Travel Luggage That Can Take It--All

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1996

Travel Luggage That Can Take It--All

Rugged duffels, gear bags, and convertible packs that hold everything you think you might need
By Bob Howells

No one is more obnoxious than the travel geek who shows up for a two-week trip toting nothing more than a carry-on and prattling about having packing "down to a system." My highly refined system is to take everything I think I might need. And because that often means a large quantity of stuff, I choose bags that can withstand the rigors of overloading as well as the usual abuses of travel.

My ideal luggage is a plain, bombproof duffel--simple, lightweight, reliable--though I also admire some of the more feature-laden bags, with their enticing abundance of pockets, convertibility, expandability, rollability, and other design ingenuities. Every bag, however, whether spartan or baroque, has to meet some basic requirements.

Materials. Most travel bags are made of 1,000-denier Cordura nylon: extremely strong, abrasion-resistant, and--when treated on the inside with a water-resistant coating--reasonably weather-worthy. Cordura-Plus is pretty much the same, with a softer hand. You'll also see bags made of ballistics nylon and vinyl-coated nylon; both are extremely strong, and the latter is highly water-resistant, but they're somewhat heavier and bulkier than Cordura. Natural fibers such as canvas duck and hemp have their place, too--handsome and surprisingly strong, but more likely than the others to abrade.

Construction. Look inside the bag for neatly taped seams; raw fabric edges will fray and catch in zippers. Straps and handles should be sewn directly to the bag material, not merely tucked into a seam, and reinforced (look for an X-shaped, box-and-cross stitching pattern or a thick line of bartacking). The straps should be made of nylon webbing--the wider the better. Nylon rings and buckles are fine; metal hardware is stronger, but adds to the cost. Chintzy zippers are guaranteed to blow out; get 'em big and beefy, like the YKK #10 nylon coil zippers that are the industry standard. In a rolling duffel, look for sealed-bearing wheels and a sturdy bottom: either a fiberglass frame or a full plastic underside with stair glides, rigid plastic rails that run the length of the bag's underside, so you can drag it up and down stairs.

Convenience and comfort. A horseshoe-shaped zipper gives better access to the main compartment and dissipates stress on the bag better than a straight zipper. Compression straps, whether sewn inside or out, help keep your load from shifting. If the bag is big enough to get heavy, it should have haul handles on the ends so you can buddy-carry it. Finally, a pox upon narrow and unpadded shoulder straps.

The bags I've stuffed, toted, and tossed for this review show a cross-section of what's available in sizes suitable for a long weekend up to a week or two on the road.

Duffels and Gear Bags
Duffels are great for bulky stuff--because they're not divided and compartmentalized, you're free to pack them as you will. More finicky travelers like the multiple holds of a gear bag, which can help you stay organized and isolate contaminated items like muddy shoes and the funky stuff you wore a few days ago.

I've abused a B.A.D. (Best American Duffel) Bags No. 4 (25 inches long by 16 wide by 13 deep, $104) for years now, and I have yet to find a better-built duffel. It's made of 1,000-denier Cordura-Plus, with two-inch seat-belt nylon for straps, handles, and reinforcements. The big leather grip seals around the carrying straps with Velcro, and it's long enough to double as a shoulder pad (in a pinch, you can run the straps around both shoulders, backpack-style). Two compression straps run all the way around the bag. The horseshoe zipper is huge, so a large flap peels back for main compartment access.

The ultimate gear bag is Eagle Creek's Toy Chest (30 by 15 by 13, $149), made of Cordura-Plus. The construction is excellent, but this bag's coolest feature is its expandable side pockets, one mesh, one Cordura--zip out the extra three inches, and each end will hold a pair of hiking boots and a pair of running shoes, with room to spare. Compression straps run over the top and around each end for load control, and a pillowy shoulder strap makes schlepping this thing bearable.

The North Face Gear Duffel (medium size, 26 by 15 by 13; $75) isn't as meticulously made--some raw fabric edges are exposed along the main zipper tape--but the polyurethane-coated nylon bag is still plenty strong and has features such as end compartments for shoes and a grab handle on each end. A nice touch is a mesh pouch sewn into the peel-back lid.

The two bags I tested made from natural fibers are an aesthetic notch above the others. The Lands' End Square Rigger Flight Bag (large size, 24.5 by 14 by 15 inches; $129) is a canvas-duck work of art, with leather trim, nylon lining, molded steel hardware, and huge, looped zipper pulls. The TerraPax Duffel Bag (23 by 14 by 11 inches, $110) is billed as "compostable" and represents one of hemp's more legitimate applications. It's a great-looking material and nearly as strong as petrochemical fibers. It doesn't stand up as well to abrasion or moisture, but you've gotta love its earnest, eco look.

Rolling Duffels
The rolling duffel, outfitted with wheels, is an emerging genre that makes a lot of sense. The necessary hardware and the comparatively elaborate construction make these bags more expensive, heavier, and bulkier than comparably sized duffels, but they're a joy to have for moving heavy loads.

All three rollers I tested have strong, sealed-bearing wheels. The High Sierra Endeavors Drop-Bottom Wheeled Duffel (29 by 16 by 13 inches, $125) has a subfloor compartment for a small garment bag (included). I used it for boots and funky stuff, but it could also hold a few more formal items, like a suit and dress shoes. The nylon bag is PVC coated inside and out, so it's very strong and water-resistant, but its antique brass-finish plastic zippers seem prone to breakage, and I wished more than once for a shoulder strap. Nautica's Wheeled Duffel (30 by 14 by 15 inches, $125) is also made from PVC-coated nylon and has a huge rectangular-zipper opening to the main compartment. While it and the High Sierra have external plastic bottoms and stair glides, the L.L.Bean Large Ultimate Rolling Duffel (33 by 14.5 by 13, $140) uses fiberglass stays inside the bag to form a bottom frame. It's not as smooth clunking up or down stairs, but I worry about the durability of the external stays on the others. The Cordura Plus bag is beautifully made.

Travel Packs
Convertible travel packs that can be worn on the back or carried as suitcases are not particularly good internal-frame backpacks, nor do they offer the capacity of duffels that weigh and cost far less. But they do have their place, especially for nontechnical trekking (e.g., the standard Eurail tour of Europe) when you might have to carry 25 or so pounds some distance. All of them are made of 1,000-denier Cordura, with shoulder straps that tuck away behind a zippered panel when you're in suitcase mode.

It's the suspension system you pay for in the better travel packs: Aluminum stays, which can be bent to the contour of your back, transfer weight to a padded hipbelt; the shoulder harness is adjustable, with well-padded straps. The Caribou Mucho Pack is a worthy example (30 by 14 by 8 inches, $260), replete with compression straps, a zip-off daypack, and a sleeping bag compartment made of ballistics nylon. Construction detailing inside the pack is rather rough, though, and the shoulder strap and suitcase handle are too spartan.

The MEI Flying Scotsman (27 by 17 by 13 inches, $180) has the same features as the Caribou but for the bag compartment, and adds a better-quality suitcase handle. The straps are nicely reinforced (with leather, yet), and interior compression straps are a welcome touch, as are the accessory straps which can hold a sleeping bag.

Jansport's Vagabond Travel Pack (26 by 16 by 15 inches, $150) has most of the fancy-pack features--bendable stays, hipbelt, zip-off daypack--and for less money. The shoulder harness isn't adjustable, though--be sure it fits well if you plan to carry much weight.

In its backpack mode, Eagle Creek's Cargo Switchback Plus (20 by 14 by 8 inches, $235) is much more scaled-down, with no hipbelt or suspension system, but it one-ups the others with its built-in dolly, a spiffy retractable handle and wheels of the sort favored by flight attendants. The wheels aren't heavy-duty--they're for the airport and train station, not the cobblestone road--and you don't want to carry this pack far on your back. But it's well made, and you've got to love the options it gives you, including a zip-off daypack with padded shoulder straps.

Bob Howells is a frequent contributor to Outside's Review pages.

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