In a sense, a duffel bag is the ultimate in travel practicality: a single, cavernous container that you can fill with just about anything, then collapse flat when you're done with it. Still, each manufacturer has found a way to leave its distinguishing mark on the product. The L.L.Bean Rolling Adventure Duffle (Est. $35 to $110) opens with a straight zip down its long axis and has wheels, an interior toboggan bottom (to prevent sagging) and a telescoping handle. The North Face Base Camp Duffel (Est. $120 to $170) opens via a healthy D-shaped zip and has waterproof fabric (although the zipper isn't waterproof) and padded, contoured backpack straps in addition to the regular duffel handle. Both are available in four sizes (small to extra-large).
Both duffels have external compression straps to help cinch down your load, although neither is really a great choice if you're transporting small quantities of anything (they tend to lose their shape when half-filled). They excel, however, when stuffed with anything bulky that's not sharp enough to slice through the fabric. The size large L.L.Bean Rolling Adventure Duffle offers about 5,700 cubic inches of storage space and weighs 8 pounds, 2 ounces; the size large North Face Base Camp Duffel carries 5,495 cubic inches and weighs 4 pounds thanks to its lack of wheels, frame and telescoping handle.
The L.L.Bean Rolling Adventure Duffle's wheels get somewhat mixed reviews -- a few users complain of fishtailing, and most say the duffel handles well, if only it'd just stand up on its own when packed. Still, reviewers agree that being able to wheel the duffel around instead of carrying it is great for air travel. The fabric isn't waterproof, but more than one owner says it handles tarmac exposure to mud and rain, as well as being dropped and dragged, very well.
Travelers love The North Face Base Camp's padded backpack straps, but because they don't have quick-release hardware, they can actually become a time-consuming liability when you're trying to check the duffel through. This bag and its waterproof fabric -- which the editors of Backpacker magazine term "virtually indestructible" after a collective decade of testing -- may be best reserved for adventure travel or outdoorsy types who want to be able to backpack their gear right out of the terminal.
Perhaps most important of all, the L.L.Bean Rolling Adventure Duffle is backed by an unconditional lifetime guarantee, whereas The North Face's "lifetime" guarantee has some conditions that draw ire from customers, including an REI.com customer who found a manufacturing defect in one of the shoulder straps: "To consider this support case they require me to pay for the shipping to send in the shoulder strap. I find it completely ridiculous that I am fully responsible for the time and money required to fix their QA problem that should have been stopped before the bag left the factory." Another user, posting to Amazon.com, found a slash in his bag after checking it through for a flight and was told that the warranty wouldn't be honored because he had "misused" the bag. Given the choice, we'll take L.L.Bean's more generous guarantee and roll with it, naming the Rolling Adventure Duffle our best-reviewed duffel.
The Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled Duffel 32 (Est. $285) , also available as the Eagle Creek Load Warrior 22 (Est. $230) , may be a worthy alternative -- but customer feedback is both scant and mixed. On the upside, these rolling duffels are lightweight, durable and have handles in all the right places. On the downside, we found a complaint that the plastic buckles are likely to break with hard use and difficult to replace; the same user, posting to REI.com, points out that when she tried to have another piece of Eagle Creek luggage repaired, the reply was that "the life of the bag had expired." She did get the "lifetime warranty" honored eventually, but had to speak to multiple employees in order to do so.