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The Points & Miles Backpacker: How Not to Be a Hobo

Oct. 29, 2018
7 min read
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There is a rift in the travel community which can most generally be broken down into whether your luggage has wheels or not. When Travelpro created the Rollaboard in the late '80s, most travelers rejoiced, but backpack loyalists didn't convert. Carrying a backpack with weight distributed correctly on the hips was never a problem, especially if packing light. But with wheels on luggage, you know what suddenly did become a problem? Stairs, curbs, puddles, sand, cobblestone and pretty much any unpaved terrain.

When wheels were added to luggage, travel changed forever, for some. Image courtesy of Travelpro.

And thus, a wedge was formed. Rollaboards became the preferred, commonsense choice for travelers looking for comfort, ease and their interpretation of efficiency. Backpackers stayed true to their namesake and wore packs on their back like rugged badges of honor and fitness, representing their interpretation of efficiency.


In unfortunate, stereotypical extremes, perhaps a backpacker associates all rolling luggage travelers with the one suited businessman who scoffed at him for lining up with the wrong boarding group. Or the rollaboarders who don't make space for a passing lane on an escalator, believing if steps are moving no one could also walk up and down them. And where does the wheeled madness stop? Skateboards in airports?

On the other hand, maybe when a rolling-suitcase traveler sees a backpack they remember one that unapologetically bumped into them on a subway platform. Or they once caught a stray backpack strap in the eye during boarding while sitting in an aisle seat.

We backpackers can do our part to shake these stereotypes and coexist with our wheeling counterparts.


While backpacking, we don't hold ourselves or each other to the same hygiene standards as normal society. Deodorant will often suffice, clothes may be worn more than usual, and we've all gotten that look from a hostel receptionist that says “Haven't you been here three days?” when we ask where the showers are.

There is a minimum standard, however. Try these hacks to meet this standard without frequent laundry, daily showers or spending valuable adventure time doing your hair.

Shower Hack

You'll be amazed how much cleaner you feel after a quick face wash followed by a wipe down of your worst-offending areas with baby wipes. Even damp paper towels or toilet paper with a bit of soap works in a pinch. Follow that with a fresh application of deodorant and you've bought yourself another day.

Hair Wash Hack

Showers themselves are time-consuming enough, but dealing with wet hair ensures showers aren't an everyday routine. Dry shampoo powder is a great substitute when hair starts to get grungy. Sprinkle a bit on, rub it in and you're good to go. Likewise, headbands can serve the dual purpose of paying homage to '80s glam rock and keeping your greasy locks hidden.

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Headbands: Fashion statement or is she hiding something? (Imge by the author)

For longer term low maintenance, a braid will disguise dirty hair for several days, and cornrows even longer. When you venture into dreadlock territory, though, you're not fooling anyone anymore.

Laundry Hack

I was turned on to merino wool in the comments of this article (thanks readers!), and while I'm still adjusting to the mild itchiness, I've been pleasantly surprised with how long it can go without smelling. Cotton shirts and especially socks can start to stink after a day, and without frequent access to laundry, smelly clothes in a backpack become contagious. Merino wool doesn't come cheap, with shirts starting around $50, but when you consider it taking the place of three regular t-shirts and saving you space and time, it's easily worth it.

The makers of Smartwool definitely got the name right. Image courtesy of Smartwool.

For your smaller and more immediate laundry needs when you're not ready for a full-blown laundry day, pick up a small laundry soap bar, and carry it in a mini soap dish. I've had much better luck finding these laundry bars abroad, particularly in developing countries. Then scrub down a couple pairs of socks and underwear in the shower with you (regular soap could even work, but most hostels don't like you doing laundry in the sink). Unless you have a dedicated space to dry your laundry, try to keep the load minimal. You don't want to monopolize every spare hook and windowsill with your drying undies.

Backpack Etiquette

While rollaboarders think backpackers are carrying unnecessary weight, we see our backpacks as a part of us. And with our luggage secured to our bodies, we don't have to drag it behind us, leaving twice as many free hands as our critics.

However, that pack adds at least a foot to your back side. And with the distance your pack stretches out from your pivot point, it can turn you into Raccoon Mario from Super Mario Bros 3, taking out anyone in your vicinity with a turn. You also lack nerve endings on this new appendage, meaning if you smother someone's face while trying to remove your backpack in an airplane aisle, you'll have no idea you owe them an apology.

The best etiquette in to remove your backpack before boarding a crowded bus, train or plane. It is annoying to carry your pack all the way down an airplane aisle (you can remove it on the jet bridge), but your fellow passengers will be grateful. Exceptions can be made if you're one of the first to board or your transit vessel is empty — and if you're double-packing, your front pack can remain on. But if you're dealing with even a moderate crowd, no amount of carefulness will fully protect those around you from a rogue buckle.

Bridging the Gap

Let's not let travel styles divide us. We are all more alike than our different looks would lead you to believe. Many travelers who opt for wheels now still keep their sentimental, patch-laden backpack in storage from their backpacking trip across Europe in the '70s. And I've actually done more travel in business casual pulling a rollaboard behind me than you would ever guess.

So let's have some self-awareness and empathy for those other travelers. We backpackers can achieve societal acceptance without selling ourselves to societal conformity.

The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to !