This is a common dilemma for travelers anywhere in the world and it is no different when you are considering Chile and South America. Are you a backpacker stalwart or a wheeled bag convert? Or are you looking for something in the middle?
Personal preference, duration of trip, previous backpacking experiences, choice of accommodation and transport type will all influence in your decision. Chile, and South America in general, is a huge geographical space to travel around and offers plenty of both backpacker style and more luxury travel options. Some airports are small and local, some huge and international. Bus stations are close to town or on the very outskirts. It is wise to do your research and consider where, and how, you want to travel. The traditional travel styles that used to dictate that backpackers didn't frequent hotels or carry laptops, or that luxury hotels are only for the over 50s with matching hard-shell suitcases, no longer exist, in fact they are pretty much obsolete. Today anything goes!
Here are our thoughts on the pros and cons of backpacks or wheeled bags for you to throw into the mix. We hope they help you make the correct decision!
Pros of the Traditional Backpack
Hands-Free – this is the biggest pro for traveling with a backpack! It makes buying bus tickets, flagging down a ride, filling in check in forms, anything that require hands infinitely easier. Note: this only applies if you are not laden down with a day pack and three extra bags hanging from your arms too!
Easily Navigate Stairs, Streets, Subways etc – this is definitely true, as long as you are happy to walk up and down those stairs with a heavy backpack!
Comfortable – if you pay good money a decent backpack that has been tightened to your body shape should feel great, like an extension of your own body. The weight should fall on your hips and not on your shoulders. Avoid cheap options!
Easy to Store – if you are going to stay in hostels then the space available for storage does tend to be fairly reduced. Visualize a 6-bed dorm with just two people with large wheelie bags or hard-shell cases opened up on the floor and you can imagine the predicament! You can also store your backpack closer to you on a train as they usually fit in the overhead sections.
Perfect for multiple day hiking/camping trips – they fit in all your stuff, you don't care if it gets dirty and they have loads of pockets for rain jackets, snacks and water bottles.
Great for really rough terrain – there are plenty of places in Chile where the terrain underfoot is dusty and uneven. Wheeled luggage is not the best option if you definitely plan to move on foot from A to B.
Cons of the Traditional Backpack
Airline Travel – most baggage handlers don't care at all if your backpack was new and shiny when you checked it in. It will get thrown around and the contents dented. Be warned!
Packing Light – the larger the backpack the more stuff you can fit in it! Great! But that also means it will be heavier than you imagined. Especially after that "short" walk from the bus station turned into a 3-kilometer hike!
Accessibility of Your Stuff – even if you cleverly pack anticipating what you will next need, there will be something that gets left in the bottom! Always.
Cost – decent back packs are not cheap, at all. Shop wisely. See point on Comfort above.
Back Pain – it will happen at some point on a long trip with a backpack. There will be some days when you simply will not want to put that bear in your back at all. It is usually at that point when travelers begin coveting their neighbors' wheelie bag!
Pros of the Wheeled Bag
Not Having to Carry a Bag – this is pretty awesome when you are at the airport, in queues, checking in at hostels/hotels etc.
Ease of Packing/Organization – packing into something rectangular is infinitely easier than packing into a stand-up backpack. Always. It also means that you can find something quicker when you need it.
Airline Safe – no hanging down straps to get caught in carrousels and no external pockets from where things can get lost.
Able to Pack More – of course this depends on the size of the backpack we are comparing it with, but as a rule you can fit more into a rectangular wheeled bag that opens up almost completely, but of course that makes it heavier when you do have to pick it up!
Cons of the Wheeled Bag
Stairs – standing at the bottom of a long steep staircase with a heavy bag is a travelers nightmare! It is true that most places have lifts that you can take, but there will always be somewhere that won't. And it will probably be on the hottest day of the year too ☹
Broken Wheels – buy wisely and invest good money because a broken wheel is enough to destroy a trip... and may mean that you have to fork out for a new one half way through.
Train Travel Storage – almost all trains have storage for cases at the ends of each carriage but they fill up very fast so you may not have eyes on your luggage from your seat.
Harder to Store in Hostels – lockers are not really made for wheelie bags or cases, and the bed may not be high enough to shove it underneath. This is even more of a dilemma if you are on the top bunk.
Hands Full – if you have tickets in hand, plus a day pack, a jacket and a camera, you don't have free hands to pull you wheelie bag too. That is when a backpack really makes sense!
If you are still stuck there is an interesting alternative that many people go for when they can't decide: the Wheeled Bag with Backpack Straps.
However, (this is quite a big however!), it is common to hear that people never use the zip-away backpack straps. Ever. It is curious as one would imagine this would be the perfect alternative. The main reason seems to be that removing the straps and tucking them tidily back in again is not actually a very easy thing to do. It takes time and is often just not worth the hassle. If you can't wheel it for whatever reason, you can always carry it using the top and the side handles, so the hidden away straps do actually seem quite redundant and just add to the bulk of the bag unnecessarily.
So there you go! At the end of the day it is down to personal preference.
In summary: For long trips including multiple day hikes, hostel style lodging and bus or train travel, a backpack does make a lot of sense. For shorter trips (one month or under), with day excursions only, hotel or lodge style accommodation, and mainly plane (or hire car / fly drive) travel, a wheelie bag is just perfect.
Do bear in mind that a good day pack is an essential addition to both options and should be chosen with care. Don't choose one too big that ends up getting so stuffed with anything and everything that it ends up weighing over 15 kilos! And not so small that you can't fit in the day essentials such a camera, water, snacks, packed lunch, spare socks, wind jackets, extra layer and wallet. Good padded shoulder straps and side pockets for bottles are great extras. So are those that offer lots of pockets, but avoid those that have too many as the backpack can end up bulked out and square in size which tips your weight backwards and affects your center of gravity.
When you come to Pucón and take on the full day ascent of Villarrica volcano, you will get a day pack included with the equipment that is provided by Sol y Nieve. These packs are the perfect size for everything you need and will stop yours from getting scraped on the very wonderful toboggan style slide through the snow from the summit!
Happy luggage shopping! For more information on activity options in Pucón contact Sol y Nieve here today. We look forward to welcoming backpackers or wheelie bag carriers alike!
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