Should You Take a Backpack or Duffel on Your Next Trip?

For Most Travelers, the Answer Is Clear

Woman lying in airport
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Looking for some new luggage, but not sure which kind to go for? With so many different varieties available, it's not always easy to figure out which works best for a particular trip.

Backpacks and duffel bags are both popular choices, but there are some big differences between them. For many types of vacation, making the wrong choice could end up being physically painful and frustrating.

Here's what you need to know about backpacks and duffels, and how to choose between them.

Pros and Cons of Backpacks

Security: Depending on the model and type of backpack, your ability to secure it varies between "somewhat" and "none". Having lockable zips for the main compartment really should be a requirement, and external pockets should also be lockable if possible.

Obviously you don't want thieves stealing anything from inside your bag--but equally, you don't want anyone slipping unwanted items inside either. 

Locked zips won't stop thieves getting into your bag if they really want to, since a sharp knife or even a pen can get into most backpacks, but they are a deterrent. When there are half a dozen other bags to choose from nearby, that deterrent may be all you need.

You've also got the option of using a flexible metal cage like those from Pacsafe for extra security, but they're relatively expensive, heavy and bulky to carry around.

Transport: When it comes to versatility, it's hard to beat a backpack. Stairs and rough surfaces aren't a problem, and as long as your body is up to it and you haven't over-packed, you should be able to easily carry a good backpack for a mile or two.

If your trip will never take you away from smooth pavements and willing valets, a rolling suitcase is more convenient. For other types of travel, however, a backpack gives you more flexibility and less hassle. A good travel backpack will include a cover or zip-away case for the straps and harness, preventing damage in transit.

Capacity and Packing: Backpacks can be found in almost any size, but you're limited by what you can actually carry. This does help you stick to the essentials, however, which isn't a bad thing. Due to their shape and restricted openings, backpacks are harder to pack and unpack than duffels.

Like a duffel, a backpack is at least somewhat "squashable." This makes it easier to fit in lockers, under beds and on luggage shelves in buses and trains.

Durability: A well-made backpack will survive most things that travel throws at it. Dirt, dust and careless baggage handlers pose little problem. As long as you buy a bag made from a water-resistant, heavy-duty fabric, the contents should remain dry during even relatively heavy downpours.

If the backpack itself isn't waterproof, many backpacks also come with a rain cover, or it's possible to buy one that will fit. These stretch over everything except the harness, keeping the bad weather out while still letting you carry the pack easily.

Other than the zip, there's little to break on most backpacks. Look for high-quality YKK brand zippers and thick nylon or canvas outer material, though, to ensure it lasts the distance.

Flexibility: It's great to be able to use one item of luggage for multiple purposes. Being able to tackle a multi-day trek with the same piece of luggage you loaded into the taxi back home is very handy.

Here's how to choose the best backpack for your trip.

Pros and Cons of Duffels

Security: Like backpacks, many duffels aren't particularly secure. Again, when shopping for a duffel bag, look for models with proper lockable zips. If you can't find one, thread a padlock or cable tie between the zipper holes as a half-hearted alternative. Watch out for those external pockets as well.

Transport: If you need to throw a lot of gear into a weatherproof bag, and carry it relatively short distances, a duffel is perfect. For sports or diving trips, for instance, there really isn't a better option.

For more general travel, however, they aren't such a great choice. Most duffels become painful to carry within a few minutes, whether you're using the handles or shoulder straps. That's an even bigger problem when you've loaded forty pounds of gear into them.

In recent years, manufacturers have introduced "travel duffels" into the mix. These are essentially a duffel bag with wheels and a handle grafted onto the back. While this makes the bag easier to transport, it's still heavier and less practical than a backpack on most trips, unless you're carrying a lot of bulky equipment.

Capacity and Packing: There's almost no limit on the size and shape of duffel bags – it's easy to find anything from carry-on to 200+ liters (12,000+ cubic inches). The equipment you're carrying will help determine the capacity you need.

While most duffel bags are cylindrical, a flat base and rectangular shape lets you pack more gear into the same space. Soft-sided duffel bags will lose their shape when less than about two-thirds full, making them harder to carry.

Durability: A well-made duffel is usually very durable, especially if it has a quality zip and lack of dangling straps or other accessories. Look for waterproof materials, and heavily-stitched handles and straps that can handle the weight of the bag even when full.

If you decide to opt for a duffel with wheels, be careful--they're the most likely thing to break on any piece of luggage, and often difficult to replace.

Here's how to choose the best duffel bag for your trip.

Final Word

Other than for certain specialized types of travel where you absolutely need the extra capacity of a duffel, backpacks are a more versatile, comfortable and easily-transportable option, especially if you'll ever need to carry your luggage any distance.