How To Buy Luggage

Adven­ture-wor­thy lug­gage must be tough enough to sur­vive more than beat­ings from air­port con­vey­or belts; it should thwart the ele­ments atop rusty busses, endure inad­ver­tent stomp­ings by curi­ous locals, and wel­come myr­i­ad abus­es by fare-hun­gry cabbies—all while keep­ing your pre­cious belong­ings safe and sound. Lug­gage is the only piece of home that will fol­low you around the world and find­ing the right match will change your approach to trav­el for­ev­er. This guide will help you learn how to choose the best lug­gage for your needs.

Car­ry On vs. Checked: When it comes to air­ports, there real­ly are only two types of lug­gage: Car­ry­on and checked. Every­thing that is not a car­ry­on size is checked (although there is a new cat­e­go­ry of lug­gage that starts as a car­ry­on then can be recon­fig­ured into checked lug­gage in the even that you have more to haul on the return trip).

Car­ry-on: Each air­line has dif­fer­ent mea­sure­ments for what is an accept­able size but for the most part, air­lines in the Unit­ed States accept lug­gage that is 22 inch­es tall, 14 inch­es wide, and 9 inch­es deep (the FAA allows a total of 45 inch­es but again, air­lines can dif­fer in their requirements).

Cheater bags: Cheater bags are non-hard­shell bags that may meet two of the size require­ments (say height and width require­ment), but are fuzzy with the third. An exam­ple of a cheater bag is a pack that is 25 inch­es tall when ful­ly stuffed or a rolling duf­fle bag that can expand larg­er than 9 inch­es. Most air­lines (tech­ni­cal­ly it’s the air­ports that do the polic­ing) will allow cheater bags unno­ticed but keep in mind that you may get stopped.

Checked: If you know you’re buy­ing lug­gage for check­ing take advan­tage of the space. The max­i­mum size for most air­lines in the US is 62 inch­es total (WxHxD).

Type of Luggage

Your lug­gage needs will vary depend­ing on your what sort of adven­ture you’ll be get­ting your­self into.

Snows­ports: There are a hand­ful of dif­fer­ent types of lug­gage here includ­ing boot bags, snow­board bags, ski bags, and ski cas­es. Wheels are great in this cat­e­go­ry since you’ll be lug­ging heavy gear back and forth from the air­port. Extra space in a ski/snowboard bag can accom­mo­date a lot of cloth­ing and oth­er items, mean­ing less to car­ry in car­ry­on and hope­ful­ly no checked lug­gage. Most ski/snowboard bags and cas­es are con­sid­ered “over­sized” but many air­ports don’t charge extra (while oth­ers can charge up to $100 a bag so it’s good to find out beforehand).

Wheeled:  Wheeled lug­gage is the most com­mon type of lug­gage in airports.

Spin­ning: The pur­pose of spin­ning lug­gage is so that you can move your bag effort­less­ly and shift direc­tions with ease. These typ­i­cal­ly have four mul­ti-direc­tion­al wheels.

Upright: Upright wheeled lug­gage is bent over at an angle and can only be moved for­ward and back­ward. These typ­i­cal­ly have two stag­nant wheels.

Hard­shell: Hard­shell wheeled lug­gage, while the most durable, may also be the most imprac­ti­cal for adven­ture trav­el because of its rigidity. 

Lug­gage Sets: Match­ing sets of lug­gage are great for aes­thet­ics. Typ­i­cal­ly a set will include a car­ry­on, and two dif­fer­ent­ly sized checked pieces.

Day­packs: The quin­tes­sen­tial piece for any long-time trav­el­er, these bags are the most con­ve­nient to slip on and off at the air­port. Make sure to find day­packs with a har­ness strap to keep the weight off your shoul­ders, even for short walks in the airport.

Packs: Packs are made to trans­port dozens of pounds of neces­si­ties into the wild and are the per­fect com­pan­ion for an air­plane. Wheeled lug­gage is near­ly impos­si­ble to drag any­where with­out con­crete unless a por­tion of it can zip off into a day­pack. These are the lug­gage of choice for many out­door enthu­si­asts as they can start as day­packs as small as 18L and even hold more than checked lug­gage, with the largest packs at around 130L.

Duf­fle Bags: Duf­fle bags are anoth­er pop­u­lar choice of lug­gage for out­doorsy folks. Often made of can­vas or high­ly durable PVC coat­ed poly­ester, these bags can be thrown around at camp and often can be worn as back­packs. Look for duf­fles that fea­ture water­proof lin­ings so you can fear­less­ly set them on the ground in a downpour.

Rolling Duffles/Zip off day­packs: Many rolling duf­fle bags have back­pack straps that allow them to be worn as a pack after you get off the tar­mac. Although they are not as ergonom­i­cal­ly designed to fit your back as a tra­di­tion­al pack, the con­ve­nience of being able to roll lug­gage then sling it over your shoul­ders makes these a pop­u­lar pick among out­doorsy folks. Keep a look­out for rolling duf­fles that zip into two bags, giv­ing you the extra con­ve­nience of a daypack.


Your lug­gage has one job and that is to car­ry your stuff. But why not let it do some orga­niz­ing, pro­tect­ing, and sep­a­rat­ing too?

Capacity/Volume: Dimen­sions (WxHxD) don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly give you an accu­rate read­ing on the gear-hold­ing capac­i­ty of your lug­gage. A bet­ter bet is to look at capac­i­ty, which is typ­i­cal­ly mea­sured in a vol­ume mea­sure­ment like Liters or cubic inches.

Weight: Try to strike a bal­ance between weight (lighter is bet­ter for haul­ing when you get off the beat­en track) and tough­ness (it’s best to buy lug­gage that likes it rough although a gen­er­al rule of thumb is: the tougher and more rein­forced the mate­r­i­al the heav­ier the lug­gage). Weight is mea­sured in pounds and can vary any­where from a few ounces to sev­er­al pounds. Wheeled lug­gage is heav­ier than packs and duffles.

Mate­r­i­al: For soft lug­gage, look for PVC poly­ester, Bal­lis­tic Nylon or poly­ester. For hard lug­gage, look for ABS plas­tic or oth­er poly plastics. 

Pock­ets: Wheeled lug­gage gen­er­al­ly falls short in this depart­ment when com­pared to packs. One nice type of pock­et is a side zip or front load that allows you to access your gear from mul­ti­ple angles. Easy-access pock­ets for water bot­tles or mag­a­zines (remem­ber those?) are great on car­ryons. When eval­u­at­ing the num­ber and style of pock­ets on your next poten­tial piece of lug­gage, pay atten­tion to the orga­ni­za­tion­al components.


Com­part­ments: Most large bags will have at least one divider. 

Cubes: Some brands have tak­en orga­ni­za­tions to a new lev­el by offer­ing com­part­ment cubes to keep items like dirty and clean clothes and dirty boots separated.

Web­bing and oth­er straps: These straps can be used to tie down your gear, clothes and oth­er belong­ings so they don’t shift dur­ing trans­port or when they’re tied by rope to a pile of packs on a sketchy bus. Many times straps can be found at the bottom.

Pro­tec­tion: Many wheeled bags, suit­cas­es and brief­cas­es include TSA approved locks (make sure they are or they’ll be bust­ed open when you touch down). For reg­u­lar trav­el through large air­ports, look for pro­tect­ed zip­pers to deter theft as air­port theft is way more com­mon­place than you may think.