I should preface this review by first admitting that I am by no means a loyalist of The North Face brand. Not to say they make subpar apparel or equipment, but these days you’re most likely to see their logo traversing campus or scurrying across Time Square on a cold winter’s day. It would be harsh to say they have lost their way, but they have had to work hard to maintain the legitimacy of their storied outdoor brand. To that end, their most authentic product from their equipment catalog is without question the Base Camp Duffel.
The Base Camp Duffel is a stalwart fixture of expeditionary travel. From the deserts of Chad to the shoulders of Annapurna, countless expeditions have included the Base Camp Duffel in their logistics. Years ago I saw a picture taken at the bottom of Everest with a pile of Base Camp Duffels seemingly equal in size to the mountain objective. Every year these unmistakable bundles are strapped to camels, motorcycles, and the backs of porters. They’re shoved onto busses, squeezed into bush planes, and violently assaulted on miles of airport carousels. If I didn’t have my own decade old Base Camp Duffel showing patina from countless adventures spanning three continents I wouldn’t believe how durable and useful these bags really are.
What makes the Base Camp Duffel such a great piece of equipment is the use of durable materials in a smart design. The cylindrical shape slips easily into small spaces with no corners to catch or snag. They also stack tightly together like pieces of firewood, and swallow gear regardless of its shape. The best feature is the oversized access flap built around a huge #10 YKK zipper. Whereas most duffels provide a feeble slit through which you’re supposed to load and unload the bag, the Base Camp Duffel’s main flap folds back like a trunk lid exposing the cavernous interior within.
Many duffels have but a single shoulder strap, the hallmark of what I believe is a poorly designed duffel. The Base Camp Duffel has two straps which can be used as a singular point of carry, but are best used in tandem to position the bag on your back for optimal balance and comfort. The fully padded and adjustable straps are surprisingly comfortable. An additional pair of straps are held secure over the top of the bag with a padded velcro handle to facilitate short portages. Heavily reinforced handles at either end of the duffel provide attentional grab and lash points.
The bottom of the duffel is covered with a panel of 1000 denier nylon for maximum durability and running the full length of the bag are two rows of webbing daisy chain loops. Those loops not only make for ideal lashing points when affixing a Base Camp Duffel to your favorite domesticated mammal, they make for an ingenious backup solution in the rare event the zipper fails. On a trip years ago, one of my travel partners managed to damage the zipper on his duffel with the sharp point of a crampon. Employing those two rows of daisy chains as lacing points we used climbing webbing to “lace” the duffel closed like a big shoe. Genius.
Available in five sizes from extra small to, “Can you give me a hand with this one,” there is a size for every application. The small duffel is a popular solution for use as a tail bag on larger motorcycles. It should be made clear that while the 1000 denier TPE coated fabric is waterproof, the seams are not taped and the zipper not properly weather sealed. That said, my Base Camp Duffels have fended off long periods of rain with minimal leaking.
Regardless of your feelings about The North Face as a brand, you cannot deny the Base Camp Duffel its due respect. Improbable stories of the durability abound. One particular film crew schlepped seven Base Camp Duffels through 33 countries over the course of six years. The team leader boastfully admitted they had used their duffels regularly to carry firewood to camp and even rolled one bag off the roof of their truck and down a 100 foot deep ravine with nary a bit of damage beyond a few scratches. If I had a list of the ten best gear products of the last fifteen years, the Base Camp Duffel would quite easily make the top three. Is it the best duffel bag in the world? Yes it is…if you’re asking me, anyway.
Editor’s note: The size medium duffel pictured above replaces my decade old Base Camp Duffel of that same size. It was so full of “patina” it finally started to look a little ratty.