The Duffel Bag

What Is It?

The duffel bag is a classic piece of luggage.

Originally the word referred to a specific thick fabric, originating in Duffel, Belgium, which was often used to make tall, cylindrical, draw-string bags.

These days “duffel” can refer to any large bag that fits the following general characteristics:

  • soft-sided, with no firm internal frame or ribbing to hold its shape
  • longer than it is wide — roughly cylindrical or trunk-shaped
  • luggage-sized rather than carryon/weekend bag

duffel Bags

Classic duffels, especially those used by various navies and militaries, open and close at the small end of the bag, like a mailbag or laundry bag, while modern athletic and luggage variants typically have a single zipper all the way across the top of the bag’s length. Both are called “duffel bags” these days, so long as they have the basic shape, though bags of the top-opening military style are sometimes called “seabags” or “ditty bags” in reference to older naval terms for the luggage.

Most duffels have two carrying handles: one on the small top end of the bag and one along the longest side. A shoulder strap that connects the two short ends is also common.

Why Own one?

With a hard-sided suitcase, you’re stuck playing Tetris, trying to get every item you pack into a perfect little space. Duffels you just throw stuff into until they’re full.

They’re also a lot easier to pack into luggage compartments on buses or trains, or into car trunks (airplanes aren’t an issue since most duffels are large enough to be checked luggage rather than carry-on). And the multiple handles, especially if there’s a shoulder strap option, let you switch grips so that you can carry it longer than a conventional suitcase.

Probably, as a result, we associate duffels with professional athletes, military personnel, and other people who travel frequently and often need to stow all their gear quickly, throw a single bag into the available transport, and go.

That makes the duffel bag equal parts casual and cool. The soft sides and athletic associations aren’t perfect for a business meeting — if you’re being met at the airport by Very Important People you’ll do better with a suitcase — but they’re well and away the coolest luggage to wait with at the taxi stand.

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