Travel Backpack VS Suitcase: The Pros and Cons of Each

Let the adventure begin!

When it comes to choosing the right luggage for your travels, there are many options available – but suitcases and backpacks seem to be the most popular choices. 

Suitcases offer quite a bit of storage space and are easy to maneuver, while backpacks offer a hands-free, lightweight option for more rugged terrain. 

Both types of luggage have advantages and disadvantages. You should read all of the pros and cons listed below before making a decision. 

If you are specifically looking for help choosing the right type of luggage for your needs, then I definitely recommend that you read the full article describing whether you should choose a suitcase or a rucksack.

Being hands-free is a huge plus!

The Backpack Pros:

Allows You To Be Hands Free – Let’s face it, when we are traveling, we need to use our hands a lot. Sometimes we need to climb up into a bus carrying our bag, other times we need to type messages into our phone while we are eating. Having both hands available at the same time is quite convenient.

Easy Mobility – Backpacks and rucksacks are attached to your back 99% of the time. Getting around is often easier because there is not a large suitcase being pulled behind me and bumping into everything. Rucksacks and backpacks make it easier to interact with local people.

Good Durability – Generally, nice backpacks are made with good materials. They are designed to be rugged and be thrown around and bumped into things frequently. As long as you don’t buy a super cheap backpack, chances are your backpack will be quite durable.

Lots of Storage – There are a lot of zippers, pouches, and hidden compartments in those backpacks. You can usually find a place to put your items inside rather easily.

Many Styles to Choose From – There are so many different sizes, colors, and patterns to choose from. There’s usually a style to fit anyone’s unique look. Not sure which one to choose? Be sure read how to choose the correct rucksack.

You’ll Get Stronger – Looking for an easy way to get fit? Use a backpack or a rucksack and fill it with all of your items. My entire life fits inside a bag, and I have been carrying that bag for many years. In the beginning, it was very heavy. Now, I don’t even flinch when I pick it up.

Do you have a sense of adventure?

Sense of Adventure – Backpacks and rucksacks are generally associated with adventure traveling. When I walk around a country and see other travelers, I can almost immediately those who are also travelers just like myself. Most adventure travelers carry rucksacks. Most of the time when I see a traveler pulling a suitcase with wheels, they are often only interested in staying in nice hotels, going to nice restaurants, and rarely go out of their hotel gate.

Security – Generally, backpacks are not secure. Imagine you are walking with a full bag, would you notice if someone was beside you unzipping one of the many zippers and removing something from your bag? Probably not. You can certainly buy extra blocks or a large wire mesh to go around your bag if you are extremely concerned. My defense has always been to keep my eyes on that bag at all times. Trust no one.

Minimalist Lifestyle – Backpacks and rucksacks are definitely associated with being a minimalist. I am one of those people. Since June of 2016, I have been living out of a large rucksack and a small carry-on. Literally everything that I own fits inside both of them. I don’t want material items, I just want memories! But that’s a personal choice, I suppose.

Light Weight – Without anything inside, backpacks are generally lightweight. There is not a lot of heavy or hard plastic to protect your belongings inside. It’s usually thin, but lightweight and durable material which the bag is made from.

Harder for Thieves to Take – Thieves are definitely not common, but it is possible that you are unfortunate to bump into one. The good news is if they want to steal your bag, it will be rather difficult because it is attached to your body. It’s not very often that we put the bag down. Be sure to read these important tips for staying safe while traveling the world.

No matter where you go, you must bring your backpack(s). I carry two. This is the small one.

The Backpack Cons:

Must Carry it Everywhere – Probably the biggest con of choosing a backpack versus a suitcase, is that you must carry the bag everywhere that you go. Literally everywhere. The more you bring, the more you will need to carry. I highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the essential travel gear so you don’t overpack and regret it.

Can Strain Your Back – Luckily, I have never strained my back, or anything to that degree. But I have stepped on some uneven terrain a couple times and nearly fell to the ground. If the weight shifts and you are not ready for it, you definitely may be pulled to the ground. I’m sure there are many people who have pulled the muscle by carrying heavy rucksacks.

Harder to Pack and Unpack – Most bags have one opening at the top. You need to put your items in one at a time. If you need something at the bottom of your bag, you need to remove everything first to gain access to the items on the bottom. This is obviously annoying and time intensive. 

If you buy a rucksack, make sure you got the one that also opens on the side, not just from the top. It is very helpful!

Be sure to read through these helpful packing tips to help simplify your travel experience.

Difficulty Accessing a Specific Item – As mentioned above, even if you buy a rucksack with a side zipper, it is still not as convenient as a suitcase. It doesn’t matter where my item is inside my bag, it is usually a pain to get to it.

Having a zipper on the top, and the side, allows easier access to your belongings.

Weight Distribution – To distribute the weight properly and to feel the most comfortable, it is usually best to put the heaviest items in the center of your bag. But if you think you will damage the lighter items underneath, then I definitely recommend sacrificing the comfort of proper weight distribution, for the safety of your valuables.

Not For Business Environments – If you show up at a hotel wearing a suit and tie and meet your colleagues while carrying a rucksack or a backpack, they will probably mock you behind your back. Backpacks do not go well with business meetings.

Wrinkly Clothing – Jamming clothing into a rucksack definitely contributes to forming wrinkles in your clothing. This is something that I have had to deal with for many years. Rolling your clothes can help reduce wrinkles, as well as using packing cubes.

Usually Not Waterproof – Backpacks are generally not waterproof. Some of them do claim to be water resistant but I certainly didn’t want to test my bags with my expensive electronics inside. I usually have a bag cover for added protection. But sometimes when caught in the rain, and using the cover, the bag underneath is quite moist. I carry a very large trash bag inside each bag just in case of downpour emergencies.

Necessary Repairs Are More Common – I don’t want to lead you to think that backpacks need to be repaired often, but I think they do need to be repaired more than a suitcase. Rucksacks are designed to be exposed to rugged conditions. But sometimes, things get a bit too rugged. When that happens, you will need to go to a nearby tailor and ask them to do a bit of repairing.

Not Designed for Electronics – The material on the outside of a bag is not designed to protect your expensive electronics on the inside. They do not have hard walls or shells. It is usually made of soft but durable material. Any heavy blow to your bag may damage your expensive equipment on the inside. Be careful. I usually try to put expensive items in the center of the bag, which is surrounded by other soft items, such as clothing.

Balancing Difficulty – In addition to weight distribution, you must carry this very heavy bag sometimes kilometers at a time. As mentioned above, losing your balance can happen every once in a while. I have never officially fallen, but I have come close. After many kilometers, you will most likely improve your balance.

You May Bump Into People – This has definitely happened a few times. And I did not see someone, or I turned too quickly and my bag bumped into a random person. Oops. Sometimes these bags extend out from your back a little bit further than you think.

Try not to bump into people, or expensive items, while at a museum.

Will Make You Sweat – Get ready to sweat! It doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold outside, if you walk more than a kilometer, you will start to sweat. It’s quite common to see a large puddle of water on your back after you take off your bag.

Destroy Your Shirt and Coat – The more kilometers you walk while carrying a bag, with the same shirt or coat, the more your shirt will start to deteriorate. The friction between the shoulder straps and your clothing will slowly cause the shirt material to break down.

Expensive – To be honest, a nice bag or rucksack is not cheap. The first bag that I bought was $80 and I thought it was a good deal. I used it for many years. It wasn’t until I bought a nicer bag that I realized how deprived I really was. Please spend the extra money to get a nicer bag with extra cushion and support. You will thank me later.

Suitcases are made for wide open spaces on even ground.

The Wheeled Suitcase Pros:

Easy to Maneuver – In some situations, suitcases being pulled on Wheels is super convenient, and in other situations, it’s a bit bulky and awkward. But most of the time, if you are traveling in open spaces with a hard smooth surface beneath you, the suitcase has no problems maneuvering.

Lightweight – The suitcases are usually a bit heavier than a large rucksack, they are not too much heavier. The key is to not overpack simply because the bag has wheels. If you do in fact overpack, you will regret it later.

Durable – There are definitely different classes of suitcases. But there are some that are incredibly durable. I have seen people hit suitcases with a hammer and it hardly does anything to the outside of the suitcase. Impressive! If you have expensive items inside, you definitely want a durable suitcase!

Automatic Wheels – Some suitcases these days not only have wheels, but they have a battery pack and an engine! Some of these suitcases will even follow you like a lost puppy automatically without your hand even touching it! This is convenient on a whole new level!

Large Capacity – Because there is no need to carry a suitcase, some suitcases are incredibly large. You can fit a lot of extra items inside. But remember, just because you have a lot of capacity, doesn’t mean that you need to use it. Everything that you bring, you must constantly pull it behind you.

There’s more space in a suitcase for your extra pair of swim shorts.

Easy Organization and Access – Suitcases usually have one big flap that you unzip and the top simply opens. It is easy to pack and organize everything. You can find anything in your suitcase almost instantly, when you need it. You do not need to remove everything first, like a rucksack..

Security – Each suitcase comes with its own level of security. Some simply have an area to put a lock on the zipper and other suitcases have a combination lock built into it like a briefcase.

Many Styles To Choose From – There appears to be endless styles, materials, and patterns, and colors that you can choose from. Choose any style that fits your personality!

Reduce Physical Strain – Would you rather carry 20 kg on your back all day long, or pull it behind you on wheels? I would definitely prefer pulling it on wheels. But unfortunately, due to the way that I travel and the locations that I enjoy visiting, suitcases do not fit my needs. Wheels on a suitcase definitely helps reduce strain on your back.

Suitable for a Business Setting – Showing up to a business meeting pulling a suitcase behind you is much more professional than carrying a backpack.

Don’t Need to Carry It – This is probably the biggest benefit of purchasing a suitcase. If you have a suitcase with wheels, you will not need to carry it on your back like a rucksack. 

Protects Items Inside – Suitcases often have hard plastic surrounding the entire case, or at least in the important areas such as the corners. This helps to protect any expensive items inside.

No Clothing Wrinkles – Another large benefit to using a suitcase is the fact that your clothes usually remain wrinkle free. Usually if you lay your clothes flat, and on top of each other, and then put heavier items on top, the pressure on the shirts helps to keep the shirt wrinkle free. This is definitely not the case with backpacks.

No wrinkly clothing when going to the buffet.

The Wheeled Suitcase Cons:

Problems on Uneven Terrain – Probably the single biggest con of a suitcase is that it cannot be pulled on uneven terrain. Have you ever tried to pull a suitcase through the grass or a forest? Almost impossible. Not to mention all of the dirt getting inside the wheels which would cause many other problems. Wheeled suitcases are only good on even terrain.

Bulky – Suitcases are definitely a bit bulky when handling them. Have you ever tried to lift a heavy suitcase up to put it in the back of a van, a train, or somewhere above your head? Not fun. Remember, the bigger your suitcase, the harder it will be to maneuver it into desired places.

Wheel Oiling Maintenance – Keep your wheels clean! Remember if water or dirt gets inside your wheels, it may start the rusting process. And if you have a set of electronic wheels, they may become damaged. Always check your owner’s manual to make sure you keep up with the proper maintenance.

Not Waterproof – Just like backpacks, most suitcases are not waterproof. Many have water resistant materials on the outside, but if you drop the whole bag in water, there’s a pretty good chance that your items inside will eventually come in contact with water. It’s always wise to keep some type of extra cover for your suitcase just in case of a rain emergency.

Can’t Carry Easily – Think about the couple of times where you need to walk from your vehicle to the tent. It’s full of grass or dirt. You are unable to pull the bag using your wheels. You must carry it. Most people waddle like a penguin when carrying a heavy suitcase. 

When the ground is uneven, and you can’t pull your suitcase, you will need to carry it.

Easier For Thieves to Take – Not that many thieves come up to you and steal your suitcase from your hand while you’re pulling it, but if they wanted to, they certainly could. It would be easier to take it from you than it would be to take a backpack. A backpack is strapped to your back. A suitcase is being pulled by your fingertips.

Expensive – Just like a good backpack or rucksack, suitcases aren’t cheap either. To get a nice suitcase, you’re going to drop quite a bit of money. There are many brands and styles, so make sure you do your homework before purchasing the first thing that you see.

Choosing a Backpack or a Suitcase

In general, you should compare and contrast all of the pros and cons listed above. There shouldn’t be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

But if I could give you one tip, it would be that the location(s) that you plan on traveling to the most, countryside vs cities, is probably the biggest factor in making this decision.

Remember, you should not make this decision lightly. You only get one shot. If you make the wrong decision, you will regret it during your trip. Make sure you weigh the pros and cons of each to make the right decision.

Everyone travels a bit differently. Choose the correct bag wisely!


Hey - I'm Brock. I grew up in the USA, and I have been a full-time Solo Traveler since June of 2016. I am also a Travel Vlogger on YouTube where my primary focus is to simply hang out with local people around the world. My full story is here: About Me

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