What is the toughest, the best, and the most affordable travel duffel bag?
That’s an easy one; the North Face Base Camp Duffel bag.
The world’s toughest travel duffel bag is a waterproof carry-on-able bag with comfortable backpack straps, simplicity, and style, with a ruggedness that can’t be denied.
I’m going to give you a detailed review of this incredible travel bag based on 10 years of personally using it as well as some in-depth research.
If you still aren’t convinced by the end, I’ll give you a few runners-ups that perform almost as well.
But why settle when you can easily have the best?
The Best Travel Duffel Bag Ever Made
I used to be embarrassed to say it in public, but I have come to grips with my true feelings. I love The North Face Base Camp Duffel Backpack.
If you give it a chance, this bag will win you over too.
This ruggedly handsome bag of perfectly put together ballistic nylon and indestructible TPE laminate deserves and sends back every ounce of care you give it.
I have two of these bags, one small (50 liters) and one medium (71 liters), and one or the other has been on every trip I have taken in the last decade.
They are comfortable, are highly water-resistant, can be thrown around like a sandbag, and fit in almost all airplane overhead compartments (the medium at 71 liters when full fits in international flight overhead space).
At least once per a trip, some sweat rimmed traveler fighting with their bag’s zipper or trying to hold up the un-padded strap digging into their shoulder, enviously asks me what bag I have then swears they are going to get one when they get back home.
Don’t be that frustrated traveler, get one before you take off!
First, you might be wondering why Google kept autocorrecting ‘Duffle’ to ‘Duffel.’
Duffel bags were actually the namesake product of a Belgium town called, you guessed it, Duffel.
This town was known for the thick-durable fabric used to create the first duffel bags back in the 18th century.
According to The North Face, their first duffel bag was designed in 1978 and labeled ‘soft-luggage.’ The name ‘Base Camp Duffel’ took hold in 1985.
In 89’ they introduced handles then in 96’ they added the iconic D-door that is still used today.
The North Face designed this bag to be burly and to last. It was intended to carry lots of gear into rugged terrain.
From its inception, the Base Camp was a travel duffel bag. It could be seen tied to the backs of mules on high altitude treks or scattered around base camps in practically every mountain destination in the world.
To this day, if you are at the airport or train station in a climbing or trekking hub like Kathmandu, you will see this bag everywhere.
Suffice it to say, this duffel bag has been around a long time and isn’t going anywhere.
So why do people like me the world over love and trust this duffel bag so much?
Why It’s The Best
To be the best travel duffel bag, a pack needs to possess a few basic requirements. The Base Camp duffel hits all of these and more:
- Low profile with large volume
- Backpack straps
- Easily carry on a plane
Now let’s take a look at the finer details that make this bag so amazing.
The North Face duffel is made of durable 840 denier ballistic nylon and 1000 denier TPE Fabric Laminate.
Translation; the toughest fabrics out there.
Nylon is one of the strongest fabrics ever made. Ballistic nylon is a type of super-strong nylon originally engineered for the military before the advent of body armor to protect soldiers from shrapnel.
TPE stands for Thermoplastic Elastomers; a fancy way of saying rubber coating.
By using a combination of these two materials North Face bags are waterproof and built to stand up to just about anything.
Note: The fabric is the waterproof part. Although all the zippers on the Base Camp duffel are protected by flaps, the zippers themselves are not waterproof.
Note 2: The North Face makes two versions of the Base Camp based on the fabric coating. One version is rated as, in the exact words of The North Face, an “Impenetrable moisture barrier to guarantee dryness.”
Whereas the other version offers, again in their words, “Rugged construction […] water-resistant Base Camp material.”
At the time of this writing, only the small and extra-small bags are made with this ‘water-resistant’ material.
Regardless, all bags have an inner coating to increase water-resistance. You can this below on my own packs (gold is the small and black is the medium).
Part of what makes the Base Camp such a versatile pack, are the well-padded and well-positioned backpack straps.
This is by far the best duffel backpack out there.
The backpack straps are easy to adjust, can be completely removed just as easily, and feature a dense padding foam that makes long-hauls a breeze.
If you want to carry your duffel as an over-the-shoulder bag, simply cinch down one strap, lengthen the other, throw it across your shoulder and be on your way.
The newest Base Camp backpack duffels—in sizes medium and larger—also feature side to side carry handles for short hauls and easy pickup.
Other Straps & Tie-Downs
The Base Camp duffel bag was built with adventure in mind. As a result, every bag features straps and tie-downs galore.
Aside from the backpack straps and carry handles on newer bags, the base camp has four compression straps, a vertical carry handle on each side, and 10 gear loops per-a-side.
All North Face duffel bags are made with an extra layer of ballistic nylon sewn along the base for abrasion resistance and increased product life.
Not to mention, an extra barrier against slash and run types of thievery.
While duffel bags are traditionally one big compartment, the Base Camp throws a few minimalist features in right where you would want them.
Almost all packs (on newer bags) feature a mesh end-cap insert to help with organization.
Packs sized medium and large feature a fully separate compartment on one end.
This compartment also has its own mesh separator inside.
The compartment is intended to fit a pair of shoes but is a little small for that (I wear size 12 and it takes some squeezing to get them to fit).
However, it is great as a quick storage compartment.
You can also use it for keeping dirty or wet clothes separate from the rest of the bag.
They won’t soak through to the rest of your gear because the divider is also ballistic coated nylon.
When worn as a backpack this compartment is on the top near the back of your head.
As such, it can be useful to store items you might need quick access to like maps, phone chargers, or bug spray.
All bags feature a full-length mesh zipper liner on the underside of the top flap.
I know, sounds bad, but that is what they call it.
Usually, a duffel bag has a full-length zipper right down the middle. But The North Face introduced the D-door in the late 80s and the bags have been the same ever since.
This zipper configuration takes some getting used too. When your bag is overstuffed it can be a bit tricky to get the zipper around the turns.
Still, once you get used to it the D-door is much easier to use and allows you to open and close your bag without everything spilling out.
The best part, you no longer need an entire group of people to squeeze together an over stuffed bag so you can zip it up.
Because of the shape, the D-door makes closing an over packed bag manageable for one person.
Zippers on all pack sizes are extra heavy duty.
After 10 years of travel I have yet to have a zipper malfunction on my Base Camp bag.
Because of their simplicity and despite their durability, Base Camp duffel bags are surprisingly light.
For example, the 71 liter Base Camp weighs in at 3 lbs. 8.09 Oz/1590 g.
Whereas as a comparable backpacking pack, the Osprey Aether AG 70 liter, weighs in at 5 lbs. 3.4 Oz/2364 g (for the medium).
While a popular carry on roller luggage like the Samsonite Winfield 25” 3DLX Spinner weighs 8.6 lbs./3900 g.
Another feature making The North Face duffel bag a great choice is its endless style.
The Base Camp duffel isn’t just a tough piece of luggage. It is also a lot of fun!
The original bags were made in a bright yellow color that North Face poetically calls ‘summit gold.’
Today, however, you can find these bags in a variety of colors from hot pink to camouflage.
If you check the North Face website the color options are actually a bit limited.
But, similar to Nike with their niche shoe colors, North Face releases the Base Camp in a variety of specialty colors sure to suit even the most unique sense of style.
Just Backcountry.com alone offers 9 different color combinations in the 71L bag, and 7 in the 50L (they carry 31-150L).
Or if you are looking for something truly unique, go for a stylish Navy-Gold Khaki combo or watercolor mountain landscape design.
Now you might be thinking, “Wow, this duffel bag sounds amazing! Must be expensive?”
Well, sorry to disappoint, but the North Face Base Camp Duffel is actually one of the most affordable bags in its class.
For example, that Osprey 70 liter pack mentioned above; the average price is $300.
A 71 liter North Face duffel bag, $139.
Cons (there are only a few)
After that long list of pros, it would be unfair not to present a few cons.
Over the decade I have used these travel duffel bags I have only found 2 drawbacks.
First, as mentioned above, the zipper can take some getting used to. With a tightly packed bag the zipper will take some finagling but in the end it still works better than a traditional zipper.
Second, when worn as a backpack your back can get sweaty.
These packs are made of waterproof material and the bag sits comfortably flush with your back so there is no space for airflow.
In warm weather this can cause frequent sweat back syndrome.
Tip: I always travel with two small things you can use to help prevent sweat back. A small tarp or piece of a tent footprint (which you can use to help keep things off the ground) and a 1/3 length piece of an old foam camping pad (which can be used for just about anything like sitting on the beach or a rocky overlook).
In this case, take either or both and roll them up like a burrito, then place horizontally between your back and the bag.
This will help allow airflow without being too uncomfortable.
Your back still gets hot, but the sweat factor will definitely be reduced.
Yeti Panga 75
Yeti has quickly synonymous with quality and the Panga duffel bag is no exception.
Clearly taking a few cues from the North Face duffel, the Panga has removable backpack straps, inner mesh pockets, a reinforced bottom, and a few tie-down loops along the side.
The big difference here is that the Panga is a fully waterproof, fully submersible dry bag built like a burly haul bag.
One of the only negatives of this bag is the zipper placement. When worn as a backpack the zipper sits in the middle of your back and can rub over time.
Patagonia Black Hole
Again, not the best name. Still, the Black Hole is a fantastic alternative to the Base Camp bag. With almost the exact same design, the Black Hole performs similarly with a few minor differences.
The Black Hole is made of a slightly lighter nylon—900 denier versus the 1000 denier of the Base Camp, making it overall a lighter pack by about a pound.
While the material is still super durable and water-resistant, it does feel a bit flimsier.
Similar to the Base Camp, you will also find a D-door zipper, mesh inner pockets, and removable backpack straps.
The Black Hole does have more inner mesh pockets and straps to help with organization if that is important for you.
Additionally, the D-door zipper makes a much wider opening allowing for a bit easier zipping up when full but the zipper itself is definitely less hard-core than on the Base Camp.
Backpack straps work well on this pack. They do have an easy clip on-off system rather than the threaded adjuster system that the Base Camp has. In my experience though, clips are more prone to being broken or damaged than are adjusters.
The Black Hole also comes in a variety of fun colors and sizes.
Check prices at Backcountry.com.
Patagonia Black Hole MLC 45L Travel Pack
If you decide against duffels all together, I would recommend the MLC 45 as perhaps one of the greatest all-around small travel bags ever created.
Traveling with cameras, laptops, or other electronics? This is the bag for you.
Its a shoulder style bag with ample handles and a storage system that will blow your mind.
The MLC is constructed with the same materials as the duffel but unfortunately the largest size is 45 liters.
You can usually find it at REI or check the best outdoor sites for more options.
As of this writing, Patagonia.com had the MLC 45 on sale.
The North Face Base Camp is far and away the best travel duffel bag. Here is a quick review of what makes it so great.
- Versatile: Use it as a carry-on, expedition bag, or over-nighter
- Durable: Built to last with 1000 denier TPE and ballistic nylon
- Water-proof: Most models feature water-proof material (some are only water-resistant
- Fun: Comes in multiple sizes, colors, color combinations, and patterns
- Affordable: The most affordable option in its class
The North Face duffel bag is a well thought out minimalist travel pack with everything you need and nothing you don’t.
It has been around for a long time and will likely be around for a long time to come.
At the start of this article I proclaimed my undying affection for this duffel bag. If you still aren’t convinced, I gave you a few decent alternatives above.
But if you don’t want to miss out on one of the most fruitful gear relationships you will ever have, get a North Face Base Camp duffel bag of your own and find out what you’ve been waiting for.
Why use anything else?
What is your favorite travel duffel bag?