features of Hiking Backpacks

We gave hiking backpacks harsh critique, but they aren’t all bad. Backpackers carry them for a reason.

Easy to Carry

Backpacks are easy to carry and convenient to pick up and go. If designed with adequate padding and a hip belt to distribute weight onto your hips and off of your shoulders, backpacks can be comfortable even when fully packed.

Unlike in the scenarios above, you will not have to worry about broken wheels. A backpack’s broken-wheel equivalent is a broken strap. Ripped straps are only a problem among the lowest-quality backpacks. If you buy from a reputable company with good reviews, you won't need to worry.

Accessible Pockets

Backpacks offer more exterior pockets than suitcases. While the insides may get jumbled in a typical top-loading backpack, the external pockets allow you to have important items within arm's reach.

Store your toiletries and passport in an external pocket so you can quickly remove them in the airport security line. Keep your map, guidebook, and water bottle within easy reach while walking from public transportation to your hotel.

A dedicated pocket for laptops or tablets will keep your electronics safe, allowing you to easily slide your laptop out at airport security.

While they're typically organized on the inside, most suitcases only have one external pocket. Hard shell cases don't have any, making them inconvenient for getting through airport security.

The Best Features of Suitcases

Despite the portability and agility benefits of backpacks, suitcases are still the most popular luggage choice. For good reason - they’re designed to function ideally for air travel.

Carry On Sized

Many suitcases are designed to be carry on luggage. Too many backpack companies ignore this concept and make giant bags, sometimes taller than the torso of the person wearing them.

Experienced travelers know never to check luggage. By using hand luggage, you avoid hefty baggage fees on roundtrip flights, ensure that the airlines can't lose your bags, and minimize your time at the airport.

Accessibility and Organization

Suitcases are far more accessible and organized than backpacks are, which means you can grab anything you need out of your bag without moving anything else.

Backpacks open at the top. Only the items at the top of your bag are easily accessible. To reach something farther down in your bag, you have to unpack everything above it, then repack it afterwards. This is unmanageable on planes and trains, and an annoyance in a hotel room.

The Ultimate Backpack / Suitcase Combo

Meet the travel backpack: a new type of luggage that packs like a suitcase, but carries like a backpack.

The best travel backpacks are carry on sized, organized, ergonomic, and durable.

Carry On Sized

Zip past everyone at baggage claim. Your travel backpack should qualify as a carry on so you can travel like a pro.

 

Organized

Travel backpacks should open from the front, like a suitcase, so that your stuff doesn’t become a jumbled mess every time you need to access something. With the right compartments, internal pockets, and external pockets, everything has a home.

Ergonomic

Look for thick, foam-padded straps and a suspension system built to distribute a bag’s weight. A good hip belt transfers 80% of the bag’s weight to your hips, taking the strain off your shoulders.

 

Durable

You shouldn’t have to replace your luggage every couple of years. Look for a backpack that’s built for a lifetime of travel.


The above lessons were learned the hard way and lead us to design the original Tortuga travel backpack after making terrible luggage choices on a trip to Eastern Europe in 2009.

Before the trip, we did extensive research, but couldn't find the perfect piece of luggage.

Obviously, suitcases couldn't handle the streets of Europe and were too bulky for a trip where we were constantly on the move.

The top-loading backpack our CEO brought couldn't be kept organized. His clothes were constantly wrinkled, not to mention the mess he made of the hostel every time he got dressed.

The Tortuga travel backpack is the result of those frustrations. A carry-on-sized backpack that's light and ergonomic, so you can carry it on your back, and packs like a suitcase for easy access and organization.

Learn more about how Tortuga travel backpacks combine the best elements of a backpack and a suitcase and compare travel backpacks to find the right choice for your trip.