Big duffel bags are the ultimate hunter’s luggage. Here’s how to pick a good one.
There is no historical record of the first man-made luggage, but anthropologists suspect it was an animal skin crudely sewn into a pouch. At least, I suspect that’s what anthropologists suspect. The point is the basic pouch bag proved so perfect that it has been adopted and adapted over the millennia by nomads of every type, including today’s finest military men and women, whose clothing and gear is packed and shipped worldwide in duffel bags.
Not surprisingly, duffel bags are ideal containers for hauling duffel, which Webster’s defines as “essential clothing and equipment carried by a woodsman, hunter, or yachtsman,” or “a camper’s kit or equipment.” The minimal weight of these bags allows maximum room for gear before breaking the dreaded 50-pound airline baggage weight limit. Why ship 30 pounds of stuff in a 20-pound suitcase when you can shove 45 pounds in a 5-pound duffel bag? Horse packers and bush pilots love these soft carryalls because they can be bent, twisted, and contorted to squeeze into nearly any oddly shaped space. When emptied, they take up almost no space at all. Materials from heavy canvas to ballistic nylon resist abrasion well and never crack or shatter from impact.
Of course, they provide little or no impact protection to contents, either, but wrapping clothing around fragile items fixes that. I once brought home in a duffel bag a half-dozen fragile soapstone wildlife carvings from Zimbabwe. Deep within layers of clothing, not a single one was broken. Duffel bags themselves are largely unbreakable by design. Most have no hinges, snaps, hasps, or integral locks to break. Zippers can be a weak link, but the fold-over, grommet-andpin closures used on military bags circumvent even this shortcoming.
We can lump duffels into two categories: soft and semirigid. Semirigid models employ a flexible plastic “floor” to which wheels are usually added. Such wheeled bags glide easily to and through airports, but they don’t cram quite as conveniently into tight spaces. Models with “bathtub” bottoms (the plastic floor continues up the sides a few inches) can be plunked on wet grass and runways without soaking the contents. Wheels that are mounted through holes cut or molded through the plastic breach the waterproof barrier, of course, but such bags usually stand high enough above the ground to avoid leaking in shallow pools. The better versions mold the waterproof bottom over the wheels. Some wheeled bags use a removable fabric handle for pulling. This should be snapped off at the check-in counter and stuffed inside the bag to prevent ripping in airport luggage carousels. More elaborate models include telescoping metal handles that provide better leverage for an easier haul, but add weight to the bag.
Semirigid bags often feature several zippered compartments of varying sizes, useful for segregating gear. Internal pockets are more tamperproof than are external ones, but they are slower to access. The zippers and extra fabric add weight, but many travelers gladly trade that for the organizational convenience. Dirty clothing or wet boots go in one compartment, clean and fragile gear in another, toiletries in yet another. A few duffels include straps so the unit can be carried like a backpack. Some feature removable sections that double as daypacks once you arrive at your hunting grounds. Beware of bags that include too many external straps, buckles, and snaps that can be ripped off during transit. The mantra for airline travel is: “The simpler, the better.”
Internal tie-down straps are helpful for securing heavy items against shifting. The most useful rolling duffel bags for hunters may be those that accept an airline-approved, rigid gun case in one compartment. The gun and case generally weigh well under 50 pounds, leaving space for boots, clothing, etc. The duffel bag camouflages the firearm and protects the case from scratches and dings, and the whole package rolls conveniently.
Because zippers sometimes “blow out,” auxiliary closures such as straps, flaps, snaps, and tie-downs are useful. For years I’ve been traveling with a ballistic nylon Boyt Rolling Duffel that uses a large top-flap to cover the main compartment zipper. Two sewn and riveted leather straps and old-fashioned brass buckles secure this flap to the side of the bag. Should the main zipper ever fail, that flap should keep everything inside. Flaps also protect zippers from being poked, bent, and abraded. Filson puts heavy canvas flaps over its zippers and secures them with leather straps. Cabela’s best bags include ballistic nylon flaps secured with leather straps and metal buckles. A stiff baffle or ridge sewn along the inside of a zipper opening isolates the zipper from interior garments, preventing those annoying jams when flimsy material gets caught in the teeth.
According to Terri Young of Filson, the premium brass zippers on Filson bags are a durable choice. “In my experience, they don’t pop open like nylon zippers,” she said. Filson bags include bridle-leather reinforcement edging along zippers. These stiffen the lip of the opening, keep the zippers aligned, and reduce tension on them.
Bags shaped like rectangles rather than cylindrical tubes sometimes feature curved zippers on the top platform. The right-angled ends of these bags absorb much of the tension that would otherwise be stretched across the top, thus zippers close more easily. Regardless of where a zipper is located, squeeze it together as much as possible before closing, Rub paraffin of a candle over the teeth now and then for lubrication,
The verdict Is still out on fabric durability, Balllstie nylon is popular, but so is heavy eotton canvas, which seems to wear like iron, My Pilsen bags, built with paraffln=soaked, 22=eunce eotton twill, emerge from flight after flight dirtier than ever, but seemingly unfazed by abrasion or tearing, My nylon bags seem to abrade mere easily, but their lighter weight makes them attractive,
The basic style of ont main compartment is more than adequate fer most hunters, Segregating gear in zlp=loek plastic bags will keep things organised and waterproof, Zippers running the length of the bag offer more convenient access than do one=end openings, In many tent camps, the only place to stere your clothing is in your duffel under your eot, and I don’t know anyone who enjoys digging to the bottom of a long bag to reach a fresh pair of socks,
Some soft duffel bags designed for rafting and kayaklng are made from waterproof fabric (nylon=relnforced PVC or polyurerhane-coated nylon) with waterproof shippers or roll=over seals, While heavy, these are a good choice for wet environments.
The most durable handles and carry straps are wide and wrap completely around bags to bear the weight without risk of tearing out sewn joints, Additional shoulder straps that snap to Darings at either end of a long bag enable you to sling the package over one shoulder, but ordinary hand=earry straps, If long enough, also fit over shoulders so you can carry the bag like a backpack. For maximum space saving, look for a compression duffel, These cylinders load from one end, then tighten longitudinally with external nylon straps that pull the ends together, These straps may catch and tip in transit, so it’s best to secure them with a few wraps of duet tape,
Because of airline weight limits and bush plane space limitations, you should consider two smaller bags Instead of one huge one, Experiment with a typical load of gear and clothing to get an idea how much space it takes. If you need to haul maximum gear with minimum weight, consider inexpensive bags qf light material. They might not last more than a few trips, but they cost so little that you can replace them annually, Mort durable bags add travel weight, but they last for years.
Copyright Sports Afield, Inc. Sep 2004
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