Duffel Bag vs Travel Backpack: What's Right for You?

More and more people are beginning to realize that wheeled suitcases are not a good carry option when traveling. Suitcases have the singular function of carrying your stuff to your destination, but you can’t use them for day trips, for meetings, for the gym, or for anything else that you do during your travels. And let’s not even mention the hassle of trying to get them to fit in limited overhead space.

So for One Bag travelers, wheeled suitcases are simply not an option. This generally leaves travelers with two carry options: a travel backpack or a duffel bag. 

This blog will cover the differences between travel backpacks and duffel bags, what to look for in each, and how to decide which is the best for your trip. And because Knackpackers know that they shouldn’t have to compromise, we’ll introduce you to our new hybrid Convertible Duffel, a duffel/travel backpack/everyday laptop bag that marries the best of all three bags in one. 

1. Travel Backpacks vs Duffel
2. Travel Backpacks
    • Types of Backpacks for Travel
    • Advantages of Backpacks
    • Disadvantages of Backpacks
    • What to look for in a Backpack
    • Choose a Backpack If...
3.  Duffels
    • Types of Duffels
    • Advantages of Duffels
    • Disadvantages of Duffels
    • What to look for in a Duffels
    • Choose a Travel Duffel If...
4. Why Choose Between a Travel Backpack or Duffel?

Travel Backpack vs Duffel

Knack Pack travel s1

We all know what a backpack is and that it can be used for many things: work, school, the gym, etc. So, basically, a travel backpack is any backpack that you use primarily for travel. While some backpacks are better suited for travel than others, essentially, they all are carried on your back and they all have both internal and external pockets to keep your travel stuff - like your passport and wallet - in a safe and accessible location.

On the other hand, duffel bags are designed for, and almost always used for, carrying clothes and gear. They typically have a long zip opening at the top, limited pockets, and a single spacious compartment. They usually have a single shoulder strap or bale handles, so they’re designed to be carried over your shoulder or in your hand rather than on your back. Unlike travel backpacks, they lack internal organization, like pockets or multiple compartments. 

Types of Travel Backpacks

As we said, there are many different types of backpacks that can be used for travel, and once you decide that you want to travel with a backpack, you’ll then have to narrow down all the different options. Whether you’re just traveling for the weekend or looking to organize your tech gear on the road, a little searching will have you inundated with travel backpacks for every need. Here are the main types of backpacks that work well for travel:

Hiking backpacks - These are designed to carry everything that you need to survive in the wilderness. They can be both framed and non-framed; they have great weight distribution under heavy loads; they include lots of external functionality, including water-bottle pockets, and carabiner loops; and, they usually have waist straps. 

Dedicated travel backpack - Dedicated travel backpacks are essentially a suitcase that you carry on your back. They’re large enough to hold all of your clothes and toiletries, but they’re too big to carry around with you on day trips once you reach your destination. Because of this, you have to take a secondary everyday carry bag like another backpack, sling, tote or briefcase with you on your trip.

Multi-functional backpack - As the name implies, a multi-functional backpack satisfies several needs equally well. While it does a great job of holding all of your travel stuff, it can also carry your work things and everyday items at the same time so you can take it to places like the office, restaurants, museums, and the grocery store instead of using it only for travel. Knack Packs popularized the multi-function backpack category with their organized everyday main compartment, dedicated padded laptop compartment, and patent-pending, hidden, expandable suitcase compartment. 

knack pack s1 flaylay

Advantages of Travel Backpacks:

With two shoulder straps, travel backpacks are easier to carry over distances than a duffel; they have far better weight distribution if you’re carrying heavy loads, and you can get around with both of your hands-free. Travel backpacks also have many more organizational pockets, so they’ll do a better job keeping your important travel items in one spot. 

Disadvantages of Travel Backpacks:

Most backpacks can only be carried on your back and they don’t tend to be as large as some of the monstrous duffels on the market. So if you’re an over-packer, duffels may be for you (BTW, if you want help with your over-packing, check out our tips on how to pack more like a minimalist).   Also, if you like packing into one compartment, backpacks will likely disappoint you since they tend to have multiple compartments for better organization. 

What to look for in a Travel Backpack:

Organization - A travel backpack should have multiple compartments that keep your belongings organized, and should also have smaller pockets dedicated to keeping your little stuff - like AirPods and camera batteries - from falling to the bottom of your bag. And because chances are you’ll travel with some valuable tech, your travel backpack should have dedicated pockets for your laptop and tablet. Take a look at all of Knack Pack’s amazing organization pockets to see what we mean. 

Design - Some travel backpacks, with lots of external pockets, loops, cords and pulls, really identify you as a tourist, so it’s ideal that your travel backpack has a minimal aesthetic that’ll blend into the local environment. Because Knack Packs have a sleek exterior and can compress from a travel bag to an everyday carry bag, they don’t scream “I just landed” - you can take them sightseeing, on errands, and to meetings.

Medium s2 gray Knack Pack

Comfortable shoulder straps - Your travel backpack’s shoulder straps should have ample foam padding for cushioning under heavy loads, and should be fully adjustable. Also, look for sternum straps to ensure that the shoulder straps don’t uncomfortably separate under a heavy load. Knack Pack’s shoulder straps are made with a generous 8MM EPE foam padding and a spacer mesh back lining that keeps you cool and comfy no matter what the weather or weight. And, they are fully adjustable, have a removable sternum strap, and an S-shape design that’ll fit any body type.

Shoulder straps that tuck away - In order to keep your travel backpack’s shoulder straps from falling into the aisle on the airplane, or from getting tangled up in the luggage carousel if you have to check your bag, look for shoulder straps that tuck away into a separate pocket. We designed every Knack Pack’s shoulder straps to easily unsnap from the bag and tuck away into a separate back pocket to make the bag sleek and compact during travel. 

Handles - Handles help you easily pull your bag out of car trunks, overhead compartments, up from under airplane seats, and off the ground every time you set it down. We added comfortable, well-padded, super durable top handles to all of our Knack Packs, and the Series 2 bags also have side handles for when you want to go into briefcase mode. 

Tie-down straps - It’s really annoying when you neatly pack your bag and then find everything jumbled up when you get to your destination. So we recommend that you look for tie-down straps inside your backpack to keep your clothes or other travel items in place (especially if your backpack lacks internal compartments). 

Durable fabric - Travel is tough on bags so your backpack should be made of materials that are abrasion-resistant, puncture-resistant, and tear-resistant (as Knack Packs are). And because you want to make a good impression, you should look for travel backpacks with stain-resistant and water-resistant fabric that can be wiped clean in the case of accidental spills (again, Knack Packs check these boxes). 

Choose a Travel Backpack If:

A travel backpack is a better option than a duffel if you’re going to move around a lot on your trip - whether that’s between hotels, or you plan to do a lot of traveling by bus and train. A travel backpack will help you to carry your load and will do a better job of keeping you organized. Also, if you really want to enjoy the benefits of One Bag travel, you’ll need a bag that can work as both a travel bag and an everyday bag at your destination - something no duffel can’t manage. 

Types of Duffels

Duffels come in fewer variations than backpacks, but there are still a few features that differentiate one from another:

Traditional duffel bags - These are straightforward designs with few bells and whistles and typically one large main compartment. They are carried either by a single shoulder strap or by two bale handles that you carry in your hand. Traditional duffels are designed to fit a lot, but you’ll also have to carry the bag over one shoulder, or in one hand, regardless of the weight.

Expandable duffels - An expandable duffel bag usually has a zipper that can increase the size of the main compartment. The obvious benefit of an expandable duffel bag is that the expansion feature allows you to roughly match the size of the main compartment with what you want to carry. Like traditional duffels, expandable duffels tend to also lack internal organization, as the expanded section of the bag doesn’t usually consist of a separate compartment. 

Duffel bag with backpack straps - A limited number of duffel bags on the market have incorporated backpack straps, as well as a single shoulder strap, to make it easier to carry heavy loads when you travel. From a design perspective, most duffels with backpack straps look like someone pasted a duffel onto your back so you wouldn’t want to use them for everyday carry. 

Roller duffels - Roller duffels are traditional duffels with a pair of wheels and usually a telescoping handle. While this is awesome if are carrying a lot of heavy stuff and you don’t want to carry it over your shoulder, the wheels and handle are clunky, add a lot of weight if you do carry the bag on your back, and may compromise the bag’s ability to fit in the overhead compartment if you choose to carry on. 

Advantages of Duffels:

Duffels have a lot of space and, because they usually only have one compartment and minimal internal pockets, it’s pretty tough to forget where you packed things. You can carry them comfortably and casually with one shoulder strap if you haven’t packed a lot, and their large opening makes it easy to see the top layer that you packed. Finally, you can get duffels with a truly huge packing capacity.

Disadvantages of Duffels:

Due to their lack of internal organization, it can be truly difficult to quickly find everything you packed - especially the little things that tend to fall to the bottom of your bag. If they don’t have backpack straps or wheels, carrying them when fully packed isn’t easy on your shoulders or back. Finally, duffels are strictly for travel; they are not designed for everyday carry nor would you want to be seen running around town with a travel duffel.

What to look for in a Duffel:

Capacity - Because you choose a duffel bag for its capacity to hold stuff, you should be sure that it’s big enough for your stuff but not so big that you can’t bring it onto the airplane. The best duffel bag size for travel is 40 liters, as this falls within the capacity restrictions of most airlines. 

Comfortable shoulder strap - Given that one shoulder will carry the full load of your duffel, look for a comfortable shoulder strap with generous padding. Also, it’s helpful to have a fully adjustable shoulder strap that is long enough so that you can wear the strap across your body (which keeps the strap from slipping off your shoulder). Finally, it is helpful to have a removable shoulder strap that can be packed away in case you need to check your duffel.

Durable material - Since it will carry a heavy load, and will spend most of its time on the floor, you really want your duffel (and especially its bottom) to be made of abrasion, tear, and puncture-resistant materials like nylon or polyester. While other materials, like canvas and leather, are also durable, they are also heavier than nylon or polyester and the extra weight really adds up when you are carrying a lot of weight in your duffel.

Choose a Duffel Bag If:

If you need a real hauler that can carry your entire closet, choose a duffel. Additionally, if you need a bag to carry your things for only travel, a duffel will do the trick (for example, duffels are great for quick weekend getaways). Finally, if you aren’t really worried about the organization, a duffel could be perfect for you.  

Why Choose Between a Travel Backpack or a Duffel?

When you really need the capacity of a duffel bag, but also want the organization and comfortable carry of a travel backpack, having to choose between the two is a truly difficult task. At Knack, we’re always looking for better ways to carry, so we designed a Convertible Duffel - a hybrid backpack that combines the spaciousness of a duffel bag with the functionality of a travel backpack. It’s a true 2-in-1 bag.

Like a traditional duffel bag, our Convertible Duffel can fit a lot. Its large and roomy main compartment expands to 40L and can fit up to a week’s worth of clothes. With three carry methods - removable backpack straps, side or top handle, and removable shoulder strap - it adapts to you (not vice versa). And, it will keep you organized with interior mesh pockets, a fleece-lined tablet pocket, as well as a separate, padded laptop compartment. 

But what makes this bag really special is its lightweight and functional “back wall” compression flap that you can use to effectively create two compartments (when the bag is expanded) to separate your everyday stuff from your travel stuff or that you can use to create a single compartment with a back organization panel (when unexpanded) for everyday carry. In other words, expanded, it’s a travel duffel/travel backpack, but unexpanded, it’s a lightweight, everyday-carry, laptop backpack. 

The Convertible Duffel can essentially become anything that you want it to be, all while looking great and keeping your stuff safe and organized. One Bag living couldn't be easier.

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