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What To Pack It In

Wheeled Bags & Other Bad Ideas

This Web site is mostly about techniques, products, and ideas that I like. On this page, though, you'll find a few things that I — perhaps surprisingly to some — don't.

Wheeled Bags: A Poor Alternative

I'm often asked about the use of bags with built-in wheels, first popularized by the Travelpro Rollaboard series, and currently the best-selling type of luggage. Originally designed (in 1987, by Robert Plath, a

Northwest Airlines 747 pilot) for the use of airline flight crews, these bags are now heavily promoted for all types of travel. And if your journeys consist mostly of long airport & hotel corridors, or you have not yet learned to travel lightly, or you have physical limitations that reduce your ability to carry things, wheels may seem a tempting — even appropriate — solution. But there are no unmixed blessings.

wheeled bag frame: the price you pay

Unlike traditional luggage, wheeled bags are supported from below (by the wheels). Additionally, because they rest on the ground, they need some sort of extendable handle to reach the hands of their hapless users. These requirements necessitate a fairly elaborate frame structure (a typical example of which is illustrated at right); this frame — unnecessary in non-wheeled bags — is the principal source of the many significant drawbacks to this type of luggage:

parts that break

Convenience is the enemy of excellence.

Victor Papanek

A Tale of Two Bags

Entirely too many people assume that a bag with wheels is automatically better than one without, as if the wheels came with no consequences.

But they do.

To illustrate, here's a careful comparison of two carry-on-sized bags, with the same exterior dimensions, from the same design line of the same manufacturer, the only difference being the incorporation of wheels (although neither of these specific bags is in current production, the comparison remains accurate, and representative of the issue):

So merely adding wheels to this (pretty typical) bag design increases the weight by 75% and decreases the carrying capacity by almost half. Further, the buyer loses a comfortable suspension system, sacrifices malleability, tolerates packing difficulties, reduces reliability, and often spends significantly more money … all in a quest to add wheels that are of limited value beyond airport/hotel corridors (i.e., in the real world)!

stairs vs. wheelsDoes the situation improve when we consider a more traditional business travel bag? Hardly. One wheel-free business bag that I recommend (Red Oxx's Air Boss) weighs 3 lbs (1.36kg); the almost identically-sized Travelpro FlightPro4 19" Rollaboard (which in late 2007 was the best selling Travelpro bag in this size range) weighs 8 lbs, 13 oz (4kg), making it three times as heavy! And exterior dimensions notwithstanding, the Rollaboard (thanks to its wheels, rigid frame, and telescoping handle assembly) holds a great deal less than the Air Boss, and is more difficult to pack efficiently.

Consider this as well: few places worth visiting are conducive to rolling a bag behind you; even modern city sidewalks have curbs, cracks, congestion, and clutter (often of the unpleasant organic variety). And wheeled bags are frequently prohibited inside buses/coaches (especially the long distance versions), generally being relegated to storage compartments below … exactly the sort of thing a lightweight traveller is trying to avoid.

winter wheels (photo by Lars Plougmann)

Wheels are a fine invention, but there is a reason they needed inventing, and did not just evolve in the visible natural world: in order to be useful, they require that we modify our habitat to accommodate them. Once you leave that paved path, and encounter the rough, wet, muddy, boggy, rocky, sandy, icy, snowy, steep, or fissured terrains that make up most of the planet, you will find them far more a liability than a liberation.

Finally, just to assure you that this opinion of wheeled luggage is not merely an idiosyncratic one on my part: Westways magazine (in its May/June 2000 issue) surveyed five travel/packing authorities, and every one of them recommended against the use of rolling bags. I hope that the above explanation has made the reasons underlying so many experts' dislike of wheeled luggage more clear.

The rules are these. If you can't lift your case, you've packed too much stuff. Pick it up, for crying out loud. Wheels have more important things to do.

James May, in the Telegraph (UK)

Give Up My Wheeled Bag?   Well, Maybe Not Right Away.

Elsewhere on this site I have noted that the acquisition of a top-notch bag will not in and of itself turn someone into a light traveller. In this particular instance, it may even decrease one's travel comfort: attempting to become a go-light traveller by converting from a wheeled bag to one that you carry is rarely a good strategy, and almost always leads to dissatisfaction … and relapse!

For an emerging go-light traveller, the first order of business should be learning to carry less stuff, by developing and refining a personal packing list (and yes, constructing a written list is a necessary task; shortcuts don't work: trust me on this). Then, striving to find the most lightweight version of each and every item on that list. Having managed those steps successfully, most people will find themselves able to travel indefinitely with less than 20 pounds (9kg) of packed items. At this point (and likely not before), one can rationally expect a carefully-chosen bag to have a dramatic effect on travel success.

Abandoning a wheeled bag can be expected to shed some 6 pounds (3kg) of weight (possibly a little less, possibly a lot more). With a packed bag weighing 35 or more pounds (16kg+), this is unlikely to make that significant a difference, and will probably make one's journeys less comfortable (because now this heavy load must be carried, not a particularly pleasant prospect for most people). But if that same change of bags reduces your carry weight from 26 pounds (12kg) to 20 pounds (9kg), it will bring a huge improvement to your travel experiences.

So don't think of going wheel-less as the way to travel lightly; think of it as a reward for learning to do so. And remember that the advice and recommendations offered on this site are directed primarily toward helping you achieve that goal.

For Those Who “Need” Wheels

Wheels can turn a traveler into a tourist very quickly.

William Least Heat-Moon

First, a prediction: if you are inclined to disagree with any piece of advice offered on this site, it is likely to be on the topic of wheels. I understand full well that, despite what travel authorities have to say on the matter, a lot of people have convinced themselves that they need — or at least strongly prefer — wheeled bags. Such luggage is widely promoted in stores (because it is easily sold), and represents the preponderance of travel bags out there in the (developed) world today.

cobblestones, stairways, and dogsOver the years, I've received quite a few e-mails about this. Many of the writers, it is clear, have simply not acquired real "travel with less" skills. If I had to haul around what most of these folks are carrying, I'd want a trailer as well! And travelling lightly doesn't magically come as a consequence of eliminating wheels: it's precisely the reverse. Many people, having reduced their loads to the point where they can abandon the wheels, are surprised to find that the size and weight of a wheel-less bag can be a fraction of what they've been dragging around.

Some wheel apologists claim to be "too old"; I'm in my late 60s. Some blame their being "too short", or female; my wife is 5'2" (157cm), and has never owned a wheeled bag in her life. Of course, there are those who actually are infirm in some significant way, or whose trips truly require them to transport an amount of stuff that makes carrying it a daunting proposition.

To those folks, I say, "Certainly, use wheels when appropriate." I don't decry wheels as a principle, merely the use of bags that incorporate wheels into their designs (this is, to repeat myself, a compromise that has yet to yield acceptable results). If you truly need wheels, add a decent, lightweight, folding luggage cart: the combined weight of a top-quality business bag and such a cart is still considerably less than two thirds that of the popular Rollaboard referenced above!

The bottom line here is evident. If you are transporting so many belongings that you require a wheeled conveyance to do so, you are not (yet?) travelling light. Possibly you are one of those hapless folks who, for perfectly valid reasons, are unable to do so. That said, I hope that you will still find much of interest — and value — here on

Expandable Bags: Another Questionable Feature

expansion zipperAnother question I often receive relates to so-called "expandable" bags. Such bags are typically equipped with a wrap-around expansion zipper, as pictured at right, that hides a panel of (generally less robust) fabric; when the zipper is opened, the panel of material is thus "added" to the bag, making it a bit larger in one dimension (usually the depth). As with wheels, this is a great marketing idea: pull the zipper and — voilà! — your bag gets bigger. But also as with wheels, features don't come for free: they have consequences, and I don't find those associated with this option to be worth the implied "benefit" (a means of enlarging the bag to accommodate acquisitions made along the way).

As you might expect, the expansion panel and associated hardware increase the weight, complexity, & manufacturing cost of the bag, while decreasing its water resistance, durability, and (unexpanded) storage capacity. In addition, the vast majority of such bags expand to a non-carry-on size, which rather defeats the whole purpose of the exercise!

Frankly, I don't even find the espoused benefit very appealing. I prefer to address the issue by:

In truth, I find this whole concept just a bit amusing, as I believe the goal to be that of shrinking one's bag, not expanding it! This is, however, but one of many examples of what I term "creeping bloat" …

Creeping Bloat

In its rush to build bags that look exactly like everyone else's, the luggage industry has, over the years, allowed some truly wonderful bags to sink into oblivion. Hardly a year goes by without some notable bag being made a little bit larger, adding an expanding section, or incorporating some other feature of dubious value, thus removing the bag from consideration here.

original Patagonia MLCI used to recommend the Patagonia "MLC" (for Maximum Legal Carry-on), as pictured at right. At the time, it measured 22×14×8", a legitimate carry-on. In 2004, however, the bag increased in size to 21×14.5×10", exceeding most airline limits, though later in the year it mysteriously decreased again, this time to 22×13×9.5" (simultaneously losing its hip belt). More recently, it has changed size at least twice more than I know of, added some more external zippers, lost some of its rectilinearity, and switched to a lower-quality fabric. When I last checked, it wasn't even a "maximum-sized" bag, though the name hasn't changed! So I no longer recommend it, unless you can find one of the pre-2004 versions. This said, the MLC is still a better bag than many on the market, and would certainly suit someone who does not intend to carry it for extended periods of time (and doesn't mind the inferior fabric). Better bags can be had for less money, however.

While mentioning Patagonia, I would be remiss in not commenting on their long-since-discontinued "LBC™" (Little Brother Carry-on). With two internal compartments (the larger of which had a 3-sided zipper), hidden shoulder straps, internal tie-downs, top-quality construction & hardware, and external dimensions (19×14×8.5" / 48×36×22cm) that few gate attendants would challenge, it was a superb bag for the true minimalist traveller. I mention it here in case you are lucky enough to come across a used one somewhere (I don't anticipate selling mine, though; in fact — in answer to another common question — this is the bag I use more frequently than any other for non-business travel).

Rick Steves' "Back Door Bag" is another in this category. At one time I liked and recommended this bag, which was very well made for the price. Though it lacked the high-end suspension system of the MEI bag, it was still a reasonable budget choice. But the original bag was unfortunately discontinued, and replaced with a new "expandable" version (now called the "Convertible Carry-On", and not shown here), which I dislike for the reasons listed above. Rick Steves' Back Door BagCuriously, the fact that it's now expandable makes it even more important that it have a comfortable suspension, which it doesn't. It also has too many external pockets. So I can't recommend this convertible model, though I have no doubt that it sells well.

In mid-2007, Steves brought back the (non-expanding) Back Door Bag, in a redesigned version (pictured at left). I have not yet had an opportunity to examine this new design to see how its construction quality compares with the bags I recommend, but at USD$79.95 it certainly rests at the bargain end of the price range. Again, though, a maxi-sized bag lacking a true suspension system.

When this Web site first appeared in 1996, I recommended the "Solo Journey" pack, smallest of Eagle Creek's venerable "Journey" series. Alas, the manufacturer, yielding to the same "creeping bloat" (market-driven, to be fair), "improved" the design in 1997 by adding a zippered expansion panel. This allowed the main compartment to expand by about 25%; it also increased the weight, complexity, & price of the bag, made it less waterproof & durable, and (when used) eliminated its most important feature: carry-on dimensions! The trend continued in 1999, with Eagle Creek's final version of this bag, dubbed the "Expandable Journey LC" (now discontinued); even the unexpanded size of that bag exceeded carry-on requirements for most airlines! Of course, if you can manage to find one of the original (non-expandable) Solo Journey bags, it remains a very good luggage choice.

Two-Piece Travel Packs: A Contestable Contrivance

Continental Journey PackA notably popular choice for touristing and adventure travel was the pre-1999 Eagle Creek "Continental Journey" pack, shown at left. This was a two-piece modular pack: a main pack of maximum permitted carry-on size, plus a zip-on daypack. It weighed 4.25 pounds (1.9 kg), and came in black, blue, and evergreen (pictured here). Its suspension stowage system was particularly convenient and flexible. All in all, it was a one of the better examples of bags of this type. (Eagle Creek discontinued this particular design in 1999; its various subsequent identically-named replacements have been oversized, less efficiently designed, and/or more "backpacking"-oriented.)

Bags like the Continental Journey rose to popularity in the era when two carry-ons were generally permitted by airlines (North American ones, anyway), the idea being that you separate the bags, carry them both on board, and zip them back together at your destination. Such a design works better in theory than in practice, as the addition of the (zipped-on) daypack compromises the bag's rectilinearity, and moves its centre of gravity further from your body, making it both more clumsy and considerably less comfortable to carry for extended periods. And you won't find many airlines these days that will let you bring two luggage pieces aboard.

Such considerations aside, however, this amount of storage capacity is simply more than one needs for extended travelling. Further, your daypack should be a lightweight convenience for you to use about town, not a bulky contrivance to carry more than a single carry-on-sized bag will allow (the type of daypack incorporated in these two-piece bags is much heavier than necessary, and the associated zippers and fastenings occupy additional space and add weight, neither of which contributes to a positive travel experience). Our efforts are better directed at reducing the size of our bags, not adding to same.

Incidentally, note that it is often possible to simply unzip the daypack and carry it inside the main pack, resulting in an overall package of proper carry-on dimensions. Daypacks of this type are too heavy and bulky to be ideal, but this is a great compromise solution for the traveller who bought such a combination, has developed improved travel skills, and is looking to downsize!

Finally, if you are using one of these bags, and are finding it uncomfortable to carry on long walking stretches, consider detaching the daypack portion and wearing that in front of you. Yes, it looks a bit weird, but it will yield a much more comfortable walk (by better balancing the load) and perhaps convince you that this type of bag is not really the best-conceived design.