Living Out of a Duffel Bag: Backpack Alternative?

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While we at Nimble Voyager continue to promote the use of backpacks, we thought it would be helpful to present an alternative view of lightweight travel. Colin Bird, a passionate traveler with years of experience living out of a duffel bag, agreed to share his experience as a guest writer. He’ll set the scene and offer a compelling argument for duffel bags over other luggage. You decide which is best for you and leave us a comment at the end of the article.

> Check out The Best and Lightest Packing Cubes for a great way to organize your stuff

Colin Bird on Living Out of a Duffel Bag

Love traveling, loathe luggage?  There’s a happy in-between that doesn’t occupy very much space; it’s light and it can be loaded. It’s the duffel bag and it’s ready to change your rote, too much to tote, travel channel. Recently I journeyed to and through nearly every state in this breathtaking country (I’m coming for you Delaware and Rhode Island…such coastal teases); and did so without ever touching a single suitcase. With six other travel companions locked and loaded for a three-month adventure, each with at least two full-sized suitcases apiece, I started the trip as the target of every novice traveler joke. Yet within less than a week, my image triumphantly transformed into “The Duke of The Duffel.” I thought this was a wonderful traveling superhero moniker, so I bestowed it upon myself. It did not catch on.

But the duffel bag did. And one by one my companions made the switch to the simpler duffel bag life. If you’re considering a fast to lasting road trip or vacation, and looking to up your travel street cred among trip mates – or more importantly, actually enjoy the journey sans the stress of physical management and constant heavy carry-case lifting – grab a duffel bag and let the lighter adventure begin.

Daily Duffel: Defining the Bag

There is a clear difference between a duffel bag and a backpack. For starters, backpacks can be much larger with more zippers than rural Iowa has zip codes. When it comes to the daily duffel shuffle, remember this: if it doesn’t fit, you don’t need it.

There are many minimalist travel toting options. If you’re accustomed to the backpack for outdoor adventures, or the suitcase for more stylish stays, you’re about to purposefully limit your carry-on options, and that, dear traveler, is a good thing.

You’ll want a strap that after an hour doesn’t burn your shoulder clean off, and double check the duffel to ensure there are pockets in the bag itself, along with separated dual end spaces, and the most overlooked and underrated amenity: the mesh water bottle holder.

Carrying a duffel bag through airports, train stations, metro lines, etc. allows for swift maneuverability; whereas a suitcase can and will be much more arduous. While the standard backpack may afford the impression of seasoned traveler, it may also induce glances of, “Maybe I’ll keep my distance from Johnny Woodsman over there in case his only recent bathing has been in a creek.” While that may not provide for many new travel besties, it does make way for a rather snazzy transition:

Hygiene Highway

If you’ve read the astounding novel Wild by Cheryl Strayed, or (to a tad lesser degree) seen the movie, you’ll remember when the author stumbles into the makeup section of a high-end store during a hygienic low point, so to speak, of her journey. The snooty salesperson all but pinches her own upward pointing nose with her fingers when stating, “The nicest lipstick in the world can’t help a girl, if she doesn’t take care of her personal hygiene.”

This also applies to men. And children. Humans, the lot of you, please, keep it clean. The power of travel is in not simply seeing new sights or diverse cultures, it’s stepping into the community of those who profoundly love their chosen land on which to live. Never cause a host to regret your scent. Suitcases and backpacks are more compartmentalized, though as stated, that does come with the harder hauling cost. Duffel bags are a mishmash of all things worn by you. 

Perhaps see it this way: Ya know when you’re on the road, allowing yourself those over-stuffed “cheat meals,” yet somehow there’s always magically room for ice cream? There’s always room for tiny plastic laundry bags in your duffel. Duffel bags adapt to the aroma of you, so keep it clean. Yes, you’ll look cooler wisping about appearing more like a traveling athlete than a snooty salesperson, but those viewing you also have other senses, so practice common hygiene. Pack dirty laundry in the plastic laundry bags. Hey, who said living out of a duffel bag was easy?

Invisible Dimes

While the tiny laundry bags are easy to make room for, they are still noticeable when the bag is opened. On that note, it’s important to keep your cash and valuables hidden. Given, your primary monetary necessities will be directly on your person, yet some travelers prefer to keep added cash and coins. The aforementioned inset sleeves are key for this. It’s important to have two sections here, as one will be the undercover guardian in disguise.

In one sleeve, store perishables (more on that below). Make it crystal clear. If another person was going through your duffel, it should be obvious what is in that specific sleeve. This will give the faux impression the same stash scenario can be expected in the other sleeve. 

However, your mission, should you choose to accept it and please do, is to carry a small, non-transparent container with any extra cash you’ve stowed away and bury that bad boy down deep. Atop it should be mock incidentals such as toothpaste, sunscreen, or barbed wire for those who really take this part seriously. You’re giving the impression there’s nothing of value in there. Plus, it wouldn’t be worth the germ risk to dig any further. If your duffel lacks a second sleeve, remember, you’ve packed a few small laundry bags. So, stuff a sock with your cash-stash in the stink sector and tie it up to alleviate further investigation.

Perishable Pathways

While the dual end compartments should be utilized for 1) basic toiletries and hygiene amenities, and 2) unwashed clothes in laundry bags (have I mentioned that part yet 46 times?), the inset sleeve is the prime spot for all things grub. There’s something about the feel of a duffel bag. Different than standard luggage options, it allows one to feel lighter, maybe swifter and even more athletically agile. Store a few energy or protein bars or trail mixes – something stable but light like the duffel bag itself – to eat on the go like the traveling champ you are. And so it deserves to be well kept.

Do not store your stashed away-money with your snacks, because gross; and, if another does rummage through there, don’t offer them the best of both worlds. Even more importantly, do not make your food share a dungeon dorm with the tiny laundry bags you brought along. Your food may, on some trips, end up being your favorite travel friend. Give it the first class upgrade.

Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Darryls

My father loved to sit around the campfire and tell ancient stories of the old Bob Newhart Show. His all-time favorite line was, “Hi, I’m Larry. This is my brother Darryl. And this is my other brother Darryl.” You’re the Larry of your traveling story (although I named my duffel bag Dalton; yes my duffel bag has a first name, he is cooler than you if you just judged me). Your two brothers Darryl are the locks you’ll keep in the sleeves. If you’re a workout road junkie you’re bound to find the gym nearest you, and then further on and again. Bring a lock. Bring two locks. Darryl and Darryl. One the standard twist and dial regime, another the punishment lock that you have to carry around a little key for after you lose the first one.

You may at some point find a locker at a fitness facility or a hostel and need a way to stash some clothes or incidentals. Have a lock handy. And his lock brother, Darryl. That way, you can travel lighter by packing away more.

Final Totes (notes)

On the last note: if you do, for whatever reason, have to be out of sight from your precious duffel, take precautions. Slap a Greenpeace badge on there and at least make potential thieves check their conscience twice before checking out with your bag. Maybe don’t go so far as to write with big magic markers on the side, “BAG 3: Severed Heads” or leave a ransom note inside with a picture of Liam Neeson and a snake. Just try to be mindful of your things; remember it’s not your neighborhood community. Respect where you set your hat.

And to any travel pal who’s ever stated, or even hinted, being road buddies with you could feel like a chore (due to excessive luggage haul), here’s your chance to show off your duffel and tell them, “Hey, guess what… zip it.”

Carry Less, Need Less

Life’s journey is too short to play it stiff. Lighten the load a little, learn to live my favorite mantra – Carry Less: Need Less. It’s an odd dichotomy, yet seems universally traveled and true. Capitalize on a bit more moving freedom and give your joints and, now fireproof shoulders, a vacation of their own. Travel light.

Besides, as author and biologist Paul Ehrlich proclaimed, “Back problems all started when we began walking upright. The other bad thing about walking upright is that it made it hard to sniff each other.” 

Duffel bags are a wave of the past, but packed with common sense necessities, and the undercover fun ones. Yet if utilized properly, your duffel will make your future travels lighter and somehow more real.

They’re economical and a breeze compared to the load and lug regimes of our father’s ancient Newhart traveling times; moving lighter means laughing more, somehow that’s just got to be true.

Living out of a duffel bag isn’t difficult. By compartmentalizing, everything you need for your trip will fit in one of these amazing bags. And remember, if it doesn’t fit, you don’t need it.

If you honestly feel that life’s a preparation for your final destination, then my advice to you is to enjoy the journey, and do so by traveling light.

Colin's Recommendation for the Best Travel Duffel

Colin's choice for lightweight travel is the Everest Gym Bag duffel.
Of all the duffels I’ve used, the Everest Gym Bag is by far the best of the best. It’s durable, lightweight (1 lb), well made, and it has a reasonable 32L capacity. It’s not huge, by any stretch, but it fits everything I need and it’s very easy to carry. While not a travel duffel, specifically, this bag has all the right stuff to go where you do. It’s the perfect lightweight option for duffelers like myself. If you plan on living out of a duffel bag, this is the one to use.

Colin Bird

Colin Bird is a Published Author and Produced Screenwriter with both another novel and film set for a 2018 release. Bird is a passionate traveler and mountain adventure runner, holding multiple world records for endurance running after having lost over 300 Lbs setting foot to that life path. When not writing, Bird utilizes his words as a Professional Public Speaker, motivating all ages and stages of life to find their purpose then become the author of their own adventurous, living story. Bird resides in Los Angeles, CA.

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Just great tips, no spam!