Adventure travelers love duffel bags for their durable construction and ease of transporting them. Others like using duffel bags as carry-ons because their unstructured oblong shape and soft sides make them easy to carry disparate-sized items and to smoosh them into almost any overhead compartment. Still, you need to be cognizant of the fact that on regional jets, a duffel of 23 inches or more might still need to be gate-checked.
The good news is that our top pick in this category, The North Face Base Camp Duffel (Est. $100 to $175), comes in a wide variety of sizes, from a 17.72-inch extra-small to a very roomy 31.5-inch XXL. Between those two extremes are small (20.87-inch), medium (25.4-inch), large (27.56-inch) and XL (29.73-inch) sizes. Don't expect to use those larger sizes as a carry-on, however; they'll almost certainly need to be checked.
Once you purchase The North Face Base Camp Duffel, you can expect to have it for life. Described by more than one expert as "indestructible," this duffel bag is made from waterproof 1000D polyester with a PVC-free thermoplastic elastomer coating. Be warned, though, the zipper is not waterproof, so take appropriate precautions in bad weather.
Although the Base Camp Duffel is a popular option for the adventure traveler, its wide selection of color options makes it perfectly appropriate for general travel as well, experts say. Like most duffels, it doesn't have a lot of fancy packing options, just one, large compartment and a small mesh organizer on the inside. It has top and side handles, and padded backpack straps so you can carry it on your back and free up your hands. It does not have wheels, so keep that in mind if you can't carry a lot of weight.
If the Base Camp Duffel is a bit pricey for you, the L.L.Bean Adventure Duffle (Est. $35 to $70) is an equally sturdy bag that comes in small (18 inches), medium (23 inches), large (30 inches) and extra-large (34 inches). Only the small is suitable to be used as a carry-on in general, but the unstructured nature of the bag and the external compression straps may enable the medium to be carried on in many circumstances. These are tough, durable, popular duffels that come with a lifetime guarantee that owners say is hassle-free. All have traditional duffel handles as well as a shoulder strap. There is a single interior storage space and one side pocket. The Rolling Adventure Duffels (Est. $100 to $120) have retractable handles and wheels. The Rolling Duffel comes in medium, large and extra-large sizes.
If you need a smaller wheeled duffel that will fit in any overhead bin, the A. Saks 20-inch Expandable Rolling Trolley Duffel (Est. $80) is small enough that you won't have to worry about space on most commercial planes, including regional jets. Owners say they can pack enough into this duffel for five days and that it's lightweight and very sturdy. The interior is basically just an open compartment and there are two small exterior pockets, but that's it as far as organization. Several reviewers recommend using packing cubes if better interior organization is desired. It has inline wheels and a fully retractable telescoping handle in addition to the traditional two duffel-carry handles.
If you prefer more traditional-looking luggage or more organizational options, see our separate discussions of the best carry-on bags for suitcases guaranteed to fit in any overhead bin, the best spinner and roller bags for slightly larger, but very easy to transport recommendation. We also have recommendations for the best luggage sets and garment bags for those who need to transport professional wear or wedding dresses.