Written by Shaun Swartz
Choosing a new bag for your travels does not have to be a nightmare.
At a minimum, your main bag should be functional, surprise you with its simultaneous simplicity and complexity (how did they make such a big bag fold down so small?!), and fashionable – because be honest, you know you want your bag to look cool too. Yes, the best carry-on duffel bags can be expensive, but purchasing a quality bag can be the make or break for your travels.
I recall learning this lesson all too vividly while passing through the LAX airport as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college kid on my way to study abroad in Australia. I had meticulously packed, unpacked, and repacked my bag in the days leading up to my departure, only to have my belongings recklessly scattered across the baggage claim floor before I had even seen my first kangaroo.
My bag was brand new when I purchased it two weeks prior, yet as I watched in slow motion as first a shoe, then a snorkeling mask, and finally a duct-taped, unrecognizable mass of my belongings came tumbling end-over-end down the belt, I realized that my bag had betrayed me. Either that or the chain of baggage handlers who had delicately ferried my bag to its destination had merely failed to notice a bag-mauling gremlin had attached itself to the underside of my bag. Surely it was an honest oversight.
In retrospect, I’m still uncertain as to what sort of karmic injustice I performed so early in life to deserve such a fate, but clearly the universe was speaking: do your homework when choosing a bag. Since then, I have learned how to identify the best duffel bags for travel. For the record, I now avoid the LAX airport at all costs as a result of the emotional trauma of trying to scramble together my belongings and find a bag an hour before getting on a plane to fly halfway around the world. Type II fun at its finest.
What Should I Look For When Purchasing A Bag?
These days I’m a little more judicious with my bag choices. Read on to discover which duffels I consider to be top-rated carry-on bags, and which features go into making a great duffel.
An obvious first requirement is that the bag does not, I repeat, NOT, have wheels. Try wheeling your bag through a muddy jungle during an Ecuador service trip or through the insanity of a Beijing train station and then tell me in which universe a wheeled-suitcase is a good idea. The second requirement for any bag to make it onto my list of the best duffel bags for travel is that it is foldable, lightweight, and compact when not in use. There is nothing worse than unpacking your bag on a cramped sailboat or in a shared hostel room only to realize that your bag does not pack down and now will be occupying the majority of your limited, precious cabin or floor space.
The third requirement for a top-rated carry-on bag is what I like to call the “Secret Agent Pocket.” This pocket should be easily accessible on either the bag’s exterior or inside the main flap and should not necessitate unpacking the entire bag to find important travel documents, pens, or the almighty chocolate bar that should be required accompaniment for every traveler on his or her journey.
Show me a bag that meets those simple requirements and I’ll show you a traveler who is poised to achieve in-transit enlightenment.
This top-rated carry-on bag is quickly becoming the obvious choice for gearheads, long-haulers, and weekend warriors alike. The 90-liter version of this duffel, this author’s personal and unsponsored (I’m looking at you Patagonia) first choice, is more than enough space to fit weeks of clothing, camera gear, & snorkeling equipment with room to spare for a kite. Yes, I brought a kite to China last summer to fly on the 6,000-year-old Xi’an City Wall – this bag is that big.
The Black Hole Duffel folds down into its own pocket when not in use, has easily removable, padded backpack straps, and meets the Secret Agent Pocket requirement with one exterior and two interior pockets, allowing you to easily find that chocolate bar you will desperately need after your connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur gets delayed by 18 hours, causing you to sleep under a newspaper on the floor of the Istanbul airport. Did I mention that chocolate should be a necessity for managing travel anxiety?
Bottom line: this bag truly is a marvel of the physical universe in its ability to bend time and space while storing nearly anything you throw in its gravitational field. I once got lost somewhere deep in the abyssal corners of my Black Hole bag in search of a charging converter, only to resurface famished and confused three days later with the bicycle from my childhood that I had not seen in years. With storage like that, it’s really no surprise that this bag made it onto my list of the best duffel bags for travel.
With a gaping 95-liter main compartment, the Northface Base Camp Duffel offers enough space to ensure that you’ll be frustratingly overpacked no matter where you go. This bag also passes the zippered Secret Agent Pocket requirement and can most certainly hold all the chocolate bars your wandering heart could ever desire. Plus, the Base Camp Duffel is available in some ridiculously cool colors and patterns that are guaranteed to catch your eye. (Note of caution: Flashy, colorful bags can also elicit unwanted attention from bag thieves.)
There comes a point in every journey wherein some articles of your clothing simply reach the point of no return. Whether you’ve packed away wet clothing items in your bag and forgotten them for a few days (rookie mistake) or simply reached the stinky-shirt threshold with your travel mates, clothing items eventually reach a point at which they must be cleaned. For those moments when you don’t have access to a laundromat, a sink, a stream, or some other way to clean your clothes, this top-rated carry-on bag has a separate, dedicated zippered compartment for storing those stinky, wet clothes and shoes to keep you from soiling the precious few “clean” items left in your bag. Obviously, that makes this is one of the best duffel bags for travelling abroad.
Helly Hansen has long been a favorite for sailors and wanderers alike. Known for products that can withstand the harsh extremes of cold, wet environments, Helly Hansen has withstood the test of time for over 140 years. The humbly named Classic Large Duffel Bag checks all of the initial requirements for consideration on my list of the best duffel bags for travel, as it possesses no absurd wheels, is compact when not in use, and has a zippered exterior Secret Agent Pocket.
Case in point for durability: The bright orange Classic Duffel bag that GoBeyond staffer Torin Tofferi carries is more well-traveled than most people I know.
Inscribed on the side of the bag is a running tally of all the airports this top-rated carry-on bag has passed through – an impressive 49 airports in total since May 2nd, 2016. This is borderline absurdity when averaged out over that period of time – that’s equivalent to a different airport approximately every two weeks for nearly two years. Any bag that can pass unscathed through that many baggage assemblies is approaching paranormal status.
Bag preferences are obviously highly subjective, so visit your local outdoor retailer (REI, Camping World, etc…) to find a bag that fits both your body frame and your travel needs. Doing your own research into a bag is the best way to get an idea for what works for you; Open, close, and reopen the bag to test its zippers, practice loading and unloading random items in the bag a few times, and try the bag on both with and without weight. Be sure to check both the bag’s return policy AND its warranty. Any bag worth its salt will be backed by a solid warranty. The more critical you are with your decision, the more satisfied you will be with your bag in the long run.
What Alternatives to Expensive Bags Exist?
Just for the sake of journalistic inquiry, I asked two notorious duffel-bag-shunners in our office what they do to make it through their travels successfully every summer. Their answers were slightly concerning, if not expected:
Elliot: “Buying expensive bags is ridiculous and I definitely don’t use a duffel. Carrying my belongings in armloads of plastic grocery bags through the airports gets me where I need to go and scares off anyone who might be considering trying to steal my stuff.”
Jake: “I have a random, easily forgettable bag that I use or replace each summer. I travel to the program with a large number of small tubs of cottage cheese and if one breaks in transit I don’t want to be heartbroken that my expensive bag now smells like rotten cottage cheese. Plus I’m not entirely sure that traveling with large quantities of perishable food items in an unrefrigerated checked bag is strictly ‘legal,’ so having a bag I don’t care about getting back works best for me. But hey, to each his own.”
Don’t be a bag-shunner; invest in your travel and get a real bag.
Do you have a bag that has withstood the test of time and disgruntled baggage handlers? Share photos of your best carry-on duffel bag with us on Instagram – @GoBeyondStudentTravel – by tagging your pictures with #GoBeyondStudentTravel
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