Is There Really a Need to Travel with Backpacks?


When I was in my twenties, I travelled around Europe. After living in England for a few years and before I returned to Canada, a friend and I took the Chunnel train to Paris, then took the train down the coast to Nice, then Venice, then Rome. I’m pretty sure Zurich was in there too, only memorable for how terribly expensive it was. 

From Rome we took a plane to the Canary Islands, before returning to London for a night, then taking another flight back to Canada. Toronto, to be specific. After being away from Canada for a few years, and on a plane for hours, I asked my taxi driver to take me through an A&W drive-thru before going to my airport hotel. I also remember visiting a Shoppers Drug Mart after checking into my room and marvelling at the massive size of our “individual” bags of potato chips.

Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that even in my early twenties, I was never a backpacker. I hauled a wheeled suitcase on that journey across Europe, with absolutely no qualms or regrets. To this day, I’ve never taken a backpack anywhere other than school, even if I’m flying with just a piece of a carry-on luggage.

I bring this up now because I’m writing this from the deck of a cabana on an island in the middle of the ocean. A budget traveller, I’m surrounded by backpackers of all ages. Guys, I don’t get it. If your backpack is taller than you are, is it really a backpack? 

My understanding of backpacking is that it’s about travelling lightly and easily, which I totally get. I like to think I’ve got packing for vacation down to a science. I don’t haul a ton of stuff with me when I travel, which is often. However, as I write this, I’m watching a young couple stagger across the sand, sweating profusely under the blazing sun, each wearing a backpack so big that the top appears to be bouncing off the back of their heads with every tortured step they take. 

Not only that, but they’re each wearing a frontsack. I think that’s what they’re called, anyway — it’s essentially a backpack worn backwards, or across your chest. Dangling off the bottom of both the front and backpacks are various other little bags and trinkets, which knock together, announcing the arrival of the weary travellers in advance. I’m guessing the noise is also good for warding off bears or jaguars or whatever predators stalk the jungles and mountains I’m presuming backpackers are hiking. 

So my question is simple: if you’re wearing 50  pounds of clothing, toiletries and other essential gear vital to ensuring a comfortable journey, why don’t you just use a suitcase? It seems far more practical to pull all of your belongings using the convenient telescopic handle and sturdy wheels of a suitcase than it does wearing it all over your body in 100-degree heat. 

If your journey requires that you hang sacks and packs off both sides of your body, you’re a mule, not a traveller. 

Not exactly a hard-hitting piece of journalism, this column. However, as I resisted the urge to run across the sand to meet this weary couple, asking them if they need an ambulance while unburdening them of the hundreds of pounds of God knows what (seriously, what can you possibly need for your travels that fits into a six-foot-tall nylon sack? You know they have laundry services in pretty much every country on the planet, right?) I felt compelled to write about it. If even just one Saskatoon traveller is eased of the weight of cargo worn frontwards and back, it will have been worth it. 

Suitcases: they do a vacationing body good.