The Definitive Guide on How to Pack a Duffel Bag

Packing a duffel bag for travel offers tremendous capacity, making it the preferred choice for many. However, harnessing the full potential of a duffel's soft structure and ample space can be quite a challenge. If you're a duffel enthusiast seeking the most organized way to pack a duffel bag, we’ve compiled valuable tips from the Knack team, experienced Knackpackers, and duffel bag experts to help you master the art of efficient duffel packing.

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Duffel for city or travel

There are many One Bag travelers who insist that carrying a duffel during their trips is the only way to go. Duffels tend to fit more clothes given their size than other similarly-sized bags because of their non-rigid construction and spacious main compartment. Duffels also tend to be lightweight since many lack the structure and internal organization of almost all other types of bags. There’s no question that Duffels have lost of fans, but the same qualities that make them attractive – their soft structure and lack of internal organization - also contribute to their main downside: they’re hard to pack in an organized manner.

Fear not duffel connoisseurs! We’ve surveyed Knack team members (who’ve collectively visited over 30 countries and flown millions of miles), Knackpackers, and travel bag experts to get their top tips on how you can pack a duffel bag and stay organized.

Table of Contents



What’s a Duffel Bag?

While the features that describe a duffel may seem obvious, there are actually a confusingly number of different types of duffels available in terms of style, size, shape, materials, and carry modes. We’re going to focus on carry-on duffels which are typically under 45 liters in volume or have a height plus length plus depth measurement of 45” or less.

>>More: The Comprehensive Guide to Backpack Sizes and Liters

Let’s start at the beginning. The duffel name comes from Duffel, a small town in Belgium, outside Antwerp, where the original thick woolen cloth used in the first duffel bags was woven. These initial duffel bags were durable, cylindrical, vertical, top-opening military bags with drawstring closures used in the mid-seventeenth century (for a modern parallel, think the seabags that sailors used in World War II).

ww2 duffel bag

Quick fun fact: what’s the difference between a duffel and a duffle? Nothing! “Duffle” is simply the anglicized way to spell duffel and both can be used interchangeably.

Duffel design has evolved over the years and now popularly refers to any soft, horizontal, cylindrical, or tube-shaped, fabric bag with a top-opening that also has handles and usually a shoulder strap for carrying.



How to Pack a Duffel Bag

Now that you can pass Duffel 101 with flying colors, let’s review the best way to pack a duffel to ensure that your things don’t get lost in the big black hole that is the inside of most duffels. There are four easy steps to follow to make sure that your travel items arrive safe and organized:

  • Start with a list
  • Layout everything on your list in groups
  • Pack in layers
  • Use packing cubes

Step 1: How to Pack a Duffel Bag - Start with a list

Although duffels vary in size from small gym bags to monstrous 120-liter haulers, we are focusing on duffels that are 45 liters or less and can be carried on, so it’s really important that you pack efficiently. And to be efficient, you need a list of what you want to take.

Keith, Knack’s Chief Digital Officer, has been flying from Portland to Hawaii several times a year for a number of years and says that he finds it very helpful to write his packing list a day or two before he starts packing. That way he can reflect on the initial list and add, or remove, items as the inevitable trip details that he forgot pop into his head.

MORE>> How to Make the Perfect Travel Packing List

Step 2: How to Pack a Duffel Bag – Layout everything in groups

The next step in efficiently packing a carry-on duffel is to lay out everything on your list and arrange it by groups. Why groups? It’s because the best way to pack a duffel is by layers and certain groups of items should go in certain layers in your bag. We suggest laying out your things in the following groups:

  • Heavier or bulky items like shoes and toilet kit/make-up bag
  • Small items like underwear, socks, and bathing suits
  • Clothing that you want to roll
  • Larger pieces of clothing like jackets and blazers

Step 3: How to Pack a Duffel Bag - Pack in layers

Now that you’ve grouped everything, take the group of small items and put as many of them into your shoes as possible to take advantage of the dead space in the shoes. Then place your shoes, toilet kit/make-up bag, and any other heavy items at the bottom of your duffel to create the first layer. These are things that can stand up to the weight of the layers that you’ll place on top of them.

how to pack a duffle bag

Next, move onto your grouping of rolled clothing. The classic advice used to be roll soft items, like underwear and tees, and fold stiffer ones, like dress shirts with collars. However, in today's world of wrinkle-resistant fabrics, the consensus among the Knack team is to roll everything to make the most of your space. If you do happen to bring along stiffer items and decide to roll them, we also recommend having a small spray bottle of Downy Wrinkle Releaser on hand, or simply embrace the idea of a quick iron or a steam in the shower upon reaching your destination. Once you roll these items, place them on top of the first layer in the duffel.

Finally, take the grouping of larger clothing items, like jackets, and fold them. Place them of top of the layer of rolled clothes and, if they are a bit larger than the layer they are laying on, tuck the overlap between the layer underneath and the side of the duffel.

>>MORE: Efficient Ways to Pack for One Bag Travel

Step 4: How to Pack a Duffel Bag – Use Packing cubes

Packing cubes and shoe bags are your key allies in the battle to pack a duffel efficiently. They make packing layers much easier by organizing the groups of items you laid out into specific packing cubes or shoe bags. And they also make unpacking your duffel much easier (they’re like packing a chest of drawers!).

Of course we’re biased, but we think that the best packing cubes and shoe bags to help you pack a duffel efficiently are Knack Cubes and Shoes Bags. We’ve designed compression functionality into all our Cubes, Inserts and Shoe Bags so that you can pack more into a given space. We think Knackpacker Shep B. from Clarksburg, MD is on the money when he wrote us to say Knack “packing cubes are GREAT and fit the bag perfectly. Highly recommended.” 

>>MORE: Packing Cube Tips and Travel Hacks


How to Pick the Right Duffel

How to pack a duffel bag

Since there are so many different styles of duffels available, choosing the one that is right for you is a personal decision. The duffel you ultimately select will be heavily influenced by your own sense of style, how you want to use the bag, and your budget. Despite these factors that are unique to you, there are several universal aspects of your duffel that you should focus on before you make your selection.


Even a carry-on duffel can get packed with so much clothes and gear it can top the scales at over 40 pounds. Therefore, the weight of the duffel when empty is something you should seriously consider. For a carry-on sized duffel, we recommend that you should not consider bags over 3 pounds empty as the extra weight really makes a difference when the bag is fully packed out.


While you can find duffels made out of almost any material, including leather and canvas, since we are so focused on the bag’s weight when empty, we suggest focusing on duffels made from either nylon or polyester. Nylon and polyester have very similar performance (neither is better than the other - just different). Both nylon and polyester are easy-care, wrinkle-resistant, and mold- and stain-resistant. Polyester tends to hold color better, fades less, and repels water better without added treatment. Nylon tends to be stronger and more elastic than polyester; however, strength and abrasion-resistance is strongly impacted by yarn size and fabric weave. Overall, they're both extremely high performance, strong, and lightweight fabrics.


When we refer to comfort, we refer mostly to how you will carry your duffel. When you pack a bag with up to 5 or more days of travel gear, it can get heavy quickly and lugging a heavy bag through miles of terminals can get painful if it isn’t comfortable to carry.

Traditionally, duffels are carried by side handles or a shoulder strap. In addition to these classic carrying methods, today’s duffels can also be carried as a backpack, across the body, or as rolling luggage. Look for padded, adjustable shoulder straps and padded handles to make carrying more comfortable. Padding should be made from closed-cell foam like ethylene-vinyl acetate foam (EVA) or polyethylene foam (PE) instead of open-cell foam like polyurethane (PU) because closed-cell foam doesn’t compress as easily as open cell foam. Additionally, closed-cell foam tends to bounce back to its original shape better than open-cell foam.


Why the Best Duffel May Also Be a Backpack

As we’ve said several times, there are many different types of duffels which vary widely in terms of style, size, weight, materials, and carry method. Unsurprisingly, we think the best one is the Knack Convertible Duffel. This incredibly flexible, carry-on duffel can handle all your daily carry needs with its internal organization panel and padded laptop pocket that protects laptops up to 15.6.” But a quick unzip of its hidden expansion compartment lets this bag carry up to a weeks’ worth of clothes. The experts at Backpackies explain: the “Convertible Duffel starts compressed at 24 liters which is enough room to pack for a weekend while keeping the bag small enough to store under most airplane seats. The expanded 40 liters allows you to pack for around of week of travel while still falling under most airline carry on size requirements. To put the Convertible Duffel’s size into context, 40 liters is around the same capacity of many carry-on rolling luggage.”

But best of all, the Knack Convertible Duffel can be carried three ways: as a backpack with its ergonomic, tuck-away shoulder straps; like a briefcase with its padded top-handle; and across the body with its removeable, padded shoulder strap. 

duffel backpack

Knackpacker CB from Canada loves the Knack Convertible Duffel’s flexibility: “I've really enjoyed this Knack Convertible, and have used it for almost a year. I love the versatility. It can be a duffel or a backpack and goes from 24L (good for everyday use) to 40L (travel capacity).”

Mastering the art of efficiently packing a duffel bag will elevate your travel experience to a whole new level of convenience and organization. A duffel’s soft structure and generous capacity makes it a top choice for many travelers, and, with the right packing skills, you can make the most of this versatile option. Whether your travel companion is the versatile Knack Convertible Duffel or another choice, we hope these tips and insights will help guide you toward a smoother and more organized journey.

How will you use your expandable backpack? We love to hear how you plan to use - or have used - your Knack Pack for work, travel, and everyday life. So share your stories and adventures with us on social media: tag @KnackBags and use #KnackBags when you take your Knack on journeys.