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.