Earlier this year I was traveling to Thailand for two weeks. For this trip I was going to be moving around a lot and wanted a bag that was easy to carry, could be used as a carry-on bag, could fit all of my clothes, toiletries, and camera gear. I was only taking one bag and settled on the 60L Patagonia Black Hole Duffel.
The travel experience with the Patagonia bag was so good that when I got home I was determined to get another duffel bag for my wife. The problem is the Patagonia bag, at $130, is really expensive. I started looking at alternatives and came across 3V Gear’s website and their Smuggler Adventure Duffel Bag. At $45.95 for the 45L duffel bag I could buy all three sizes (45L, 60L, and 85L) of the Smuggler duffels for virtually the same price as one Patagonia Black Hole.
I ended up purchasing the 45L and the 85L bags. The 45L duffel was for my wife and the 85L was going to be used to haul our camping gear when we are car camping.
I had never bought anything from 3V Gear before and didn’t know what to expect, but the reviews on all of their other products were stellar. Ordering the bags was easy and their shipping was super fast. The bags actually shipped the same day. I note these things because in today’s day and age shopping online should be a pain free experience, but unfortunately more time than I like to say the experience on other sites is not seamless and easy.
The bags arrived two days later and my initial reaction was very positive. The tarpaulin material is extremely robust and the bags virtually hold themselves upright when empty because of the rigid fabric. One curiosity is the 45L Smuggler and my 60L Patagonia are basically the exact same size. I don’t know what to make of that, but it actually worked out good because this size is perfect for a large carry-on bag and that is the main reason I bought another duffel. All I can say about the size of the 85L bag is … it is HUGE! I was really surprised how large it was.
Naturally, I decided to compare the 3V Gear Smuggle (45L) and the Patagonia Black Hole (60L). First off was the size. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, these two bags are virtually identical in size regardless of their liter classification. Based on TSA carry-on size requirements, these two bags are at the top of that limit as a carry-on bag.
The exterior of these bags are pretty similar. Both bags have removable backpack straps, side grab handles, daisy chain looping for attachments or strapping the bag down, and hand carry straps. The Black Hole has a single exterior side pocket which is nice. The Smuggler does not have any exterior pockets.
The quality of the bags is pretty similar. The Black Hole has a bit more “finish” than the Smuggler, but I think that comes from the accent color and the different materials used. The Black Hole is made of PU coated ripstop which gives it an interesting texture. The Smuggler is made of tarpaulin and is very smooth. I like the matte look of the tarpaulin compared to the glossy coating on the Black Hole. Both bags clean up easily if needed. They are both weather resistant. This means that they will hold up against a rain storm or being splashed with water. Neither bag is waterproof and you shouldn’t submerse them. Why you would want to submerse a big duffel, I have no idea, but don’t do it with these bags. Both bags have a heavy duty base fabric that is abrasion resistant.
There isn’t a great deal to say about the interior of these bags. Both bags have big beefy zippers that you would expect to find on bags like this. The Black Hole uses YKK zippers while the Smuggler does not. Honestly, having them side by side I had a hard time telling the difference between the two zippers. They both opened and closed easily and had the same smooth glide. Both bags have mesh pockets on the inside of the lid. The Black Hole has two zippered mesh pockets and the Smuggler has one zippered mesh pocket. Depending on what you are putting in them would determine which is better for you. I was recently traveling with the Smuggler and was carrying a manilla folder of paperwork. It fit perfectly in the zippered mesh pocket. This made it convenient to get into the bag without having the paperwork sitting on top of my clothes. The Black Hole has two synch straps within the bag for synching down your clothes or gear. The Smuggler does not have synch straps inside the bag. This may matter to some people, but I have never used them in my Black Hole.
A note about the size of the 85L bag. It is so big that you run the risk of filling it so full the you may have difficulty lifting it. I have used mine for hauling our camping gear when we are car camping. I have been able to fit two sleeping bags, two air mattresses, a tent, and two warm coats in the bag and still had room to spare. This bag is so convenient that I leave the sleeping bags, air mattresses, and tent inside the bag. That way when we are going camping I just have to grab the 85L bag and our sleeping gear is all in one place.
As I mentioned, both bags have removable should straps. This is important as I have heard that if you do check this bag at the airport that the airline will make you remove them before checking the bag. I have never checked either bag so I don’t know if this is true or not. I suppose if you didn’t want the shoulder straps on the bag it would be nice to have the option to remove them. The Black Hole shoulder straps are slightly more padded than the Smuggler’s shoulder straps. I am kind of surprised that the nylon strap holding the Black Hole shoulder straps are so thin. There have been a few time when I have grabbed this bag when it has been fully loaded that I thought the nylon strap might fail. It hasn’t, but I don’t like the feeling. I was happy to see that the Smuggler nylon is much more robust. It is a simple thing, but it gives me more confidence in the bag. With a bag like this, I don’t want to feel that I have to be delicate with it.
So, to the question, is a $130 duffel bag worth the money? After using both, the Black Hole and Smuggler, I would have to say the Black Hole is not worth $130. Sure, the Black Hole has a little more polish and design aesthetic, but it is three times the cost of the Smuggler. Patagonia is known for their quality and for warrantying their products, but 3V Gear has a lifetime warranty on all of their products. I haven’t had to use the warranty and if their products are as solid as these two Smugglers, I can’t imagine they have to warranty very many bags.
I am thrilled with my purchase of the Smuggler’s and can’t recommend them enough. My wife and I have both used it for traveling and she may be a bigger fan than I. I have been considering selling the Black Hole and buying a couple more Smuggler’s.
About: James is a Travel Writer and Photographer who spends the majority of his time traveling the globe in search of great adventures to photograph and write about. You can find articles and images by James in great publications such as Conde Nast Traveler and Adventure Outdoors Magazine.