A person carries a duffle bag to their car

How to Choose the Best Duffel Bag

Photo: Dan Holz/ TandemStock

These all-purpose load haulers are versatile and tough. Here’s how to get the right one.

Think of your duffel bag as your portable basecamp. A good one is like a pickup truck for adventure travelers—it moves everything from point to point, and gives you a homebase for organization and gear sanity. But they’re not all the same. Understanding the differences and what to look for can help you find the right one. Here’s how to get started.

In this guide we’ll cover:

  • Questions to ask before buying
  • Types of duffels
  • What size duffel to get
  • Features to look for
  • Durability  

Ask Yourself These Questions

How much gear will I need?

Start by determining the capacity you want. This is as much a function of what you’ll do (like gear-intensive activities) as how long you’ll be gone. Avoid overstuffing a duffel, which can compromise zippers and carrying comfort. 

How will I be traveling?

If you’re going to do a lot of walking through town and unknown terrain, you might want a bag with shoulder straps instead of one with wheels, which is best for moving through airports and train stations. 

How durable does it need to be? 

If you’re mostly schlepping gear from the airport to a hotel, you might prefer something lighter and more nimble. But if you’re throwing your duffel into the belly of a canoe or strapping it to a yak, you’ll likely want something more durable and water resistant.

Types of Duffels

Duffels come in a rainbow of shapes and sizes, but generally break down into the following categories.

Carry-on Duffels

For short trips and minimalist gear needs, a carry-on is the way to go. A carry-on can save you time waiting at the baggage carousel, save you money on checked-bag fees, and save your trip since you won’t have to deal with a lost bag. Check your airlines carry-on restrictions, but generally it will be something like 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches. Just remember that if you go carry-on, there are some things, like a knife or multitool, that you can’t bring.

Wheeled Duffels

These bags open wide like traditional duffels, but have wheels for easy rolling. They’re best for heavy loads, on trips when you know you’ll mostly be on smooth surfaces like airport floors and sidewalks. Caution: This design is heavier than the other types, so it reduces the amount of gear you can pack without going over the airline baggage weight limit.

Traditional Duffel

These soft-sided bags are the most versatile option. The best are durable, water resistant, and easy to haul thanks to shoulder straps. However, the biggest ones can get quite heavy when packed full, so even with shoulder straps they won’t be comfortable to carry far.

A close up of a duffle bag


Duffels come in a range of sizes, so you’ll want to spend some time thinking about the trips you’re planning and what you’ll need. For starters, consider what you’ll be packing. Bulky or awkward items like sleeping bags and camp cookware might require a bigger duffel bag. If you’re only packing clothes, you can probably pack them a lot more efficiently. At the store or at home, load the duffel you want with gear to get a good idea of what it can handle. Here’s a rough guide to volume.

  • 30 to 50 liters: Weekend trips, minimal camping gear
  • 50 to 80 liters: Weeklong trips, bulky gear
  • 80 liters and up: Extended trips, gear-intensive activities


Look for these options, which can greatly affect comfort and performance.

Shoulder Straps

These are a must for larger duffels, and nice to have on almost any model (except wheeled duffels). Look for sturdy straps with padding; they’re typically removable or can be tucked away.


You’ll find duffels with a variety of zippered pockets and compartments on both the inside and outside, for organizing documents, books, toiletries, and clean and dirty clothes.    

Compression Straps

Internal straps help secure and stabilize the load, especially when the duffel is underfilled.   

Lashing Options

If you’ll be strapping your duffel to the tops of buses and the sides of camels, you’ll want plenty of secure external lashing points. 


This ranges from duffels with water-resistant fabrics that can repel light rain to fully waterproof material with a waterproof zipper that you can throw into a raft on a river trip. 

Laptop/Electronics Compartments

Some bags (most of them are on the smaller end) can double as a computer bag, saving you from needing to carry both. Look for padded laptop sleeves and other pockets sized for your electronics.


A well-made duffel can last for decades. Durable materials and construction add weight and cost, but duffels take a beating on big adventures so it’s a fair trade for a bag that will last. Here’s what to look for.


High-denier fabrics are more abrasion and tear resistant (denier is a measure of yarn density). Look for 500-denier to 1,000-denier fabrics; the highest denier is often on the bottom, where duffels suffer the most abuse. But denier isn’t the only measure. Ballistic nylon (which is woven using an extremely tight and durable weave) and Dyneema (a super durable but light polyethylene called cuben fiber) are some of the toughest options available.


Double and triple stitching (multiple stitches at each seam) is common in durable duffel bags. Look for box stitches (square stitches with an X through them), which increase the durability of corners and other high-stress areas.


Zippers, grommets, buckles, and other hardware all matter, too. Metal and large plastic hardware are common. Avoid bag’s that use small zipper teeth for the main compartment.


A heavy duffel puts a lot of stress on handles and haul straps. Check for thick, reinforced designs.


Check the wheels on rolling bags; they should slide smoothly with limited side-to-side play.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.