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For many years, Patagonia’s Black Hole duffels has been ubiquitous on airport luggage carousels. It’s easy to spot the outdoor adventurers on the flight as they reach for that shiny, ripstop fabric, throwing the duffels over their shoulders with a grunt before heading out the door. Lately, however, the Black Hole’s dominance in the duffel space has been challenged by a variety of other brands — newcomers and established competitors alike.
The Black Hole series has acquired such a dedicated core user group because of a pretty simple recipe. The bags are basic, well-made, and incredibly durable. (I have one that’s journeyed more than ten years and six continents before finally being relegated to “non-flight use” after coming back from Africa with several large cuts from luggage handlers — for which I blame the airlines, not the bag.) Looking beyond Patagonia’s cult brand following, it’s just a darn good duffel. The Black Hole bags come in both wheeled and unwheeled versions ranging from 40 liters (2,441 cubic inches) to 100 liters (6,102 cubic inches).
My qualifications for a working duffel are demanding. As a working photographer and fly angler who spends months on the road each year, I’ve winnowed down the features I want: durable, well-padded backpack straps (for those airports without luggage carts), water-resistant fabric (for airports without covered luggage storage, and for long, open boat rides in the rain to lodges), and clamshell full access to the inside (for those half-asleep nights digging in my duffel for that one specific charging cord that’s inevitably lost at the bottom of the bag). Ideally, I’d also like to see decent internal organization, one accessible outside pocket that doesn’t connect to the inside (for security reasons), and a padded base to help cushion when the bag is inevitably thrown around.
The sliced-up Black Hole duffel I just retired has been replaced by the newer version, and I have thoughts. Win: the backpack straps are improved and more ergonomic. Win: the two interior zipper pockets on the lid are a little larger. Peripheral win: Patagonia’s Black Hole Cubes are awesome little organizers durable enough to function as stand-alone bags if needed once on location. Fail: the outer pocket allows access to the inside of the bag and isn’t lockable, so it’s impossible to completely secure the bag. (I realize someone could just take a box opener and slice right in there, but I still keep TSA locks on my bags when I travel as a deterrent.) Overall, it’s still a grand duffel and just worked well on a shoot in rural Lesotho, but my search for features has driven me to look at other bags as well.
Here are the top contenders:
KUIU Waypoint Duffel
Available in three sizes ranging from carry-on friendly 46 liters (2,800 cubic inches) to a hulking 170 liter (10,400 cubic inches), hunting brand KUIU’s Waypoint duffels might just kick the Black Hole off its pedestal. Designed for expedition hunters, the Waypoint’s high-density TPU-coasted nylon exterior has a completely waterproof welded bottom and a surprisingly well-padded interior. The removable shoulder strap system is comfy, burly grab handles make it easy to snag the bag off the luggage carousel, and an 80/20 load distribution means extensive—and well-balanced—storage in the lid. The water-resistant lid pocket might be the thing that sways me from my Black Hole allegiance. Overall, super impressed with this series from KUIU.
5.11 Rush LBD X-Ray 106L
A duffel of a slightly different flavor. 5.11’s Rush LBD X-Ray bears its tactical roots proudly. This isn’t a bag I’d take to Africa or the Middle East—no need to look military when you’re not—but it’s one I’ll use stateside. Tear-and water-resistant 1050D nylon isn’t as expedition-ready as some of the other duffels tested, but I love the bag’s MOLLE platform, which allows for customizable storage with the brand’s Rush Collection of bags. Measuring in at 106 liters (6,510 cubic inches), this is a great duffel to keep in the car for organization, but not one I’d take on international trips.
The North Face Base Camp Duffel
Another outdoor industry classic, The North Face’s Base Camp Duffel has been around for a while. And I still don’t love it. My main complaint centers around the opening: the D-zip entrance is just a little too snug; the bag doesn’t want to open fully, making nighttime digs for missing items even more frustrating. On the plus side, the bag is well-constructed with ergonomic shoulder straps, padded handles, and an internal mesh pocket for organization. But the opening is a deal-breaker for me. For those who don’t mind the squeeze, the bag is available in XS (31 liters, 1,892 cubic inches) through to XXL (150 liters, 9,154 cubic inches).
Sitka Drifter Duffle 75L
Another duffel born from a hunting company, Sitka’s Drifter duffels come in three options: 50-liter, 75-liter, and 110-liter. Rugged 150D TPU-coated rip-stop fabric is paired with a waterproof 450D welded TPU-coated rip-stop floor for protection. The bag’s removable shoulder straps aren’t as comfy as Patagonia’s or KUIU’s, but the four side carry handles are well-padded. Overall, a good duffel bag, but not quite as feature-rich or comfortable with a heavy load as KUIU’s Waypoint series.
YETI Crossroads Duffel Bag, 60L
It’s hard to talk about popular outdoor brands without at least mentioning YETI. The brand’s Crossroads duffel features TuffSkin Nylon, a 700D expedition-grade fabric inspired by motorcycle gear. Water- and abrasion-resistant, the TuffSkin body is paired with an easy-clean TPU-coated base. The bag’s interior organization stands out; two divider panels separate the interior into three sections and can be folded away when desired. The bag’s structured foam walls give structure, and padded grab handles are well-anchored into the design. It’s a nice bag, though it strikes me as more of a “weekend getaway” bag and less of an expedition bag (the brand’s Panga series of bags is waterproof and good for boaters).
Osprey Transporter Duffel
Osprey’s Transporter series is huge, ranging from duffels to backpacks to rolled bags. The brand’s original Transporter duffel series is a family of four, ranging from 40 liters to 120 liters. Ergonomic and well-designed, the Transporter series is quite solid. But there’s more to these bags than a clean design. The DWR-coated TPU-coated polyester is durable and easy to clean, the backpack harness straps tuck away nicely and include a sternum strap, and the duffel’s opening is large, which means easy digging. A zippered end pocket gives access to small items, 11 coated webbing lash points mean plenty of tie-down opportunities, and the main zipper has a quality, weather-protected overlap. I miss the reinforced bottom of some of the other duffels listed above, but it’s a good bag for the pseudo-adventure traveler.
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