How to Choose Luggage, Packs and Bags

 A close up of a dark green backpack, a light blue duffle back and an orange duffle back piled up on a tile floor.

No single piece of luggage is perfect for all kinds of travel. That's why there are so many types of luggage, bags and packs to choose from. To help you decide, ask yourself:

  • What types of trips you'll take (e.g., hotels, camping, international).
  • What kinds of activities you plan to do (e.g., trekking, snorkeling, cycling).
  • How many possessions you want to bring.

This article helps you to make an informed decision.


Types of Luggage, Packs and Bags

Wheeled Duffels

Nothing swallows up gear like a duffel bag, and one with wheels is a good choice for multisport gear junkies. If your adventures frequently require gear of widely varying sizes and shapes, a rolling duffel is a smart way to corral it all. For light packers, a carry-on wheeled duffel (22") offers less space but allows you to forego the time and expense of checking a bag.

Best for: adventure travel requiring bulky or odd-shaped gear; family trips; road trips.


Wheeled Luggage

Designed for traditional travelers, this category typically features compact sizing and sturdy construction made to handle the rigors of luggage transport systems. If you like to have things organized—medications here, toiletries there—look for bags with lots of pockets or add-in organization accessories.

Best for: business travel; family visits; road trips and travel to urban areas.


Wheeled Backpacks

Popular with adventure travelers, these combine the convenience of wheeled luggage with the mobility of a backpack. You can transport lots of gear with a simple pull of the extendable handle. Facing heavy foot traffic or a long flight of stairs? Strap on the shoulder and waist straps for hands-free carrying convenience.

Best for: adventure travel; road trips.


Travel Packs

These travel-friendly backpacks excel where wheeled luggage cannot: on gravel, cobblestone streets, stairs and other uneven terrain. Travel packs sport internal frames, hideaway shoulder straps and built-in security features. Women’s travel packs have suspension systems designed specifically for a woman’s frame.

Best for: travelers who want to be highly mobile and plan on carrying all their gear.


Duffel Bags

The traditional duffel—minus wheels and pull handle—is lighter than its rolling counterpart, easier to store (no rigid parts, so it folds up smaller) and friendlier to your budget. It also offers huge capacities—several models available at REI provide over 130 liters (8,000 cubic inches) of space. Zip your pack inside one to transport it on an airplane.

Best for: climbers, college students or any traveler on a budget.


Laptop Bags, Sleeves and Day Packs

These urban carry-ons have a padded compartment to protect your 10"–17" laptop, plus a bevy of organizing pockets to hold cables, peripherals and paperwork. Some are "checkpoint-friendly," meaning the TSA may not require you to remove your laptop at security checkpoints. Laptop sleeves can also be used with e-readers and tablets.

Best for: Urban travelers and anyone who wants to safely transport a laptop.


Carry-on Luggage

Want to avoid the expense and hassle of checked bags? All of the bags and packs described above—from wheeled backpacks to duffels—come in sizes intended for carry-on use.

Most airlines allow carry-on bags no larger than 22" x 14" x 9". Rules can change, so be sure to check with your airline about size limits (or other baggage regulations) before departure.

Best for: Travelers who pack light, are highly mobile and want to bypass baggage claim and baggage fees.


Size and Weight Guidelines

Most airlines typically enforce a 50-lb. limit per checked item and charge fees for checked baggage.

What size bag or pack is best for you? Here are some rough guidelines:

Trip Length Luggage Size Suggested Bag Type
Weekend trips 52 liter (3,200 cu. in.) Carry-on duffel, pack or bag
1- to 2-week trips 65 liter (4,000 cu. in.) Travel pack or wheeled luggage
Expeditions Several 65-liter bags All types

Tip: Instead of leaving extra space in your bag for souvenirs, consider packing an empty duffel bag with purchases for the return trip.


Compare Specific Features

Once you've settled on a type and size of luggage, it's time to compare features on specific models. At this point, your personal preferences take over. Key features to consider:

  • Storage compartments make it easy to organize, pack and unpack.
  • Built-in organizer pockets are handy for frequently used items.
  • Compression straps squeeze a bulky bag down to a smaller size.
  • A removable daypack zips off for convenient day use.
  • An expandable pack bag or bellows pocket allows you to fit in extra gear.


Fitting a Backpack

If you'll be wearing your bag as a backpack, it's important to make sure it fits well. Stuff the backpack with 20 to 30 pounds of weight inside, centered between your shoulder blades as close to your back as possible. Concentrate on the hipbelt and shoulder straps, making sure they’re comfortable and easy to adjust.

For detailed fitting tips, watch the REI Expert Advice article and video, Backpacks: How to Adjust the Fit.


Travel Accessories

From clothes-packing organizers to ear plugs, there are a number of travel-savvy accessories you may want to consider. For some suggestions, see the REI Expert Advice article, Travel Accessories: What to Bring.




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