When we Googled this, we were unsurprised to find the consensus opinion is “backpacks are better”. That is because the majority of these articles are written by backpackers or backpack manufacturers and mainly, they’re also not digital nomads.
We disagree – we think suitcases are way better than backpacks. We haven’t met any long-term (that is 5 year+) nomads who still carry a backpack. Backpacks are the tool of the low-budget traveler or the person going camping or long-distance hiking. So, without further ado – let’s look at 21 reasons why suitcases are the best option for digital nomads.
A Brief Aside: What Makes For A Decent Suitcase
Please note that the rest of this article only applies if you’re going to buy a decent suitcase (or two or three). That means a model made from something other than cloth or leather that can’t be cut into easily by a passing chancer with a knife (a popular way of relieving backpackers from their possessions on buses).
It also means choosing a model with 4 wheels that, ideally, spin in any direction and a handle that pulls out from the bag so that you can drag it with the minimum of effort.
Cheap suitcases will fall to pieces as you travel (though so will a cheap backpack to be fair) and will be incredibly inconvenient while you travel. Don’t skimp on the most important possession in the traveler’s inventory.
21 Reasons That Suitcases Are Better Than Backpacks
OK, some of these reasons are definitely more important than some of the other reasons but they’re all arguments in favor of taking a suitcase when you leave to be a digital nomad. It will save you buying a backpack and then throwing it away in a fit of rage a few months later to buy a suitcase.
They Are Easier To Move
Backpackers will argue that they get more “range of motion” whatever that’s supposed to be but a backpack is heavy and it’s all on your back. Contrast this to the easy motion of a wheeled suitcase when tilted at an angle, once you’ve got it moving – it’s far, far less effort to shift and that makes running for a train or plane much easier too.
They Are More Secure
Stealing stuff from a backpack will generally only require undoing a zip or cord or two. If that becomes challenging, it’s easy to slit open a part of the backpack with a knife. If you took our advice on buying a well-made suitcase and you’ve locked it; you face much less risk of having things stolen from it. Now, that doesn’t mean that you should let your bags out of your sight, either, but it does mean that when they’re in transit, they’re safer.
You Can Take More Stuff
Digital nomads who are genuinely leading a fully nomadic life only have what they carry and that means while the “one carry on bag” movement may be romantically appealing, most grown adults have things they want and need to take with them. Suitcases give you more options here, particularly if one of the things you want to carry is a suit.
You Can’t Force A Suitcase In Small Spaces
Backpackers may think this is an advantage for them but, in truth, there’s nothing worse than reaching your destination to find your shampoo and shower gel are no longer inside the bottle because the tops came off when somebody squeezed your bag tightly. A solid suitcase is much easier to pack in a hold, however, where it fits neatly.
It’s Less Likely To Be Strapped To The Top Of A Van
I’ve traveled by van many times in Thailand and I’ve never, ever had my luggage or seen anyone else’s strapped to the top of a van. However, some backpackers swear this is a risk and that a backpack is better suited to being placed on top of a van. I can only assume that they are unaware that their luggage would be safer inside the van. Which is where your suitcase will be.
It’s Easier For Porters To Carry Up To Your Room
I’ve never stayed in a place where you had to move your own bags to your room. I assume that this happens in hostels, perhaps, but so far even when I stayed with an elderly Vietnamese couple – grandpa Vietnamese person (whose name I never learned) ran down the stairs, grabbed my bags, and then effortlessly ran them up to my room. I was impressed because it would have been hard work for me. Suitcases balance better and are thus easier to carry for the guys who won’t be wearing your luggage.
Additional Mobility Is Over-rated
I am a digital nomad, not a backpacker. This is the entire journey for my bags from one destination to another. I get my bags and take them outside to a waiting taxi. We get to an airport where they go on a trolley (which is easier because I have more than 1 bag but if needed, I can easily drag them on their wheels too), then they go on a conveyor belt where people will eventually put them on a plane, they are then removed from the plane by similar people in another place, and placed back on a conveyor belt, then I pick them off the carousel and place them on a trolley, this is wheeled to a taxi which drives me to my new home. Then they stay in my room until it’s time to leave.
Most digital nomads will never need to carry their luggage through a jungle, up a hill or drag them down cobbled streets. That’s what vacations are about – not work life in a new place.
They Can Double For Storage If It’s Limited In Your New Place
We regularly store stuff in our suitcases if we use it infrequently or if we get somewhere and the clothes storage capacity is a little on the low side. Leave your t-shirts tucked in a rucksack and a week later they’ll be covered in mold and looking like they were vomited up by a cat. Leave them in a suitcase (with a nice sachet of silica gel or two) and they’ll be just fine.
People See You As A Professional
First impressions count. The backpacker is not universally welcomed around the world because so many backpackers are basically drunken gap year students on a move to drink everything in sight before bonking anything they didn’t drink.
Wheeled luggage, on the other hand, suggests an aura of respectability even if you are a drunken mess that loves to bring home a different person every night.
You Can’t Take It On A Moto
Well, actually, you can because there’s nothing that an industrious Khmer or Vietnamese can’t balance on a motorbike, but you almost certainly won’t want to. And this is good because the number one cause of visitor death in Indochina (of young healthy people, at least) is being on a motorbike. The roads are lethal. Get a taxi, it’s very nearly as cheap and much safer.
Wheels Don’t Break If You Buy A Decent Suitcase
I once bought a very cheap suitcase (mainly because it was only intended to be used once), the wheels broke on its maiden voyage.
I don’t buy cheap suitcases anymore. My Delsey luggage has been with me for nearly 20 years – it has endured hundreds of flights (quite literally too – I used to fly a minimum of twice a week for about 18 months) and it works just fine.
If you buy decent quality luggage the days of broken wheels are long behind us and that means, once again – mobility is on the side of the suitcase, not the backpack.
Suitcases Are Easier To Wash
I actually saw one person claiming that backpacks have the advantage, but this is pure nonsense. A hard-shelled suitcase can be cleaned, if necessary, by wiping it with a damp cloth. I confess though that in nearly 5 decades of travel – I’ve never managed to get a suitcase dirty enough to need to clean it.
Suitcases Are Easier To Pack
Not only does a modern suitcase have a central divider and usually a bunch of handy pockets and things to put little items in – it’s basically a box. It’s much easier to pack a hard box properly than it is to pack a cloth backpack. If you want, you could even buy “packing cubes” to put your stuff in for an even better fit.
You Can Sit On A Suitcase
Yeah, it’s worth noting that while sitting on a backpack nearly guarantees your shampoo will explode, sitting on a hard-shelled suitcases is a sensible option when stuck in a queue. Though, we’d not that we’ve never really had to do this.
Suitcases Are More Individual
It’s rare for two people with a similar suitcase to be on the same plane. It’s not so rare for every backpacker to be carrying the “backpack of the year” recommendation from some website or another. We regularly read posts from backpackers on travel and expat forums where someone has picked up their bag by mistake and left them with a bag that they don’t want.
You Don’t End Up With A Sweaty Back
If you’re from a Western nation, then you’ll be doing plenty of sweating in Thailand or Cambodia as it is. Want to make yourself even sweatier? Buy a backpack and see how you feel after 10 minutes of walking around. A wheeled suitcase doesn’t trap moisture against your back.
They Are Easier On Your Back
Working hunched over a keyboard and sat at a desk all day is not good for your back. Why would you then choose to stress your back every time you’re away from that desk. Wheeled luggage is far easier on your back than a backpack, ironically.
Your Clothes Won’t Wrinkle
Well, they might, a little but it’s perfectly possible to pack a suit and shirts and get them to your destination looking perfect if you learn how to pack a suitcase. This cannot be done inside a backpack.
Handles Beat Straps
It’s easier to pick up a suitcase by handles than a rucksack by its straps. Straps get caught on things and ripped when they’re checked in, handles, generally, do not. You can’t beat the advantages of handles here.
It’s Easier To Take A Suitcase To The Toilet
Roll your suitcase in and ignore it. Got a backpack? Squeeze into a cubicle. Remove your backpack. Work out where you will put it on a floor covered in urine and rodent droppings then wish you’d brought a suitcase.
You Can Find Things Without Unpacking The Whole Suitcase
Packed your passport in your backpack by mistake? Now’s the time to throw everything you own onto a dirty airport floor while you look for it. You don’t need to do this with a suitcase. Open it up and move things around from one side to the other and enjoy the feeling of remaining hygienic throughout your trip.
So, there you have it – 21 reasons that suitcases beat backpacks for digital nomad travel (and, indeed, any form of travel when you have passed the age of 21 and are not camping).
You know it makes sense, just make sure to buy a good quality suitcase (our cheapest cases were $200+ in a developing nation where suitcases are really cheap) because if you skimp on this purchase it will come back to bite you.