Duffle Bags: Origins and Rebirth
Walk in any airport these days and you’ll notice that duffle bags are everywhere. They’re replacing rolling luggage and backpacks. They are versatile and convenient. Today, the story is about them and their rebirth in the modern adventure and commuter lifestyles.
There’s one thing that duffle bags favor over all other features - room. The way that duffle bags are designed is that the entire volume of the bag is essentially available for space to store clothes or anything else you’d like to carry around with you.
This is in contrast to more recent (think last 20-30 years) styles of luggage and bags that are all pockets, compartments, zips, more hidden pockets, and wheels. Modern designs also tend to favor styles that lean more towards the look of the bag rather than how practical they are.
But since duffle bags are now coming back in style, it’s definitely a sign that we actually want a practical and possibly also good looking solution to our travel carry. Sometimes you don’t want all the available space divided into tiny pockets and just want a bag that’s easy to throw things into and take with you and favors being practical over looking fancy.
Image Source: olive-drab.com
What we often see these days are hybrids of duffle bags and backpacks. It’s now almost a mainstream fashion, or soon will be.
Patagonia, REI, The North Face, Timbruk, and many others have released their version of this hybrid travel bag in recent years.
Let’s dive into a bit of history and then chat about some of the coolest duffle bags on the market today.
The Origin of the Duffle Bag
Duffle bags are made from flexible fabric and are usually a cylindrical shape meaning they can be carried vertically with a drawstring at the top or horizontally from a pair of handles in the middle.
The name of the bag comes from the town of Duffel in Belgium, which is why you’ll often see it also spelled that way. The town was known for producing a thick kind of cloth in the 17th century that was well suited to making sturdy carry bags.
The original form of duffle bags was very similar to the current lineup of duffles from The North Face. They were cylindrical in shape and were first used in German and then USA armies.
Those duffles were made out of a woolen cloth material. The US army made their duffles out of olive drab canvas with a cotton duck carrying handle.
If you ever wonder how these cylindrical duffles needed to be packed, here is a full step-by-step outline on how to pack an army duffle bag.
The durability of the cloth made it popular among navy and civilian sailors, with the bags also commonly called “seabags” as a result. They later became a common issue item to US army and naval personnel, especially during WWII, as a sturdy and straightforward bag for carrying military kit and supplies. After the war ended, many of the khaki duffle or “kitbags” flooded out onto the streets via army surplus stores.
Image Source: laurelleaffarm.com
One of the most distinct cultural identities tied to the duffle bag is the surf culture starting in the 1950’s in California and along the east coast of Australia in the 1960’s. During those decades, duffle bags were very popular among young male surfers (or those pretending they were surfers).
If you ever want to read up on surfing and really get to understand the culture, The History of Surfing is a fantastic book to have at home.
Back in 1960s, surfers used the canvas bags to keep their swimming trunks, towel or other belongings in, often slung over their shoulder or thrown into the back of their car as they moved up and down the coast looking for waves.
Today, we have leather, waxed canvas, ripstop nylon, Cordura, and many other materials used to in making modern duffle bags.
Benefits of Duffle Bags
Modern duffle bags aren’t too different from the original seabags but tend to more often be carried horizontally, with a sturdy zipper replacing the drawstring and eyelets.
They may also include one or two small compartments at either end of the bag. But what is usually unchanged is the single, large central compartment that’s great for using as your bag for the gym or a weekend getaway.
Because the bags are made from a flexible material (usually canvas, ripstop nylon, or leather), they are much better for throwing in the trunk or backseat of a car than a rigid, rectangular piece of luggage.
As a carry-on, they are also great as you can adjust the shape of the bag to fit into whatever the airline limitations are today. On my last flights, my 60L REI duffle made it just fine into the carry-on, even though you’re normally supposed to bring only 40L bags into a carry-on.
They’re also great for camping because you can throw them on the ground without worrying about them getting too dirty or ripped and they can usually withstand a bit of rain or the occasional drink spilled over them without too much worry.
With duffle bags coming back in style, I got a chance to spend some quality shopping time on my laptop looking for some new cool bags I’d want to carry on my trips. Having a classic rolling suitcase is not my thing anymore and I wanted to have several bags to bring with me on week-long trips.
I needed one clothing bag and one camera bag. This is how my duffle bag addition got going about a year ago. Today, I have a lineup of some cool duffle bag options that I consider to be some of the best on the market. You can always get pins and patches for these at Asilda Store.
Ripstop Nylon - What is it?
Before we get to the 10 duffle bags I want to recommend, here is a quick info on the material you'll find in 80% of duffle bags today - ripstop nylon.
The material was created/invented in WWII as a replacement for parachute material, which at the time was silk, which was expensive and hard to find.
Seen in hammocks, kites, hot air balloons, and many other products where it's critically important to be durable and very light, ripstop nylon is now an essential part of thousands of outdoor clothing and gear items.
Often you'll see a grid of squares on this material. The idea here is to prevent the nylon from tearing any further than the next nearest reinforced square if the fabric is punctured in any place.
When sewing patches on ripstop nylon, be sure to use polyester threads, not cotton (very important!!!) Cotton, when exposed to elements, tends to wear down the material much faster. Polyester thread will be a much better option.
Great Duffle Bag Options
At first, I looked at The North Face and Patagonia duffle bags. Those seemed to be the most mainstream. I didn't like the roundness and the zippers on The North Face originally and Patagonia material for some reason didn't seem too attractive for me.
So I kept looking.
REI recently launched a series of travel bags and I think they did a very fine job with the design and material choices on these duffles.
I bought this 60L duffle in paprika color and so far did a dozen or so trips with it, the longest being 7 days.
The best thing about this bag is it's super versatile. By including two shoulder straps and two backlack type straps, the bag can be quickly converted to be carried like a duffel, carry on, or backpack.
It also has two compression straps so you can pack the bag to the brim, then tighten the straps to make it easier to carry or to save space in your trunk for a big camping trip.
It has a rugged ripstop nylon upper and tough nylon base to increase the overall durability of the bag as well as internal mesh pockets to help organize your gear.
In my experience, this bag can carry the clothes and essentials for two for a week-long trip.
If you don't know much about Patagonia and their history, pick up a copy of Let My People Go Surfing, a book written by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. A friend recommended this book and it was absolutely a quality read.
I'm saying this mostly to everyone who thinks that Patagonia is all about overpriced "hipster gear" and popular appeal. There is so much more to the brand.. Just saying.
Patagonia bags, especially this Black Hole line, are quickly taking their place in the top best sellers right next to The North Face. Everyone else is a bit in a different league right now.
One of the things that stand out on all of Black Hole Patagonia bags and backpacks is the TPU laminate and DWR (durable water repellent) finish to the ripstop nylon. To learn more about it, head to the special page on Patagonia website explaining the DWR finish and the search for chemically safe materials.
Personally, I am not a huge fan of how glossy and bright these bags are. For some reason, I also don't like that you cannot remove the duffle straps and keep only backpack straps, like to the REI duffle I have.
The North Face
Base Camp Medium 71L Duffel - $135
If you want an iconic duffle shape, this is it. Since 1979, the Base Camp duffles are some of the most long-lasting bags that are put through the harshest conditions.
These duffles are made out of 1000D phthalate-free TPE fabric laminate and 840D Jr. Ballistic s nylon. Since we got talking about all the materials, I thought I'd mention what this one is made of.
Since the volume of production on these is so big, you can frequently find cool and unique color combos of the duffle bags. Right now, there are close to 20 current color styles available and many more are on eBay and other retail places.
The North Face, which was originally a store for climbers in San Francisco. If you read up on Patagonia, they also have their roots in climbing.
From a store to one of the biggest outdoor brands on the planet, The North Face is now also a sister company of JanSport, Eastpak, and Timberland.
The parent of all of these is VF Corporation, which controls 55% of the US backpack market (source: NY Times). Wow.
You can spot Topo Designs bags in most of my store photoshoots. I have patches and pins on all of my Topo bags and I love their unique style, quality of craftsmanship, and color combos.
I personally haven't tried this duffle yet, but it's coolest feature is the wide zipper that lets you really open up the bag to load or unload your packed clothes. It would be very interesting to see the 40L or 60L duffle bags in some of the more classic Topo Designs color combos.
For now, this one is on my wishlist.
I frequently browse Kickstarter in search of cool design and gear projects to back. Wandrd launched a camera backpack some time ago and came back to fund another idea these three cool brothers had in mind - a dream duffle bag that has all the features we'd ever want.
The guys who designed the duffle said that this is the bag every company dreams up and develops concepts for, but in the end, removes all the special features because the bag ends up being super expensive to manufacture. So most brands choose to go with a simpler and cheaper to make duffle bag.
Wandrd Hexed duffle was meant to be the opposite - all the things you'd want in a duffle with no compromises on design or cost. This duffle has all kinds of pockets and attachments you can imagine.
The Hexad duffle is compatible with Wandrd’s range of Camera Cubes. I put my F-Stop Gear medium ICU inside and it fits just fine. So for me this became my primary travel camera backpack.
I got this bag as a backer of the Kickstarter campaign. After several trips with this duffle, I am a big fan. The amount of adjustment options means straps can sometimes get in the way as you zip up the duffle, but overall this is the most advanced and carefully/thoughtfully designed bag I’ve seen in recent years.
Nomad Duffle, Waxed Field Tan - $400
Like many of Tanner Goods’ other products, the most distinctive thing about their Nomad Duffle is its rugged and well-worn appearance. The tan colored waxed cotton fabric and the sturdy leather strapping give the bag a very hard-wearing durability that means there’s a very good chance you’ll still be able to use this bag decades from now.
There’s also a very good chance that decades from now it will still look similar to the day you bought it, which is very unlike most products on the market these days.
Despite well and truly being designed for the outdoors, Tanner Goods have still made the duffle versatile by keeping the size of the bag within the dimensions needed to stow it in an overhead compartment - it's 22" long even though it looks much bigger on the product photos.
I’ve been wanting to buy this bag for the past 2-3 years but have never gone on to make the $400 dive into my wallet. So I'm mentioning it as my wishlist item, but I personally never traveled with it.
Medium Rugged Twill Duffle Bag - $395
The history of Filson stretches way back to 1897, when C.C. Filson’s Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers was established in Seattle Washington. C.C. Filson set up the company to supply sturdy, warm clothing and outdoor gear, mainly to men traveling north to the Klondike Gold rush in northwestern Canada.
He owned his own mill and initially manufactured wool clothing and blankets as well as boots, shoes, moccasins and sleeping bags specially designed for extreme cold conditions.
From what I read, up until 1970 when the company was sold for the first time, there were just 35 products Filson was making.
Today, Filson’s huge range of duffle bags includes options in twill, cloth, suede, ballistic nylon, and waterproof leather. Filson has this iconic look and their canvas is a unique element that makes these bags like no other.
Most of their material options are paired with bridle leather although the cloth duffles also come with cloth straps, making them lighter but at the expense of a bit of durability.
Although the twill bag is not as waterproof as the all-leather duffle, it does include rustproof brass zippers and storm flap closures making it pretty well protected against the weather. If you’re looking for a classier looking duffle, it’s pretty hard to beat what Filson have created across their range of duffles.
Cool fact - the current owner of Filson, the parent company I should say, also owns Shinola. I guess you can see how the two brands have a bit of parallel stories and visual appeal.
Panga 50L Submersible Duffel - $300
YETI has taken the weatherproof duffle bag to the next level with their fully waterproof Submersible.
As the name suggests, the bag can be completely submerged underwater without any of the compartments being affected by water, so is perfect for river-based or rafting trips. It uses Hydrolok Zippers and a ThickSkin shell, making it both completely waterproof and durable for regular daily use too.
I wrote about YETI products before, giving a bit of company background and into to their range of Rambler insulated bottles, which are perfect for Asilda Stickers by the way.
This is the duffle I got for my fiance just recently. I wanted a bad that looks good, has a strong appeal to guys - rugged, well-made, and good looking.
There is a pretty great story behind these and even though visually these can be taken for a city bag. BAD duffles went to Arctica on a 1990 expedition and survived the tests of time, temperatures, daily use, and zero room for error situations.
Made in Seattle out of 1,000-denier ballistic CORDURA® nylon fabric, this bag has reinforcements on every single stress point. Available in 7 sizes and a handful of muted classic color combos, BAD duffles are the favorite among pilots, sailors, and anyone who prefers to buy one solid bag for many years of travel to come.
Surveyor Duffle Bag - $160
A true urban weekender and commuter companion, this bag is perfect if you want to ride your bike, get to the gym, or go away for 2-3 days.
In the last 20+ years, Chrome Industries got the reputation for making the bags for the city but that can also withstand the test of time, which most of the adventure lovers can relate to. Cool fact - Chrome Industries was founded in Colorado, just like Topo Designs.
As a rider of a Bianchi Campione 2016, I definitely have an eye on this bag for my daily commute to the office. I never owned a Chrome bag, but heard tons of good things about everything they make.
Duffle bags are pretty great, I can tell you that. I ditched my suitcase and opted in for a 60L duffle and a rolling duffle for my travels. At first, I wanted a bag that would give me only a limited amount of space I can use to pack. It was my way to "less is enough" type packing. Then I fell in love with travel organizers, more on that to come, and a single compartment of a duffle bag became a major winner for me.
Today, I am happy to say that I feel a lot more advanced with organizing for my trips. I feel less stressed about packing. I know the right space for everything. And I love the visual aesthetic and convenience of the duffle bags I mentioned here.
None of the products in this post are promotional. What I own is what I bought and what I don't own is still on my wishlist. Hope some of these will make it to your wishlist as well and that the read on duffle bags and their history was worth your time.