Why I Traded My Backpack for Wheeled Luggage

by Dave on August 23, 2012 · 41 comments

Gregory Chaos backpack

Gregory Chaos backpack

It is with a heavy heart that I type this post. After 14 years, and 40 countries, I’ve given away my trusty Gregory Chaos backpack.

This was the first one, and the only one, I bought as I began traveling the world on my own.

It has been beaten up, kicked across countless bus station and airport floors, thrown atop buses, and tossed in and out of many a boat. Yes, it’s a bit dirty, but still fully functional. I have no doubt it’ll last longer on this Earth than me.

But I donated it to a hostel before leaving Lima, which in turn, will donate it to the local poor community.

Why did the guy who has been blogging about backpacking for six years give it away?

Lower back pain.

It struck a few days after I arrived in Lima, following an arduous 26-hour bus ride from La Paz, Bolivia. It started out as mild discomfort, but when it didn’t go away after a few weeks, I went to see a doctor.

He ordered X-rays, and proceeded to point out the areas where the bones in my lower back didn’t quite come together like normal.

It’s a variation I was born with, and will have to live with for the rest of my life. It’s neither serious, nor is there anything that can be done to fix the underlying problem, which makes me prone to bouts of lower back pain.

Instead of surgery or drugs, I need to focus on:

  • Improving my posture.
  • Strengthening and stretching the right muscles.
  • Reducing the amount of time I spend sitting at any one time.
  • Taking a protective approach toward lifting and carrying heavy things.
The North Face Overhead

The North Face Overhead

As much as I wanted to switch to a daypack and travel super light, ANY weight on my shoulders was aggravating my lower back pain.

So I switched to the dark side, and bought the Overhead by The North Face. It was more expensive than the other options I found, but it appears to be sturdy and durable, and is a bit more stylish too.

You’ll notice it is the same colors as my backpack, red and black.

The North Face Overhead

I wanted luggage that could be used as carry-on, though for the time being, I will still prefer to check this bag than roll it all over the airport

There’s less space in the Overhead than my backpack, so this change still forces me to get rid of some clothes I’ve been toting around South America for the last year.

One of the things I like about this bag is the second, smaller area where I can slip my 13″ Macbook Air laptop if I want to take the bag as carry-on luggage. I prefer to have the option, even if I don’t use it all the time.

Never Stop Exploring

The handle features The North Face Logo, “Never Stop Exploring” which is a nice reminder to have as I travel the world

The rubber handle offers a good grip, and there’s a red plastic button on the side which allows you to extend and compress the handle. It works very smoothly, for now at least.

It might seem like a small detail, but the inclusion of The North Face logo on the handle won big points with me. If I can’t be toting around a well-worn backpack to broadcast my adventures, at least this logo will help instead.

Unless The North Face has become so utterly commercial by this point that it means diddly-squat. Either way, it makes me happy.

North Face Overhead

The handle extends to a comfortable height, and there’s also a midway position

After taking it on a test run, from Lima to Medellin, I noticed several pro’s and con’s to using wheeled luggage.

Pro’s

  • Less stress on shoulders, neck, and back in most travel circumstances.
  • Feel like a grown-up.
  • Looks more professional.
  • Easier to find stuff, pack, and unpack.

Con’s

  • You can’t move as quickly and easily as you can with a backpack. For example, it’s harder to bypass pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk.
  • Rolling the luggage on a smooth airport floor is nice, but it can be a bumpy affair on rough and cracked sidewalks.
  • You still have to lift it up and put it in cabs, or overhead luggage bins, so it’s not a complete savior for my lower back.
  • You can’t easily walk down a beach, or through a forest or jungle trail. You’d have to carry it, which would be way more stressful than using a backpack.
  • The main compartment’s zippers do not curve around to the bottom of the bag, which means you can’t fully flip the cover 180 degrees. It makes packing and unpacking the bag a little more cumbersome than it needs to be.

As you can tell, it’s still a toss-up for me in terms of which is better. But, until my back is pain-free again, and possibly from here on out, I don’t have a choice. If I’m going to keep traveling, I want it to be pain-free.

Do you prefer to carry a backpack, or used wheeled luggage?

About the Author:

is the author of 1720 posts on Go Backpacking.

Dave is Editor and Founder of Go Backpacking and Medellin Living, and the Co-founder of Travel Blog Success. Follow him on Twitter @rtwdave or Google+

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41 Comments

Gary Arndt August 23, 2012 at 8:30 am

I did the same thing 2 years ago. I found there were few places I went where I really needed to carry something on my back. Almost all my travel was in vehicles and I was really carrying things between vehicles. The occasional times where I do have to walk, i’m usually doing it on a paved surface.

I know just carry my camera bag on my back and have a duffel bag with wheels.

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Steve August 23, 2012 at 10:43 am

I own both and only take the backpack on more adventurous trips especially when I know that I will need to be walking with my stuff. The wheeled luggage is great in the industrial word but a major pain in less developed areas.

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Dave August 23, 2012 at 11:50 am

Hey Steve, I was thinking about doing the same — choosing my luggage based on the destination or region I’m visiting.

I’ll be in Europe for the rest of the year, so I’m sure the wheeled luggage will be fine.

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icha August 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm

interesting article. Btw, I also go backpacking using wheeled luggage. As you wrote, there are pros and cons but I still prefer the wheeled one to the backpack

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The Runaway Guide August 23, 2012 at 12:08 pm

David! How could you!? It’s almost like a sin for a backpacker to go wheels. I hear ya though, I have the same lower back pain. I’m afraid that this might happen to me in a few years. This past year, I traveled with a cvs bought lawn chair rigged to my pack. It was really painful to carry, but getting to lay back in a recliner anywhere made up for it.

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Dave August 23, 2012 at 3:06 pm

I know, I can’t believe it either! The thing is I don’t think the backpack is the problem, I think it’s my sedentary lifestyle.

Despite all the traveling, I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer writing, and working on the websites.

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Jeff Broman August 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I use a combination of wheeled and backpack depending on the trip. For trips within the U.S. I almost always use my trusty Travel Pro wheeled bag. When I am traveling internationally I always use a backpack.

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Anthony August 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Hey David,

Good on you for sorting out your pain before it gets any worse. I’ve been travelling for 3 months with hand-luggage only and exploring all avenues. What size (in litres) is the smaller one, mate?

May be worth a bash!

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Dave August 23, 2012 at 3:08 pm

The North Face? It’s 35 liters.

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Carlo Cretaro August 23, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I slipped a disc in my back last summer in Asia which forced me to return home so I’ll probably have to look into the wheeled luggage option for long term travelling from here on in. End of the day you gotta look after your health.

Good for you though for making the tough decision.

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Fred Perrotta August 23, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Bummer to have lost you to the dark side.

A few tips for anyone carrying a backpack regularly: (1) Use the waist belt. Yeah, it looks lame, but it really does take a lot of the weight from your shoulders/back to your hips. (2) Pack your heaviest stuff in the middle (vertically) of your bag and as close to your back as possible. Medium-weight stuff up top and lightweight stuff at the bottom. Sounds weird, but it’s the most ergonomic way to do it.

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Dave August 24, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Good tips Fred.

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Lissie August 23, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Fred has it right – I’m a lot older than you, and my partner, who is 60 carries a pack just fine, and he has a bad back in real life! However we don’t have wheeled packs – they are heavy and they throw the balance. I’ve packed a pack as Fred describes for 30 years – and it obviously works because all that happens after we travel is that we have much better arm and leg muscles. The weight should be down the back of your legs – if they hurt after walking with a pack- you are doing it right.

I have to use a rolling suitcase when I am doing competitive dance – and I can end up with a sore back inside a couple of days – because you twist to pull it along.

It bemuses me that people say they don’t walk with their packs – I do so all the time – I particularly in Europe we walked for miles, in snow with packs on, and neither of us had problems.

Maybe it’s because we only carry about 7-8kg weight (including a netbook and big camera).

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Lissie August 23, 2012 at 4:19 pm

And yeah there shouldn’t be any weight on your shoulders if your pack is packed and carried properly – it’s all about the waistbelt

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Fred Perrotta August 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Thanks, Lissie. You’re doing it right! Sounds like you’ve got it just about figured out.

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Carlo Cretaro August 23, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Curious to know if any of ye travel with a day bag as well as backpack? Like keeping your laptop and camera gear in day bag and all your clothes etc in backpack?

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Fred Perrotta August 23, 2012 at 6:37 pm

I haven’t recently but want to add one for carrying a camera (day-to-day) and carrying my computer when I’m working from somewhere other than where I’m staying. Ideally it would fit inside my full size bag or be small enough to use as a “personal item” and tuck away under the seat.

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Jeff Broman August 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm

I always have a day bag in addition to my backpack or suitcase.

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Dave August 24, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Yes, I would do the turtle look — carrying my main bag on my back, and my daypack with laptop and stuff in the front. Think I’m getting too old for that look :)

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mike August 24, 2012 at 1:17 am

Dave, I’m a golfer and have used a pull cart to carry my clubs. Found out that even doing that is not good for the back. Now what’s popular is using a golf cart that I push instead of pull.

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Franca August 24, 2012 at 6:04 am

Oh noooo! What a shame to get rid of your ‘travel fellow’ after so long!
Anyway it was strictly necessary to do so, I’m sure it will find a new owner that will love it as much as you did! :)
Have I been too dramatic?

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Anita Mac August 24, 2012 at 8:28 am

Sorry to hear that Dave! It is a sad day, but at least your trusted bag went to a good cause! I am still carrying mine – a wheelie just won’t cut it on the Camino Trail, which is my next big adventure, but after watching the Europeans cart their wheelie bags over cobbles and through the streets of town, I have to wonder – will I go the same route? Keep my bag for treks and hikes in the mountains, but the robust wheels on some of those bags just makes me think I can do anything with them!
Keep up those back exercises – you only get the one back! Happy travels.

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Dave August 24, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Thanks Anita, one way or another, I’m gonna keep on truckin’

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Jeff Broman August 24, 2012 at 5:36 pm

You need some kind of off-road wheeled luggage for cobblestones and rough pavement. Something with big wheel. @Fred This could be your next product.

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Fred Perrotta August 24, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Feels risky, designing something for a hostile environment (wheels on rough terrain).

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Andrew August 26, 2012 at 9:06 am

Sorry to read about your back. :(

How do you find the difference in weight and capacity? I would imagine the wheeled luggage must have significantly added more weight and lessened capacity compared to your backpack. I have been hoping to find an ultra lightweight carry on wheeled luggage that is no more than than 3 kg, and ideally closer to 2. But I don’t think that will ever be a reality considering the mechanics.

Currently, I use this: http://www.ebags.com/product/ebags/mother-lode-tls-weekender-convertible/143101?productid=1370034&rlid=DETAIL
It is 1.79 kg in itself – particularly useful for those airlines with 10 kg limit – with a whopping 54 litre capacity and is standard carry on size. Plus, it has a separate padded compartment for a laptop or iPad. The best of all worlds except for wheeling, which can be helpful sometimes when you tire of carrying it on your back.

If you ever find an ultra light wheeled luggage with optimal capacity, I would love to know! I have been looking but I hate to sacrifice 1.79 kg and 54 litres. :) I’m not a backpacker – more of an urban traveler who does not like sharing rooms with strangers lol – so I prefer something stylistically more like a piece of carry on luggage.

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Jodi August 28, 2012 at 9:08 am

I use both as well, but primarily the backpack for trips through Southeast Asia or South America, and the suitcase for the times where I know there will be business meetings and I need nicer clothes with me. I DO prefer the backpack though – I like to have my hands free on public transportation, both to hold on to something and to have the flexibility of movement if I need it. As Andrew said, the frames are quite heavy as well, which is difficult when you are flying on budget airlines and have a 15kg luggage requirement.

Either way, you made the right choice for your back, and your bag looks stylin’!

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Dave August 28, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Thanks Jodi. I think the wheeled luggage will work fine for me the rest of the year since I’ll mostly be in Europe.

If my back is fine after that, I’ll probably buy a new backpack and see how it goes.

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Michael August 30, 2012 at 10:40 pm

gowheeledluggage.com taken yet? ;)

Steph and I have been using wheeled luggage a lot more often lately as well. I don’t know why but on shorter trips, I tend to bring the luggage but on much longer trips, I’m bringing the backpack. I’ve been traveling with a lot more lately and definitely slowed down a lot more so carrying around luggage isn’t a bad idea. If I know I’ll be moving around a lot, then backpack for sure.

I got a new backpack and hope that takes away some of the back pain the other backpack gave me sometimes.

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Dave August 31, 2012 at 4:04 pm

I refuse to buy that domain on principle alone!

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cailin September 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm

I’ve never owned a travelers backpack! I’ve always done the wheeled suitcase thing :)

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Kevin Post September 3, 2012 at 12:14 am

I couldn’t imagine using wheeled luggage for most of my endeavors because it would be nearly impossible for all the trekking, mountaineering and climbing trips I take. Dave, have you thought about just trying a lighter better fitting pack? The technology has improved significantly in the outdoor industry the past 10 years and maybe there is a better and much lighter fitting pack for you. To paraphrase Fred, you need a bag that rests nicely on the iliac crest and it is recommended to pack your heaviest items closest to your back on top of your iliac crest (and put your sleeping bag on the bottom to avoid any of your heavier items going below your iliac crest).

Come by to Orlando and I’ll fit you a kickass bag you’ll never want to give away :)

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Sally Stretton September 4, 2012 at 12:41 am

Sorry about the retirement of your trusty old backpack! I too feel your pain. Backpain is no joke and can take you out and have you laid out for days! Its going to be a good thing for you in the long run becuase you will be able to continue your travels in less pain and discomfort, New blog site name suggestion…”Go Packing on Wheels” lol :)

Sally Stretton

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Dave September 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Lol, thanks Sally. Slowly but surely I’m starting to feel better :)

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Lee Carter @ Global Goose September 9, 2012 at 3:16 am

I use wheeled at the moment in South East Asia and it is a pain, I keep offering to trade with my girlfriends backpack but shes is too wise. The bumpy streets you mention are a problem the biggest challenge I find is steps. You arrive at your hostel and you are on the 4th floor with no elevator.

I’m planning on buying one of the hybrids (wheels on a backpack, ideally with daypack) have only seen one which looked big enough and good enough, It was in Bangkok and I am still kicking myself for not buying it!

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Dave September 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm

My first (and only) hostel in Iceland put me in a dorm room on the 4th floor! Minus one for wheeled luggage!

Careful about the hybrids. I often seen people wearing them and due to the design, it may not distribute weight very well.

I will probably buy a small backpack at the end of the year, and use one or the other, versus a hybrid.

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alex September 10, 2012 at 1:29 am

Backpack or wheeled carry-on really depends on where I am going. If I know I am going to be staying in a city, carry-on is the more convenient option. As you can just drag it behind you it’s less of a burden than a backpack, plus it keeps my clothes relatively crease-free. Anywhere off the beaten path a backpack is the way to go though. If you ever see a tourist drag a wheeled bag over a dusty sand road you know there are times when a wheeled bag isn’t very convenient. And if you are anywhere with a rainy season a backpack will keep your belongings off the wet streets. Like I said, there are pros and cons to both types of luggage. It really depends on where you are going.

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Claire February 17, 2013 at 4:10 am

Hi Dave, sorry to hear about the back, I am a postie and get a bit of trouble myself, so I’m all for helping out the lumbar region! Well I was to-ing and fro-ing over the wheeled back pack or not, and have decided to go for a hybrid wheeled one for my trip to South America next year. It seems that a lot of the hybrid packs have no hip belt, which of course when you do have to carry it, is absolutely no good for the back, especially if you’re carrying a lot of stuff! The only one I found that appears to have a good backpack system and frame, including a decent hip belt, is the Osprey Sojourn/Meridian series. I am opting for the Sojourn 60 litres, hoping to have made the right decision!
For me I’m thinking I should be able to wheel it a lot of places, saving the back, but then when necessary use the pack and hit the cobbles in the traditional way!

Although I am slightly concerned that I will be looked upon differently by the die hard ‘no wheels’ crew!! :-)

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Dave February 17, 2013 at 2:01 pm

I would avoid the hybrid backpacks, because they’re trying to be everything, instead of either being an excellent backpack or an excellent wheeled luggage.

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Uktraveller March 29, 2014 at 12:24 am

What would be your suggestion for travelling in uk? Wheeled luggage or backpack?

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Dave March 30, 2014 at 10:55 am

I never wrote a follow-up, but I ended up finding the wheeled luggage a pain in the butt to travel with, even in Europe. I’ve returned to using a backpack…. and an even smaller one than I use to carry!

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