A vital element of any adventure travel kit, you can easily become overwhelmed with the options. After analyzing over 70 models, we purchased the best 10, testing them head-to-head. We awarded those that offered specific advantages as well as exceptional all-around performance. Our experts took them from Alaska to Patagonia, on muleback, llama-back, horseback, and on ski sleds and snowmobiles. Stuffing them to capacity with everything from climbing gear to ski gear to strictly beach-style vacation clothes, our testers scrutinized ease of transport and packing and compared the pros and cons of wheeled versus non-wheeled models. A water drench test helped determine how weather-ready they are and we kept track of the features they liked and didn't. With all of this data compiled, we help you narrow down the wide selection and find the ideal duffel bag for your needs.
The Best Travel Duffel Bags of 2018
The duffel bag travel scene is rapidly changing and we've upped the ante in our quest to find the best. The North Face Base Camp remains our Editors' Choice for the second year in a row, while the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled cinched its new spot as the best wheelie. Different adventures need varying amounts and sizes of equipment and might cater to specific features, which is why we've added a Top Pick for Expeditions. We've even selected a wallet-friendly model for the budget-minded populace. Or the best small duffel bag, the Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole that serves double duty as both a stand-alone bag; it's also an option that can be compressed and stowed away in a larger piece of luggage until the situation demands it.
Best Overall Model
The North Face Base Camp
In 2017, our testers' favorite burly bag is The North Face Base Camp, which barely edged out the Gregory Alpaca and the Patagonia Black Hole for the win. While the Base Camp wins Editors' Choice and remains a measuring stick for the all burly duffels, its scores don't make it a runaway Editors Choice. Some other models tested have slight advantages, like the low weight of the Patagonia Black Hole. However, the Base Camp still clocks top or near-top scores in every comparison category.
For any long distance, this model must be transported; its shoulder straps made it one of the most comfortable models to carry "backpack-style," and the latest iteration, released in Fall '15, features an extra externally accessed zippered pocket, which adds much welcomed organizational capacity. Overall one of the easiest models to load and rummage through, the Base Camp is also among the most weather-resistant and most durable models tested. It also comes in a large variety of sizes.
Read review: The North Face Base Camp Duffel
Best Overall Wheeled Duffel
Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled
The Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel is our OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice for the Best Wheeled Luggage because of its simple, but very easy-to-pack design. It also has a strong and water-resistant construction, which all checks in at an impressive light 7 lbs 8 oz. Our testers appreciated the Black Hole Wheeled Duffels above-average "off-road" performance on rougher terrain, as well as how easy it was to handle while maneuvering in crowded airports - thanks to its narrower wheelbase and good extension on its handle.
If 70L sounds like too much or too little space for your weekend or multi-week getaway, check out the smaller 40L model or the more massive 120L model.
Read review: Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel
Top Pick Expedition Duffel Bag
The Gregory Alpaca was nearly our Editors' Choice. It earned high scores across the board and was one of the most weather resistant and easiest to lash/strap to various modes of transportation.
The only thing that kept the Alpaca from being our Editors' Choice was the Base Camp's additional pockets and organizational oriented features, which our testers thought helped it as a better all-around piece of travel baggage. However, the Alpaca provided a high level of durability and was burlier than most of the models in our fleet. In fact, it will be plenty durable for most users for many, many years.
Read review: Gregory Alpaca
Best Bang for the Buck
Marmot Long Hauler
The Marmot Long Hauler wins our Best Buy award. While it's not a runaway winner of this award (it's only slightly less money than several of the other models in our review), it remains a pretty solid value as it is super functional, offers sweet pockets, is weather resistant, and very long-lasting.
We have used this easy-to-pack model on several expeditions around the globe and love its array of pockets, outstanding lashing options, and organizational oriented features. Other bags might be just a little bit more durable and weather resistant but not by much, and the Marmot Long Hauler can often be found for $80, a fraction of what other bags in this review cost.
Read review: Marmot Long Hauler
Top Pick for Airline Travel and Organization
Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled
The Eagle Creek Gear Warrior is a rad piece of luggage. It has tons of well-designed pockets and compartments to help with organization. It also sports the biggest wheels in the review, which help it dramatically when being pulled over uneven ground. It's on the lighter side of wheeled models we tested, weighing in at 7 pounds, 9 ounces.
It is harder to pack super full, and it felt the least "weildy," which means it has one of the least maneuverable feels of any rolling models we tested. That said, these are only small downsides and think that the vast majority of travelers would be pleased with this competitor.
Read review: Eagle Creek Gear Warrior
Top Pick for Light and Fast Travel
Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole
The Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole is our pick for our favorite small duffel. While it is the only duffel we included in our review that is only made in a 30 and 45L size, we directly compared this model against the 40-50L versions of a majority of the other models we selected for this review. This model won our award because it strikes the best balance for both use as a stand-alone duffel as well because of its low weight and tiny compressed volume which make it perfect to be stowed away in larger luggage ready to be broken out when the situation might call for it.
Its review best weather resistance, spacious side pocket that doubles as a stuff sack for the entire duffel, and slickly-designed diagonal "I" shaped zipper which makes it easier to search for items in only sweetened the deal. The bottom line is this is a small duffel that almost any traveler will find countless uses for whether that be in exotic locations or simply to add organization to the trunk of their car.
Read review: Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole
Analysis and Test Results
We reviewed our six favorite travel duffels as well as our five ideal wheeled options and compared them head-to-head in five different categories. If you have ever wondered where the name duffel comes from; it comes from a town in Belgium where the thick cloth used to make the bag originated.
Duffels started gaining popularity in the United States as well as other parts of the after World War 2 and quickly grew in popularity as the simple, durable bags gained notoriety. This notoriety originated with a strong association of surf culture during that time as having a "duffel" was considered nearly synonymous with surfers and surf culture in the 1950's and thus considered extremely Cool.
We based our scoring on the culmination of five criteria: Ease of Packing, Ability to Carry/Ease of Transport, Durability, Weight, and Weather Resistance, each of which is discussed in depth under their respective headings below.
Some want the best, while others will benefit from a niche Top Pick. Others want the best bang for their buck and are willing to go to all ends of the earth to find it. For all of the penny pinchers out there, we've compared overall score and retail price for all these bags. Figure out what your budget is, then choose a higher scoring duffel within that price range to maximize value.
Ease of Packing
In our Ease of Packing category, we compared how easy it was to load each bag with both typical travel items, as well as oddly shaped things that many people might want to include. We also compared how simple it was stay organized using smaller pockets and compartments and how much of a hassle it was to search both in these pockets as well as the main compartment and then the difficulty of zipping everything shut again when we were finished.
After dozens of trips of in-the-field testing and direct side-by-side comparisons, we liked the big D-shaped openings rather than a straight "I" style zippered opening. We also loved bags that acted more like a box, where we could just fill up rather than ones that were more of a clam-shell style design and closure.
For Ease of Packing: The easiest models to pack and unpack were by far The North Face Rolling Thunder 30" and 36" models. Both of these duffel bags featured a large opening that still was easy to zip closed when the bag was full. The Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled was also extremely easy to pack up as well as all the more traditional non-wheeled duffels we tested. A rigorous criterion for them to even be selected for non-wheeled models was their ease of packing.
Ease-of-packing is an obviously important feature, and everyone has struggled to zip close various bags when they are too full. The most difficult model to maximize their volume and attempt zip shut when full was the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled 32".
Both featured clam-shell style designs that our entire review team felt were challenging to pack once they were starting to get full - and even more difficult to close once we passed that point. The sides just weren't very high and as you piled clothing and other items in it was hard to judge just how full you could fill them or previously packed items would just start to tip over and fall out.
As far as organization goes, having a few zippered pockets goes a long way. The North Face Rolling Thunder offered the best level of organization, using a review high of eight compartments, which were all well thought-out. Among non-wheeled competitors, our Top Pick for Organization, as well as our Editors' Choice The North Face Base Camp Duffel, offered up a sizeable external zippered pocket and an internal mesh divider along. The Marmot Long Hauler also provided a similar design.
After using the newer Base Camp model on just a few trips, our testing team unanimously gave the thumbs up to this additional pocket, which added just enough organizational options. The same could be said for the Long Hauler. Other organizational features that our testers appreciated were the dual inner, zippered mesh pockets featured on the Patagonia Black Hole Duffel and Black Hole Wheeled Duffel, Gregory Alpaca, and The North Face Rolling Thunder.
Our testers thought having the pocket divided made it significantly more useful compared to the single giant mesh pocket. In fact, they missed it when we used models that didn't offer this feature. This was one of the most significant drawbacks of our Editors' Choice The North Face Base Camp; it just had one sizeable inner mesh zippered pocket, which was nice, but again, our testing team enjoyed having the two smaller pockets significantly more. Many of the bags had flat outside zippered pockets, like the Helly Hansen Duffel Bag 2 and the Patagonia Black Hole Duffel. While this is a good thought, these pockets were hard to get our hands into when the bags were full.
Ability to Carry and Ease of Transport
Nearly all the duffels with backpack straps were reasonably comfortable to carry, and because all of our reviews find this such a valuable feature, it was a design focus during our model selection process. A couple of standouts were The North Face Base Camp and the Patagonia Black Hole, which were exceptionally comfortable and even still reasonable. When we say reasonable, we mean the blood circulation to your arms wouldn't be cut off, something that was the case with many models with poorly designed shoulder straps (even when worn for short durations when loaded with 50+ pounds).
Many airlines will ask you to remove your duffels shoulder straps before checking it, so they don't get hung-up on the conveyor belt or are less likely to get destroyed in and of themselves. The Black Hole had shoulder straps that were the easiest to remove and re-attach, which is a bonus when wearing your duffel like a backpack all the way to the check-in counter.
The other model that sported easy-to-remove shoulder straps was the Helly Hansen 2. On both their 50 and 90 liter models, they use a slick design, which is most commonly found on haul bags.
The shoulder straps un-clip from one end and easily tuck away in a pocket just below the end of the bag, similar to some river bags or a haul bag.
The North Face Base Camp featured highly articulated backpack shoulder straps with high-quality foam that didn't collapse under loads. Both the Base Camp and Black Hole could be worn for extended periods of time and over great distances with only minimal discomfort. Not that we'd recommend this, but a good friend of ours just happened to have hiked all the way into the Bugaboos (a 3-4 hour hike, 2,300 ft of elevation gain) with massive loads in a Black Hole Duffel, as he didn't own a large pack.
With that said, the Alpaca, Long Hauler, and Helly Hansen 2 all have above average shoulder straps. All the models we tested either have separate briefcase style straps or their shoulder straps are designed to be shortened and used for this purpose.
Any bag with wheels naturally 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. We looked at dozens of options and selected our favorite five, comparing them here. Among all of our top five favorite rolling duffels, a feature our gear selection team and review staff look for, and that all the models shared, is larger-than-average wheel size.
Larger diameter wheels help rolling luggage to be moved more easily over uneven terrain like gravel, grass or only very poorly paved streets far more efficiently. Even though the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel wheels were just half an inch larger than The North Face models, all of our testers felt it performed better on more rugged surfaces. The Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled sported the most massive wheels, and while due to other factors wasn't as maneuverable, it was nice to pull over old cobbles, gravel roads, or different rugged terrains. Why not just make all wheely bags with giant wheels? Well, wheel size, in addition to the width of the wheelbase, or how far the wheels are apart, affected a model's maneuverability.
Maneuverability, Frame Stiffness, and Extended Handle Height
Some of the most prominent factors that contribute to how comfortable a bag is to maneuver is the width of its wheelbase, how stiff its frame and handle are, how far its handle extends, and how far it extends above the bag or load. With lighter weights, it makes only a little bit of difference; once a piece of luggage becomes more massive, the difference is more apparent.
The Patagonia Black Hole, with its narrow wheelbase and long handle that extended well above the bag itself, is easily the most nimble feeling bag we tested and was our Top Pick for Maneuverability.
Another feature when considering the quality of wheeled luggage is how stable it is and how easy (or hard) it is to use. We also tested the ease of stacking another piece of luggage (non-wheeled) on the wheeled piece. This method gives our shoulders a break and can be used on a carry-on or 50+ pound non-wheelie duffel.
Models with handles attached via two bars (all except the Osprey Ozone among models in our review) are significantly easier to stack bags with. Also, we have personally witnessed a second 50-pound bag bend and eventually break, a wheeled piece of luggage handle. While we wouldn't worry about that with any of the options we have chosen, its something to consider if looking elsewhere. This is where the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled 70L and The North Face Rolling Thunder particularly stood out, offering a stable and bomber platform to help manage another 50-pound duffel (as we wheeled it through an airport or wherever our adventure might take us).
Lashing Duffels to Things
If you traveled to far-flung destinations (or even sometimes not very far-flung), you've probably seen your luggage be attached to some form of transportation. If you are more commonly just looking at luggage options for catching buses, trains, and more typical commercial airplanes, then this isn't a super important factor for you. If you plan to travel to exotic locations or climb, ski (or anything else) in remote parts of the world, you will undoubtedly need to strap your baggage to any number of things (and there can be a lot of different things and ways they will be attached).
During the research for this review alone, we had duffels carried by llamas, mules, horses, snowmobiles, three different type of prop planes that seat less than seven people, helicopters, and pulled them ourselves with it lashed to a sled deep in the Alaska wilderness on some occasions.
Features that help facilitate securely attaching your duffel to various modes of transportation include a robust daisy chains (webbing with loops separated by stitches), to give options as to where to connect your duffel that is either reinforced or at minimum use, beefy stitching that is less likely to blow out. Large grab loops and shoulder straps are also particularity useful things to thread through when attaching your baggage to things. In the case of grab loops, the more, the better.
All the non-wheeled models we selected for this review have decent daisy chains and grab loops, but the Gregory Alpaca, with its robust reinforced daisy chains, stood out. The daisy chains ran the full length of the bag, and its large grab loops made it easy to attach to almost anything, whether that be a sled or llama. The North Face Base Camp and the Patagonia Black Hole weren't too far behind, as both offer ease of transport. We feel wheeled duffels are great for traditional travel and duffels are better for non-traditional travel or for trips where getting every ounce possible without going over the 50-pound limit is of the utmost importance.
All the contenders in our fleet are super tough and all on the strong end of the spectrum. However, The North Face Rolling Thunder stood apart from the rest as a freaking burly piece of luggage (maybe boarding on overkill), with the beefiest materials in the review. Most of the bag is constructed of the same material as the tried and true Base Camp Duffel (1000D polyester laminate), which is still slightly thicker than most of the models in our review. To make this model even more long-lasting, it has been reinforced with 1680D nylon (compared to the Base Camp's mega burly 840D).
Most of the models in our fleet used 900D PU, PE rip-stop nylon, or polyester material throughout the duffel, with an additional layer of 630D nylon on the bottom, or other high wear areas, which help to maximize a given model's life. While these materials are straight-up burly and will last the vast majority of user's decades of abuse, the Base Camp Duffel has proven itself as one of the longest-lasting contenders out there.
The North Face Base Camp* uses the thickest material of any model in our review, as well as beefy Bartacks on all the critical stitching areas. Tester Ian Nicholson has used a one on over 20 expeditions, and we spoke to over a dozen other OutdoorGearLab friends who brought them on various trips and They are still going strong.
Weight is one of the biggest advantages of more traditional duffels over their wheeled counterparts, as models without wheels are often four to six pounds lighter. That, of course, means you get to pack four to six pounds more of your stuff before hitting most airline's 50-pound limit.
The Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole most certainly lived up to its name and tips the scales at a scant 1 lb 2 oz, which is by far the lightest model we tested. However before we continue we want to be clear that while this is the lightest weight model in our review, it is also the smallest volume bag (45L, largest volume this the Lightweight Black Hole is made) of any option we tested. Even when directly compared with the smaller counterparts of the included models it still remains the lightest for example when directly compared to the 50L size small North Face Base Camp (2lbs 12 ounces), The Gregory Alpaca 45L (2 lbs 12 oz) or even the standard 45L Patagonia Black Hole weighs 1 lbs 11 ounces. The Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole is still noticeably lighter and more compressible than any other model in our review. It also doesn't give up anything for weather resistance with its low weight and while tough enough for most travelers it isn't near as durable as the other full-sized duffels we tested.
Of the full-sized duffels, the Patagonia Black Hole was impressive for its size and three pounds three ounces, which proved to be the lightest models in any volume range/category except for 30L and 45L sizes where the (you probably guessed it) Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole was lighter. Comparatively the The North Face Base Camp was the heaviest, ringing in at four pounds once ounce for the 90L size which is something but one pound isn't a giant difference in the scheme of 50 pounds.
Among rolling models, there is a much more significant difference between models. Take, for example, the heavy end of the spectrum; The North Face Rolling Thunder 30" and 36" models, weighing 9 pounds 14 ounces and 10 pounds four ounces, respectably. That means 20% of the weight you get to take on the plane is already eaten up by the bag. We much prefer models like the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior and the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled, which are closer to 7.5 pounds.
Of course, with weight, the most significant thing is what type of packer you are and the kinds of trips you like to go on. Its far easier to stay under weight going to a tropical climate than a cold one. So if you find yourself regularly battling with the 50-pound weight limit, going with a little lighter model can save you from a slight headache, excess weight fees, or extra weight in your carry-on. Among the wheeled duffels, the Patagonia Black Hole Wheelie is the lightest at eight pounds 10 ounces, nearly 1-1.5 pounds lighter than either The North Face Rolling Thunder or the Marmot Long Haul.
In addition to using them in the real world, we conducted a number of side-by-side tests in an attempt to measure each contender's overall weather resistance. We didn't weigh Weather Resistance as high as other categories like Ease of packing and Comfort to Carry but it remains an important category never-the-less. Weather resistance is important when you want to keep your stuff dry as you take it out of the car on a soggy day or when it's being driven around on the tarmac. We also find it useful for travel to more exotic locations where it may spend longer periods of time in the elements.
To compare models we both used them in the real world on expeditions to Denali, Bolivia, Aconcagua, and Patagonia where these models were all directly exposed to weather as well as a more routine test. For our systematic testing, we put dry towels inside each bag and sprayed them with a hose in our driveway.
The top competitors were reasonably close; however, the Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole performed a step above the rest for weather resistance. Its 100% ripstop nylon with a (most importantly) TPU-film laminate and a DWR (durable water repellent) finish was by far the most weather resistant in both our real-world and our side-by-side testing. Even it's water-tight zipper lived up to its name, and even after several minutes of directly spraying it with a garden hose it only let a few drops of water in. The Lightweight Black Hole is as close to a waterproof of a bag as we have seen without sealed seams or a roll-top closure.
If you're looking for a weather resistant expedition-style model and need something larger than the 45-liter volume that is the Lightweight Black Hole's larger size, we have the runners-up. After the Lightweight Black Hole the Gregory Alpaca, The North Face Base Camp Duffel, and the Patagonia Black Hole proved to be the most weather resistant.
For wheeled models, The North Face Rolling Thunder and the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel were the most water resistant. While we consider if this metric is essential, we only allocate 10% of our review's total metric and think this is the category which importance for different users varies the most. Consider your past and future trips and weigh how vital you think weather resistance is and proceed accordingly (know that no-model we tested performed horribly in this review).
Wheeled Bag Versus a 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? This is a good start; let's weight the advantages and disadvantages of each design.
Wheels naturally make it far easier to move the bag around on paved roads or other relatively even surfaces, and for most air travel applications, they are much easier to manage and what we prefer for traditional air-travel. The significant advantage of more conventional duffels over wheeled versions is much-lower weight and their ability to be more easily taken to far more rugged environments and locations. Let's start with weight: wheeled duffels are always heavier, most often four to six pounds heavier, meaning you get to bring more of your 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 the 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 in both Africa and Alaska that wouldn't let us bring hard-sided luggage along.
For more traditional air or bus travel, wheeled duffels are excellent, as they are just plain easier to get around with and their heavier weight is typically less of an issue. For expeditions or more exotic travel, we prefer traditional duffels because of their low weight, ease of transporting on non-smooth surfaces, and ability to be transported by non-traditional means (AKA strapped to animals, boats, snowmobiles, etc.)
Traveling can be difficult, particularly at those times when you are trying to get around with all your stuff with you. To help take some of the unnecessary hassles out of your adventure, we loaded up our duffels and our experts and sent them packing. After determining each model's overall performance, we found something unique about each of the models we selected, for one reason or another. To find out more about each competitor's performance, we encourage you to browse the individual reviews. To further your purchasing experience, visit our Buying Advice for more tips and tricks on choosing the best duffel for your adventures.
— Ian Nicholson