Why You Don’t “Backpack” With a Wheelie Suitcase


Whenever someone asks on a message board or blog about what kind of backpack to buy, some contrarian always chimes in saying you should traveled with a wheeled suitcase instead.

They’ve obviously not spent much time in developing countries.

New game: find the pavement!

You see, most sidewalks in much of Asia and Latin America should not even have the “walk” part in them. Those bits of (sometimes) flat concrete beside the road are spaces meant to be filled. They’re places to park a car or motorbike. Or cook food to sell and eat. Or store boxes. Or run a business. Why keep them open for such a non-productive use as walking?

If they are open to pedestrians, as they sometimes are (especially beside a wide, French-built boulevard), a consistent lack of maintenance means what’s okay for careful feet is not okay for small spinner suitcase wheels. Said wheels will get swallowed, broken, and spit out in no time unless they’re the heavy-duty skateboard/Rollerblade kind.

I’ve been laughing my way across Southeast Asia the past few weeks, watching a few flashpackers sweat and toil with their hard shell spinner suitcases, trying to struggle down sidewalks and dirt paths. Often they end up having to carry it much of the time, the wheels made useless. These travelers seem continually perplexed by the surfaces they’re having to navigate and all the obstacles they are struggling to wheel around.

Then after struggling down the platform past vendors and exposed wires at the train station, where are they going to put that suitcase? It’s too large for the overhead storage compartment and the wrong shape. It’s too thick to fit under the berth in a sleeping car. So it becomes an awkward footstool.

Meanwhile, the backpackers stroll right past them on the street, the pack never being wider than the person carrying it and since it’s on their back, they can move around cooking stoves and motorbikes with ease. A sidewalk like this one in Hanoi is just another normal path.

Vietnam travel

When they get to the train, their bag fits fine, in the compartment or under the sleeper train berth. When they get to that $20 hotel where their room is on the 5th floor (just stayed in one of those), the bag goes right up the steps with them, no heaving or straining to carry it.

So okay, if you’ll be spending all of your time in rich countries where sidewalks are really for walking, go ahead and listen to those people telling you to use a suitcase. Or if your budget allows you to take taxis and VIP buses everywhere you’re going, with bellmen in uniforms greeting you at the hotel door. I love to travel with wheeled luggage when I’m in that situation.

Otherwise, if you’re going to have to carry your suitcase half the time because there’s no surface for wheeling it, just put it on your back instead and be mobile.

Related post: How to Be an Idiot Backpacker

  1. Gary Arndt

    I’ve spent plenty of time in developing countries and I have a bag with wheels.

    I’ve never had a problem, and given the camera gear I carry, a backpack isn’t an option.

    • tim

      That’s because you have freakishly muscular biceps Gary. (Plus you can hurdle motorbikes and pho carts with a single bound.)

      • Ambeli

        That is the line of the year for any backpacker. You can imagine at the end of the day your bag is so dirty with dust and footprints and you may never have it washed for fear that it may not dry. Back pack wins.

  2. Jeremy

    If you stay in nice places and take taxis everywhere, it isn’t an issue. But last time I took one of those backpacks with wheels and regretted it every time I wasn’t in an airport. The wheels were just extra weight and they dug into my back. Plus I met three people in three weeks who were looking for a place to get their wheels replaced. If you want to walk and avoid the need to take taxis everywhere, you need a bag for walking. In cheap countries anyway.

  3. Fred

    Good stuff, Tim. Couldn’t agree with you more. Putting your faith into a couple of cheap plastic wheels is way too risky.

  4. Rachel

    It always depend on wherever you’re going, and yes, using backpacks are most of the time more convenient than those with wheels, especially when you’re not staying for long. Those contrarians then haven’t been to crowdy places where every walkway isn’t for people to walk on.

  5. Surminga

    I travel with a wheelie suitcase when travelling for a short pleasure holiday but longer, travelling type holidays require a backpack with all items in it – also great for exercise and health.

  6. Elena

    It depends on the size of the suitcase too. Mine fit under the berth no problem in Vietnam and Thailand, but my friend’s hardshell Samsonite didn’t because it couldn’t smoosh down. She was constantly trying to find someone to help her because it was too damn heavy.

  7. Marie

    I agree completely, Tim. And yes, I oughta know. What I find interesting is how defensive people get when they are talking about an entirely different type of travel. Do I want a wheelie bag when I’m dragging my stuff around airports and taxis for work? Hell, yeah. Do I want a hybrid or wheelie in a country that has no sidewalks? No, thank you. Plus, in a situation that is going to involve a lot of lifting or long-term travel, I want the lightest-possible luggage.

  8. Zoe French

    Unfortunately, I’ve been one of those people with the giant, wheelie suitcase trying to (without sweating) make her way from the train station to the apartment without getting in people’s way, losing a wheel, or running over small children. Undeveloped country or not (I was in Italy), it’s better to bring smaller, less R2D2-type luggage. I definitely learned my lesson!

  9. Linda

    A friend I was traveling with in India thought it was a good idea to bring a rolling suitcase. There was always the smell of sh*t on her wheels that she couldn’t seem to get rid of. God knows what she trolled through on those sidewalks and dirt roads getting to our hotels.

    • tim

      Ugh. Quite an obstacle course trying to avoid that in India. Hard enough when you’re walking.

  10. Kellan

    If everyone used wheelie backpacks there would be no issue. Plus you look like a g

    • tim

      I’m not sure what a g is, but wheelie backpacks are heavier, hold less, and press wheels into your back. Other than that they’re great…

  11. Jeanie

    Great advice! Check out this last entry here on “what NOT to pack for an adventure travel trip.”


  12. Jenny

    So true! I’ve seen so many people struggling with these things in India and Nepal when I was traveling. They’re fine if you’ve got plenty of money and are not going to have to walk very far with one. I saw so many girls with heavy wheelie bags though killing themselves to get to where they were going. People with a backpack were just strolling past them.

  13. James Adisson

    Travelling with backpacks is the best option, when you’re travelling to a city with fully occupied roads and sidewalks!!!!!!!!!!!

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