Updated September 13th, 2018.
Rucksack, Backpack with Wheels, Duffel Bag or Suitcase?
In a recent Readers Poll, we asked you: What’s the best luggage to take with you to travel in Southeast Asia? We received over 200 comments on our Facebook wall and in various other Southeast Asia Backpacking groups on the social network. So what did we discover about suitcases, bags and backpacks for travelling?
Well… Sit back, relax, and read some words of wisdom from fellow travellers in the region…
WINNER: The Backpack!
Unsurprisingly given our audience, the traditional backpack was voted the best type of luggage to travel with in Southeast Asia. (Perhaps the results would have been different if we were called southeastasiasuitcase.com!).
Don’t worry, we’ll get on to which backpack to go for very soon. First, let’s look at why the backpack is best.
People gave the following six reasons:
1. Getting up and down stairs – Suitcases or rolling backpacks are great on flat surfaces, but when it comes to getting up and down stairs, you’ll regret not being able to throw your luggage on your back. Many metro stations in Asia (including the sky train in Bangkok) don’t actually have lifts or escalators so carrying a suitcase can be a nightmare!
2. Busy, uneven streets – It can be difficult to manoeuvre a backpack with wheels down a busy street in Southeast Asia, with dusty roads, potholes and uneven pavements!
3. Monsoon season! During the monsoon months in Southeast Asia, the streets can fill with 20cm water in a matter of minutes. Now how are you going to get your wheeled suitcase to the bus station?
4. Motorbike rides – Whether you’re hopping on the back of a motorbike taxi to get to an off the beaten track destination, or taking a longer motorbike adventure alone or with your travel buddies – backpacks give you the flexibility to just go!
5. Hands free – With everything on your back, you’ve got your hands free to eat, drink, wave, get your money out, whatever you want to do! You’re more in control.
5. Arriving on tropical islands – Your longtail boat has just pulled up on the shores of paradise! Now try wheeling your roller backpack across that sandy beach to your beach hut!
Here are some quotes from our readers:
“Backpack all the way! During my first solo trip in India, I felt that I was carrying my life (and karma) in a big trolley that doesn’t climb any stairs!” – Andreia Marques da Silva
“You can’t say you’re a backpacker if you haven’t got a backpack.” – Dave Draycott
“Stuff wheelie suitcases. My niece booked our flights to Bali & Nusa Lembongan with 20kg luggage included, so I decided I may as well take a large 4-wheeler suitcase. Never again! Getting off the fast boat at Nusa Lembongan was a nightmare!” – Lisa Whitten
“Wheels are great until you go to a country where it has stairs, stairs and more stairs. Always use a backpack. When loaded right it doesn’t hurt your back.” – Jen Cartmill
“Backpack. I’ve watched so many people trying to manoeuvre cumbersome wheeled luggage. So silly especially if you’re over-landing for multiple weeks/months.” – Mike Mockus
What things do people consider when buying backpacks for travelling?
1. Accessing your stuff easily: You loved the backpacks that open like suitcases.
Most people’s complaint (including mine) about a traditional backpack, is that it’s a pain in the arse when you’re trying to access all your stuff. It’s Murphy’s Law that the pair of shorts you want will be wedged right at the bottom of your bag and you’ll have to take everything out to get at it! So, you’ll want a backpack that doesn’t only open from the top but opens from the side like a suitcase as well.
2. What size backpack should you take? See the discussion on size preferences below.
Everyone is different when it comes to how much stuff you can survive with for a set amount of time. What you take with you depends on the type of activities you’ll be doing, and what climates you’ll be travelling in. (In Southeast Asia, the climate is warm in most places, but if you’re travelling to mountainous regions, you’ll need warmer clothing which can be bulky.)
Some of you recommended taking as little as possible in a small bag. Some of you suggest taking a bigger bag but packing less stuff, so you have the extra space if you need it.
3. Price of your backpack. You reckoned it was best to invest!
Should you buy yourself a cheap one or should you invest in a good brand like Karrimor, Osprey, Patagonia or Tortuga? From the recommendations, it’s clear that this is one travel necessity that people really do spend money on. Cheaper bags break and can also do harm to your back, plus more expensive bags can last a lifetime.
4. Suspension. Take that weight off your shoulders.
If you’re planning on taking a certain amount of stuff with you, and your backpack ends up being quite heavy, the suspension becomes something that you need to think about. You’ll want to invest in a bag that distributes the weight evenly across your hips and back without putting all the weight on your shoulders.
5. Warranty. Some brands offer a lifetime warranty!
Some backpacks offer a lifetime warranty, this means that if your back breaks or doesn’t function anymore in the way that it should, you can send it back to the manufacturer to get repaired. When you’re spending the money on a good quality product that you want to last, not just this adventure but the next (and the next!), this is something that’s definitely worth checking out before you buy.
Your Best Backpack for Travel Recommendations in Order of Popularity!
40-46 Litre Backpack:
The Most Popular Size for Travel in Southeast Asia
The majority of you reckoned that 40-46 litres was the perfect sized backpack for travelling Southeast Asia. Plus, the bonus with this is, if you pack a 40-45 litre backpack to 10kg then you’re able to take it with you as carry-on on most airlines. (Note: Some budget Asian Airlines like AirAsia have a maximum carry-on baggage weight of 7kg). All of these options open like a suitcase as well as a backpack:
THE MOST POPULAR BACKPACK: Osprey Farpoint (40-litre)
By far the most highly recommended backpack by those travelling in Southeast Asia for a month to six months was the Osprey Farpoint. Many of you said that this was THE BEST BACKPACK for travelling Southeast Asia.
Why? Well, first of all, it opens sideways so that you don’t need to dig through to get the stuff you want. It has lots of different sized compartments so that you can organise all of your stuff.
And, it’s small enough so that you can take it as hand luggage on most flights. Although it’s not cheap, the price is very reasonable for a backpack of this quality AND it has a lifetime guarantee!
*All prices are shown in $USD. For prices in your own currency, click the image to redirect to your local Amazon store.
ALSO RECOMMENDED: Osprey Porter Travel Backpack (46-litre)
For those of you who need a little more space, Osprey also have a 46-litre option which was highly recommended by our readers.
ALSO RECOMMENDED: Tortuga Outbreaker Travel Backpack (44-litre)
Recommended by a few of you. Again, this bag opens flat like a suitcase so you’ll never have to dig to find your stuff. It’s also the perfect size for carry-on luggage.
FOR WOMEN: Osprey Kyte (46-litre)
A woman’s specific backpack with a little extra space, that serves as a normal rucksack for travel, or a more specialised backpack for trekking and climbing, with sleeping bag compartment, trekking pole attachment and loads of handy pockets and attachments. (Osprey have a whole range of travel backpacks for women).
Best Carry-On Backpack for Flying?
Also mentioned was the Cabin Max Metz Backpack Flight Approved Carry on Bag as the perfect bag for flying – at 44-litres.
We also recently reviewed a rather nifty carry-on bag by the Standard Luggage Company, ideal for city breaks and short flashpacking trips. (Perfect for the organised traveller who loves separate pockets and compartments, this bag has 12 in total!)
65-70 Litre Backpack
Sometimes You Just Want Extra Space!
There’s a strong case for investing in a larger backpack – just in case! Even if you more space it doesn’t mean that you have to fill it to the max does it?
You can still pack a 65-70 litre backpack with 10kg worth of stuff so that you’re not busting your back, and it’s still lightweight for flying. (Check airline rules as some will go on size rather than the weight of baggage).
The advantage with a bigger bag is, that if you accumulate more stuff (as I tend to do) you’ll still have that extra room and you won’t end up carrying plastic bags around with your 40-litre too!) Here are some of the makes and models you recommended…
THE ULTIMATE BACKPACK: Osprey Farpoint (70-litre)
The Osprey wins again – with a few of you saying that this is the best bag that you’ve ever had! The backpack comes with a detachable daypack, so if you’re flying you can check the bigger part in and take the smaller bag with you on the plane.
As it’s a larger back, it comes with a light frame suspension that transfers the load from your shoulders to your hips and a mesh back panel for ventilation and prevention of sweaty Southeast Asian back syndrome. Many people said that even when you pack it full and it feels pretty heavy, it’s still very comfortable and easy to carry on your back.
And, when you’re not lugging it around, you can stow the suspension away making it sleeker to transport. With loads of compartments (side-opening for easy access) incredibly durable zippers, good quality material, suspension and detachable backpack – is this the ULTIMATE BACKPACK?
ALSO RECOMMENDED: Nomad Batura and Karoo Backpacks (70-litre)
The German brand Nomad was praised for their 70-litre Karoo and Batura Backpacks. *Available only in UK and European Amazon stores.
ALSO RECOMMENDED: Deuter ACT and AIRCONTACT (65-litre)
Many of you also recommended the ACT and Aircontact models of the brand Deuter, which you reported as comfortable and really easy to carry, even when you cram them chock-full. They have loads of compartments and if you’re using them for camping/trekking, they have sleeping bag space/trekking pole attachment and very durable zips/material.
50-55 Litre Backpack
Strangely, the least mentioned backpacks were those in-between sizes. You, backpackers, are all or nothing at all! However, there were a few recommendations in this mid-range sector…
Berghaus Backpack (55-litre)
The Berghaus Trailhead backpacks were mentioned as excellent backpacking/trekking rucksacks. They also have different models for men and women.
Osprey Farpoint 55-litre
The Osprey Farpoint 55 was also celebrated for all the same reasons as the 40 model – but with extra space! It has great reviews.
30-35 Litre Backpack (Hand Luggage Only!)
The Case for Packing Light!
How much stuff do you really need? Is it possible to just travel with a small backpack through Southeast Asia for up to 12 months – or more? Many of you believed that taking a lightweight backpack that you can fit under your seat on the plane is the BEST and ONLY way to travel! Such free and easy travellers suggested that with some careful packing and rolling of your clothes, you could easily fit everything you need in a 30-35-litre backpack packed to the maximum 7-10kg.
Why would you want to do that you may ask? Well, it’s better for your back carrying a lightweight backpack, that’s true. Plus, It’s easy to do laundry in Southeast Asia (a few kgs costs around 20 THB if you do it yourself in one of the machines in Thailand), so why not TAKE LESS and EXPERIENCE MORE?
(Whether this starts getting us into a macho backpacker competition about how little one can travel with… “I travelled 9 years with only my flip flops….” like this guy who is famous for travelling the world with no luggage whatsoever… I’m slightly concerned.) Anyhow, here are some smaller backpacks that you recommended…
North Face (35-litre)
At this size, it was the Northface brand that was mentioned the most. It’s easy to carry on any airline and if packed carefully you have everything you need.
North Face Surge Backpack (30-litre)
This model was particularly recommended.
eBags Mother Lode
This was mentioned only once but the woman who mentioned it was so enthusiastic we just had to include it in our list! (Thanks, Lisa Whitten!)
Here are some reader’s comments on why you should pack light!
“I always take a 35-litre North Face backpack. Do u really need any more? Do u want to be carrying a big heavy rucksack on and off buses and trains in 95-degree heat? Er…. no!” – Neil Taylor
“No suitcase, just passport and $$ & credit card & what I’m wearing that day. I buy what I need on way. I like to travel light!” – Edward Martin
“What bag? I just buy a few clothes and toiletries when I get there and give them to the locals when I move on! I have a padded shoulder bag just big enough for the iPad and accessories, a zip pocket in the front for passport and other documents, job done!” – Guy Lawrance
Most popular backpack brand?
Osprey definitely came out on top as everyone’s favourite backpack brand! As well as creating well designed, durable and flexible backpacks, it was their customer service which stood out to people and their amazing LIFETIME WARRANTY.
On their website they say – “Osprey will repair any damage or defect for any reason free of charge – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday. If we are unable to perform a functional repair on your pack, we will happily replace it.”
One traveller told us that Osprey really do stand by their word:
“I swear by Osprey. Amazing customer service counts for a lot, as well as a very well designed high-quality product. I bought a Farpoint 55, four years ago. After my first trip of 18 months and a lot of abuse, both the main pack and day pack had several cuts in them and a couple of sticking zips. I got in touch with Osprey about the warranty and sent the bags in. Both were repaired to good as new and returned for free! I can’t fault them at all, and they’re still going strong now.” – Gareth Taylor
Everyone is different – Which bag is right for your travels?
We were amazed by the amount of feedback we received to this simple question. It seems that once you find a bag that you love, you’re loyal to that bag (and brand) for life! There were also quite a few people who preferred to travel with a duffel bag than a backpack.
Some of you who still preferred a backpack with wheels (I’m one of these at the moment!) and some of you who just can’t say goodbye to that suitcase! Here at South East Asia Backpacker Magazine, we make no judgement – just go with whatever is right for you!
And if you’ve bagged that bag – why not head over to our 5-step packing guide here!
If you have any more suggestions about the perfect travel backpack or any feedback about the research above, please let us know in the comments below!
(And, if you’re as mad on backpacks as us, check out this article on the history of the backpack in Time!)
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