Travel Notes: Do You Need A Backpack To Be A Backpacker?


Backpacking. Photo courtesy of lindyi.

Backpacking. We call traveling from city to city for a long period of time “backpacking” because we usually carry very few possessions with us in – wait for it – a backpack. But, what about the travelers who are doing the same exact thing, staying in hostels, eating street food, wearing the same clothes everyday and trying desperately to get off the beaten path, but with a suitcase? Are they not backpackers?

I remember my first solo backpacking trip. I was 21 and going to Europe. To my mother, I agonized over and over again about needing the perfect backpack.

“Wouldn’t a small rolling suitcase be easier to maneuver?” she asked, eying my tiny 5’2″ frame.

I scowled. “No, it must be a backpack.”

“But, why?”

To this question I never quite knew what to say. “Well, you know, because it’s called backpacking, not suitcase-ing.”

In reality, I actually did want to use a small suitcase. It wasn’t the amount of stuff I could take that was bothering me – after testing it out, the backpack fit way more than the small roll-on – but more the thought of actually having to carry a giant bag on my back in the hot European summer sun.

Once in Europe, I still agonized over my decision. Having the backpack did make me feel like I had a certain “backpacker status”; however, I wasn’t convinced it was actually more practical. It was annoying having to unpack all my things when I needed something from the bottom of my bag, and walking uphill with the pack on was extremely draining. Moreover, because it was summer I constantly felt overheated wearing it.

Now, after numerous backpacking trips around the world, I’ve learned a few things. For one, getting the right backpack can make or break a trip. For example, in Ireland I found a small hiking shop and tried on one of their smaller packs just for fun. Instantly, I was amazed at how much more comfortable it was than the one I had. I ended up buying it and ditching my old one, wasting a lot of money but gaining much happiness. Additionally, there are many features that vary from pack to pack. If you don’t want to unload your things every time you need something from the bottom, consider a front-loading pack instead of one that is top-loading. Moreover, a cooling system on the back of the pack can keep you from sweating, and multiple adjustable straps with padding can be helpful. I also think backpacks with many different pockets and compartments are helpful, as it can help you stay organized.

I’m still not sure where I stand on the “needing a backpack to be a backpacker issue,” and I’ve heard very mixed opinions on the subject. While a backpack is definitely easier to store while in a crowded hostel dorm and carry around when you’re in a hurry, I don’t think I would discount a person with the same travel style just for using a suitcase.

What are your thoughts on needing a backpack to be a backpacker?

This post was originally published by Jessie on Gadling.


  1. Backpacking makes it easier to carry things around and not having to worry about dragging it around and worrying about stairs or hiking and also you have your hands free. I think these are some reasons where backpacking is more popular among world travelers than suitcasing.

    1. @Rashmi: Agreed. I also like using a backpack because it’s easier to carry on your lap during long bus rides where you don’t want your luggage out of sight.

  2. I’m a light traveler, so I prefer backpacks to suitcases. That said, I have a little collection of bags, hehehe
    Most of them are from Tom Bihn (they’re top notch), but also Sea to Summit. 25L is enough for me to travel wherever I want and even have some spare space for souvenirs. I really enjoy the freedom a backpack gives. It’s been 7 years since I last used a suitcase, and don’t miss it.

    1. @Helder: It’s funny. My friends think I’m crazy for using a backpack. In the beginning I even thought I was crazy. But once you get used to it it really is such a convenient way to travel.

  3. I have a little rolling case that’s essentially a huge purse on wheels. I’m not the strongest person and I find backpacks just too heavy to carry around all day. I don’t know if I would ever be considered a “backpacker” in the first place, though.

    1. @Candice: You should try going to the store and having them fit you for one. My first backpack was SOOOOOO uncomfortable and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I tried on someone else’s pack for fun who was my size and it fit like a glove. Having the wrong size can really make or break whether you’ll like it or not. That being said, I sometimes use a tiny rolling suitcase if I’ll be in the same hotel for the duration of my trip or have a car at my disposal 🙂

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