backpack travel

Tips + Trends

Why You Should Ditch Your Roller Bag for a Backpack

Maybe I should be embarrassed, but I’m not. Every time I pull up to the valet at a fancy hotel and pop the trunk, I fend off the porters with a polite refusal: “Thanks, I’ve got it.” Then I pull out my two backpacks.

My twin packs are, frankly, beat to hell, having been dragged around one too many international airports and more than a few back trails. But man, do I love them.

A long time ago, I revolted against the dictatorship of rolling luggage. I’m unclear as to how every traveler from the business elite to the weekend warrior decided that the roll-aboard would become the be-all, end-all tote for every trip further than the edge of town, but I heartily disagree.

These contraptions have made things more of a mess in airports, not less. (I picture flight attendants deliriously mumbling in their sleep: “Wheels in, please, wheels in.”)

As the herd of rolling pachyderms lumber along the narrow jetways, I panther through with my backpacks, shooting the gaps. I am fast and I am lithe and I move through airports with the greatest of ease. I forego escalators for stairs. I’m faster even than the rolling walkways, clogged by that maddening lot who insist on loitering (a pox on those standers!).

I never check my bags, even on small planes, and I calculate I save over 40 hours a year by sailing past the baggage claim and the zombies whose expectant faces fall, sadly, every time a bag comes out that is not theirs.

On international flights, I’m often the first person through customs, getting the “What flight are you on, anyhow?” from the official.

Yes, as you can tell, I’m more than a little pleased with myself. But you, too, can make the switch. It’s good exercise and a community service: For every bit of rolling luggage taken out of service, a big gap opens in the overhead.

Granted, you have to be somewhat in shape to join the backpack brigade.

The elderly should be allowed to take whatever roller they choose, and I’ll gladly hoist it for them. But all you CrossFit zealots and Yogis and former Navy SEALS: What is your deal?

backpack travel rollerbag on baggage claim belt

Admittedly, a backpack can feel overly juvenile. So forget the elementary school JanSport. And ditch the humongous internal-frame pack, unless your plans include summitting K2 or spending the summer in European youth hostels. Anything too big and clunky defeats the purpose.

Both of mine are day packs from Kelty.

The Redwing 50 swallows all of my wearables — you can unzip the main compartment all the way and load clothes into the front. The slightly smaller Arrowhead 2000 model is home to sundry electronics, books, cords and toiletries. That one loads in from the top, and keeps my laptop tucked safely inside. They both have various pockets and even places to stash cash or credit cards, and every piece of gear has its place, from socks in side pockets to a secret slot for my passport.

No, my stuff doesn’t get wrinkled.

Shoes go in the very bottom, and everything but dress shirts and jackets are carefully rolled. The shirts and jackets are buttoned and folded and placed in the bag with my laptop, where there’s more room to breathe. Steam from a hotel shower does the rest.

The clothes bag goes over my back and the electronics pack over my shoulder. (Whichever brand you go for, make sure they have handles, too — so you can actually carry them aboard by hand rather than walloping poor strangers in the face. Same goes with subways, trains and buses.)

As soon as my packs are in position, I’m in warrior-traveler mode. I don’t want to talk or tarry, I just want to move. Quickly. I’ve come to this place to experience the world outside, not wait around the airport.

The last great thing? Backpacks keep you from over-packing. There’s a sense of responsibility: Eat what you kill and carry your own weight. If I want to bring another pair of dress shoes (and I too often do), I will have to pay for them in my own sweat.

backpack travel travelers on tarmac with rollerbags

Go ahead, give it a shot. You’ll move faster; you’ll always find a spot in the overhead; and you’ll be entitled to feel just as smug and self-satisfied as I do.

Jason H. Harper is an auto writer and TV host. He’s written for Bloomberg News, Automobile Mag, yada yada. His mantra: Cars + Travel = A world view from the driver’s seat.

This story first appeared on as a part of Gone – smart, surprising and compulsively readable travel stories, launched in partnership with the Marriott portfolio of brands.

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