Duffel Bag Ready: How To Pack, Organize & Travel

Two people's hands lifting a red duffel bag and a red backpack.

Ever used a duffel bag? Ever found yourself saying “I’m never using a duffel bag again?” Most people with duffel bag experience have. But that’s mostly because they never learned how to organize a duffel bag. Well, that will no longer be you after reading this.

I’ve condensed some tips from my experience using a duffel bag in the military and for leisure travel and recreation. Plus, some tips I’ve gathered from the many people I’ve known who also use duffel bags. It all starts with choosing the right bag.

Choosing the Right Duffel Bag

The first thing to decide is what type of duffel bag you’d like. Choosing the right duffel bag is all about the shape and style of the bag, duffel bag material, and features. Let’s go over each one.

  • Shape and Style. The main compartment of duffel bags can be vertically oriented (or top loading) or horizontal. They can be rugged, sporty, or stylish. What’s best for you depends on your intended use of the bag. For example, rugged would be good if you’re using it for camping, sporty is good for athletics, and stylish works for business travel. Keep all the possible uses of your duffel bag in mind when you’re deciding what’s best for you.

  • Material. The most common duffel bag materials are canvas and polyester. Both are strong, durable materials that will make your duffel bag last for a long time. Other common materials include cotton, leather, and vinyl, usually water-resistant. Again, keep in mind your use for the bag. Leather is great for a stylish bag used only for light travel. For outdoor use, you’ll want something a little bit more durable like canvas or polyester.

  • Features. Important features to consider are straps, zippers, and pockets. Some duffel bags come with handheld straps and straps you can use to carry it like a backpack. Think about what options you’d like for carrying when you’re looking at straps. Another good feature is the ability to attach other smaller bags by attaching them to loopholes on the exterior of your duffel.

    You want to choose a duffel bag with strong zippers that won’t easily rip. As far as pockets, think about how you will use them and approximately how many you’d want. Some people love pockets, and others prefer no exterior pockets at all on their duffel bags. Other features I’ve seen as beneficial are a water-resistant lining and air vents, just depending on your different trips, what type of environment you’re in, and what you’re carrying.

What to Pack and What Not to Pack

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to make a packing list. A packing list helps you plan ahead for what you’re putting in your bag and eliminate unnecessary things before you start packing. Make sure you stick to the essentials and try not to include anything that’s too bulky or oddly shaped. As far as clothing, try picking versatile pieces that you can mix and match to make different outfits. 

For example, you can make a lot of different outfits with one pair of jeans just by switching out different shirts and tank tops. Additionally, be intentional about things that can quickly add up such as travel accessories, personal care items, and toiletries.

A note on toiletries … Here’s where people tend to get a little excessive so it’s a good idea to edit yourself. Remember you don’t need to pack every single convenience of home when traveling. Stick to the essentials, and pack small items such as travel-size toiletries. I suggest picking a bag or container you’re going to hold your toiletries and limiting yourself to what fits in that one bag.

Duffel Bag Packing Strategy

Randomly throwing everything into your duffel bag at the last minute is a recipe for disaster. If you ever hope to find what you need in your duffel bag in a reasonable time use a packing strategy. I know that sounds complex but it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as packing heavier items or bulky items towards the bottom of the bag, like shoes or books, and then layering lighter-weight items on top, like clothing. 

Another important part of your packing strategy is to include packing in order of need when possible. Put the things you’ll need sooner closer to the top of your duffel bag. This might include your toiletries, for example. This was a critical point when packing my military duffel. This is also a good use for outer pockets on duffel bags that have them.

Pro tip: try rolling your clothes instead of folding them. Rolled clothes are a great way to save extra space.

Keeping your duffel bag organized is just as important as packing it right in the first place.

How to Organize a Duffel Bag 

Packing cubes, Ziplock bags, or vacuum seal bags (or compression bags) are the best way to organize your duffel bag. Use these, or any combination of them, to find everything you need in any duffel.

Don’t rely on the placement of your items alone to organize your duffel bag. That would be a mistake. Trust me, they will not stay put where you pack them. Plus, digging through everything in your duffel bag to find your lucky pen will, not only cause you to completely undo your organization, but it may also lead to, eh hmm, creative word usage. Lots of it!

Instead, use packing cubes to organize similar items based on type or function. For example, you can put all your underwear in one cube and all your hair products in another. Packing cubes are great for organizing and giving some form or structure to your bag. 

Ziplock bags are used the same way and come in all different sizes. Look for the type that is suitable for freezer storage since they have thicker plastic, and can be easily labeled. They’re also great for keeping things dry and can be cheaper than packing cubes. 

However, the downside is Ziplock bags are less durable than packing cubes. You’d likely have to buy more for each time you travel. In a pinch, they are good for specific purposes like keeping wet clothes or dirty laundry separate from clean, dry clothes. Some people use a laundry bag to separate dirty clothes and clean clothes but I’ve found a plastic bag to be less bulky.

Vacuum-sealed bags are similar to packing cubes and Ziplock bags but have the added bonus of saving tons of space. They’re great for when you need to pack more stuff for longer trips. Although, even with the added space, I caution against making your bag too heavy. More on that below. But first, here are a few of my tips for traveling with a duffel bag.

Introvert Petal

Here’s a chance to use one of your superpowers. Even if you don’t feel like the most organized person, chances are you’re ability to focus and analyze will be helpful when organizing a lot of stuff.

Duffel Bag Travel Tips

Duffel bags are not like other travel bags. They have the capacity of larger suitcases but with easy access and versatility. They are perfect for a long trip or multiple shorter trips. Either way, a good duffel bag should be a great staple among your travel gear.

  • Don’t forget the bottom. Most duffel bags come with a plastic sheet meant to remain at the bottom of the bag. Many people discard this in the interest of creating more space in their bags. Don’t do that. It’s best to keep this because it provides needed stability to the bottom of your bag whenever you set it down. Otherwise, the bottom conforms to whatever is in it and is more prone to toppling over. This is especially true for vertical, or top-loaded, duffel bags.

  • Be careful what you put in your outer pockets. Avoid putting fragile items or anything of high value in the outer pockets of your bag. These are high theft and impact areas.

  • Remember maintenance and cleaning. Repairing any holes, tears, or loose threading is critical to extending the life of your duffel bag. This is important for any part of your bag but particularly with straps. If you ignore them, they will only get worse. And if your straps go, the duffel bag is pretty much useless. Use your bag’s warranty or look for a local shop that can do this for you. 

    In addition to maintenance, keeping your bag clean will keep the contents from smelling like an old duffel bag or getting accidental stains. Especially, if you use your duffel bag for different purposes.

    For instance, I’ve used my duffel bag for leisure travel and recreation such as hiking or camping. I make a point to clean it after being outdoors before putting my cute vacation clothes in it. You can also use bag liners for extra protection here if it seems necessary.

  • Secure and label your bag. It’s easy to get busy with everything else while prepping for a trip and forget to consider how to secure your bag. Of course, the best way to secure it is to keep it close to you. However, if it happens to get out of sight, it’s good to know that less than scrupulous people won’t be able to easily get into it.

    A TSA lock is your best bet for securing your duffel bag. These are locks specifically made so airport security can access your bag if need be and relock it without destroying it. There are many different kinds but you can recognize them by looking for the red diamond logo.

    Another security tip, and a point of convenience at baggage claim, is to make your duffel bag stand out. You can buy or paint a bag with bright colors or patterns. Or, get a very unique sticker or luggage tag. A highly recognizable bag is not one a thief would want to take.

    Lastly, write your name and a way to contact you on the inside of your back. Use a permanent marker or a label that won’t fall off. Just in case there are any mix-ups, this will unequivocally show it’s your bag. It will also let someone know how to reach you if you lose it somewhere. I strongly suggest using an email address and NOT using your personal phone number or physical address.

And finally, I’ll share a few tips on how to safely carry your duffel bag when traveling.

How to Safely Carry Your Duffel Bag

Over 1,800 luggage-related shoulder injuries were seen in US emergency rooms between 2003 and 2017. Over 60% of these injuries were women experiencing a sprain, strain, or muscle tear.

Don’t let this be you! Use these tips approved by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons to carry your heavy duffel bag safely.

  1. Pack smart. Don’t make your bag too heavy by overpacking. Use this article to pack your bag efficiently and stick to the essentials. 

  2. Lift with your legs. Be sure to bend at the knees, grab the handles, and stand up straight, keeping the bag close to your body. This is the best way to lift your bag when you have to such as loading it into a vehicle or luggage compartment. The alternative, bending at the knees and lifting with your back, is an easy way to hurt yourself. 

    If traveling by plane and your duffel is your carry-on bag, it’s easier to lift onto the top of the seat first and then into the overhead luggage compartment if possible. Be careful if someone is sitting in the seat.

    Additionally, do not twist when lifting your duffel. Face the direction you intend to go by pointing your toes in that direction and turning your whole body that way before you lift. Furthermore, take your time and get help if you need it.

  3. Give yourself a break. Do not carry a heavy duffel bag for long periods of time. Take rest breaks if you are going far, and check your bag if traveling by air.

  4. Use both hands. If carrying your duffel by hand, use both rather than carrying it on one side. This puts a lot of pressure on your spine. For backpack straps, use both straps instead of just one. And make sure the straps are padded and as even as possible. For a cross-body strap, alternate sides often.

  5. Don’t drag it. Lastly, do not drag your duffel up the stairs even if it rolls. Don’t drag it at all if it doesn’t have wheels. Trust me, I did a lot of this (which is how I learned my lesson about overpacking) and I regret it. For stairs, carry it or use an elevator when possible.

Ready for Traveling with a Duffel Bag

Now, you’re ready for duffel bag life. Use these tips to organize a duffel bag, pack strategically, and travel safely on your next trip. Take care of ake your duffel bag and make it work for you.

Then you’ll have a functional and versatile piece of luggage that will last a lifetime. The only thing left to do now is to pick your destination. Happy (duffel bag) travels!