The Best Travel Duffel Bags of 2017
Duffel bags are a crucial element of any adventure travel kit, but the options are overwhelming. We researched 30 models, choosing 8 of the best to test head-to-head ourselves. Derived from the Belgium town, Duffel, that first manufactured them, these bags need to be burly, so our experts took them from Alaska to Patagonia, on muleback and on ski sleds. Stuffing them to capacity with everything from climbing gear to ski gear to strictly vacation clothes, our testers analyzed 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 were, and our experts 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 help you find the ideal duffel for your needs.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated May 2017
The travel duffel scene is always changing, so we worked to update this review as of May 2017. We added comparison charts and graphs to help you weigh your options, and we also made note of recent product updates. Different adventures need different amounts and sizes of equipment, so we added links to other-sized versions of the award-winning bags. Additionally, we reviewed the market to guarantee that our Editors' Choice winner is still the cream of the crop.
Best Overall Travel Duffel Bags
The North Face Base Camp Duffel
In 2017, our testers' favorite burly bag is The North Face Base Camp, which barely edged out the Gregory Alpaca for the win. While the Base Camp wins Editors' Choice and remains a measuring stick for the duffel bag market, its scores don't make it a runaway winner. Some other models tested have slight advantages, like the Wild Things Mule's length or the Black Hole's low weight, but the Base Camp clocked top or near-top scores in every category. 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 pocket, which adds organizational capacity. One of the easiest models to load, the Base Camp is also among the most weather-resistant and most durable models tested. Traveling through airports? Check out the The North Face Rolling Thunder for the same great performance- with wheels!
Easy to pack
Comfortable shoulder straps
Excellent pockets to help with organization
Daisy chains and grab loops allow for easy lashing
Six nicely spaced volume options
Tons of color options
Not super light
Read full 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 duffel because of its simple, but very easy-to-pack design, its beefy and water resistant construction, all that checks in two pounds lighter than other wheeled models we tested. Our testers appreciated the Black Hole Wheeled Duffels above-average "off-road" performance on rougher terrain and as well as how easy it was to handle while maneuvering in crowded airports. And if 120L sounds like too much space for you weekend getaway, check out the smaller Black Hole Wheeled Duffel 45L.
Super easy to pack
Sweet dual zippered mesh pockets
Some organizational options, but not lots
Read full review: Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel
Best for Budget-Minded
Helly Hansen Duffel Bag 2
The Helly Hansen Duffel 2 gets our Best Buy award, and in 2017, it's been updated to include new colors. While it's not a runaway winner of this award because it's not as good of a deal as the original model, it remains a pretty solid value. We have used this easy-to-pack bag on several expeditions around the globe. Other bags are a little more durable. But the Helly Hansen can often be found for $77, a fraction of what other bags in this review costs.
More durable and weather resistant than the previous model
We wish it was available in one volume larger
Shoulders straps are good but not great
Read full review: Helly Hansen Duffel 2
Top Pick Award
Patagonia Black Hole Duffel
The Patagonia Black Hole was a very close second and was nearly our Editors' Choice. It finished near the top in nearly every category and was the most comfortable to carry because of its awesome and easily removable straps. The Black Hole is lighter than most products we tested and it was the lightest bag we tested to feature padded shoulder straps. The only thing that kept the Black Hole from being our Editors' Choice was the Base Camp's organizational ability and we think its still a little more durable. The Black Hole remains tough for sure, tougher than most and plenty durable for most users for many many years. We have been testing the newest version of the Black Hole which is noticeably more durable than the previous model and while we have tested it on three expeditions so far where it has performed fantastically, we will continue to update its long term toughness. If you're looking for an airport bag, check out the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled.
Very weather resistant
A few extra nice pockets
Easy to load
Great lashing options
Doesn't fit super long items as well as other bags we tested
Read full review: Patagonia Black Hole
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 advantage 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.
Criteria for Evaluation
We based our scoring on the culmination of 5 criteria: Ease of Packing, Ability to Carry/Ease of Transport, Durability, Weight, and Weather Resistance, each of which are discussed in depth under their respective headings below. The chart shown here compares how well each duffel scored in Overall Performance.
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.
For ease of packing: Behind models that featured a "D" shaped opening, are the Mountain Hardwear Expedition was the next easiest to pack, using a variation of the more common "D-style" design. It uses a long and skinny "U" shaped opening. Both of these were easy to pack and search for stuff inside because of their long, large openings we found both of these more difficult to zip closed when they were packed full.
As far as organization goes, having a few zippered pockets goes a long way and 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 .
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, which featured the most comfortable shoulder straps, something that we appreciated while 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 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 each bag 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. The Eagle Creek Tarmac Carry-On has wonderful storage abilities and was 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.
— Ian Nicholson
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