Green Hoboroll

Packing Cubes vs Hoboroll: the Battle for My Backpack

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There are many great things about my backpack. It has the best harness I’ve ever used, it’s easy to secure, and its 50 litre size means I’m never tempted to pack more stuff than I can easily carry.

Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself, ever since I bought it a little over three years ago. I’ve been on the road for around 18 months now, though, and despite my best efforts the little bit of extra space I’d always had in my backpack had magically disappeared.

Over the course of a year and half, the occasional extra t-shirt here or book there had left my pack bulging and zips straining. It was time to either throw a bunch of stuff out, or find an inventive way to fit a little more gear into the same space.

When throwing a few things out didn’t make as much difference as I’d hoped, I opted for plan B instead.

Packing Cubes

I’d always seen packing cubes as the kind of thing that corporate warriors and middle-aged vacationers used, so had never investigated them in the past.

While idly wandering around an outdoor store in Australia late last year (yes, that’s the kind of thing I tend to do), however, I noticed they had a sale on some basic-looking cubes of various sizes. I grabbed one medium and two small ones for a little under thirty bucks, and headed home to try them out.

Stuff in packing cube

I’d hoped the semi-rigid sides of the cubes would let me pack items together more tightly than the ‘roll things up and stuff them into gaps’ approach I’d used in the past, but it didn’t really seem to happen. While everything fitted neatly into my bag, the fixed size and shapes of the cubes led to more wasted space than expected. Overall, I didn’t seem to gain any room whatsoever by using the three cubes.

Where they were useful, however, was on a subsequent two-month road trip through New Zealand. Being able to separate my gear into cubes for ‘every day’ and ‘now and then’ made it super-easy to just take what I needed when checking in to a hostel, then pack it back up and throw it in the boot/trunk when leaving again.

I used the cubes for about six weeks, and while I was happy enough with them, I couldn’t imagine myself persevering with them once the road trip was over. Without a car, they just didn’t give me much benefit in my backpack.


The folks at Gobi Gear contacted me a while back about reviewing their Hoboroll packing solution, and once we’d actually figured out somewhere in the world I could have it posted to (ahh, the joys of a life on the road), sent a bright green one out for me to take a look at.

It’s an interesting piece of luggage, occupying a middle ground between a day pack and a compression sack. Made of heavy-grade nylon fabric, it’s essentially a smallish cylinder that splits internally into five sections, with drawstrings on both ends to cinch the openings, and a strap and buckle system for applying compression and carrying the Hoboroll.

Although the company website boasts space reductions of up to 50%, my real-world testing yielded far more modest gains of around 10-20% depending what I put inside. Highly compressible items like clothing are obviously better than things like books and shoes, and aiming for an even size distribution in each compartment helps as well.

Still, even these smaller gains make a noticeable difference. No longer do I have to force the zips on my backpack, or spend an extra few minutes rearranging stuff before rushing off to catch the train I’m already late for.

I haven’t used the Hoboroll properly on its own yet (ie, outside my backpack), but the little testing I have done makes it seem handy for an overnight trip, with some basic water and dust protection thrown in.

I have a minor concern about the durability of the plastic buckles — they’ve popped open a few times as I’ve been compressing the Hoboroll, but that could well be due more to over-stuffing it and pulling too hard on the straps than any real design flaw.

So What Do I Use Now?

After trying out both options for several weeks, which one did I settle on long-term? Well, surprisingly, the answer was: both. I gave away my two small packing cubes, but kept the larger one to store an assortment of miscellaneous stuff that doesn’t compress and I don’t use all the time. A heavy pair of shoes, a book or two, my first aid kit, that kind of thing.

It fits snugly into the middle part of my backpack, and the relatively square nature of the things I keep in it means it doesn’t waste too much space.

I decided to also keep using the Hoboroll for compressible stuff. Most of my clothes get rolled up and put into it, and I jam it down into the base of my pack with a few other items squashed around it. It’s not as convenient as the cubes to pack and unpack, but the space saving makes it more useful on a day-to-day basis.

So there we go. There’s no clear winner, but I have found a solution that works better for me than the method I’d used for the better part of 15 years, and it’s not too often I can say that.

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  1. I’ve picked up some of those compression bags, that basically just look like a Ziploc but you squish them and the air goes out through a one-way valve. The Hoboroll looks like a good idea, but I just picked up a 3 pack of compression bags for $10, sooooo…yeah.

    What I also like about them is that you’re not putting pressure on the main pack. Once you get the compression bag free of air, it’s just air pressure from the outside keeping it flat, meaning it’s doing no damage to anything anywhere. I actually broke a pack frame from overstuffing it, so I’m glad this’ll keep things from bursting.

    1. That’s a pretty damn great price for those compression bags. I think the Hoboroll is best for people who want to use it as a daypack here and there as well – it’s definitely more multi-purpose than the other options.

  2. I use packing cubes and a Hoboroll, too! The cubes are great for organizing (tops go in one, bottoms in another, etc.) and then all the random stuff (socks, underwear, towel, etc.) go into the roll so they don’t get lost in the depths of my pack. So far it’s a system that works for me!

    1. And I think that’s the most important thing – finding a system that works for you. A lot also depends on the style of your travel and the size of your backpack/suitcase, I reckon.

  3. I highly recommend you try a Packing Folder by Eagle Creek. It is my favorite packing accessory and have been using them for a long time. The folders are great for keeping shirts organized and wrinkle free. I use cubes for everything else.

  4. I’m a big fan of cubes and compressions sacks. Everything has a place in my pack and is easy to account for when packing up to leave. I actually prefer the smaller cubes/sacks as they are easier to organise into your pack.

    I also recently modified my cubes to sew on some compression straps, the idea being that I can roll them up and compact them down. I’ll give them a trial run shortly…

    I couldn’t stand travelling without them. My travelling partner goes with the ‘random’ approach where everything is tossed into his pack. Stuff ends up all over the floor each time he looks for something. And trying to find anything is a mission in itself. It drives me nuts!

    1. I think the ‘random’ approach is especially bad when using top-loading backpacks … as evidenced by a certain girlfriend of mine who only seems to have a bottom of her bag. As in, everything she needs is always at the bottom.

      My pack is front-loading, so finding things was never as bad – but it’s definitely easier now!

  5. I’ve also sung the merits of packing cubes on my blog and posed the question of whether they were a Kiwi thing or not so it was funny to come across your (a fellow Kiwi) post. I think the Hoboroll looks great for those times when you want to stash your main pack somewhere and take off for a weekend. I’ve often just used a little daypack for that but this way you could take both if you wanted, thus reserving the daypack soley for camera gear.

  6. Packing cubes are an absolute essential backpacking! Didn’t have them throughout Asia and had to pull everything out of the bag to get to items, clothes all unroll etc. etc. nightmare! Hence before Europe bought some packing cells and they are amazing.

  7. I’ve just ‘found’ the joys of packing cubes and I have to say that I’m a little bit in love with them.
    I was very much a ‘bottom of the bag’ girl like you know who but since I found the cubes, I’m thinking ‘where have you been all my life’ – SO organised now and I LOVE it haha

  8. I think I prefer packing cubes, they keep you organized and you can find things easily.

  9. Has anyone tried just plain ziploc freezer bags? They are water tight, easy to organize, and you can squeeze the air out for lots of extra space. I always get the large ones, and if I fold/roll my dressier items for a night out with tissue paper they never get wrinkled. Super cheap too!

  10. I’ve been debating giving the hoboroll a try, but I’m mostly concerned with the extra weight and space from the internals. After reading this, I think I’ll give it a shot.