The Best Duffel Bags for Outdoor Adventures  

Whether you are heading off to climb K2 or just going on a casual car camping trip with your buddies, you’ll need something to help lug all of your gear around. And while some people use proper backpacks to do so, duffel bags designed for outdoor use are a much better option in most cases. Not only can many of the models carry larger and bulkier items, they are easier to use when navigating airports, bus stations and taxis as you make your way to the great outdoors.

However, not all duffel bags are created equally, and there is a big difference between the best and worst models available. Below, we’ve outlined some of the most important characteristics to look for in a duffel bag, and provided some tips for selecting the best model for your needs.

Size and Capacity

No matter how beautifully engineered and feature-packed a duffel is, if you can’t fit all of your necessary gear into it, you will not be happy with the purchase. Accordingly, it is imperative, above all other decisions, that you consider the size and capacity of your duffel carefully before making a selection.

Begin by estimating the amount of gear you’ll usually want to carry in your pack – you may need to actually assemble all of your equipment if you have trouble visualizing. Either obtain a really rough guestimate by comparing the mass of gear to a 1-liter water bottle or, to obtain a more accurate figure, simply measure the length, width and depth of the mass of gear and multiply these numbers together to obtain the size in cubic inches.

Duffels are available in a wide variety of sizes. Small ones generally have about 15 liters (900 cubic inches) of capacity, while the largest offer nearly 200 liters (1200 cubic inches) of interior space. Additionally, be sure to measure the longest items you’ll need in the bag (just be sure to give yourself an inch or two of wiggle room). The smallest models are typically about 16 to 20 inches long, while extra-large bags are often 40 to 42 inches long.

Don’t forget to consider any travel restrictions that you may encounter while en route. For example, you’ll have to check anything larger than 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches if you are traveling by plane. This may not be a big deal if you don’t mind checking your bag, but you’ll have to go with a pretty small duffel to keep it with you on the plane. You may not even be able to check some of the largest bags; all checked baggage must be less than 62-inches-long when the length, width and depth are added. For example, if you have a 42-inch-long duffel, it could only be 10 inches deep and 10 inches wide (42 +10 +10 = 62).

Materials

Along with size and capacity, the material used to make the duffel is an important factor to consider when making your selection. Historically, canvas was used to make most duffel bags. Canvas works well for making duffels, as it is relatively inexpensive and durable. Leather was used for others, but it is both expensive and inappropriate for damp situations.

However, most modern duffel bags made for outdoor use are made of some type of nylon. Nylon is a very lightweight, reasonably durable fabric that doesn’t cost a whole lot of money.  While it isn’t water-resistant, it can be made so by the application of a plastic finish. Many of the very best duffel bags have sealed seams to provide greater water resistance.

Closures

Most duffels will have zipper-style closures, but some models also feature drawstrings, buckles or Velcro closures. Each of these styles provides a different set of pros and cons, so be sure to consider your needs before making a choice.

For example, if you are planning on throwing your duffel in the bottom of your canoe, you’ll be well served by Velcro-style closures, as they work just about as well wet as they do dry, and will not rust or deteriorate very much over time. Drawstrings are great closures for things you’ll need to access frequently or for those times when you have something that won’t fit inside. For example, you may need to allow your trekking pole handles to extend outside of the bag, but you can cinch the drawstring up around the handle, to keep your other items from spilling out. 

Nevertheless, zippers are undoubtedly the most commonly used closure system for duffels. Just be aware that there is a big difference between a premium zipper that will operate smoothly for decades, and a cheap zipper that will jam on your first trip. High-quality zippers are almost always worth any associated price increase.

Carrying Straps

In the old days, duffel bag straps were pretty simple. Most bags had a pair of small straps that would allow you to carry the bag by your side. Really fancy models also included a shoulder strap, so you could keep your hands free for carrying other items. But modern duffel bags often feature much more useful straps; some allow you to carry the duffel back-pack-style, which is especially convenient for lugging gear around over long distances. There are few downsides to shoulder straps, and they can generally be regarded as beneficial additions in most cases.

Straps vary greatly in their comfort, but generally speaking, wide straps are more comfortable than narrow straps are. Some duffels feature convenient little pouches, into which you can stuff straps that aren’t in use. This not only keeps the duffel tidier, it means you’re less likely to catch the straps on everything you walk by.

Wheels or No Wheels

Some of the larger and nicer duffel bags come equipped with wheels, which allow you to roll the bag across smooth surfaces. There is no doubt that wheeled duffels make it easier to get through airports and subway stations, but they aren’t of very much use on anything other than indoor floors or paved walkways. They’re of no use on a gravel-strewn hillside or on a forested trail.

Additionally, most bags equipped with wheels feature some sort of rigid frame. This, combined with the wheels, increases the overall weight and bulk of the bag. Additionally, frameless bags often compress into a very small size when not in use, while framed bags usually take up a bit of space even when not in use.

Bottom line: Jet-setting adventurers who find themselves on planes as often as trails may benefit from the addition of wheels. But those who’s adventures rarely take them across paved surfaces or through mass transit systems will probably be better served by purchasing a non-wheeled bag.

Colors

A lot of people consider color to be a trivial option when selecting a duffel, but that is not entirely accurate. Color is definitely not the most important characteristics to consider, but it does deserve some thought.

For example, the color of your duffel will influence the degree to which it is visible in the forest or among the rocks. Pick a green, black or brown bag and it’ll blend in with the surroundings; opt for orange, chartreuse or blue and you’ll see it from a great distance. Depending on the purposes of your trip, you may prefer either approach.

It is also worth considering the advantages of purchasing equipment – especially duffel bags, back packs and similar carrying cases – that is all the same color. This will make it easier to keep your gear together and distinguish between your gear and that of your companions.

Additional Features

After narrowing down your selection to those bags that have the size, straps, materials and other basic traits you need, it is helpful to turn your attention to some of the additional features included on some high-end duffels.

For example, many high-quality models feature clear pouches for your ID, luggage tag or similar items. Others are built to collapse into their own carrying case, which is very helpful for those with limited storage space. Many duffels have only the large, single compartment for storing items, but nicer models frequently include one or more exterior pockets, which are convenient for storing items you’ll need to access frequently.

Additionally, while their value is often overlooked, sturdy D rings or similar accessories can make it much easier to lash your duffel bag to the side of a boat or the back of an all-terrain vehicle. These types of rings can also be helpful for attaching small, frequently accessed items to your duffel, such as keys, water bottles or trekking poles.

 

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Duffel bags are among the most convenient ways to haul your gear along during an adventure, and they are usually more affordable and easier to use than traditional hiking-style backpacks. Just be sure to select a product that meets your needs, and you’re sure to be happy with your purchase.