In the above photo (Budapest, 2015. Photo by Lyndsey Bohlender), I wore a packable backpack that could fit into my pocket and was water-repellent-ish, but it offered no structure. My camera got dinged and the pack kept swinging and hitting my thighs as I walked. Learn from my mistakes! (Scroll down for gear recommendations.)
When it comes to luggage, I’m pretty sure I’ve carried it all for long (1 week or more) trips:
- A 52-pound, 28-inch rolling suitcase I got from Ross that I lugged across Western Europe. The bottom caved out a few days in and I had to drag it instead of rolling it. It got so bad that I started crying in the Paris metro and a kind Parisian carried my suitcase up and down the stairs the rest of the way out of pity.
- A Herschel New America backpack that I tried to fit 5 weeks of supples in. I got so much back pain and ended up overpaying for a carry-on suitcase in a fit of desperation.
- My REI daypack which I love for hiking, but was horribly unfit for travel. It became so bulky I actually couldn’t stuff it underneath the airplane seat in front of me despite it being a small backpack.
- A “throw-everything-in” duffle bag (don’t do it!) that became a hot mess, and my wrinkled clothes showed it. I’m surprised not all of my toiletries spilled out over everything.
After a lot of trial and error, I think I got it. Here’s what you need, regardless of whether you want a backpack, suitcase, or duffle:
Your luggage is going to be thrown on the floor. You’re going to accidentally hit it against a wall. You’ll end up forced to check in a carry-on bag. You need to protect your stuff.
I used to be all for the backpacks you could pack down into a pocket. However, that means even if you have compartments, there’s nothing protecting your stuff from each other (think: your water bottle hitting your camera) and from outside (think: walking in a crowded street and other people’s bags hitting yours).
Without structure, your luggage is going to look like a blob. You’ll likely be uncomfortable carrying it, especially up and down stairs. In addition, you’ll find that it won’t fit perfectly into the places it needs to fit, like the carry-on size checker at boarding.
Lastly, you won’t look good carrying it. I didn’t think I cared about that, until I saw photos of me happy in beautiful places, and ended up photoshopping my blob of a backpack out of the photo because it made me look tired and unkempt.
Picture this: I’m checking into my hostel and they ask for my passport to complete the registration. My Herschel backpack, known for its clean lines and minimalistic design, is actually just one big satchel. I unsnap the flap, loosen the drawstring, reach in, and notice my document envelope has slid all the way down. I have to dump out all of my stuff, including my camera wrapped in a scarf, my packing cubes, my shoes, my Ziploc of toiletries. … Finally, I pull out the envelope and my passport is a little bent.
Save yourself from this! I am so over the trend of bags and luggage without pockets and zippers. They may be great as your school backpack or for work, but they’re not great when you have to carry everything you need, days and nights, on your back.
Get stuff with different pockets. Get stuff with a water bottle holder. Get stuff with zippers!
This doesn’t mean expensive, but it may mean the second- or third- cheapest thing over the cheapest. For much of the same reasons as the structure section above, you want good pieces of luggage. I’ve had to replace every cheap piece of luggage while on the trip because they begin to wear and literally tear.
I also care a lot about my back, shoulders, and arms, and I hope you do too! Having a breathable backpack where the straps don’t bite into your shoulders is worth the extra bucks. Having a suitcase that spins so it’s easy to control when rolling it over cobblestones or dirt roads is worth the extra bucks.
Have a smaller, easily packable second piece of luggage. You’ll end up buying things you didn’t plan for. I bought a lot of clothes during my first Eurotrip, and vowed to not do it again for my second. But I ended up accumulating food (to bring back for my family) and then all of a sudden, I needed a suitcase. Travel souvenirs are great and you shouldn’t deprive yourself of them; I still wear clothes I bought in 2012. And my family loved the treats! Also, sometimes you end up needing to separate your luggage. I bought a fragile basket I knew would get smushed in a suitcase, so I put it in a totebag and carried it; it was worth it to me because that basket is hella cute and unique.
Having a backup is also great for emergencies. Imagine this: you come back to your hostel after an exhausting day, and promise you’ll pack in the morning. But, you sleep in and have 20 minutes to get to the train station. Packing takes time; you are usually not able to fit the same things into the same suitcase if you just try to throw it all in. There have been many times I throw outfits and miscellaneous things into a big tote bag as I’m running to catch a bus or train. This isn’t a great situation to put yourself in, but it’s a realistic one.
You’ll notice I didn’t say size. That’s really up to you and what you need and want, especially for the length of your trip. I don’t recommend carrying something that can’t individually be a carry-on. However, I do recommend always having two things, such as daypack and a suitcase, or a backpacking bag and a crossbody tote.
Cloth vs. Plastic. I actually think cloth suitcases are more durable than plastic ones. Can you imagine cloth ripping if you sat on it? However, I love dirt roads and walking in the rain, so I learn toward the other. Currently, I have this Skyway 20-inch carry-on, in grey. (Click the image below to buy on Amazon.)
You can probably find many like it; I picked this one because it had everything I wanted for the cheaper price. It’s also called the Nimbus, so my Harry Potter heart was very much inclined toward it. What I like:
- Two large compartments, with one zippered to keep your delicates away from everything else.
- SUCH SMOOTH rolling. This may sound ridiculous, but this suitcase glides and spins so easily. I have wrist issues and don’t need to exert a lot of force to move it. I can push or pull it, also.
- A TSA lock, which I don’t use for TSA but for hostels and buses/trains. A lot of times, you have to leave your suitcase in the luggage compartment, or your hostel only has a small locker for valuables.
- It’s expandable. I filled it completely once, and was able to fit in what felt like 20% more stuff with the expandable zipper. It still fit in the airplane overhead compartment.
- It has some give. I had a really hard suitcase once, and it cracked when I had to check it in. The material feels a bit more shock-resistant.
- My heart won’t break if I lose it/it breaks. I intend to use this until I can’t, but for the price (<$75 usually, compared to $300+ carry-on suitcases), my wallet won't cry if I have to get a new one.
This would replace my suitcase because I’m usually able to fit everything in it. I prefer this when I know I’m going to be walking a lot with all my stuff; a backpack is much easier to manage when you need both hands to look at a map.
I have a great Granite Gear Escape A.C. 60 Pack that is no longer produced; it’s from 2010. However, I was able to find it a couple years ago on the Clymb, which has amazing deals on out-of-season or overstock outdoor gear. I got my backpack for almost half off. Expect to shell out $100+, even on sale, for a backpack.
Although I can’t personally vouch for it, the newest model of the backpack seems to be the Granite Gear Torso Blaze A.C. 60 Pack.
I did a lot of research before settling on this one. I recommend going to REI or Sports Basement and asking for an associate to help you find the right fit. Figure out what you need, and then try to find it for cheaper online.
Why I love my backpack:
- Fit. I’m a 5’1″ tall woman, and I find that most men, unisex, or even women-fit backpacks are too tall for me. If your backpack doesn’t fit right, it’ll rub and dig in the wrong places, and you’ll hate it. Although this is unisex, this backpack is made for short torsos (14-18 inches) and fit me perfectly.
- Breathability. I carried this in the Brazilian summer, where I would have sweated profusely even if I was in a swimsuit. There was always airflow around my back.
- Back support. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. Like how orthopedic liners are important for your feet, this has a curve for your back.
- Compression to off-load the weight. I don’t have that much endurance and I’m not the strongest, but I was able to carry over 30 pounds of stuff on my back for over 15 days and many times, it felt like I was carrying a regular daypack.
- Pockets, pockets, pockets! I could easily reach for maps, find my passport which was in a secure but accessible pocket, grab my water bottle, etc. without having to take my backpack off.
I have a DSLR and I’ve chipped it before when putting it in bags and backpacks not made for DSLRs. I had a Logitech backpack for a while, but it had TOO much structure; I wasn’t able to put a pair of shoes in it or stuff in clothes because it was too rigid (great for protecting camera gear, though).
When I stopped using a camera backpack, I usually wrapped my DSLR in a scarf and threw it into whatever I was using. Not great.
To be honest, if I were using a backpack as my main luggage, I would still put my camera in there with a scarf for padding. I find most bags for camera gear too bulky and ugly, and my Granite Gear bag offers a lot of structure and protection.
However, nowadays, I mostly travel with my suitcase. So, I shelled out for a Lo & Sons Claremont Camera bag, in grey. (Pro tip: Join the mailing list or buy around the holidays to get usually 20-30% off.) It’s not made for traveling through the rainforest, but it’s great for city travel. It fits into my suitcase when I’m not using it, and it’s an easy personal item to carry on a plane.
Why I love this bag:
- It’s intentionally made for DSLRs. There are lot of “vintage camera bag” purses out there but they only really fit point and shoots.
- It has actual padding, so it’ll protect.
- I was initially annoyed the divider was standalone (no velcro or anything to affix it), but now I prefer it because it offers more flexibility when my camera becomes a different size with different lens.
- A gel(?) outlining the camera bag, including the straps. It makes a horrible squeaking noise which I ended up lubricating to get rid of. However, this ensures your straps won’t fray. You know how beat up purse straps get at the joints over time? This helps delay it.
- Although the purse is bigger than I would like (well, my camera is big), it still fits into my suitcase.
I’ll be going to Europe in October this year, and will be carrying my suitcase, camera bag, and a weekender bag as my backup.