Backpacks are backpacks that you travel with. Travelpacks are backpacks that you travel with. They are both the same and yet very different. You might want to sit down as you attempt to parse this.
Travelpacks are a relatively recent phenomenon. Travelpacks are a hybrid, a backpack that is also a suitcase. They do both satisfactorily, but do neither very well.
Travelpacks have many good points as well as several really bad ones.
If you are on the typical bus-train-plane-hostel-Eurailpass-summer circuit like most of us, chances are that a Travelpack is what you will want. If you fancy yourself as a rugged trekker who will be carrying all of your gear to the top of Aconcagua, then a backpack is for you. This is not an exact science, though store clerks will try to convince you that it is.
Generally (but not always)
Backpacks are usually pretty comfortable, all things considering. And backpacks are usually much lighter than Travelpacks. This makes a big difference overall; because when all is said and done you still have to carry it on your back, with stuff in it. Serious backpackers fret about any extra ounce of weight, so their backpacks often utilize ultra-lightweight materials such as carbon-fiber stays (instead of heavier aluminum), pricey Spectra fabric, instead of 1000 Denier Cordura. These packs also have a minimum of external pockets or gimmicks (again, to save weight).
The professional mountain climbers that I know prefer packs that are very simple and plain (though they are photographed for their sponsoring company wearing the trendy pack of the week). Backpacks usually are pretty comfortable to wear, especially if one is not carrying a tent, food and a stove up the side of a mountain. Travel-backpackersï¿½ (ie: those of us who are traveling to guesthouses by bus or train) have it pretty easily, actually. Be thankful for that!
Then why not just use a backpack?
Backpacks are used by many people for travel, but they have a few drawbacks:
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Backpacks tend to strive for lightness over rugged durability, they are ï¿½nakedï¿½, that is, exposed to the world. This can sometimes be a serious drawback when traveling. Whereas you will be careful with your expensive backpack (not throwing it or dropping it, for example) the person who loads it into a bus or onto a plane has no time for such niceties.
The care that it receives at airport check-in depends upon a number of factors, such as the airlines rules, the mood of the airline agent or the ferocity of the moving luggage belt. Packs love to slide off of the belt and all too frequently, their straps get snagged and torn off enroute to your destination. It is common for the airlines to make us sign a damage waiver before an ungainly pack is accepted at check-in. Ask nicely upon check in and the agent will load your pack into a plastic tub, place it in a plastic bag or both. Fail to do this and you will spend valuable tanning hours getting your luggage repaired overseas.
Travel packs most always have a minimum of external straps, and always have some sort of zippered panel that encompasses the pack to hide the waistbelt and shoulder harness from hungry airport luggage belts. Travelpacks are usually constructed with durability in mind, sacrificing lightweight materials for more rugged ones (such as 100 Denier Corduraï¿½ nylon), which can tolerate more abuse and abrasion, common during travel.
Travelpacks, when in their zipped-up ï¿½conservativeï¿½ mode, look more like suitcases than backpacks. This is especially important when, after a couple weeks of living the grotty backpacker lifestyle, you decide to splurge and check into a hotel with an actual hot shower. Thesedays this is less a problem than it used to be, but hotels everywhere used to suddenly have no vacant rooms whenever a stinky backpacker showed up.
Travelpacks have other drawbacks, weight being the most significant. Travelpacks spend most of their life in ï¿½conservative, zipped upï¿½ mode, and since their shoulder straps and waistbelts are used only on occasion, they can be not as comfortable for wearing than a dedicated backpack.
In most situations, a travelpack is carried only from the bus or taxi to the guesthouse or hostel, on the airport bus to the airline check-in counter, from the hop-on, hop-off bus to the hostel. The travelpacks mettle will be proven when you find out that a two-kilometer walk is needed to get from the hostel to the train station, and you have no choice but to wear the pack packed with bulky souvenirs and your dirty laundry.
Airport terminals are usually the size of small countries. Invariably, the airline counter that you need is on the opposite side of the one where you are standing. While trying to decipher just where check-in counter ï¿½Fï¿½ is, other travelers are zipping by you effortlessly pulling their ï¿½wheeliesï¿½ behind them. Rather than get bowled over by a bunch of package tourists, I usually spring for a luggage cart. (Kudos for the enlightened airport authorities who provide them at no charge. Shame on you SFO and IST!)
ï¿½Why then,ï¿½ you may be now asking, ï¿½shouldnï¿½t I just get a wheelie?ï¿½
Short answer? Well, you can. Many people do, but itï¿½s not the perfect solution. As handy as they are on good surfaces in airports, they perform poorly in many of the ï¿½real worldï¿½ surfaces that the intelligent, adventuresome traveler (such as yourself) will be traveling to. Many of the places where people like us go have cobblestone streets, broken sidewalks, missing paving tiles and enough serious dog poop to make a wheelie a bad idea. Besides, they are not ï¿½coolï¿½. People will take the piss at you.
It is a scientific fact that wheelies clash with a travelers uniform of temporary tattoos, dreadlocks and silly pants. Leave them to the Club Med set, you donï¿½t want to be pegged as a dork.
On the other hand, if you are an unusually wee person, a loaded backpack is a terrible idea unless you know a really good chiropractor.