Bagging the Right Duffel

Duffel bags are an ideal way to carry substantial loads while keeping luggage weight to a minimum. Once the lowliest of luggage, the duffel has come into its own. No longer relegated to army-navy stores in the traditional khaki, duffels have evolved into snazzy carryalls in colorful shades with a variety of useful and decorative accouterments.

Sizes range from huge bags capable of holding enough for an around-the-world trip to smallish satchels that zip out from their own pouch for use as an extra bag to accommodate purchases made while traveling. There are even waterproof duffels, perfect for adventure trips when the going gets wet.

Following are some of the best of the new breed of duffels. Prices do not including shipping and handling. Many mail-order items also may be available in stores.

Designer mega-duffel: Minimal weight needn't mean an absence of classy flourishes. The extra large Battenkill duffel from Orvis (the fishing rod people) has all the best qualities in a bag and then some: plenty of space (35 inches by 15 inches by 13 inches), a sturdy canvas duck material in Battenkill's signature forest green, tanned saddle leather reinforcement at the corners and other stress points, and heavy duty double brass zippers that can be padlocked together. For extra strength and security, a canvas flap with leather trim folds over the entire length of the zipper and fastens to the bag with three brass-buckled leather straps. The duffel can be carried by the double leather handles or optional padded shoulder strap.

This may be the most beautiful duffel around, but it's no wimp. It stood up to five weeks of being shoved, dragged, squashed and literally kicked around southern Africa. The price is hefty too, typical with designer luggage.

Extra large Battenkill Duffel (CA2645-00-54) is $195; padded shoulder strap is $27, from Orvis; telephone (800) 541-3541. Also available in smaller sizes.

Easy-access expanding bag: Eagle Creek makes dozens of varieties of soft luggage, from rugged backpacks to canvas suitcases, security pouches and duffel bags. Their most innovative large duffel, the Expedition Toy Trunk, solves a common duffel problem: accessibility to items at the bottom of the bag. Instead of a zipper across the top of the duffel, a horseshoe-shaped zipper opens up the entire front, revealing contents from top to bottom. Large zippered side pockets are good for stashing shoes and other accessories, and the bottom is padded for extra stability and durability. Mesh compartments in the side pockets and inside flap are good for organizing smaller items. As a bonus, both ends expand via zippers to increase the bag size by three inches on each side.

For more support, adjustable straps clip across the top and ends of the bag. A padded shoulder strap is included. Made of lightweight but sturdy Cordura nylon, the bag comes in meridian blue, evergreen or black. My husband tested this bag on an extended business trip and lauded the ease of accessibility.

Eagle Creek Expedition Toy Trunk, 34 inches (expandable to 40 inches) by 17 inches by 14 inches, is about $170. Smaller Expedition Toy Chest, 30 inches (expandable to 36 inches) by 15 inches by 13 inches, is about $150. For a catalogue outlet or nearby store, contact the company at (800) 874-9925. Piggyback duffel: Travelpro, maker of the original wheeled Rollaboard carry-on suitcase, makes a nifty duffel that can piggyback aboard the Rollaboard via a clasp system, making for easy portability of both bags at once. The Cordura nylon bag measures 20 1/2 inches by 12 inches by 10 1/2 inches, including two roomy side pockets that each expand one inch via zippers. A smaller zippered front pocket can hold travel documents, or a paperback book or two. Instead of a single zipper opening at the top, there are two zippers spaced about six inches apart so that a wide flap zips back for easy access to contents. A detachable shoulder strap is included.

Both the Travelpro duffel and suitcase come in navy, hunter green or black. I've taken my Rollaboard suitcase/duffel combination on many plane trips where I wanted to limit my luggage to carry-on; both have been accepted under the two-bag limit on all but the smallest airplanes.

Travelpro Duffel is $70, Travelpro Rollaboard Suitcase in a variety of styles and sizes is $140 to $259 from ASU, a luggage distributor; tel. (800) 756-1444, as well as at many luggage retail outlets.

Waterproof carrier: For seriously wet travel conditions--such as overnight kayak trips or long-distance winter sled excursions--a waterproof bag can be essential. Until recently most of these vinyl bags sealed via flaps at one end that were folded over several times, then secured with a clasp. Though this kept the wet out, access to clothes and other items at the bottom of the bag was a hassle.

Now Cascade Designs, makers of the Sealline brand of dry bags, has come up with a zippered vinyl bag that keeps contents dry--but also easy to get at. The heavy-duty waterproof zipper runs diagonally across the top of the bag. No stitching penetrates the duffel compartment. Seams are welded, and hardware and nylon web handles are sewn to vinyl patches which are then welded to the duffel. The bag is available in two sizes. The Zip Duffel 75 (75-liter capacity) measures 29 inches by 17 inches by 10 inches; the Zip Duffel 40 is 24 1/2 inches by 14 1/2 inches by 10 inches. Duffels come in blue or green. I tested the bags in a swimming pool and both performed as promised. As a bonus, they float.

Cascade Designs Zip Duffel 75 is $95; Zip Duffel 40 is $87 . For a catalogue or retail dealer contact the company at (800) 531-9531.

Folding extra duffel: When is a duffel not a duffel? When it's folded into a diminutive nine-inch self-zipping square. SunDog's extremely lightweight nylon Xtra Duffel is ideal for hauling home souvenirs and other purchases or even your dirty laundry. The bag opens to a respectable 23 1/2 inches by 11 inches by 6 1/2 inches, with double zippers at the top that can be padlocked together for security. It also has two zippered external pockets.

SunDog Xtra Duffel (LB339N) in royal blue or black is $36 from Magellan's; tel. (800) 962-4943.

Gear & Gadgets appears the first week of every month.

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