Should I use a suitcase or backpack?
July 10, 2007 10:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm leaving in a week for a 6-week trip through China. Should I bring a suitcase (with wheels or no?) or a backpack?

I'll be traveling (mainly by train, but also some airplane) around for the entire time and won't stay in one place longer than a week. Most of the time I'll be in cities staying in hostels or hotels. I'll be bringing ~4 days' worth of clothing (4 shirts, 1 shorts), a digital SLR, and a 15" MacBook Pro. This trip is essentially tourism. I won't ever need to dress up, and I don't care about bringing nice clothes or avoiding wrinkles in my shirts.

There are three ways, as I see it, that I can do this. 1) Wheeled suitcase for clothes and small daypack for laptop+camera+day stuff; 2) Non-wheeled suitcase for clothes (which would fit more than a wheeled) and the same daypack; or 3) Big backback for everything, no daypack. I'm physically capable of carrying any of these; I'm just wondering which is the best. I am leaning toward #1.

The main advantage of having a backpack, as I have been told, is that you can carry all your stuff and have your hands free. But I'll almost always go straight to my ho(s)tel when I arrive in a city, so that doesn't seem to apply to me. The disadvantages of having just one big backpack are 1) I can't carry a daypack for outings; 2) it's harder to fit into small spaces since it is one big bag; 3) if it's stolen, everything's over; 4) it makes me look like a tourist; and 5) it's more difficult to pack and unpack from; and 6) it's annoying to carry everywhere when I could just wheel something around, since usually I'll be on hard surfaces.

When I've asked people who have backpacked on similar kinds of trips (city-to-city, not wilderness), they think it's crazy I'd think of bringing a suitcase. Even when I tell them why I think a backpack would be a bad choice, they kind of shrug and say, "Well, I kind of still think you should just have a backpack. A suitcase just doesn't feel right." I feel like there is something I am missing.

Please help me decide whether to bring a suitcase or a backpack. When you are traveling with a big backpack, what bag do you take with you on day outings? Do big backpacks even fit in airplane or train carryon compartments? Have you ever traveled with a suitcase and wished you had a backpack, or vice-versa?
posted by qslack to Travel & Transportation around China (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It depends where you're going, and whether you'll have everything arranged in advance.

If you're staying in tier one cities, you shouldn't have any issue. The roads should be pretty nice, and you can usually catch a cab at all hours.

If you don't have everything planned in advance, or are staying in smaller cities, I would recommend the backpack. Wandering and changed plans have been part of all of my trips. Walking half a mile to the next available hostel is easier with a backpack.
posted by FuManchu at 10:26 PM on July 10, 2007

Why not a backpack that has a daypack you can detach? Here is an example. I used something like this while backpacking around Europe with my wife. I personally prefer the pack to suitcase, but YMMV.

And we checked our bags for flights as they were too big for carry on and we had no problems with them on trains. I haven't been on the trains in China, but I don't think it would be any different than a suitcase. I always pulled the daypack off when we were in transit and stuffed my laptop in it plus any food we wanted.

Also as others have said, you might want a bit more than just 4 days of clothes. If you can find laundry services regular enough you'll be okay, but I would definitely bring extra shirts and unders.
posted by chrisroberts at 10:29 PM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Go for the rolly suitcase. You'd want a large backpack is if the terrain is hilly, or unpaved, or if you're going to be wandering around looking for hotels. If your itinerary is already planned out, go for the rolly to be more efficient. It'd be even better if yours is small enough to fit in the overhead bin.

I have a friend who's doing a quick three-week tour of Japan, Taiwan, and China, and he's been using a rolly. So far I haven't heard him complain about it.
posted by hobbes at 10:40 PM on July 10, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the posts. I won't be staying in all tier-one cities, but I have been to many of the cities before (though not on a tour-around, whirlwind trip like this), and they're all either cities of 500k+ people or well-known domestic tourist destinations.

I don't have anything planned in advance other than the cities I want to go to. But in the example FuManchu gave about having to walk a half-mile to another hostel, would having a backpack really be easier than having a small wheeled suitcase (airplane carryon sized) and a daypack? Also, it seems to me that if I did have to get somewhere quickly, packing a suitcase would be much faster than packing a backpack. (And it's harder to retrieve individual items from a backpack since it's top loading.)

chrisroberts, thanks for the link to the backpack with detachable daypack.
posted by qslack at 10:43 PM on July 10, 2007

I've done a lot of travelling. The problem with rolling suitcase is that it's very difficult to roll when you're not in a hotel or airport. You need a smooth surface. So, if you are _sure_ you're going to catch a cab straight from airport to hotel, take the roller. If you're going to have to walk around with luggage, a backpack is better.

In any case, I disapprove of looking like a stereotypical tourist. Just try and blend in.
posted by markesh at 10:58 PM on July 10, 2007

The backpack is nice because everything's on your back. You can check out of a hotel at noon, wander around the city for the afternoon, then catch a train at night. It allows you to stroll through crowded markets without looking back, walk up and down pedestrian bridges, and run from hordes of thieves.

Short answer would be: if you're a strapping young lad with an appetite for adventure, go with the backpack. Otherwise, the rolly is smarter.
posted by hobbes at 10:59 PM on July 10, 2007

If you don't look Chinese, have a Lonely Planet in hand, and carry anything other than a daypack, you're not going to blend in. And it's okay. Having a system that works with the way you travel is the most important thing.

Lots of German tourists wear socks and sandals, should they ditch them for some Converses when they come to SF?
posted by hobbes at 11:02 PM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend the backpack with the daypack attached to it.

This is the pack I use. It is a panel loading pack so it'll be just like a suitcase (no digging around in that top load pack for the clean socks at the bottom).

When you get to the airport, take the daypack off, stash the straps on the main pack and send it off to be checked. No fuss.
posted by comiddle at 11:30 PM on July 10, 2007

Only get bring the backpack if you plan to be doing a lot of walking over hilly terrain out in the country. In crowded Asian cities I find that a rolling suitcase is actually more convenient than a large Backpack. When you get into a crowded bus or similar situation the backpack makes you twice as long as you are and you have to be very careful about knowing who is behind you. A rolling suitcase is easier to handle, as you can fit it into odd little corners and it isn't a hassle to take off.

Also you are going in the middle of summer. It's going to be ridiculously hot unless you are going to Tibet. Carrying around any type of backpack will guarantee your back will be permanently soaked in sweat.
posted by afu at 12:09 AM on July 11, 2007

I'll cast my vote for big backpack plus daypack as well. If you have a backpack that you like, there's no need to buy one just because it has a removable daypack. Just bring a daypack too. If you're not using it, you can put it inside the big pack. Then you'll have the daypack for short day trips.

If you need to carry both packs (filled) at the same time, just put the big pack on the back and the little one on the front.

Then again, I don't even like rolling backpacks in US cities. I'm just too hard on my luggage.
posted by stuboo at 3:01 AM on July 11, 2007

Depends on how many things you want to buy; I tend to buy tons of books and clothes here in China, and now I kind of regret bringing a big backpack this time instead of a suitcase (we'll see how much it costs to ship all the books I bought to the US). If you don't plan on buying anything and you don't have much clothing with you, taking a backpack will be fine (also, if you aren't Asian-looking, you're not going to blend in, period).

If you take a suitcase, take care not to take a very big one, because it won't fit on the train - anything that you could take as carryon luggage on a plane will be fine, though.

Suitcase or backpack, you can always leave your stuff in the lockers at the train or bus station for a pretty cheap price, so I wouldn't worry that much about the logistics of carrying them around.
posted by pravit at 3:01 AM on July 11, 2007

Have you considered trying to pack everything just into a daypack? Less stuff=less hassle when you are on the road.

It doesn't sound like you have that much stuff. Whittle the load down until it will all fit in a largeish daypack / very small backpack. You'll be glad you did.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:34 AM on July 11, 2007

some of the sidewalks in China (even in the larger cities) leave quite a lot to be desired. and on the trains, you'll want to be able to squish your stuff into the overhead racks.

definitely take a backpack (a 50L should be a decent size) and a smaller daypack that you can roll up and pack when not in use.
posted by wayward vagabond at 3:59 AM on July 11, 2007

I bought something almost exactly like this backpack a few years ago and love it: it's big enough to hold as much as a small suitcase, but has a zipper on three sides so it can be loaded/unloaded like a suitcase. It also has handles on the sides and top and doesn't have one of those hip straps, so you don't look like you're about to scale Everest, and it's pretty discreet - your laptop can just be tucked into a little neoprene sleeve or something. It doesn't have a frame of any kind, so it's collapsible and squish-able should you need to get into a tight spot.

It's also 2700 cubic inches, which is pretty large (about 45 liters), so you've have room for quite a bit of stuff in there, including an empty little cheap messenger bag to carry your guidebook and camera around during the day. Smaller backpacks are out there, of course. I recommend buying a couple different sizes before your trip and attempting to fit all your stuff in there, then returning the ones that don't work out.

Also, I think that packing one pair of pants would be prudent, if only because wearing shorts in some places like temples or official offices might be perceived as disrespectful.
posted by mdonley at 4:11 AM on July 11, 2007

Here is a rolly that is also a backpack:

And here is a rolly that is a backpack with daypack attached:
posted by conrad53 at 10:36 AM on July 11, 2007

By all means, consider the Civitas daypack, perhaps in addition to the one you're thinking of using. I bought one three years ago and it always goes with me, taking up next to no room, on my business trips.
posted by megatherium at 5:53 PM on July 12, 2007

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