Paul’s Duffel Bag Organisation advice article shares some hard won tips for living out of travel luggage. We have focussed it on duffel bag organisation because that’s what we use most, but most of it is transferable in case you choose other luggage types. We really hope you find it useful.
When I recently wrote a review of the Osprey Transporter 120 (you can find that review here), I described how I live out of a duffel bag for more of the year than I am at home. Year on year that doesn’t change. Whether it is ferrying clothes and equipment from my van into a new temporary accommodation or flying off on a trip, duffels are my go to load hauler. Indeed, as I write this article I am en route to the Alps and it’s a duffel travelling in the EasyJet hold below me.
Reliable & Durable
Duffel’s provide reliable, durable and good value travel luggage that suits every occasion. You can load them easily and carry them rucksack style when portering them across an airport. They are weatherproof enough to be strapped to the side of a mule and can be locked for secure travel.
They are almost perfect, apart from one thing. Duffel’s can be a challenge to live out of. This is because most of them have a single main compartment and inevitably the item you need is always hiding in the far corner. You have to constantly fish around to find what you need. Also, because everything is squashed in together there is a risk that wet or muddy items will mess up others. Spiky equipment can also easily damage other things. Some duffels do have pockets and compartments to help separate items, but even so my experience suggests these are often quite limited.
Tips & Tricks
So, over many years of duffel use I’ve found some tricks to help stay organised and I hope they may be useful to you too. I have focussed on climbing and mountaineering trips, but many of the tricks are just as relevant even if vertical sports aren’t your thing. I hope you find these duffel bag organisation tips useful.
Duffel Bag Choice
The basic shape and style of most duffels varies very little. A large main compartment is accessed via a long clamshell zipper. They often have a few storage pockets, but this varies according to make and model. So, when choosing a bag it makes sense to consider how organisation is designed in.
Some have compartments to separate wet and dry items. These can be useful depending on your planned activities. Many have small internal pockets to stash smaller items. Having a few of these makes a big difference.
Some have separate storage for footwear. Again, this can be well worth considering. Sometimes these footwear pockets are on the outside like on the Transporter 120 I reviewed (link above). Some duffels have other external pockets which can be useful when in transit or for keeping those night time essentials within reach. Don’t underestimate the benefits of a few pockets and compartments.
One problem that duffel bag using climbers face is stopping the sharp items damaging everything else. Items like crampons, ice axes and ice screws are not kind to even the toughest of fabrics. Similarly, items like cams, trekking poles and nut keys can all play havoc. I speak from personal experience on this!
The key is to cover anything sharp before packing. For ice tools there are plenty of commercial protectors available. For many years I resorted to encasing the picks, adze and spike of each tool in cardboard. Even better, you may find a commercial ice tool case. I have one that used to be available from Lowe Alpine but I don’t think these are made anymore. You might find something similar if you shop around. Alternatively, maybe you know someone handy with a sewing machine and some Cordura fabric?
You need to give similar consideration to crampons, racks and items like trekking poles. It is worth doing everything you can to protect things. Even then, I am still very careful about how I pack them. It is worth creating a protective layer at the bottom of the bag and then sandwiching the sharper items between that layer and other top layers made of items like clothes. I often use my ropes at the bottom. This also has the benefit of placing your heavier items lower down. This really helps with balance if you are carrying the duffel by the shoulder straps.
Once you have solved the protection issue, it is time to consider general organisation. As mentioned, you may have wisely chosen a duffel with storage pockets. If so, these can be a great place to store smaller items that you need regularly. Often the pockets are located in the lid or at the ends. I tend to be very disciplined about which items go on each place, This makes living out of your bag much easier.
However, I don’t leave vulnerable items in the pockets when travelling in case they get damaged or damage the duffel bag. If you are likely to be carrying your duffel by the shoulder straps it is also important to only pack soft items in lid pockets. If you don’t you are likely to feel the objects pressing into your back.
Getting better with internal duffel bag storage has been the game changer for me. It is so much more efficient to know where items are without constantly searching around. There are a few considerations, but it will revolutionise your duffel life.
The key to this duffel bag organisation method is to separate your items and yet make them easy to find. This can be done by using dry bags or packing cubes. Some people use ziploc type sandwiches bags for this. Then, you can simply use a different bag for each type of clothing, For example, socks and underwear in one and tops in another. You can then simply add as many bags as you need. It also allows you to adjust the size for different items. Oh, and having each bag in a different colour makes them much easier to find. An alternative might be to label each bag with a tag or write on them with a Sharpie.
Dry bags are a great option if you are going somewhere where the contents of your duffel could get wet. For example, having your duffel portered up Kilimanjaro can mean travelling through rain. You don’t want to arrive in camp to find your spare clothes are wet.
At other times packing cubes are perfect as they are optimally shaped. Osprey make a great range of cubes and you can find them here. The beauty of cubes is they are cube shaped to allow easy loading and then easy packing into the duffel. They also have very long zips to aid access and are made from very light fabric. This weight saving benefit may be a significant help when you are fighting airline baggage weight allowances. Packing cubes are usually available in different sizes and colours. As with different colour dry bags, this really helps with identifying the cube you need.
I am a big fan of rolling up garments before packing them into a cube. I have heard this helps minimise creasing. This may be so, but for me rolling is primarily about separating items and I also think it helps get more items into each cube. I use the ‘Army Roll’ or ‘Ranger Roll’ which is quite well described here.
Besides clothing, packing cubes can be used for other items. You might use a large packing cube for dirty shoes or a small one to organise your electrical cables. I have to say that, for me at least, I only use them for clothes as I think there are better options for other items. For muddy boots or shoes I actually prefer a sealable zip lock bag as they offer a good level of waterproofing and add next to nothing to the weight of the bag.
For smaller items there are plenty of options out there. You can get very advanced purpose made organiser bags for electrical items. Examples include ones like these bags from Peak Design. There are also much simpler and cheaper alternatives though. Osprey make a selection of simple nylon bags in varying sizes. I have found these work really well for any smaller items and can be found here.
For more delicate electronics I actually prefer a padded bag. I think the extra bulk and weight is worth it for the extra protection they offer. I have been using one of Osprey’s Pack Pocket Padded models which you can find here. This works really well. I keep items like my head torch or Garmin InReach in this when moving from one place to another. When transferring them to my pack for a day in the mountains I often still use this padded case in my rucksack as well.
Patagonia Black Hole Cubes
One other organiser bag I can thoroughly recommend is the Patagonia Black Hole cube. They are made in different sizes and are very robust. My favourite size is the 6 litre option which you can find here. This zips open to reveal two mesh topped zip pockets. It is amazing how many smaller items you can store in these and they make organisation really easy. When you get to your accommodation you just pull out the bag, unzip it and you have instant access to either side. Packing the bag back in to duffel is just as simple. I can’t praise these enough. They were featured as one of our Top Gear choices here.
Having a dedicated bag for laundry has been a game changer for me. I tend to just pack a very lightweight mesh stuff sack for this. The one I have comes from Exped and you can find them here. However, lots of companies make them. If I am staying in a place for a while I can gradually fill the laundry bag until it gets full enough that I need to take action. If I am moving from place to place it is still handy to just keep the laundry separate until I am in one place long enough to sort it out.
Having a few pockets on the outside of your duffel can be really handy. Duffels like the larger Osprey Transporter actually have a useful pocket large enough for footwear. I often use this but, if I am static for a while and have removed the shoes, this pocket stores my mesh laundry bag. Other duffels, like the Patagonia Black Hole pictured, have smaller external pockets. This is handy for items I need in an airport or for stashing the removable shoulder straps. It is worth mentioning that I haven’t come across duffels with locking external pockets so be aware of potential security issues. I always keep a supply of different size Zip Lock bags in an external pocket too. It is surprising how often one of these is useful.
Finding your suncream or shampoo has leaked into your main duffel compartment is never fun. So, when travelling with liquids it is well worth making sure they are stored in leak proof containers. The simplest way to do this would be to pack them into Zip Lock bags. Alternatively, I really like this water resistant wash bag from Life Venture which has saved me from a few spills in the past. Companies like Exped make water resistant cubes in varying sizes. These are another great option. Exped call them Clear Cubes and details on them are here. Another way you can help prevent spills is to use more secure bottles for liquids. Nalgene, for example, make excellent leak proof bottles like these in a broad range of sizes.
Once you have thought about the general duffel bag organisation, it is worth thinking about how all these items are best packed into your duffel. I always pack in the same way and this is my first piece of advice. It doesn’t matter if it is the same way I do it, but get used to a system and you will find things way easier to find. It is also worth considering how things are best packed so that vulnerable items are protected by the items that won’t get damaged. The final advantage is that you can pack the things you will need first nearer the top and the less commonly used items further down.
So, if we take the example of a climbing trip then I always pack ropes along the bottom of the duffel. This keeps the weight at the bottom and helps pad the duffel base. Then I place anything like ice axes, crampons of climbing hardware on top of the ropes. These are now well protected and are also less likely to damage other things.
Packing Cube Protectors
Next, I place some packing cubes around the sides and maybe at the end. Alternatively, I may pack my sleeping bag at one end and my boots at the other. This all offers a layer of cushioning and also leaves a space in the middle. I then use this space for more vulnerable items and other things like guidebooks or toiletries. Finally, on top I add some further padding with items like jackets or a sleeping mat.
This duffel bag organisation system has served me well for many trips and without any items getting damaged inside. One final thing I do is to think what I will need first when I arrive at my next destination. I will then ensure these items are at the top of the bag. I may want to dive straight in the shower and so will add my towel and a set of spare clothes to the top layer. Similarly, on arrival I may be heading straight to the nearest bar and so may just want some comfy shoes and a warm jacket.
Hopefully this Duffel Bag Organisation advice gives you a few useful ideas. Duffel bags offer an extremely versatile and practical way to transport your equipment from adventure to adventure. Their only disadvantage is they can be tricky to live out of. However, a few tweaks to your organisation and life will be so much easier. Bon Voyage!
If this Duffel Bag Organisation article has been useful we have another article that might also be of interest. It explores tricks to avoid your baggage going missing during air travel. It is called ‘Avoiding The Empty Luggage Carousel’ and you can read it here. Please also check out our related reviews. We have a review of the Osprey Transporter 120 Duffel here and the smaller Osprey Daylite Duffel here. We hope they are of use.