The Best Travel Duffel Bags
Which duffel bag should you take on your next adventure? We took our favorite burly travel bags (aka "duffle", but more properly spelled "el" for the town of Duffel in Belgium that first manufactured them) and compared them head-to-head to help you decide. We tested them while running through airports in Chamonix, dragging them on sleds across the Alaska Range and stashing them in the rain for weeks on end in Patagonia, packing them on mules in the Andes of Bolivia and Argentina. Recently we also picked our three favorite rolling duffels and scored them in a similar fashion. While there are literally hundreds of options, we preemptively narrowed it down to only include our tester's favorites'. Find out which duffel bags scored the highest, and which will meet your needs the best, by reading below.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Runner Up for Wheeled Duffel
The North Face Rolling Thunder was nearly our Editors' Choice for our favorite rolling duffel but was just barely edged out by the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel because it shares many of the same features but is lighter. We do think the Rolling Thunder remains a incredible strong contender and an outstanding piece of luggage for any air traveler. While a little heavier, the Rolling Thunder features more pockets and compartments (making for better organizational ability) and beefier frame. We also think its marginally more durable and weather resistant and will likely straight-up outlast 99% of bags out there.
Analysis and Test Results
Duffel Bag Buying Advice.
But first a little history: the name comes from Duffel, a town in Belgium where the thick cloth used to make the bag originated.
Wheeled bag versus a more traditional duffel
One of the first questions people often ask themselves before buying a piece of luggage is: Should I buy a bag with wheels on it?
Wheels obviously make it far easier to move the bag around on paved roads or other fairly even surfaces; and for most air travel applications are far easier to deal with. The big advantages of more traditional duffels over wheeled versions is weight. Wheeled duffels are always heavier, most often 4-6 pounds heavier, meaning you get to bring 4-6 pounds more of your own stuff by going with a non-wheeled, non-framed duffel. More traditional duffels are also easier to carry anytime you are not on a smooth surface. While the wheels help on pavement, they are a down-right hassle when the going gets rough. Wheeled bags typically offer limited, or no other carrying options; making traveling with them difficult in remote or exotic locations. Its often far easier to deal with non-wheel luggage when you are strapping your bag to jeeps, yaks, sleds, snowmobiles, Llamas, rafts or anything else that your adventure might require. Lastly we've experienced flying in small 2-5 person "commercial" planes that wouldn't let us bring hard sided luggage along.
Ease of Packing
In our Ease of Packing category, we compared how easily it was to load each bag with both normal travel items, as well as oddly shaped things that many people might want to travel with. We also compared how easily it was stay organized using smaller pockets and compartments as well as how much of a hassle it was to search for items, and then zip everything shut again when we were finished. After dozens of trips of actual in-the-field testing and direct side-by-side comparisons we liked the big D-shaped openings rather than an straight "I" style zippered opening.
As far as organization goes, having a few zippered pockets goes a long way and the The North Face Rolling Thunder offered the best level of organization using a review high eight compartments that we thought were all very well thought-out. Among non wheel duffels our top pick for organization is The North Face Base Camp Duffel with the latest model offering a a size-able external zippered pocket and an internal mesh divider. After using the newer Base Camp duffel on just a few trips our testing team unanimously gave the thumbs up to this additional pocket which added just enough organizational options .
Patagonia Black Hole Duffel and the Rolling Thunder both. Our testers though having the pocket divided made it significantly more useful compared to the single giant mesh pocket. Our Editors' Choice The North Face Base Camp just had one large inner mesh zippered pocket, which was nice, but we liked the two smaller ones on the Black Hole and Rolling thunder better. Many of the bags had flat outside zippered pockets. While this is nice, we thought these pockets were hard to get our hands into when the bags were full.
Ability to Carry and Ease of Transport
Gregory Alpaca, which has a removable single shoulder strap in addition to its backpack straps, and the Patagonia Black Hole that featured the most comfortable shoulder straps, something that we appreciated carrying it for up to an hour at a time. The North Face Base Camp's shoulder straps were also among the top scores in this category. The Base Camp featured very articulated, backpack shoulder strap like shoulder straps that used high quality foam that didn't just collapse under loads. The least comfortable of the backpack-style bags was the Mountain Hardwear Expedition. Its shoulder straps were the least comfortable for long periods due to the short distance between attachment points of the straps. While the shoulder straps on most of the duffels we tested were removable, Helly Hansen made it one step easier and on both of their 50 and 90L models used a cool design, the shoulder straps just un-clip from one end and easily tuck away in a pocket just below the end of the bag, similar to a haul bag.
Any bag with wheels obviously performs better than non-wheeled versions when it comes to transporting your luggage in the airport or on other smooth surfaces. There are a lot of good (and bad) wheeled bags out there. So we looked at several models and selected our favorite three and compared them here in this review. Among our top three favorite rolling duffels a feature we looked for and that they all shared is larger-than-average wheel size. Larger diameter wheels help rolling luggage to be moved more easily over un-even terrain like gravel, grass, or simply very poorly paved streets far more easily. Even though the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel wheels were only half an inch larger than The North Face Models all of our testers felt it performed noticeably better on more rugged surfaces.
Frame stiffness and extended handle height
Two of the biggest factors that contribute to how easy a bag is to maneuver are how stiff its frame and handle are, as well as how far its' handle extends. With lighter loads it makes little difference, but once a piece of luggage is packed so heavy that the frame or the extended handle start to bend it means the user is forced to support more weight making travel through busy airports more difficult. We really liked each of the rolling bags in our review but this is one category where the The North Face Longhaul 30" and The North Face Rolling Thunder 30" really stood out because of their frame and handle bar stiffness and even with 60+ pounds these bags performed fantastically. One thing worth noting is the Rolling Thunder 36" does not feature an extendable handle and instead uses two diagonal handles to save weight. We thought these worked fine, but liked a more traditional handle a little more.
We liked the North Face Base Camp, Patagonia Black Hole and Gregory Alpaca's small side daisy chains to facilitate lashing to yaks, trucks or whatever else you might need. This feature is what helped the Base Camp and the Alpaca rank a hair above the others in this category. The Base Camp's long row of twin daisys that are made of a burly nylon material and are well sewn to inspire confidence. While less useful for standard airline travel, once we left the beaten path we used these daisys dozen of times in all manner of ways to better secure our bags.
While all the contenders we looked at were tough, but the The North Face Base Camp Duffel, Gregory Alpaca Patagonia Black Hole Duffel, The North Face Rolling Thunder proved the toughest.
The North Face Base Camp remains among the most durable duffels we've ever tested. Tester Ian Nicholson has used one on over 20 expeditions and we spoke to over a dozen other OutdoorGearLab friends who have them and they are still going strong. They all feature the burliest material, big overlap stitching and YKK #10 zippers. Toughness was a prerequisite for this review and each of these duffels is bomber enough for most travelers.
Among the wheeled bags we think The North Face Rolling Thunder was slightly more durable than the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel and noticeably tougher than the North Face Long Haul 30". That said all of these rolling duffels are among the most durable wheeled luggage on the market and will last even the hardest traveler a long time.
Weight is one of the biggest advantages of more traditional duffels over their wheeled counter parts often being 4-6 pounds lighter. The Patagonia Black Hole (3lbs) was the lightest tested. The Mountain Hardwear Expedition was heaviest at nearly five pounds for a comparable volume. If you are someone who is regularly battling with the 50-pound weight restriction of the airlines, then these could give you a few more pounds of gear.
Among the Wheeled duffels the Patagonia Black Hole wheeled duffel is the lightest at 8lbs 10 oz, nearly 1-1.5 pounds lighter than either the The North Face Rolling Thunder or the Long Haul 30".
Besides using them in the field we put dry towels inside and sprayed them with a hose in our driveway. The result: the Mountain Hardwear Expedition was the most weather resistant with all the rest close behind. Among the wheeled bags we thought The North Face Rolling Thunder and the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel were similar and both more weather resistant than The North Face Long Haul 30".
If you are looking for a travel bag geared more towards airline travel, then check out our review of The Best Carry-On Luggage. Our favorites include the Travelpro Maxlite 3 22 and the REI Wheely Beast 22. Both bags had wonderful storage abilities and were very easy to transport through an airport.
We also recommend taking a look at The Best Travel Backpack Review for a look at smaller travel bags dedicated to be carried on your back.
Ask an Expert: Graham Zimmerman
Outdoor Research athlete and geophysicist Graham Zimmerman knows a thing or two about duffel bags. Whether he's packing up for his first ascent of the northeast buttress of Mt. Laurens in Alaska (which earned him and partner Mark Allen a Piolet D'Or nomination – the premier award for alpinism) or organizing his gear for two-month surveying expeditions in Northern Saskatchewan or North East Africa, he's using duffels bags – and lots of them! Graham gave us his advice on what top features he looks for in a duffel, and tips and tricks for travelling with them. You can read more about his adventures on his blog.
What are the most important features you look for when selecting a bag?
I think that the most important things are durability and weight. There are a lot of duffel bags that are overbuilt, and therefore heavier. I prefer bags that are simple and can carry as much gear as possible. I also need duffels that are going to withstand the different types of terrain that I travel in, whether it's strapped to the back of a truck for an 18 hour trip through Northern Saskatchewan, or dropped onto a remote glacier in Alaska.
One feature that I do really like is a white interior. It reflects light back into the bag and makes your gear a lot more visible. And just say no to roller wheels.
What is your ideal size duffel bag?
Lots of times when I travel, I'll have one small 70L duffel with all of the things that I might need before I get to my destination. That's the one that I'm getting in and out of all the time. Then I'll have as many of the large 140L duffels that I need to contain my climbing gear or surveying equipment – usually two to four bags.
What's the most number of duffels you've travelled with?
I had a trip back home from Nepal where I ended up with three 70lb duffels, two 50lb duffels, and a backpack. And then I had to take them on the public transportation system in Seattle. That was awesome.
How do you pack your duffel bags?
I use a lot of stuff sacks to pack and sort my gear. I will always have a large stuff sack specifically for dirty clothes, and then I think about what I am going to need first and put that on top. I also try to be conscious of where my breakable items are, and don't pack my down jacket next to my crampons. I usually travel with one or two pelican cases for the sensitive stuff like my sensors or cameras.
Do you prefer a duffel with interior compartments and pockets or a big empty space?
I prefer a big empty space. Sometimes one interior pocket is nice but since I use stuff sacks that tends to organize my gear for me. The things that I really need to be compartmentalized I'll keep in my backpack or carry-on bag as I'll probably need it when I'm travelling
How do you clean your duffel bags?
With a hose in the driveway. I tend not to use soap unless I spill something foul in there. If you keep your dirty clothes contained in a stuff sack, the interior of the bags don't get that dirty.
Do you have any preference on the duffel bag's opening? D- or U-shaped zipper vs a single straight zipper?
I have been using the single zipper bags more recently and I haven't found that I am limited by that design. I have used the u-zip before and those are fine but I don't know if I see that as a major advantage. They do allow for better viewing but an end-to-end zipper does pretty much the same thing.
How important are the carrying straps to you? Do you look for a model that has beefy straps or are you never really carrying your duffels for very long?
Having backpack straps are really nice, especially if you are going to be lugging your duffel around an airport, or if a porter is going to be carrying your duffels to a basecamp. I like my duffel bags to have three different straps: a large handle on each end, small handles next to the zipper for carrying it next to your side, and then the backpack straps. I do prefer the straps to be pretty minimalistic though.
What about outside daisy chains?
I think having a couple of attachment points is important but I don't really find that I use those external daisy chains. Realistically, the other straps that are on the bag are fine.
Is a waterproof material important to you?
It is for me because it's nice to know that my gear is protected from the elements. Duffel bags are inevitably going to get holes in them and no longer be waterproof, but it's nice to know that they can be on a glacier or the back of a truck in the rain and still keep your things dry.
Any tips for avoiding extra airline fees?
Measure and measure again. Make sure your bags are at 49.5 pounds. Some people like to push it to 51, but that usually just ends up causing hassles at the airport.
Sometimes I will take a large duffel as a carry on, and this is when the internal compression straps are really useful. You can crank them down so it looks like there is extra space at the top and the bag is not full. Then if someone gives you any grief about taking a large bag on as a carry on, you can play it off that the bag is not full and will fit in the overhead bin easily.
Any crazy travel stories you want to share with us?
I was in Eritrea for 9 weeks, and as we were heading back to basecamp one day after work someone accidently spilled battery acid all over one of my duffels. There were holes all over it, and I needed it to carry all my equipment back home at the end of the trip. So I sprayed it down with water and then left it out in the sun next to my tent for 3 weeks. It actually held up pretty well.
Any last travel tips?
— Ian Nicholson
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