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Why I Traded My Backpack for Wheeled Luggage

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 will donate it to the local 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 a 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 product is the second, smaller pouch 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 that 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 motto 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 these words 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.

On my site for a backpack, not wheeled luggage? Make sure to read this review and see the benefits of getting a versatile one.

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 pros and con's to using wheeled luggage.


  • 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.


  • 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.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:


Sunday 12th of April 2015

Hi, we are midway through our intended year long trip. It was good to read this post as my husband injured his lower back recently - exacerbation of chronic problem - so now we are rethinking our bag choices as I can't carry two rucksacks! Great to hear you haven't let lower back pain stop you. I hope it s much improved now! We will be looking at wheeled backpacks for versatility.


Wednesday 15th of April 2015

Yes, my back is fine now but the experience reminded me that I need to be more conservative. No more 24 hour bus rides!


Saturday 29th of March 2014

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


Sunday 30th of March 2014

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!


Sunday 17th of February 2013

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!! :-)


Sunday 17th of February 2013

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.


Monday 10th of September 2012

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.

Lee Carter @ Global Goose

Sunday 9th of September 2012

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!


Sunday 9th of September 2012

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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