How to Choose the Best Duffel Bag

Not only were models that featured shoulder straps nice for using backpack style  but most of them featured straps that were long enough to simply be pulled over one shoulder for convenience and shorter distances. Photo Ian Nicholson and Graham Zimmerman using such a feature while unloading bags onto the Cul De Sac (AKA Cool Sack) Glacier in the Kichatna Spires  Western Alaska Range.
Article By:
Ian Nicholson
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday


Here are a handful of key things to consider when buying a burly travel Duffle Bag (or more accurately called, "Duffel Bag" for the town of Duffel in Belgium where the classic bags were first manufactured).

Volume


Volume is easily the most subjective need among travelers. Climbers, skiers, divers or other people traveling with an abundance of extra equipment will often need more space than those going to visit family for a holiday weekend or a warmer place with fewer layers.

On average  most folks will find a model in the 70-120L range to work best for them. However  even the most experienced traveler will find a 120L duffel takes diligence to not go over the 50-pound limit.
On average, most folks will find a model in the 70-120L range to work best for them. However, even the most experienced traveler will find a 120L duffel takes diligence to not go over the 50-pound limit.

For general guidelines to help you make your selection easier: most people find a model in the 70-120 liter range works for most of their extended trips (more than 3-4 days). Even for the most experienced of travelers, carefully packing takes diligence when trying not to exceed the 50-pound limit.

A 90-100 liter bag is much easier for the majority of travelers to fill and not have to exercise as much care to stay under 50-pounds. On the smaller end of the spectrum, a bag in the 70-liter range will fill up quickly; however, it does work well for trips where you don't anticipate bringing a lot of extra equipment or for those going on adventures to warmer climates.

Large "D" shapped openings proved the easiest to pack and unpack as well as search though such as this design found on The North Face Base Camp Duffel
Large "D" shapped openings proved the easiest to pack and unpack as well as search though such as this design found on The North Face Base Camp Duffel

Ease of Packing/Unpacking


When considered the ease of packing, look at the main compartment zipper shape and orientation, as these will both have a significant impact on getting items in and out of the bag. It's also a good indicator of how easy you'll be able to close it. In general, the D-shaped zippered openings are better than vertical zippers because they allow you to see and access more space.

Additional Pockets
The number and design of pockets help with organization and can save frustration by helping their user keep track of easy to lose items. More pockets aren't always better; some pockets are particularly difficult to access, especially when a bag is full. In the individual reviews, we break down each model's pocket designs and how useful they proved.

A handful of smaller zippered pockets are incredible useful for keeping track of smaller loose items. Mesh pockets such as the ones seen here on the Gregory Alpaca proved extra useful as they kept us organized and allowed us to see what was inside.
A handful of smaller zippered pockets are incredible useful for keeping track of smaller loose items. Mesh pockets such as the ones seen here on the Gregory Alpaca proved extra useful as they kept us organized and allowed us to see what was inside.

Zipping Closed When Full
While zipper placement and design play a significant role in a given model's ease of packing, it will also impact how challenging a given model might be when trying to close, and when packed to the max. Zippers that close with a flap on the top or those with generally stiffer sides were probably to close. For example, the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled and the Osprey Ozone Convertible were far more challenging to zip closed when full than the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled or The North Face Rolling Thunder 30".

The main compartment of the Gear Warrior is accessed via a large U-shaped zipper  making for a classic clam-shell design. While this design makes it super easy to find almost any item in this compartment  when loaded to capacity  our review team finds it is more difficult than average to zip shut.
The main compartment of the Gear Warrior is accessed via a large U-shaped zipper, making for a classic clam-shell design. While this design makes it super easy to find almost any item in this compartment, when loaded to capacity, our review team finds it is more difficult than average to zip shut.

Bag Length
If you have long items such as two-section trekking poles, tripods, or other lengthy activity specific equipment, there may only be a few models that are long enough. It's worth paying attention to a given model's length to save some frustration down the road.

Wheeled luggage is no question easier to travel with most of the time particularly if you have to bring a lot of stuff. Though there are a few instances where more traditional non-wheeled duffel bags offer enough advantages they are strongly worth considering.
Wheeled luggage is no question easier to travel with most of the time particularly if you have to bring a lot of stuff. Though there are a few instances where more traditional non-wheeled duffel bags offer enough advantages they are strongly worth considering.

Ability to Carry and Transport


This category breaks down into two major categories: wheeled models and traditional duffel bags. Wheeled models are often easier to move and are better for excursions where the ability to roll luggage is easier than carrying it. The obvious caveat to this is the destinations where you are traveling need to often be less remote; they will likely need to have paved surfaces, for the most part, and the capability to lash bags to vehicles or pack animals isn't a much of a factor.

No question - wheeled models are easier to transport for most traditional airline travel.
No question - wheeled models are easier to transport for most traditional airline travel.

Besides versatility in moving across the terrain, the other substantial downside to wheeled luggage (compared to traditional duffel bags) is they are heavier, often between 4-7 pounds heavier. Meaning that's 4-7 pounds of stuff that you'll never get to bring.

The three largest contributors affecting a bag's maneuverability are the width of its wheelbase  the stiffness of its frame & handle  as well as how far its handle extends above the bag. The Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled 70L was the most nimble and maneuverable wheeled bag we tested.
The three largest contributors affecting a bag's maneuverability are the width of its wheelbase, the stiffness of its frame & handle, as well as how far its handle extends above the bag. The Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled 70L was the most nimble and maneuverable wheeled bag we tested.

While generally speaking, traditional duffels are more physically demanding to travel with as you have to carry them versus roll them, they do offer a lot more versatility to trot the globe with. They are probably easier to move across more uneven terrain and any non-paved surface, they are also much more easily attached to sleds, snowmobiles, pack-animals, vehicle roof-tops, helicopters and dozens of other non-traditional modes of transportation to say the least. Additionally, there are several small planes across the globe (3-8 passenger small, not a 737) that don't even allow you to bring hard-sided luggage.

While we talked about how nice wheels are for paved surfaces  non-wheeled duffels rule all for when the going leaves the pavement. Many small aircraft won't even left you bring wheeled baggage onboard or it just isn't practical. The various carrying options incorporated into non-wheeled models will simply be easier in the long run.
While we talked about how nice wheels are for paved surfaces, non-wheeled duffels rule all for when the going leaves the pavement. Many small aircraft won't even left you bring wheeled baggage onboard or it just isn't practical. The various carrying options incorporated into non-wheeled models will simply be easier in the long run.

However, not all duffels are created equal in regards to their ease-of-transport. Consider how pleasant it is to carry a given model in three modes: in your hand, slung over your shoulder, and worn on your back in backpack mode. Some bags do not have backpack straps, which is a bummer if you are going to take long hikes through airports. Because none of the burly travel duffels we tested has wheels, these backpack straps can be crucial.

Most of the duffels that featured shoulder straps were relatively comfortable  though a few of them extended long enough to be used as a shoulder bag  like the Gregory Alpaca duffel shown here.
Most of the duffels that featured shoulder straps were relatively comfortable, though a few of them extended long enough to be used as a shoulder bag, like the Gregory Alpaca duffel shown here.

Nearly all the models with shoulder straps were reasonably comfortable to carry. A couple of standouts were The North Face Base Camp, Gregory Alpaca, and the Patagonia Black Hole, which was exceptionally comfortable. Another feature to keep in mind is how easily it is to remove or stowaway the shoulder straps. Some models have nifty ways to tuck away the straps without needing to remove them, quite a useful feature to help to keep them from getting chewed up on conveyor belts when checking them.

For more exotic adventures strong and reliable lashing points and compression straps are essential for attaching mules  Jeeps  sleds  or anything else while helping your bag get where it needs to go. Photo: traveling through the Condoriri in Bolivia's Cordillera Real  not a good place for wheeled models to say the least....
For more exotic adventures strong and reliable lashing points and compression straps are essential for attaching mules, Jeeps, sleds, or anything else while helping your bag get where it needs to go. Photo: traveling through the Condoriri in Bolivia's Cordillera Real, not a good place for wheeled models to say the least....

Good lashing points and compression straps also are essential for ease of attaching to buses, mules, and just fitting in tight spots. Duffels that can be carried, lashed, and stashed in the most ways are the best. Also look for models with grab loops at each end for pulling them out of buses and trucks or just dragging them around when you have too much stuff. Overall, the easiest way to carry a duffel is in backpack mode so the backpack straps' comfort and functionality is the most important thing to consider.

Shoulder straps should be considered a near essential on any larger volume duffel bag as they make it significantly easier to travel with for any extended period of time.
Shoulder straps should be considered a near essential on any larger volume duffel bag as they make it significantly easier to travel with for any extended period of time.


Wheels Not all wheels are created equal, generally speaking, the larger the wheel, the easier it is to pull over uneven surfaces like gravel parking lots or cobbled streets.

Larger wheels marginally effect maneuverability  but are far easier to pull across uneven surfaces like gravel parking lots  grass lawns  or cobbled streets.
Larger wheels marginally effect maneuverability, but are far easier to pull across uneven surfaces like gravel parking lots, grass lawns, or cobbled streets.


Durability


When looking at the durability, we took into account the material each duffel was made of, how burly the seams were stitched, and what kind of zipper they used. Most bags are made of pretty thick polyurethane, which is considered the burliest and water-resistant material. However, other materials like ballistic nylon are also often burly enough (but not as water resistant).

Whether visiting family for the Holidays or on extended adventures to remote parts of the world; having a piece of luggage that will stand up to abuse  resist tearing  and feature a design to help keep the zippers from breaking is essential to having a good trip.
Whether visiting family for the Holidays or on extended adventures to remote parts of the world; having a piece of luggage that will stand up to abuse, resist tearing, and feature a design to help keep the zippers from breaking is essential to having a good trip.

Weight


Weight is a big factor now that most airlines limit you to 50 pounds per bag or if flying outside of the States, 22 kilograms (48.5 lbs for the metric uninclined). Every ounce matters, which is another reason many people go with duffel bags—they are seven to nine pounds lighter than comparably-sized wheely bags.

Ian Nicholson spraying down all the bags with a garden hose to see how they stack up in side by side comparison for weather resistance
Ian Nicholson spraying down all the bags with a garden hose to see how they stack up in side by side comparison for weather resistance

Weather Resistance


This is another important function of your duffel whether it is riding on top of a bus through a rainstorm on the Karakorum Highway, hanging in a tree keeping critters at bay in Patagonia or anywhere else you might venture. It is also nice for Alaskan expeditions where people often put a duffel in their sled.

Solid weather resistance is certainly nice for general air travel but becomes more important on more remote adventures like riding on a sled in the Alaska range or strapped to a Jeep in Patagonia.
Solid weather resistance is certainly nice for general air travel but becomes more important on more remote adventures like riding on a sled in the Alaska range or strapped to a Jeep in Patagonia.

Other Features



Lockable Zippers
This is less of a big deal now with TSA only allowing certain locks; however, when traveling to more remote regions or on trips where you know you'll drop your bag at a hotel for extended periods of time, locking zippers add a little peace of mind.

Most models we reviewed here have lockable zippers. Whether you want this feature depends mostly on your personal preference and where you'll be traveling and leaving your bag.
Most models we reviewed here have lockable zippers. Whether you want this feature depends mostly on your personal preference and where you'll be traveling and leaving your bag.

Handles
Two posts (instead of a single post) on a bag's retractable handle make stacking a second (or third) duffel much more stable and easier to manage. This is true regardless of if it's a light carry-on, purse, backpack, or a fully loaded second 50-pound bag.

Two posts (instead of a single post) on a bag's retractable handle make stacking a second (or third) bag much more stable. This is true regardless of if it's a light carry-on or a fully loaded second 50-pound bag. The handle on the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled duffel is shown here.
Two posts (instead of a single post) on a bag's retractable handle make stacking a second (or third) bag much more stable. This is true regardless of if it's a light carry-on or a fully loaded second 50-pound bag. The handle on the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled duffel is shown here.

Ian Nicholson after a long day near Washington Pass.
Ian Nicholson
About the Author
Ian is a man of the mountains. His overwhelming desire to spend as much time in them as possible has been the reason for him to spend the last seven years living in small rooms in dusty basements cluttered with gear and in the back of his pickup (sometimes in the parking lot of the local climbing gym). This drive and focus have taken Ian into the Kichatna Spires of Alaska and the Waddington Range of British Columbia (with the help of two Mountain Fellowship Grants from the American Alpine Club) as well as extensive trips through much of the Western United States and Canada. His pursuit of guiding has been tenacious. He was the youngest person to pass his American Mountain Guides Assn Rock and Alpine Guide exams (on his way towards becoming a fully certified International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations guide). Ian also holds an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 3 certification as well as an AIARE Level 1 avalanche instructor certification.

 
 

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