Whether you’re galavanting around Australia or flying away to a far off land, you are going to need a way to haul all your belongings. Suitcase, hiking backpack or travel pack? What’s the best option to take with you when travelling? Find out below!
My last big travelling bender was during the late autumn of 2016. I ventured through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam for around three months. I did some amazing things and met some even better people. However, this all wouldn’t have been possible without bringing the right gear with me.
At that time I had a small 20L day pack, a larger 40L laptop bag, a huge duffle bag that carried all my sports equipment and a few suitcases of different sizes.
None of these were particularly suited to backpacking overseas for extended periods of time. So I began my search, browsing physical retailers, online shops and asking fellow travellers what they suggested. The travel pack, a fusion of suitcase and hiking pack, seemed to be the most recommended way of carrying all my gear.
In this guide, I will be discussing what to look for in a travel pack and why a suitcase or hiking pack may be unsuitable for your upcoming journey.
There is a lot of information coming up, so here is a quick list of questions to ask yourself about the travel pack you are considering to buy.
- Is it from a brand you trust?
- Is the pack within your budget?
- Is the pack laptop-compatible (if you plan to take one along)?
- Does the bag come with wheels and handles? Is it worth the extra weight?
- Can the zips be locked together?
- Are the straps adjustable? More importantly, is the pack comfortable? Are you confident you could wear this all day with ease?
- If taking your pack as carry-on, does it fit within airline carry-on size allowances?
- If going in as checked-baggage, can the straps be hidden in the shoulders and hip belt or inside the packs cover?
- Is the bag big enough for your intended trip? Is it worth going bigger if happen to extend it or plan to go on another longer trip soon after?
I’ll discuss these questions and the aspects to consider when buying a travel pack in further detail below, so read on!
What’s Wrong With a Suitcase?
A hard-shell suitcase like this one weighs more than you would expect.
There is a reason backpacking is called ‘backpacking’ and not ‘suitcasing’. Suitcases are great for business trips where you want all your freshly pressed shirts wrinkle-free, or have a fragile package that needs to be protected. If you are frequently moving around from destination to destination, a suitcase is a cumbersome piece of gear better left at home.
A few key reasons why you should overlook a suitcase are:
Hit and run thieves are easily able to rip your suitcase out of your hands, unlike a backpack that is strapped to your back.
They are harder to manoeuvre in tight and congested areas such as airport terminals, narrow hotel corridors, crowded streets and up or down steep hills.
An empty suitcase weighs far more than an empty hiking or travel pack – which reduces the amount of gear you can bring before you hit an airline’s weight allowance.
What About A Hiking Backpack?
Look at all those straps itching to get caught on doorknobs and other ‘sticky-outy-bits’
Not quite the right solution either, but a step in the right direction nonetheless. Hiking packs are primarily designed to carry all your camping gear when hitting the bush tracks or scaling mountain ranges. Although many backpackers opt to go with one, hiking packs still aren’t ideal for travelling.
Most hiking packs only allow you to access your gear through the top of your pack – which is troublesome if you need a particular item in a hurry.
Straps are great for adjusting to your body type, but tend to get caught on random door knobs, handles and branches.
Unless you plan on trekking for the majority of your holiday, such as tackling Everest's’ base camp, a hiking pack will be a pain to re-pack every time you head to a new destination.
A Travel Pack is the Way To Go
A nice big travel pack like this is exactly what you need
After reading all this, you may be wondering if there is even a clear answer to all this? Well, there is one for the 99% of people who backpack – the travel pack.
Travel packs are a type of backpack that combines the best parts of a hiking pack with the functionality of a suitcase. They can be zipped off around the front similarly to a suitcase, but feature a design akin to a hiking pack.
Mobility and Manoeuvrability
Much like a hiking pack, travel packs are primarily designed to be worn on your back. Most also feature a handle, allowing them to be carried like a suitcase. Some more luxurious models feature wheels and an extendable handle. This gives you the flexibility to whack them on your back when you’re in a tight corridor or wheel them behind you when strolling through the airport.
Opens like a suitcase, carried like a backpack.
By zipping up from the front of the rucksack, you don’t need to waste time rummaging around for that perfect pair of shoes. Everything is laid out in front of you like a suitcase. Most feature additional compartments to help sort your gear and an expanding gusset for cramming in that extra souvenir t-shirt.
Much like a hiking pack, travel packs feature all the straps you need to personalise your backpack. The difference being, the straps on this type of rucksack can be stowed inside the shoulder harness and hip belt. Alternatively, some travel backpacks feature a cocoon, similar to a waterproof cover, that wraps around the pack to keep all the straps together. This keeps your perfectly customised pack the same from when it is checked-in, to when it’s grabbed off the carousel.
Optional Day Pack
Some travel packs even come with a daypack that can be attached and detached from the front of the rucksack. This means that if you are staying in one place for a couple of nights but need to take a backpack on your adventures, you can leave the main rucksack at the hotel and just bring along the day pack. Being able to leave the daypack on the pack also means you don’t have to wear it on your chest or carry it as you travel. You can also use the daypack as carry-on luggage if you are using a large travel pack that needs to be checked-in at the airport.
Which Travel Pack to Buy?
Definitely would not like dragging a suitcase around rural Vietnam
Now we come to the hard part, choosing which travel pack to take with you on your adventures. If you have your heart set on taking a hiking pack instead, or you plan on doing a bit of trekking while away, head over to our guide about buying the right backpack.
Do your research
Before you buy, it’s best to do a little hunting around before you settle on a particular make or model. Check out some of our backpacks online to get a grasp on what’s out there and the different styles of travel packs. If you see something you like, head down to the retailer that stocks it to have a browse in person.
Not all travel packs are created equal. Brands such as BlackWolf, Osprey, Caribee and Deuter are known for their high-quality backpacks. The best way to judge a brand is by reading a few user reviews for their products. Avoid any ‘first look’ style reviews where people have reviewed the product without fully testing it. Instead, hunt down the rarer ‘long term’ review where someone has reviewed it after owning for a while longer, or better yet if they have travelled with it. This should give you a good idea on what brands to look for and which to avoid.
You get what you pay for
In terms of quality versus price, travel packs are like socks. Now hear me out before you think I’m crazy. If you buy a cheap pair of one dollar socks, you are guaranteed to get a few good weeks out of them before they develop holes. A more expensive ten dollar pair will last you far longer and will provide more comfort than a pair of the cheap socks. This applies to travel packs too. So spend that extra bit of money on a decent bag that will not only survive this trip but the many more that come after it.
Plan a loose budget around how much you are willing to spend. Be flexible in this, as the perfect travel pack may only be $50 more than you planned.
If you are a technology fiend like myself and can’t bare to be away from your computer, consider looking for a travel pack that has a dedicated laptop compartment. Make sure this compartment is well padded, especially if your laptop is being checked-in, as most baggage handlers work to a schedule rather than caring for your personal belongings.
Wheels and handles
Wheels and handles, much like on suitcases, are becoming increasingly popular in travel packs. That being said, added accessories like these do add to the overall weight of the rucksack. Anyone with prior back injuries or feels that carrying a 20kg or more pack is not doing wonders to their spine, should definitely consider a travel pack with wheels.
Zipped up, strapped up
Zips like these are designed to be locked together.
When trying on a few travel packs, bring along a travel lock to make sure you can lock together the zips on your pack. If the zips for whatever reason can’t get close enough to be locked together, either buy a bigger lock or look at a different bag. Sadly, no country is completely safe and opportunistic thieves lurk in places you would not expect. Locking your bag closed when unattended is the easiest way to deter them.
Another aspect when trying on your backpack is strapping yourself into it. The golden ratio for both hiking and travel packs is 30% on the shoulders and 70% on the hips. Bring some of the gear you plan on taking (like a sleeping bag and a fistful of clothes) to put in the pack you are testing. This will help show you how the weight is distributed. Adjust the straps accordingly to find the sweet spot. Try a few different ones on and choose the one you like best.
This problem can be broken into two different questions. Do you plan on transporting the travel bag in checked baggage or as carry-on luggage? And how long are you away for?
Most international carriers allow for a maximum of 30 to 35kg of total checked baggage weight for international economy flights, with a maximum of around 32kg per bag. Any bag weighing more than that will need to have the contents split with another until it weighs less. Carry-on baggage is drastically less than that, with most carriers only offering a maximum of 7kg per customer.
If you plan on travelling internationally, checked baggage is a normal part of your airline fare, so stowing any sized travel pack won’t be an issue. If you are flying domestic, there is likely a fee to bringing checked-baggage. If you don’t want to pay this or need to take your pack in the cabin with you, it must not only adhere to the weight requirement, but also the maximum size specified by the carrier. A 40L travel pack is around the maximum size you will be able to take as carry on for most flights. Be sure to check your airline's baggage allowances before you settle on a travel pack if you are flying within Australia. If needed, bring a tape measure with you to compare the size of the bag with airline size limitations.
This compartment allows you to hide your shoulder straps and hip belt while not being used.
Backpacking around Tasmania for a week compared to travelling Europe for three months requires two very different travel packs. Smaller trips (under a week) would only require a day pack no larger than 30 to 40L. Slightly longer trips (under three months) need something a bit bigger, maximum 60L, to hold more clothes, shoes and gear. If like me, are going on a huge trip spanning many countries for many months (over six) and plan on taking half your wardrobe, something over 70L should provide ample room for your gear and the mountains of souvenirs you will acquire.
That all being said, if you prefer to travel lighter, there is nothing stopping you from taking a smaller pack on long adventures – you may just run out of clean clothes before you get to a laundry. Taking a large travel pack is possible for shorter trips too. It may, however, be overkill for the handful of socks and undies coming with you.
As an example, I took a 55L travel pack with me on my three-month south-east Asia trip. Although room was getting a bit tight by the end with all my souvenirs, the 55L with 15L daypack was large enough to carry all my gear, which included a big DSLR camera and sleeping bag.
Other important aspects to consider include; whether the bag is waterproof, if it comes with a manufacturer warranty, if it uses an internal or external frame and if there is back ventilation. Be sure to check out a few reviews on the packs you are looking at before committing to a purchase.
Buying Online vs. Buying In-store
Most travel packs still have an opening at the top like a normal hiking pack
So you have found the perfect pack. It’s comfortable, it’s big enough to carry all your stuff and it’s even in your favourite colour! Before you commit to buying this travel pack then and there, have a browse online to see who else is stocking it. Many online stores such as Outdoria often sell the same product but without the markup of a typical retail store. This saves you money which can be spent on other gear for your trip.
That being said if you can’t hold in your excitement any longer and are willing to pay a bit more, grab that bag and begin researching what other things to take with you when travelling.
Whether you are planning your six-month European adventure or backpacking along the east coast of Australia, a travel pack is likely to be the best way to carry all your gear. Although you may see many similar models from different brands, each travel pack is different and it’s important to find the right one, perfect for you.
If you have recently been travelling and think we missed something in the article, leave us a comment below so we can keep our guide as up-to-date and informative as possible.