Although a hiking or camping backpack can certainly carry large loads, some excursions require greater capacity without compromising durability or weight. For these travel adventures, you may need to go with a duffel bag, which can be tossed under a plane seat, into the back of a Jeep, or at the base of Denali.
When it comes to choosing which kind of duffel is best for you, look at the bag's most important features, including the material it’s made of, how much it can hold, how easily it can be transported, and if it’ll be used for any unique activities or climates.
The durability of your duffel depends on a few factors, including the material used in its construction, how beefy its seams are, how many support straps are included, and the type of zipper it has. Some of the most rugged duffels are made of ballistic nylon and TPE fabric laminate. Polyurethane fabrics are also available, and although these don't offer the bombproof durability of ballistic nylon, they’re more water resistant. Keep this in mind if rain and water are a bigger threat than sharp crags.
If you know you'll be traveling extensively, walking for long periods, or crossing over uneven or wet terrain, you'll need a bag that can be carried easily. Yes, wheeled duffel bags offer mobility you can't get with a typical duffel, but there’s a specific time and place for these bags (see Ease of Transport, below). A traditional duffel without wheels are usually lighter and more mobile.
The size of your bag depends on the capacity you need. Extra-large duffels usually carry about 155 liters—ideal for long trips that require many heavy supplies, such as bulky skiing and climbing gear. All the same materials are used in smaller duffels, guaranteeing their durability, but these bags are used for shorter trips that don't need extensive supplies. Small bags, which are typically compact enough to be carried onto planes, offer around 40 liters of capacity.
If you don't expect to be gone for more than a weekend, or even a four- or five-day trip if you're crafty with your packing, you may want a medium-size duffel, which typically has a capacity of about 70 liters.
Ease of Transport
You could have the most durable and spacious bag on the market, but if you strain your back just trying to carry it or have trouble locating packed items on demand, it won't do you much good. The best duffels offer various handling methods, ranging from gripping it with your hands, carrying it over your shoulder, or wearing it like a backpack.
Opting for a duffel with alpine-cut shoulder straps may be your best bet, freeing your hands while traveling through airports or between destinations. For convenience, these bags also feature grip handles on top and haul handles on either side, giving you, and maybe even a caring travel partner, many options for baggage handling.
Wheeled duffels, while heavier and bulkier, do have a place in travel. These bags usually have a uniform shape and multiple compartments, making packing much easier and transporting—across relatively flat surfaces, at least—easier than other duffels.
When shopping for a travel duffel, take a look at all of its specs. Many bags have features that may seem trivial, but have a huge impact on convenience. For example, a large duffel with a D-shaped zipper opening (as opposed to a straight one) gives you more freedom to dig around for a specific item you may need at any given time. This goes for several pockets and compartments you can use to store anything from car keys to ID cards.
The bag you choose depends on what outdoor gear you'll need and the trials you'll be putting it through. A mountaineer spending weeks in the Himalayas needs a large, durable, weatherproof duffel, while a weekend camper headed to a northeast cabin is fine with a small or medium bag. But whatever your style, there's likely a bag out there for you.
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