How many of us have gazed enviously at photos of Edwardian-era travelers as their steamer trunks and leather suitcases were hauled off the ship in Mombasa by befezzed stevedores groaning under the load? No excess baggage fees for them. Do you suppose Teddy Roosevelt was told sternly, “Sir, we’ll have to charge you extra for that second suitcase. And the third and fourth. And the gun case . . .” when he set off on his African safari? Unlikely.
Sadly, times have changed for travelers in the world of airlines struggling to stay in business. Even first-class passengers are now subject to luggage restrictions and extra fees. Of course, some of this is our own damn fault: Airlines have had to revise calculated passenger weight, and thus fuel usage, upward thanks to the additional, um, personal baggage now carried by the majority of Americans. I’ve long advocated a simple calculator based on height: If you’re, say, five-foot-nine like me, you get a total allowance of 300 pounds for yourself and your luggage. If you weigh 150 pounds, you’re allowed 150 pounds of luggage. If you weigh 290 pounds . . . pack lightly. I suspect this system will never be implemented.
Where was I? Right—luggage. Another issue for the modern traveler is the laissez faire attitude airlines have toward the care of luggage entrusted to them. According to a recent study, on an internal U.S. flight you stand a one in 137 chance of having an item of luggage lost, significantly damaged, or pilfered. That might not sound like a big risk, but it means that on virtually every flight one or two people have luggage issues. In Europe the odds are worse: one in 60. And these are the developed areas of the world, with sophisticated, computerized baggage-handling systems. (Hmm . . . could that be the problem? Heathrow has eleven miles of automated baggage conveyor belts, in one terminal.) To be fair, the frequency of complaints on domestic flights has actually been dropping the last few years. Nevertheless, if you haven’t experienced lost or damaged luggage yourself, I’ll bet you know someone who has.
Considering these facts of life, the perfect piece of luggage must combine maximum volumetric efficiency with extreme resistance to abuse. Given the propensity of most people reading this to be headed to destinations other than Disney World or the Bellagio, that resistance to abuse should extend to unavoidable exigencies such as being lashed down on a roof rack three vehicles back in a dusty convoy, or packed at the bottom of a stack of bags in the back of a Land Cruiser Troopie. Plus, dare we hope that it might complement one’s kit with the right amount of style as well?
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . the duffel.
Not what you were expecting? Something in aluminum from Zero Halliburton, perhaps? Or a wheeled Pelican case? Stout options both, and indubitably stylish in the case of the Halliburton (although Pelicans have their own functional chic). But the Halliburton is frighteningly expensive, and its aluminum is surprisingly susceptible to dents from hard edges and blunt objects. Subjecting one to the abuse of an overland trip would be silly unless you bring a personal porter. Meanwhile, the Pelican, while unequalled at protecting fragile contents such as photo equipment, is not only awkward as a suitcase but heavy for its volume—you don’t want a quarter of your baggage limit taken up by the bag itself just to keep your khaki shirts and underwear from being squished.
No—soft luggage is the way to go for bush travel. And while it might be tempting to choose a bag with multiple outside pockets and flaps and zippers for easy organization, every one of those extra openings and fasteners is a failure point just waiting for the most unfortunate time to happen. And the more external impedimenta, the more chances for the bag to catch on the corner of a luggage-conveyor chute and be ripped asunder by the 240 Samsonite suitcases piling up behind it.
Thus, the simple, rugged duffel*. Not the easiest thing to load or organize, it’s surely the best at insuring your clothes and sundries survive the trip. With careful packing, and a bit of just-one-more-thing stuffing, I’ve fit everything I needed for a month-long trip to Africa (except for camera equipment) into a single medium Filson duffel. I guarantee that showing up with one piece of luggage will win you instant credibility among guides and bush pilots. (Tip: Look at Eagle Creek’s line of packing accessories, especially the brilliant Pack-It folder for shirts, which miraculously compacts seven or eight crisply folded shirts to the thickness of one or two.)
Over several years I’ve used and reviewed a dozen or more duffels from various manufacturers. Here are three that stood out.
Filson Medium Canvas Duffel $295
One of my favorite product-promotion photos of all time is Filson’s image of one of their duffel bags dangling by its leather carrying straps from an engine hoist. Inside the bag is, indeed, an engine—an entire air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle powerplant. Not much more needs to be said about the burly 22-ounce cotton twill fabric of the Filson, its thick bridle-leather carrying handles and shoulder strap, or the heavy stitching, all done in the U.S. My own Filson has shrugged off the abuse of 12 trips to Africa, plus a bunch of North American and European explorations.
The fabric of Filson’s twill comprises two-ply thread running one direction, and three-ply running the other. This, combined with the one-warp-over-two-weft weave that defines twill, lends the finished fabric a characteristic ribbed texture, and unbelievable durability—my bag shows absolutely no signs of deterioration, even on the heavily punished bottom corners. The 1 1/2-inch-wide leather carrying straps run all the way around the bag to fully support the load.
A single massive brass zipper secures the contents of the Filson. Unfortunately the opening is straight rather than U-shaped, so loading the bag is akin to stuffing packages through a mail slot. But that straight zipper is the simplest and thus most fail-safe opening possible, and would be the least likely to spill contents if it did fail, so the trade-off is fair. A buttoned flap helps keep dust out, but provides only minimal backup closure (the carrying straps would help as well). A leather shoulder strap is included, the shoulder patch of which could use some padding.
The paraffin water-repellent treatment on the Filson duffel seems to attract dirt at first, but after a while the smudges and smears merge into an even patina that somehow simultaneously gives the bag an air of vast experience while rendering it less conspicuous to potential baggage thieves. Sighting it always gives me two concurrent thoughts—one, fond memories of our travels together, and two, relief that it made it to Arusha with me and isn’t circling endlessly on an airport carousel halfway across the globe. filson.com
BAD Bags #4 $104
Malcolm Vetterlein is the man behind BAD (Best American Duffel) Bags, and he’s the one likely to pick up the phone when you call. His philosophy and goals are encapsulated in the business name: He wanted to produce the best duffel around, and do so in America. Fifteen years of success—and a stellar reputation among hard-core travelers—has proven that it’s still possible to run an outdoor-equipment business the old-fashioned way.
Not that the bag itself is old-fashioned. Malcolm takes the opposite approach to Filson: The BAD is constructed of thoroughly modern, urethane-coated 1,000-denier Cordura nylon. The carrying straps are 6,000-pound-test seatbelt webbing; the main zipper is a virtually burst-proof #10 YKK; the hardware is nickel-plated. Grab handles on each end are so overbuilt you could probably use the bag as a short winchline extension. (Even more significant: My BAD bag successfully resisted all afforts at destruction by a young cheetah named Tommy T, a member of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program and a recent star in National Geographic Magazine.)
The result is a duffel that, while perhaps lacking the earthy character of the Filson, is no less rugged. A huge horseshoe-shaped opening makes loading easy. The zipper is uncovered, so theoretically some dust could infiltrate there, although I have yet to notice it. The downside of the big opening is that in the (very unlikely) event the zipper does fail you’re left with a gaping hole in the top of your bag. Two one-inch cinch straps that wrap all the way around the bag would help corral the contents if that happened. I carry several industrial-sized safety pins in my repair kit for such a situation.
Two long, zippered inside pockets are perfect for underwear and socks on one side, odds and ends on the other. However, I have yet to figure out much use for the long, flat exterior pockets except to hold the carrying strap. One dislike: The rings that hold that (very comfortable) strap attach on the lower corners, so you carry the bag on its side with the bottom against you. It’s less awkward than the usual arrangement—except the bottom of a duffel is inevitably dirty and/or greasy, which means your trousers soon are as well. A final nice touch: The ID holder is stitched flat to the bag, so there’s no chance of it getting ripped off in transit. Clearly this duffel was meant to go places. badbags.com
Military A10 $30
Depending on your background, this could bring back really good or really bad memories (or, of course, none at all). For around 30 bucks, any number of military supply companies will sell you the same duffel currently issued to U.S. military personnel—and, fittingly if a bit surprisingly, still made in the U.S. (although beware of numerous offshore copies).
If you’re on a budget and are willing to put up with the hassle of unloading everything in the bag every time you need something (because universal law states that the thing you need will always be at the bottom), a classic end-loading military duffel will hold all you’re likely to need for a two-month deployment, I mean vacation. Current issue duffels are now heavy Cordura nylon instead of cotton canvas, but other details have changed little if at all. To close the bag you fold the top flaps and thread a toggle through three grommets, then secure with a spring clip (which could be replaced with any number of substitutes if it happened to break). However, that clip or its substitute is the only thing keeping the contents from spilling out. Doubling up wouldn’t be a bad idea—a padlock would be perfect.
The issue duffel is well-made, but don’t expect fine detailing. There are plenty of raw nylon edges to fray, most notably on the dust flap under the top, which came pre-frayed on my sample and didn’t appear to have been hot-knife cut in its manufacture. A quick treatment with a lighter helped. At least all the major seams are double-stitched, and the handle and dual padded shoulder straps are closely cross-stitched. It’s not likely to come apart on you.
My only caveat—and it could be significant—is to avoid taking this bag to countries that have, or think they have, reason to be suspicious of people carrying military-type equipment across their borders. I probably wouldn’t try to get into Zimbabwe or Libya at the moment with a U.S. government-issue Bag, Duffel, Nylon slung over my shoulder. Available from many sources, including armynavysales.com
*No one knows the exact history of the duffel—it developed gradually from earlier bags. We do know the origin of the name, a town in Belgium where much of the original heavy fabric was made—which tells us that the correct spelling is duffel, not duffle.
Reader Jeff sent this delightful note:
Jonathan, I noticed your comment about the VW engine in the Filson duffel bag. In the mid 1990s, I was managing Bry's Auto Wrecking, in Seattle, when the Filson retail store manager, a regular customer of ours, came up with the idea for the photo. We had tons of the air-cooled engines, so we wrapped a complete engine up in the bag, lifted it with a forklift, and got a few photos. We let it hang from the forklift for a long weekend, to see if the bag would fail, it never did. It is fun for me to see that photo still used.