Camping Gear

Gear Review: The Best Gear Duffles

Posted On July 24, 2016 at 10:06 am by / Comments Off on Gear Review: The Best Gear Duffles

The North Face, Patagonia, and Marmot gear duffels.

The North Face, Patagonia, and Marmot gear duffels.

By Michael Lanza

Whatever your outdoor sport—backpacking, climbing, whitewater rafting or kayaking, backcountry skiing, etc.—a sturdy duffle for organizing, hauling, and protecting your gear and clothing is invaluable. Not only does it eliminate the risk of damaging an expensive backpack by using it as your luggage, a good duffle has more capacity and is built to suffer the indignities of getting tossed into jet, train, and bus baggage compartments, being strapped onto a roof rack, sled, snowmobile, or pack animal, and exposed to rain and snow.

I subjected the six duffles and two convertible pieces of luggage reviewed here to perils ranging from cross-country and intercontinental flights to the environmental hazards of multi-day whitewater river trips and numerous long-distance car trips. Besides passing the durability test, all of them demonstrated unique strengths for different styles of adventure travel.

I’ve listed the eight products reviewed here in order of weight rather than ranking them by some performance metric, because the one you choose will depend on your travel style, budget, and needs. The comparison chart below offers a quick look at stats and features that distinguish these duffles from one another.

 

Duffle Price Volume Weight Features
Mountain Hardwear
Lightweight Expedition Duffel
$80 90L/5,500 c.i. 1 lb. 5 oz. * Stuffs inside the one pocket
* Minimalist organization, features
Exped Tempest Duffle 100 $249 100L/6,100 c.i. 1 lb. 12 oz. * Fully waterproof
* Compact
* Very durable
* No pockets
Osprey Transporter 95 $100 95L/5,800 c.i. 2 lbs. 5 oz. * Backpack-style carry
* Stuffs inside pocket
* 4 pockets
* Very durable
Marmot Long Hauler Duffle Bag XL $149 110L/6,700 c.i. 3 lbs. 12 oz. * Huge capacity
* Backpack-style carry
* Very durable
* Very water resistant
* 3 pockets
Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 120L $169 120L/7,320 c.i. 3 lbs. 13 oz. * Huge capacity
* Comfortable backpack-style carry
* Very durable
* Very water resistant
* 3 pockets
The North Face Base Camp Duffel L $145 132L/8,055 c.i. 4 lbs. 3 oz. * Huge capacity
* Comfortable backpack-style carry
* Durable
* Very water resistant
* 2 pockets
Osprey Meridian 28″/75L $375 75L/4,577 c.i. 7 lbs. 10 oz. * Backpack-style carry
* Removable daypack
* 4 pockets
* Padded laptop sleeve
* Rugged wheels
Deuter Helion 80 $289 80L/4,882 c.i. 8 lbs. 11 oz. * Backpack-style carry
* 3 pockets
* Rugged wheels

 

 

Mountain Hardwear Lightweight Expedition Duffel

Mountain Hardwear Lightweight Expedition Duffel

Mountain Hardwear Lightweight Expedition Duffel
$80, 90L/5,500 c.i., 1 lb. 5 oz. (medium)
Sizes: XS-L ($60-$100, 30L/1,830 c.i. to 130L/8,000 c.i.)
backcountry.com

Mountain Hardwear Lightweight Expedition Duffel stuffed

Mountain Hardwear Lightweight Expedition Duffel stuffed.

Pros: Supremely packable, lightweight, and affordable.
Cons: No harness or shoulder straps for throwing it on your back; minimal organization.

Flying from the States to Italy for 10 days of trekking hut-to-hut through the Dolomite Mountains, I used this packable duffel as luggage on the flight—fitting a 58-liter backpack and all of my gear and clothes for two weeks inside it—and when we started trekking, I stuffed the duffel inside its own pocket and into the bottom of my backpack. Its supreme packability alleviated the need for me to find somewhere to store luggage during our trek (partly because I brought only absolute necessities). I also used it on several multi-day car trips to go hiking and backpacking in California and Washington from my home in Boise, and my wife used it to carry her personal clothes and gear inside a dry bag on a six-day rafting trip down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The duffel stuffs into a zippered external pocket on one end, packing down to the dimensions of an inflated travel pillow (and it works as one if you wrap it in a soft garment like a fleece). With a U-shaped, zippered top opening and adjustable straps that lay out of the way to each side, loading and unloading is easy; although being so light, the duffel has no structure or rigidity, so it lies flat when empty. But the minimalist design provides only one zippered, external pocket for valuables or accessories (it wouldn’t hold much dirty clothing).

Mountain Hardwear Lightweight Expedition Duffel pocket

Mountain Hardwear Lightweight Expedition Duffel pocket.

The 100-denier nylon fabric in the body (210-denier on the bottom) isn’t as bulletproof as found in heavier duffles, but it suffered no damage on several trips; I wouldn’t leave it out in rain falling snow unless everything inside was in waterproof stuff sacks. The cross-hatch webbing through the body helps distribute the weight, and there are big grabber handles on each end, but the lack of a harness or shoulder straps precludes carrying it like a backpack, making it less comfortable for hauling on a long walk through an airport if it’s heavy.

BUY IT NOW  You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Mountain Hardwear Lightweight Expedition Duffel at backcountry.com.

 

Exped Tempest Duffle 100

Exped Tempest Duffle 100

Exped Tempest Duffle 100
$249, 100L/6,100 c.i., 1 lb. 12 oz.
Sizes: 70L/4,272 c.i. to 140L/8,543 c.i. ($229-$269)
campsaver.com

Pros: Completely waterproof, lightweight, compact, and durable.
Cons: Very minimalist, pricey, unpadded shoulder straps, and zipper’s hard to pull.

Exped Tempest Duffle 100.

Exped Tempest Duffle 100.

Fully waterproof, with welded seams and a waterproof zipper, this duffle was an ideal choice to ensure my teenage son’s extra clothes, gear, and electronics stayed dry on our rafting trip down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River (it was also packed inside a dry bag). But its lightweight, simple design, durable materials, and packability also made it ideal for long road trips to national parks from the Canadian Rockies to Zion and the Grand Canyon, and carrying gear for everything from backpacking to climbing and whitewater boating.

The fully waterproof YKK FlexSeal zipper even prevents air from escaping—you can blow this duffle up like a balloon. But you won’t pop the TPU film laminated 840-denier and 420-denier fabrics. The unpadded nylon straps can be worn over your shoulders; they’re fine for hauling to the car or from boat to campsite, but they are not designed for comfort with a heavy load on a sustained airport slog.

Exped Tempest Duffle 100 zipper

Tempest Duffle 100 zipper.

Extremely minimalist—explaining its low weight—the Tempest’s only other features are tough, nylon grabber handles at each end and two D-rings inside and outside; there are no pockets for organizing. (Get stuff sacks.) But internal compression straps help prevent contents from sloshing around. As expected, the waterproof zipper requires effort to pull and seal tightly, although that’s a minor inconvenience if you want that level of weather protection.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Exped Tempest Duffle 100 at campsaver.com.

 

 

Osprey Transporter 95

Osprey Transporter 95

Osprey Transporter 95
$100, 95L/5,800 c.i., 2 lbs. 5 oz.
Sizes: 40L/2,441 c.i. to 130L/7,933 c.i. ($70-$115)
backcountry.com

Pros: Well organized, durable, multiple carry option, yet lightweight and packable.
Cons: Packing it into its lid pocket requires some effort.

Of all of the duffles reviewed here, this one achieves the most impressive balance between low weight and packability while offering excellent organization, with multiple pockets, as well as comfortable, backpack-style straps and durable construction. Flying cross-country and traveling by car with it, I found its organization convenient for locating items without spending time searching through the duffle.

 

Click to view slideshow.

The level of organization surpasses all the duffles reviewed here, with four separate, roomy, zippered pockets: on the lid, one side, a mesh pocket inside, and one end pocket that bellows into the duffel, creating a big space for dirty clothes or boots. A lockable, U-shaped zipper lifts the entire lid off, providing a wide opening that lets you see everything inside the main compartment. The duffle has some structure to it, so it sits open more like a box than a limp bag for easier loading of larger gear like a backpack and tent.

Osprey Transporter 95 stuffed

Transporter 95 stuffed.

With it stuffed to within ounces of the 50-pound limit for a domestic flight, the duffel carried reasonably comfortably using the backpack-style shoulder straps; but the shoulder straps can slip outward a bit. Those shoulder straps also lock together with a hook-and-loop strap, creating a single, X-shaped top strap for hauling with one hand or over one shoulder. The padded grabber handles at each end are big enough to lift the duffle wearing gloves, and six webbing loops on each side create multiple lashing points. The 900-denier fabric will endure years of abuse. Lastly, the duffle stuffs inside its lid pocket, down to the dimensions of a small daypack, although stuffing it requires some force.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Osprey Transporter 95 at backcountry.com.

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Marmot Long Hauler Duffle Bag XL

Marmot Long Hauler Duffle Bag XL

Marmot Long Hauler Duffle Bag XL
$149, 110L/6,700 c.i., 3 lbs. 12 oz.,
Sizes: S-XL ($109-$149, 38L/2,300 c.i. to 110L/6,700 c.i.)
backcountry.com

Pros: Huge capacity, super durable, simple but smart features.
Cons: Heavier and more bulky than others.

This massive, fully featured, bulletproof duffle is built for a lifetime of expeditions and big adventures anywhere on the planet—and maybe other planets. I crammed camping gear (tent, bag, air mat, etc.) plus daypack, hiking shoes, and a small mountain of other gear and clothes inside it and stuffed it into a dry bag on our Middle Fork of the Salmon River rafting trip; stuffed it with gear for climbing Mount Whitney; and used it on a family car trip to backpack and dayhike in the Canadian Rockies. Plus, it survived multiple flights. The Long Hauler Duffle shines for its spaciousness, superior durability, and features.

Marmot Long Hauler Duffle Bag XL.

Marmot Long Hauler Duffle Bag XL

This pig swallows a whole lot of gear—especially appealing for technical sports like climbing and kayaking. And apropos of a huge gear duffle, it’s built to withstand nuclear Armageddon, with 1000-denier Phthalate-free TPE laminate in the lid and sides and 210-denier nylon in the bottom and ends. The large, D-shaped main zipper has a rain flap around its edges; that in combination with the fabrics makes this duffle water resistant, but bottom seams are not taped, providing an entry point if the duffle sits in water. However, there’s a double layer of fabric on the bottom, improving durability and water resistance. The lightly padded, adjustable shoulder straps mate with a fat hook-and-loop patch, for hauling with one hand or over one shoulder, and allow carrying the duffle backpack-style. As with many duffles, though, there’s no belt or sternum strap, so the comfort limit is directly proportionate to the duffle’s weight and the distance you’re hiking across an airport. Those straps are smartly removable, so you can tuck them inside the duffle to prevent any damage during air, train, or bus trips.

Except for one large, zippered end pocket that bellows inside the main compartment to fit plenty of dirty clothes and boots, the exterior is largely featureless—so there’s little that can break off in transport. The exceptions are four big grabber handles on the sides and ends and two adjustable compression straps on each side that can be repositioned along daisy chains, creating modular attachment points for whatever gear somehow does not fit inside (such as a kayak paddle), or for strapping this impregnable sack onto a roof rack. Two large, zippered pockets inside—one mesh under the lid, the other made of tough nylon on one side—provide segmentation of smaller items.

The Long Hauler earns one major demerit: Although the lid and top are designed to repel water, its bottom is not waterproof, so you can’t set it down even in a wet area for any length of time. Plus, it may simply be more duffle than you need, and other options are lighter, more slender, and cheaper.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Marmot Long Hauler Duffle Bag XL at backcountry.com.

 

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 120L
$169, 120L/7,320 c.i., 3 lbs. 13 oz.
Sizes: 45L/2,745 c.i. to 120L ($99-$169)
backcountry.com

Pros: Huge capacity, super durable, excellent carrying options.
Cons: Heavy and not easily packable.

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel top.

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel top.

This big and burly duffel swallowed camping and other gear with room to spare when my son and I flew to California to climb Mount Whitney’s Mountaineers Route; on a four-day, July whitewater rafting and kayaking trip my family took on the Green River through Lodore Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument; and on a road trip to backpack, car-camp, and dayhike in southern Utah in late March. With generous padding in the shoulder straps, it offers superior carrying comfort, and the straps are easily removable to stow inside, avoiding damage to them when flying, lashing to a sled, or in some other form of abusive transport. Other carrying options include durable haul loops at both ends and webbing straps that snap together—although the latter is the least comfortable way to carry a duffel this size, unless it’s under-filled.

The very tough, water-resistant, polyester ripstop fabric has a TPU laminate and DWR (durable, water-repellent finish), making it virtually impregnable. The zipper isn’t waterproof—so it slides more easily—but the huge, U-shaped lid overlaps the zipper, protecting the interior from rain and splashing water.

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel end

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel end.

Organization falls in the middle of this field, with two separate, zippered mesh pockets under the lid and a roomy, fabric pocket that’s accessed via zippers on the inside and outside. Internal compression straps help prevent contents from shifting. Twin, vertical daisy chains on both sides let you clip or strap objects to the outside and allow more ways to secure the duffel in transport. The padded bottom panel protects contents and helps give the duffel structure.

Like other models, while the Black Hole is highly resistant to precipitation falling on it, the bottom is not waterproof. Also, Patagonia claims the Black Hole stuffs into its zippered inside pocket, but I found the relatively dense and stiff fabric highly resistant to stuffing into that pocket, even after several minutes of concerted effort.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Patagonia Black Hole Duffel at backcountry.com.

 

The North Face Base Camp Duffel.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel
$145, 132L/8,055 c.i., 4 lbs. 3 oz. (large)
Sizes: XS 31L/2,014 c.i. to XXL 150L/9,154 c.i. ($100-$175)
backcountry.com

Pros: Padded shoulder straps, durable, spacious.
Cons: Heavy and not packable; fabric suffered minor abrasions.

This latest update of the classic Base Camp Duffel has a clean, not-quite-minimalist design and is one of the two most comfortable duffels to carry among those reviewed here, while retaining good durability. My family and I used it on a four-day whitewater rafting and kayaking trip on the Green River through Lodore Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument, and on a road trip to backpack, car-camp, and dayhike in southern Utah in late March. My son and I stuffed it with climbing gear to fly to California for a technical ascent of Mount Whitney; and I loaded it with gear and food and strapped it onto a sled for a four-day ski trip to a backcountry yurt.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel top.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel.

The padded shoulder straps deliver, along with the Patagonia Black Hole, the best comfort when carried backpack-style—but aren’t as easily removable as the Black Hole’s straps. Sturdy handles on all four sides provide the only other carry option—but that stripped-down design gives the duffel a clean profile with the shoulder straps removed, leaving almost nothing on the exterior to be damaged in transport. And I don’t miss having webbing straps for carrying it at your side, which is rarely practical with a full, large duffel.

The 1000-denier phthalate-free TPE fabric laminate top and sides and 840-denier ballistic nylon bottom are tough, and no moisture penetrated inside when I pulled it on a sled through sloppy, wet snow for miles. The lid overlaps the non-waterproof zipper to help keep rain and splashing water out. Organization is better than minimalist duffels, with one large, zippered mesh pocket under the lid and a useful zippered pocket on one end, with a mesh sleeve pocket inside it, for wet or dirty clothing or boots. The U-shaped zippered lid opens up to give you full view of all contents, and compression straps on both sides help scrunch the load down when under-filled. There’s a convenient, weather-resistant slot on the lid for an ID or business card.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel.

At 132 liter/8,055 cubic inches, the large is big enough for one person’s backpacking gear, as long as it’s not extremely bulky. For a more gear-intensive trip, like multi-day climbing expedition, get the XL or XXL. TNF’s Base Camp Duffel comes in a wide range of six sizes, covering all capacity needs, including one of the largest gear duffles you’ll find anywhere: 150 liters. Too bad they aren’t packable so that you could compress one of them to pack inside a smaller or larger one, for traveling convenience.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel on a sled.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel on a sled.

One demerit: The fabric suffered two minor abrasions at one end on a flight.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a The North Face Base Camp Duffel at backcountry.com.

 

 

 

Convertible Luggage

Having covered four classic gear duffles, I feel compelled to present a good alternative: convertible luggage that you can wheel through an airport or over a somewhat rough walkway, then carry backpack-style when the going gets rougher. I’ve used a variety of pieces of baggage that have retractable pack-style harnesses, but the products below stand out for comfort, excellent construction, and greater versatility when rolling or carrying. Also, while having the rigid structure typical of convertible luggage, they have “soft” fabric front and side walls that make them a little more pliable for fitting large, odd-shaped gear inside.

While these two products stand out for performance in this category, wheeled convertible luggage still doesn’t compete with most duffles for durability or transportability in extreme, high-abuse, adventure-travel situations and exposure to the elements. They are also more expensive and at least four pounds heavier than the heaviest duffles, which slices into your weight limit on flights. Still, they are convenient for destinations where you will have to carry your luggage over rough ground for a relatively short distance—if you have to carry it more than about 30 minutes, you should be carrying a real pack—as long as you won’t expose it to much weather, or you can store it indoors while out trekking or skiing hut to hut or through remote villages.

 

Osprey Meridian 75L

Osprey Meridian 75L

Osprey Meridian 28”/75L
$375, 75L/4,577 c.i., 7 lbs. 10 oz.
Sizes: Also available in the Meridian 22”/60L, $345, 60L/3,700 c.i.
ospreypacks.com

Pros: Comfortable to carry backpack-style, burly wheels, removable daypack.
Cons: Heavy and bulky, not made for extreme situations or weather.

My wife and I both used this convertible pack on numerous flights and other trips, and it has always been comfortable to carry backpack-style for relatively short distances, convenient to roll, and has proved durable. Oversized, slightly knobby wheels let the Meridian roll over somewhat rugged ground, while the zip-out harness is adjustable to accommodate a range of torso sizes. The harness clips into the base of the pack bag to stabilize it while carrying.

Organization is plentiful, including a capacious, zippered top pocket and a detachable daypack with compartmentalized pockets (one zippered) and a padded laptop sleeve inside, plus two small, zippered outside pockets. The daypack, functional as a carry-on more than large enough for a jacket, water bottle, snacks, books, and work supplies, lacks a belt, but its padded shoulder straps with sternum strap, as well as a padded back panel keep it comfortable carrying the max 10 pounds or so you’re likely to put in a carry-on. The Meridian 28”/75L doesn’t hold a lot of gear like the other products reviewed here; it lacks the capacity for backpacking gear. It’s most useful to travelers who sometimes need to carry luggage backpack-style and like the convenience of the detachable carry-on daypack.

 

Click to view slideshow.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Osprey Meridian 28”/75L at backcountry.com.

 

Deuter Helion 80

Deuter Helion 80

Deuter Helion 80
$289, 80L/4,882 c.i., 8 lbs. 11 oz.
Sizes: 60L/3,661 c.i. ($269) & 80L
deuter.com

Pros: Comfortable to carry backpack-style, burly wheels.
Cons: Heavy and bulky, not made for extreme situations or weather.

With oversized, slightly knobby wheels, the Helion rolls easily over ground more rugged than your typical airport terminal floor or sidewalk. And when the ground is too rough to roll it, unzip a back panel (which stuffs into a pocket behind the harness) to reveal a harness with padded shoulder straps and hipbelt and back padding.

The lockable, U-shaped zipper, which can be anchored with a padlock to an external D-ring, opens to expose the entire, spacious main compartment for easy packing and unloading. It has three zippered pockets: two mesh ones inside, large enough for valuables, toiletries, or clothing accessories like hats and gloves, and a small pocket on the outside. The telescoping, plastic handle locks into two different lengths when extended, and heavy-duty, glove-friendly handles on the top, front, and one side let you pick it up from any angle. Two compression straps on each side shrink the pack to prevent contents shifting with an undersized load. The solid base gives it stability when standing it up and protects the bottom.

 

Click to view slideshow.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Deuter Helion 80 at backcountry.com.

I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.

See also my stories:

“Why and When to Spend More on Gear: Part 1, Packs and Tents, and Part 2, Rain Jackets, Boots, and Sleeping Bags
The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun
Buying Gear? Read This First
My 10 Most-Read Gear Reviews
10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System

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