Suitcase or Backpack: Which is Best for South America?

Suitcase or backpack - which is best for South America? Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of each option to help you decide which is best for your type of trip.

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Should I Take A Suitcase Or Backpack To South America?

I always recommend taking a backpack to South America, preferably one with wheels too.

 

Suitcase are designed for short city breaks and holidays.

 

And most people travelling to South America are backpacking and going through multiple countries so a backpack is more suitable for this type of trip.

 

Here’s what I recommend:

 

 

  • Suitcase – preferable for shorter trips (1-2 weeks) to South America where you are staying in hotels and sticking to one location.
  • Backpack – this is better for backpackers staying in hostels on a medium length trip (3-4 weeks) to South America. The compact nature of the backpack makes it easier to store in hostels.
  • Wheeled hybrid backpack – this is the best of both worlds and I recommend this option for travellers on extended trips (1-3 months) to South America. The wheels make it easier when you are moving around but the shape and size make it suitable for hostels.
Table comparing a suitcase to a backpack for travelling South America

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Pros and Cons of a Suitcase for South America

Suitcases are durable and most come with their own lock so a suitcase is a secure luggage option for South America.

 

However, my biggest issue with them whilst travelling South America is the size and shape.

They usually don’t fit in horizontal lockers underneath dorm beds, and they take up a lot of room when opened.

 

If you are on a short trip (1-3 weeks) to South America and staying in Airbnbs or hotels then a suitcase is a great shout.

 

However, if you are staying in hostels, I would recommend a backpack over a suitcase.

Pros Of A Suitcase For South America:

Pros of a Suitcase for South America
  • Durability: Suitcases are typically built to withstand rough handling during travel, protecting your belongings.

 

  • Internal Lock: Many suitcases come with built-in locks for added security.

 

  • Wheels: Easy to transport through airports and cities, and you can wear a daypack on your back while wheeling the suitcase.

Cons Of A Suitcase For South America:

Cons of a Suitcase for South America
  • Terrain Limitations: Some towns and areas, like Cusco, have uneven terrain and are less suitable for two-four wheeled luggage. This can be annoying whilst you move from the bus station to your hostel, but overall is a minor inconvenience.

 

  • Limited Mobility: You can’t wear a suitcase on your back, making it less versatile for certain situations. In some parts of South America, it will cause problems. Take for example, reaching Aguas Calientes by bus. You are dropped off 2 hours away (as there’s no roads) and will have to walk along traintracks for two hours. In cases such as this, you need to put your bag on your bag. 
  • Space Requirement: Suitcases take up more room when opened, which can be problematic in tight spaces. If you are staying in a 6-12 bunk dorm, then you will be constrained for space and may find this frustrating when looking for things in your bag or getting ready.

 

  • Locker Challenges: Large suitcases may not fit in hostel dorm lockers. Due to the square shape, depth and lack of flexibility, your suitcase may struggle to fit into the lockers underneath beds. Again, this can be dealt with if your suitcase has a good lock.

Can You Travel South America With A Suitcase?

Yes, you can travel South America with a suitcase. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it can be done.

 

If you are on a short trip to South America and staying in hotels then a suitcase is totally fine.

 

If you’re on a longer trip , staying in hostels and moving around a lot, then you may start to get frustrated with it. But even then, nothings going to go wrong.

 

If you decide to stick with suitcase, make sure you have a good waterproof daypack that can be taken out during the day for exploring and/or hiking trips (I’ve recommended a good one below).

What’s The Best Suitcase For South America?

The best suitcase for South America is one with a hard-shell and a good lock.

 

I recommend the Samsonite Omni PC Hardside Expandable 20″.  

 

This is my preferred suitcase for short weekend getaways in Europe as it fits in the overheard compartments on planes. 

 

It would work well for short trips to South America, for example a couple of weeks on the beach in Brazil.

 

If you are well and truly set on taking a suitcase on an extended trip to South America, then try the Hardside 28″. 

Pros and Cons of a Backpack for South America

Backpacks are malleable, compact and come with extra storage, making them perfect for backpackers on extended adventures through South America.

 

They are usually the cheapest option as well which is great for first time travellers.

 

If you are on a medium length trip (3-6 weeks) then a backpack is a good choice for South America. You won’t have a lot of luggage and you can carry it on your back without having to worry about how heavy it is.

 

They are also traditionally used for multi-day hiking so if you are planning any extended treks in South America then this is your option.

Pros Of A Backpack For South America:

Pros of a Backpack For South America
  • Comfort: Backpacks can be comfortably worn on your back for extended periods. With padded shoulder straps and hip straps, so you have lots of support when carrying it on your bag on your back.

 

  • Compact: They take up less room when opened, making them more convenient in tight quarters. In a dorm room, my backpack would sit upright against a wall taking up minimum room. When I wanted to open it, I could just unzip a panel unlike a suitcase which essentially doubles in width when opened.

 

  • Easy Access: Many backpacks have side panels for easy access. Depending on the type of backpack, you usually have multiple access points. Most have a simple top opening to grab stuff whilst others have a zips and foldable flaps to quickly find something in your bag without opening the entire thing.

 

  • Locker-Friendly: Backpacks can often fit into hostel dorm lockers, providing secure storage. Most decent hostels in South America have deep and wide lockers underneath your bed. I would always store my big backpack in here at night and when leaving the hostel. Another bonus is that backpacks are more flexible so if it didn’t fit, I could take out packing cubes until it did.

 

  • Built for Outdoors backpacks are designed to deal with the outdoors. Most come with rain covers, hydration sleeves and additional clips to attach stuff too. If you are planning on travelling with just one bag and will be spending time hiking outdoors, this is the better choice.

Cons Of A Backpack For South America:

Cons of a Backpack For South America
  • Front-Carrying Requirement: By having a big backpack on your back, you may need to carry a daypack on your front or in your hand. This could be frustrating at times if you are having to walk long distances.

 

  • Durability: Backpacks may not be as durable as hard-shell suitcases. Your valuable items may be damaged if the backpack is thrown around by airport or bus staff. I would recommend you keep most of your valuable items like laptops and cameras in a daypack as a carry on when flying.

 

  • Lack of Lock: Unlike suitcases, most backpacks do not have built-in locks. However, you can deal with this by locking your valuables away in lockers when staying in dorms.

 

  • Carrying Requirement: You’ll need to always carry your backpack on your back, which can be tiring.

What’s The Best Backpack For South America?

The best backpack for South America is the Osprey Farpoint 50-70L.

 

It’s reasonably priced and perfect for first time backpackers visiting South America.

 

It also comes with a 15L detachable day pack.

 

This is great for two reasons:

 

1) You can attach them together when on the move and check them both as one back for flights.

2) You can then detach the smaller pack when you’re in one place to use it as a day pack  when exploring.

 

If you’re planning on hiking and doing your own camping, then a more technical hiking backpack may be the one for you.

 

The best option is the 65L Atmos AG. 

Best Backpack For South America (Osprey Farpoint)
Best Backpack For South America (Osprey Farpoint)

Pros and Cons of a Hybrid Roller Backpack for South America

A wheeled backpack hybrid is the best of both worlds when travelling South America.

 

You can still wear it on your back if needed with only a small sacrifice in comfort compared to one without wheels, and you can also wheel it.

 

And trust me, you’ll end up wheeling it 99% of the time

 

You also get the durability of a suitcase, as the bottom and side panels are usually reinforced. But you also get the compact shape and accessibility of a backpack.

 

It can be stored upright, taking up minimal room, and opened easily without doubling in width like a suitcase would.

 

Don’t be that person that’s taking up the entire dorm floor with their suitcase.

 

Finally, with a wheeled backpack, you can then wear a daypack on your back containing all your valuables.

 

This is the best luggage set up for travelling South America in my opinion.

Pros Of A Hybrid Roller Backpack For South America:

Pros Of A Hybrid Roller Backpack For South America
  • Versatility: Hybrid roller backpacks can be worn on your back or wheeled, offering the best of both worlds. This came in handy a couple of times in South America where the terrain was rough or dirty. In Cusco, walking along cobbled streets I would simply switch my roller to backpack mode or just carry it using the side handles.

 

  • Space Efficiency: They take up less room when opened, making them suitable for tight spaces in dorms.

 

  • Easy Access: Many hybrid options feature side panels and extra storage for convenient organization.

 

  • Durability: These bags are designed for rugged use. The sides and bottom panels are tough like a suitcase, but the top panel is flexible to zip it open and roll back.

 

  • Locker Options: Depending on the size, some hybrid roller backpacks can fit in hostel lockers.

Cons Of A Hybrid Roller Backpack For South America:

Cons Of A Hybrid Roller Backpack For South America
  • Lack of Lock: Unlike traditional suitcases, many hybrid roller backpacks do not have built-in locks. However most modern ones come with lockable zippers that a padlock can be put through.

 

  • Switching: Depending on how the straps are designed, it can be tricky to switch between backpack mode and roller mode. Some straps are zipped away in a compartment.

What is the Best Hybrid Roller Backpack for South America?

In my opinion, the best hybrid roller backpack for South America is the Osprey Sojourn Wheeled 65-80L.

 

With a 65 and 80L liter capacity options, it offers a good amount of space for extended travel of a month or more.

 

The extendable handles and tidy wheels make it easy to pull but don’t get in the way when carrying it in backpack mode. And the shoulder and hip straps also make it easy to put on your back.

 

Out of all three options – suitcase, backpack and wheeled hybrid – the Sojourn Wheeled is my pick for the best backpack to take to South America.

What Size Backpack Should I Take to South America?

The size of the backpack you should take to South America depends on several things such as;

 

  • the length of your trip
  • the numbers of countries you plan to visit
  • and the activities you intend to undertake.

Here are some recommendations for which size backpack to take based on specific countries and time frames:

Table showing what size of backpack to take to South America

What Size Backpack Do I Need for Colombia?

For Colombia, I think a backpack in the range of 40-60 litres is recommended, along with a small daypack.

 

The country’s warm climate means you’ll primarily be in shorts and sandals most of the time.

 

Hiking boots are only be necessary if you plan to do a multi-day trek like the Lost City Trek. But this could easily be done with a sturdy pair of trainers or trail shoes instead.

 

With two pairs of shoes, a couple of pairs of shorts, t shirts and vests, and a jumper for cold evenings, 40-60L is more than enough for backpacking Colombia.

 

 

What Size Backpack Do I Need for Peru?

Peru has a variety of micro-climates, from warm desert to cold high altitude mountains.

 

You’ll need more space for both warm and cold weather clothes so I recommend a 60-70-liter backpack. I’d also invest in a 30-40L daypack too.

 

Most people going to Peru are planning on hiking so you’ll need the extra space for hiking boots too.

 

From Lima to Paracas, you’ll experience temperate climates with little rain so shorts and t-shirts are great but don’t be fooled.

 

As you travel to higher elevations like Cusco, you’ll need warm clothing regardless of the time of year. It might be warm and sunny in the day but high altitude towns are always cold at night.  

 

The extra 30-40L in your daypack will ensure you have space for layers and hiking gear.

 

 

What Size Backpack Do I Need For Chile And Argentina (Patagonia)?

I would recommend a 70-80 litre backpack with a 40L daypack if you are planning to visit Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia.

 

The extra 10-20L in your backpack will be necessary for extra gear needed when completing multi-day treks. This includes extra base layers, jumpers etc and waterproofs.

 

A bigger 40L daypack is needed for multi-day trekking too.

 

It’s unlikely that you’ll take your 70-80L backpack with you on a multi-day trek. For example, when I did the 5-day W-trek in Torres Del Paine, I took my 40L daypack and locked my 85L in storage at my hostel in Puerto Natales.

 

In my 40L, I had my camera gear, x3 pairs of socks, x3 underwear, base layers, jumper and windbreaker for a 4-day trek. 

 

This took up about 30L and the extra space was for my packed lunch, water and snacks each day.

 

 

What’s The Best Day Pack For South America?

The best day pack for South America in my opinion is the Tortuga 40L Travel backpack.

 

You get the space and organization of a suitcase with the comfort and flexibility of a backpack.

 

Here’s why it’s so great:

Best backpack for South America (Tortuga 40L)
Best backpack for South America (Tortuga 40L open)
  • 40L capacity – so it can be taken as carry-on luggage on the plane.

 

  • Padded laptop sleeve – to protect your gear.

 

  • Waterproof – you’ll be using your day pack walking around cities but also whilst hiking, therefore it needs to be waterproof.

 

  • Water bottle holder – being able to hold a water bottle on the outside of the pack is essential for easy access and to save room.

 

  • Comfortable – padded shoulder straps but also chest and/or hip straps to distribute the weight. This is useful when hiking as carrying 40L over 20-30km will eventually hurt your shoulders and back.

 

  • Storage – several sleeves and compartments for your passport, laptop, tech, and other important gear.

What Other Luggage Do I Need When Travelling South America?

The 60+L wheeled backpack and 30+L daypack is best luggage combo when travelling South America.

 

One other bag I think is useful and necessary is the fanny pack.

 

This is useful for several reasons:

 

 

  • Easier to access – I usually keep my passport and phone in a fanny pack across my chest when in airports to access them easier when I reach the gate. Its also useful to keep with me when on the plane with essentials so I don’t have to keep getting up and getting things from my bag.

 

  • Safety – having a fanny pack around your chest or hip is a safer way to store important items.

 

  • Extra space – at times during my South America trip I would buy something extra which would overload my back. Having a fanny pack meant I could take a few items out of my day pack to lighten the load.

 

  • Simple – on days when I want to explore a new city but not take a bag, I could just chuck a few essentials in my fanny pack and sling my camera over my shoulder.

 

Two other bags I think are useful but not always necessary are packable daypacks and wet bags.

Best Fannypack for South America (Matador Freerain)
Best Fannypack for South America (Matador Freerain)

What’s The Best Fanny Pack For South America?

A waterproof fanny pack is essential for when you are travelling South America.

 

The weather in South America is erratic.

 

One minute it will be hot and the next it will be raining. There’s nothing worse than getting caught in a shower in the Andes and for all your gear to be soaked.

 

I am a big fan of the Matador Packable Range.

 

Their gear packs down into much smaller sizes so it can be stored away when you’re not using it.

 

And most of the bags are waterproof and designed for the outdoors.

 

 

What’s The Best Packable Day Pack For South America?

Again, Matador wins here with top quality packable waterproof daypacks.

 

You can use this when you go to the beach as an alternative bag to your daypack. 

 

Best Packable Day Pack For South America (Matador Freerain 22)
Best Drybag For South America (Matador Flatpack Drybag)

What’s The Best Drybag For South America?

A dry bag can also be useful when going to the beach or when you are around water to protect your gear.

 

Or simply as an extra layer of protection for items you don’t want to get wet.

 

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