I’ve spent years of my life living out of bags, and I believe that a solid carry-on-size duffel coupled with a well-built backpack is the best travel combination out there. Checking bags should be avoided at all costs for obvious reasons, those fancy wheeled deals become nothing more than an annoyance once you get out of the airport, and the union of duffel and backpack gives you all the space you need for weeks on the road. To help you pick the best duffel to carry around the world, I put five through a head-to-head test.
- Packability: I stuffed each of these duffels ten times with pillows and towels to the point of bursting. I made note of how easy they were to pack and unpack, how much gear they swallowed, and how easy or difficult they were to close when full. I also took notes on how accessible pockets outside of the main compartment were.
- Ease of Carry: I filled each of these bags with a 25-pound Everlast Slam Ball and towels and walked them for a quarter of a mile around an obstacle course that I created, once using a shoulder carry and once using a hand carry.
- Accessory Usability: I tested the pockets, zippers, backpack straps, and general doohickeys by tinkering with them throughout the test. If a pocket looked like it was meant for a cell phone, I found out how easy it was to use. If a strap was supposed to seamlessly transition from one type of carry to another, I tried it again and again. Since each bag had a different feature set, I did not standardize this test but just performed some good old-fashioned tinkering.
- Durability: I placed the 25-pound exercise ball in each bag and proceeded to drag it behind my e-bike for a quarter mile at a pace between six and eight miles per hour and took notes on any damage. I took the same route for each bag.
Winner: Thule Crossover 2 Duffel 44L ($200)
Ease of Carry: 5
Accessory Usability: 4.5
Yes, the Thule Crossover 2 is twice as expensive as the other duffels on this list, but I say the extra price is warranted. This bag is fantastic and earned a solid first place in all categories except for accessory usability (the Sea to Summit, below, had a more organic feature set). A little bit of rigidity through the bag—it was the only duffel that could stand up on its own—kept the front and ample side pockets open and functional, even when the main compartment was bulging. The hearty clamshell zipper made closing the full bag a breeze. Those two traits meant it could comfortably fit more than its 44-liter capacity. My wife and I used it on quick trip to the coast as our shared bag, and the interior was so spacious and accessible that it not only held all of our clothes and toiletries, but we could both grab something out of it at the same time without annoying each other. I assumed its fancy twill-like exterior would get pummeled in the durability test, but I was wrong: the Crossover 2 was the only bag that was merely scuffed rather than torn after being dragged all that way.
2. Sea to Summit 45L Duffel Bag ($126)
Ease of Carry: 4
Accessory Usability: 5
I came into this roundup thinking the Sea to Summit 45 L would be a clear winner, like its 65L older sibling was during my duffel test last year. But it was edged into second by the Crossover, because the Thule was easier to pack and withstood the drag test better. When I tested the former, a baseball-size area of the bottom layer wore away completely. There was another layer that did not break through though, which left the bag usable at the end of the test. It did take the overall win for accessory usability, thanks to a brilliant two-strap design that allowed it to seamlessly transition from a solid hand-carry duffel to an over-the-shoulder bag to a backpack that was so comfortable it could sub in for a hiking pack in a pinch. The pairing of the giant double-toothed zipper and hearty pull tabs (the largest in this test) delivered satisfying open-and-close experiences, and both were solid enough that I would not be concerned about them failing in the field.
3. Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler Duffel 60L ($109)
Ease of Carry: 4
Accessory Usability: 4
The Cargo Hauler and the Sea to Summit were absolutely neck and neck in this test—their durability performance was surprisingly similar—but the Eagle Creek ended up taking third because its carry system proved more onerous. Everything worked extremely well and carried comfortably, but there were just a lot more straps and features to deal with on the exterior of the bag. It packed like a dream, thanks to its large clamshell opening, and it easily fit inside an overhead compartment on a puddle-jumper flight from Medford, Oregon, to Denver, in spite of its 60-liter size. Integrated exterior cinch downs also kept things tight, even when the bag wasn’t filled to capacity.
4. Helly Hansen Duffel Bag 2 50L ($110)
Ease of Carry: 4.5
Accessory Usability: 4.5
The cylindrical shape and huge U-shaped clamshell zipper on the top of this duffel from Helly Hansen gave it top marks in packability. It also had extremely comfortable carry points. Its shoulder strap was the most organic and simple to use in this test. And the bag was sweet—until I dragged it behind my e-bike. I was bummed to look down and see that it had been fatally compromised during the pull test. It had a solid four-inch gash that made the bag unusable and scuffed my slam ball. However, this bag’s geometry and zipper make it feel bigger than 50 liters (in a good way), which makes it a solid option for international travel, because you likely won’t drag your bag behind a vehicle.
5. Dakine Concourse 58L Duffel ($105)
Ease of Carry: 2
Accessory Usability: 3.5
The Concourse was the least comfortable duffel to carry and had some accessories that I didn’t like. Namely: it only zipped on two sides, while one side closed with Velcro. At first I was excited about the lightning-fast access to gear, but that Velcro made the bag significantly more difficult to close when it was full. I also imagine it’s a thief’s dream in a busy airport. That said, it was nice to open it up with one hand when packing. But it also took a nasty tear during the durability test. Four inches of duct tape could have fixed it, but it did wear completely through the fabric.