For me backpacking seemed like an exhausting, grubby, low-budget-to-the-point-of-desperation travel option that only hippies and eighteen year olds entertained. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere without a suitcase on wheels because the thought of stuffing all my clothes and other sundry items in a backpack, heaving it on my back, and sweatily schlepping all over the world sounded awful.
I sincerely couldn’t understand why I would ever need to have a backpack over a suitcase because I couldn’t fathom a situation where I would be traveling to a place where it would be impossible to roll my suitcase along behind me. Well, eight months living out of a backpack later, I can say with confidence that it ain’t so bad.
I was an overpacker, the kind that had two or three auxiliary outfit choices per day. I would take too many pairs of shoes and a gang of accessories, just so I had options. The number of times I wore everything I packed amounted to zero, and I’d inevitably leave behind something important like underwear or my toiletries bag, buy replacements, go home with an even heavier bag and duplicate the crap I already had in my house.
The restrictions of a backpack forced me to consider and bring only what I needed. Here’s a shocker: I never missed the backup outfits, and I even unloaded a lot of clothes because I never used them. Ultimately I found that I was happier with a lighter bag that contained only necessities.
It actually is easier to have a backpack than a rolling suitcase in a lot situations; you can easily stow it for free as a carry-on (if you use a ~44 liter pack, which is all I needed) on planes, trains or buses. If your locale has inclement weather, a backpack ensures you don’t have to roll your luggage through mud and debris. Because you carry everything you own in a bag, you think twice about what you buy; who wants the added weight and expense? Ultimately a backpack is more convenient and mobile.
There are many different types of bags to choose from; research like hell online, find a local outdoor gear store and try before you buy. I opted for one called Tortuga because it is sleek and stylish; I enjoy the aesthetic, but it is billed as unisex and I find that to be a disservice; other travelers’ packs I tried that were marketed to women fit me better, distributed the weight on my hips in a way that made the pack feel weightless, and subsequently made it easier to move around with a full bag. Also, the Tortuga’s chest strap (which, when used, actually does help the pack feel lighter) would be tough to fasten on a person with large breasts.
I recommend getting a front-loading bag (a.k.a panel-loading) that opens like a suitcase instead of a top-loading one; when you have to pack and repack, the front-loading one makes life easier; top-loading bags will have you diving into the bag to find whatever you need, which will inevitably have slithered to the bottom. The Tortuga is both front-loading and top-loading, which I like.
To make your life even easier, buy packing cubes. On recommendation from a friend I purchased a set of three and kept toiletries in one, underwear, socks, sleepwear, and swimwear in another, and clothes in the third. When I needed something, I just grabbed the appropriate bag (easily done as they varied in size) and got what I needed without having to rifle through all my things.
Other factors to consider are your height, body proportions, the weather of the place(s) you’ll be in, and your budget. There are zillions of bags on offer, so dedicate time and be thoughtful about your choice. To save money, check online (eBay, Amazon, Craigslist) to see if anyone is selling overstock or a used bag.
Go forth and backpack!