The world is a big, beautiful place and we’re fortunate enough to live in a time when seeing large swaths of it is, at least historically speaking, pretty darn easy. Not long ago, a trip around the globe required walking, horses, trains, and a ship or two. Now you can make your way to the farthest corners of the planet with relative ease and comfort, thanks to the air travel industry.
Things aren’t always so simple and convenient. The sheer number of people moving through any given airport at any given time is staggering. And chaos is compounded the tiny tag-alongs that are carry-on luggage: causing collisions, traffic jams, smushed toes and the like.
If you, like us, would rather be a part of the solution than the problem, we’ve got a suggestion: ditch that roller bag in favor of a backpack and/or duffle bag.
Shoulder-hauled bags are not without their own downsides, of course. They can get heavy, depending on how you pack, and can be annoying to take on and off (or just drag around) in the security line. They’re not always a viable option for everyone, especially if you have back issues or other physical limitations. Furthermore, they require a bit more personal awareness. You don’t want to be the person that knocks everything off a shelf simply by turning around.
But their upsides are much more numerous. If you find your wheeled carry-on a bit wanting and you’re looking for an upgrade, we’re here to make the case that backpacks are far better for air travel than roller bags. Here’s why.
Why You Should Travel With a Backpack
Backpacks Are Easier to Stash
So you got through airport security, you’ve passed through your gate and now you’re boarding your plane. Congrats, you made it! There’s just one more thing to worry about: stashing your carry-on. With more fully-booked flights than ever before (thanks largely to frequent cancellations), overhead bin space is a pretty hot commodity. Sadly, hard-sided roller bags take up the majority of the room in the overheads and can leave some folks scrambling to find space, especially toward the end of boarding. Worse, once they’re full, you could be forced to check your carry-on bag, leaving you without access to your in-flight gear and potentially even resulting in your bag going missing in transit. However, if you have a backpack, you have a much better chance of squeezing it into a tighter space, like in the cracks between bags in the overheads or, even more conveniently, under the seat in front of you.
Backpacks Are Better for On-Foot Navigation
As mentioned, airports can be cramped even when they’re not overflowing with bodies. And these days, they’re extremely crowded more often than not — 2022 was the biggest travel year since before the pandemic, in fact. While a backpack might increase your own personal circumference, the fact that you’re wearing one on your person instead of dragging a bag several feet behind you means you’re taking up less space overall and you’re likely not impeding those around you quite as much, as a result. You also don’t have to worry about your bag being clipped by other inconsiderate travelers and you’ll never have to worry about a jammed wheel or handle.
Backpacks Leave Your Hands Free
It kind of goes without saying, but slinging a bag over your shoulders rather than dragging your literal baggage behind you liberates your mitts. That makes travel-related activities like grabbing coffee and a snack at the airport, flipping through magazines (like Gear Patrol!) at Hudson News and tracking airline updates/generally goofing around on your smartphone much easier.
Backpacks Are More Versatile
This advantage manifests itself in multiple ways. First, many backpacks are MOLLE-compatible, feature a daisy chain or otherwise offer attachment points that expand their carrying capacity — while keeping handy travel items such as an umbrella or water bottle in easy reach. Second, when you get to wherever you’re going, you can potentially use the backpack for errands and adventures. When was the last time you saw someone grocery shopping — let alone hiking — with a rolling carryon?
Backpacks Offer a Fitness Bonus
Whoop straps and the like have shown us how much bodywork we can do outside the gym, and toting a hefty but manageable backpack is no exception. While it’s not quite military-style rucking, it’s not all that different, and research has shown that activity can burn 2 to 3 times as many calories as simply walking, with cardio benefits similar to jogging. Considering frequent travel can cut into precious workout time, lugging a pack is a nice way to recoup some of the benefits on the go.
The Best Backpacks for Traveling Light
DB Hytta 50L Split Duffel
This innovative pack is just as cool now as it was when we included it in the 2021 GP100. The best features include a unique clamshell opening, a clever internal handle and two long daisy chains on the packs for attaching extra gear. The cushioned shoulder straps and back panel, along with an adjustable sternum, combine for a comfortable, balanced carry.
Thule Crossover 2
This professional-looking pack boasts plenty of smart features, including both shoulder and backpack straps that tuck away when not in use. A variety of internal and external pockets and sleeves make it easy to separate clothing, laptops, tablets, sunglasses, travel documents and other items when you need them. There’s also a pass-through strap for (sigh) rolling luggage.
Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Travel Pack
Designed specifically with travel in mind, this colorful, eye-catching bag has a lot of features not normally found in backpacks. For starters, it has a trio of suitcase-style handles on its top and sides, making it easy to store in and retrieve from under the seat in front of you or from the overhead bin. Furthermore, its interior boasts built-in storage compartments, so you can keep your clothes, toiletries and other gear just as organized as you might in a roller bag, plus there’s an externally-accessible, padded laptop/tablet sleeve. And lastly (but not least-ly), it has a water-resistant TPU-coated 1000D polyester front and an included rain cover to help keep it protected from inclement weather.
Peak Design Travel Backpack 45L
Since its debut back in 2018, Peak Design’s Travel Backpack has racked up accolades, including making Gear Patrol’s own OR Best in Show list. Now, in 2023, it’s still amongst the best travel backpacks around thanks to its tech-friendly padding and compartmental/dividable internal organization, spacious capacity, weatherproof exterior (and waterproof bottom), multiple convenient access points, sustainable construction and so much more. It’s on the larger side, to be sure, but if you travel with cameras, laptop computers, external hard drives and other sensitive/expensive tech, it’s a tough bag to beat.