Gear Bags

Head to Head :: Adventure Duffels

by , May 8, 2013

The North Face Base Camp Duffel vs Patagonia Black Hole Duffel

The North Face Base Camp battles the Patagonia Black Hole

Sometimes you just gotta haul gear. It might be into a camp spot, up a sheer granite wall, or just in your car for a fun week away. While the classic duffel was little more than a strap and a cavity, modern gear duffels have pimped things a fair way.

With the support of Patagonia and Rushfaster, we’ve hauled two of the big names in adventure duffels into some remote spots, and found a narrow favorite. Read on…


The Basics

We’ve chosen the largest size in this format for both brands.

That raised a few issues, as these duffels probably perform slightly better in medium sizes (straps are more in proportion and their lack of structure is not as noticeable). But heck, we wanted gear haulers so we went with scale.

Base Camp Ortho Rocks

The North Face Base Camp Duffel XL

Vitals: 155L, 2.2kg, TPE laminate over 840D ballistic Nylon

Available: Australia, US, and globally


Black Hole Ortho Rocks

The Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 120L

Vitals: 120L, 1.36kg, TPU laminate on 1200D Polyester

Available: Australia, US, and globally


Black Hole Size

The Look – The North Face 1, Patagonia 0

Ummm, who cares, right? These are workhorses, so look doesn’t matter too much. But in the name of thoroughness, we need a winner.

While the Patagonia looks more refined, these are adventure duffels, so we’re awarding this one to the Base Camp. It just looks like it means business.


In the van

Versatility – The North Face 0, Patagonia 1

The Patagonia is better with organizing and general usability, giving you slightly better pocketing (there’s a split internal lid pocket and an external zip pocket) and softer materials.

The North Face gets some compression straps (which only sort of help) and more useful daisy chains (which help with lashing down or piggy-backing multiple bags).

With pluses to both sides, we decided by recording which duffel we grabbed more often, and it was the Patagonia that narrowly won.

Base Camp unboxing

A small extra comment here is that the Base Camp gives you a handy storage bag for it.

Unfortunately, the feel good aspect of this was undermined by an excess of packaging when unboxing, which just made the experience feel not as nice.


Internal Comparison

Space and Access – The North Face 0, Patagonia 1

This is the main goal of a big gear sack, so it’s a pretty important one to get right. Both have large D openings, size 10 main zippers, and fairly easy entry and egress of gear.

It’s funny though because this was also where we got a little frustrated with both. Call us crazy, but we don’t see the need to put all the straps directly over the main opening. Can’t they go on a different face to the opening? It’s not a big deal, it just feels like something that could be better.

The Patagonia has easily removable shoulder straps (they can be unclipped and tucked under the flap if they get in the way too much for you). Combine that with the slightly softer materials which move out of the way more easily, and it’s a slight win for the Patagonia.


Construction Comparison

Burliness (Durability) – The North Face 1, Patagonia 0

This is where the softer materials of the Patagonia lose out. The Base Camp just has that next level of durability, with thicker coatings and fewer seams. Both bags will outlast 98% of users, but the Base Camp will then last just that tiny bit longer again.

Both have excellent stitching, are well reinforced, and use quality hardware.

Base comparison


Wearing Comparing

Hauling comfort – The North Face 0, Patagonia 1

The Patagonia is a fair bit lighter at 1.36kg, versus 2.2kg for the Base Camp. That probably makes more difference to airline allowance than comfort, but every bit helps.

The reality with both these duffels is that they ride too low to be comfortable for any sustained walking. They bang into your butt and restrict natural motion. Duffels like the Boreas Erawan are starting to solve this by setting the bag higher (straps lower), but if you want real carrying comfort, you might need to look at a structured pack.

Strap mount comparison

The Black Hole uses wider webbing for anchoring the straps, as well as a buckle that sits on top of the webbing rather than around it. Both these things help improve the carry comfort over the Base Camp.

Base Camp Strap Detail

Black Hole Strap Detail


Weatherproofness – The North Face 1, Patagonia 1

We couldn’t really split them. They both run with a similar approach, and will both resist lots of weather, but not submersion or torrential rain. This one is a draw.


Top Comparison

Overall victory – Patagonia Black Hole Duffel (just)

This was close, as the two duffels really are very similar. If you need a big burly duffel, you’ll be well served by either.

There needs to be a winner though, and for us the Patagonia Black Hole ended up just a touch more useable, with compliant materials and more useful pocketing.

If you are actually hauling these up big granite walls, we think the slightly thicker laminate of The North Face will sway you to that. But if you’re a mere mortal adventuring around the world, we rate the Patagonia just slightly ahead.



An end note

We’d finish there, but we are Carryology, and we obsess on how to carry better. We couldn’t help but think that this format is not yet as resolved as it could be, especially in the larger size duffels.

Loads of brands run with duffels like this, and we’ve chosen two of the best to review. They are great bags. But they both suffer a bit of spaghetti strap-ville. It really does feel like the entry and the straps need to be on different faces, and the backpack straps need to be positioned better for load carrying (raising the duffel higher on your back). Neither of these changes would compromise the duffels, but both changes would extend the versatility of this format.

  • Jason D

    You mention early in the post that “these duffles probably perform slightly better in medium sizes” because of the relation of the size/location of straps to the physical size of the bag. Do you think the medium size would also carry better in backpack mode?

    You mention that the large size of these bags made them uncomfortable to carry for long distances because of the bag itself coming into contact with your butt/lower legs. Do you think this would be alleviated somewhat with the smaller sizes?

    Great job on this post!

    • Ando

      Yep, they definitely carry a little better in the medium sizes. But they are still duffles, which means they won’t be great over long distances.

      A good weight bearing backpack has structure and a waist belt, which lifts the load up on your hips. They also have adjustable harnesses, and all sorts of fit aids which duffles don’t.

  • Dean Grove

    Must say, I kinda like this “out there” post.

    I’m guessing that the majority of readers on this Site do not really see a need for a Bag like this, but still appreciate you went through the effort.

    I had a bag like that once during my army time, called a Seesack and trust me on this, there is nothing in this world that is worse to carry.

    I liked that you chose the largest sizes as well, though I would have preferred the medium size range because there are more bags to choose from (Maxpedition has nice Duffel bags that seem to be good).

    • Ando

      Thanks Dean.

      We might have to do a follow up on the mid size ones. I agree that the Maxpedition is really interesting, as is the Boreas Erawan. They both start adding more and more features, bringing them closer to a backpack in performance.

      • Martin

        Please do! Mid size ones are the ones probably most people would look for, and a review would certainly help.

        Thanks for your effort :)

  • Wil

    Good article. Might have been better to review the medium sizes where the bags are more fit to humans (for backpacking anyway) and similar sized to each other rather than the difference above which have to affect comfort ratings.

    Also like Dean would like to see a larger comparison as the medium size duffel is a more crowded space, though these two are the big names.

    • Ando

      Thanks Wil. We’ll look into it.

  • jau

    I noticed you didn’t mention anything about warranties/guarantees. Patagonia has got one of the best ‘Ironclad’ warranty programs around. No idea if TNF has got anything similar – I doubt it!

    • Ando

      Thanks Jau. Patagonia are indeed excellent with their warranty, even trying to repair wear and tear for a reasonable price.
      The North Face have a warranty that is lifetime against manufacturing defects. Not quite as good, but still better than average.

  • Strappy Van Winkle

    I wonder if the straps over the opening isn’t a deliberate feature. After all, if you really are out in the back of beyond, you’re going to be setting your pack down in all types of dusty/dirty/muddy conditions, which you would then have to lash to your back were the straps on the underside. Placing the straps on the sides makes no real sense from a load-carrying point of view.

    The manufacturers could have gone with the popular zip-away panel option to hide a bag-bottom placement, but not sure how appealing that would be with the heavier and more rigid fabrics both use.

    • rhys

      It would also help on a security front, having the zipper on your back means pickpockets won’t be able to open it while you have in on.

      • ando

        Rhys: That certainly can help in an urban backpack, but probably isn’t as relevant for an adventure duffel?

        Strappy: I’m not encouraging straps to be placed on the underside. Instead, imagine something like a bloated triangle cross section, with straps on one face, the opening on another, and the base on the last. Or straps that can be very easily moved out of the way. Or any number of clever solutions those awesome carry designers will come up with in the next few years :)

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  • Tom

    A comment on the NF Base Camp.

    I worked for over a decade as a Concierge in a top hotel in NZ, so saw a lot of bags! Two that stood out were the Orvis Battenkill series (classy), and the NF Base Camp. I now live in the Middle East, but we travel as a family internationally almost monthly.

    I bought my kids (pre-teen) the NF Base Camp duffles in their favourite colours (Battenkill for me), in the Small size. This is of course the maximum size for a carry-on. While still a little big for my 9yr old daughter, they love them, and can easily accommodate their clothing and gear for any trip. When they are in their teens, I’ll probably add a medium or large duffle each, in the same colour, should see them right for a while.

    A comment on the straps etc: they could be better thought out. But they work OK on the small size, and the security aspect is good.

    • ando

      Love it.
      And YES, concierge is a great bag critic we’d never thought of! Any other thoughts on the state of play in luggage? You must have seen LOTS!

  • Andrew

    Trying to buy a large TNF Base Camp in Australia (Asphalt Grey/Leopard Yellow), any ideas who might have one?

    • ando

      We couldn’t get Google to find one in that spec either. Ping the Rushfaster guys an email and find out when they’re due back in stock.

      • Andrew

        Thanks ando, I’ll give them a call tomorrow.

  • John

    I looked at TNF and Patagonia but went with a Gregory ( — it doesn’t look like you just walked out of the woods if you’re checking into a something other than a tent…but works in a tent if it has to — waterproof, can be carried like a backpack, etc…worth a look

    • Ando

      Nice. The Gregory stuff is looking neat.
      Is there a bit too much plastic hardware on it, or is that under control…?

      • john

        I think the plastic is ok — the adjustability (word?) of the straps across the face of the pack is a little weird – and poorly designed.

        From what I’ve seen there is just no one well-designed bag in this category — “civilized gear hauler.”

        I like that the Gregory has a little more form to it so as a backpack it keeps its shape better. You would still not want to travel very far with this strapped to your back. I like it because it leaves your hands free for another bag or chasing down my 6 year-old. The bag itself is not light either….
        40 L 3 lb 1 oz
        60 L 3 lb 7 oz

        They do have the “stash duffel” which is lighter but then you have like a giant pillowcase strapped to your back.
        45 L 1 lb 8 oz / 700 g

        I have so much gear that is activity specific just want a bag that could be used as often as possible.

      • john
  • Jeff

    As someone who owns 6 XL-sized North Face Duffels, I can speak a bit to the back-pack straps… you quickly figure out that they are more for show than for actual use. These bags are for carrying lots of heavy, bulky gear. If you are actually filling and travelling with these bags, it becomes obvious that they belong on luggage carts (or for lots of my work on the backs of donkeys), but definitely not on your back.

    Don’t get me wrong, these bags are epic and have served me well for almost 15 years now.


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