Carrying on from my flashlight post, written for those out there who don’t want to go deep down the rabbit hole — here are the three bags I think most people will need to be able to cover almost anything they encounter and generally to make life easier and are hand picked for people who really don’t even want to have to read this much to find out what to buy.
You need a: duffel bag, a tote bag, and a backpack. You don’t need anything else for most of the general stuff in life — those three can work independently or together to get you covered in most situations.
You could argue that a duffel bag is the single most versatile bag out there. Outside of your school backpack, it’s probably the first bag many people really used. For good reason: from gym, sports, to travel — duffel bags kick ass. And the standard here is The North Face Base Camp duffel bag. Mine is 20 years old (yellow one in pictures, that’s like the second biggest one they make), and I finally bought another one for my wife (black one, size Large) just this year because she wanted a larger duffel and these are great bags.
Cat confirms that the bag has 20 years worth of smells on it.
The Base Camp duffel bags are sturdy. There’s a newer and lighter variant out there, but I still stick with the original. My 20 year old version only has minor holes here and there (pin size) and I still use it to store all my camping gear in. They last, and they work really well. They come in a ton of sizes and colors, but I would recommend the Small (REI link) or Medium (REI link) in black — both will run around the $90-110 price range depending on what sale you might find — and look for a sale on them as those happen often.
Neither will really work well for carry on luggage, but they can be checked and will handle the abuse just fine. More than that, they can be tossed in the bed of a truck and lightly rained on, or set down in mud — your stuff will ride through all that without worry. The backpack straps are useless on the larger models, but the handles are great on all of them. For the smaller models it’s nice to be able to sling the bag over a shoulder and go, with it pushed towards your back and not your side. There’s a lot of good duffel bags out there, but this is a must have.
The humble tote is among the most versatile bags out there. You can load it with groceries, pack for a weekend away, toss in gear for the beach, or BYOB to a BBQ. I love totes, but there’s not a lot out there that I can stamp as good. On of my favorites is hard to buy, as they are rarely in stock. Which is why my pick here is Tom Bihn’s The Truck — they make many sizes, but I think this offers the right balance for size.
At 25L it will handle most of what you need it to, without being so big that you constantly find it too heavy. Don’t underestimate the humble tote, but do own one, or three. My upgrade pick would be the Prometheus Design Werx’s CaB-2 — which is never in stock.
I’ve spent a lot of time on this site talking about backpacks, so I am sure people are wondering what my single pick on this matter is — but the thing is this pick needs to work for people who don’t care a bunch about bags, not for people like me. And on top of all that to recommend something really good, which also doesn’t break the bank.
Urban Assault 21, first generation.
To that end, there’s only one bag that really fits the bill: Mystery Ranch’s Urban Assault 21 (if you have a smaller frame, the 18 is a better pick, but the 24 is not recommended by me). This bag is very comfortable, very durable, and really smart to use and organize stuff in. It could easily be someone’s only backpack without too many issues at all, and you can regularly find them for under $100 if you look for sales. Even if not on sale they go for $125 at full retail, still a great value.
Urban Assault 18 in Mystery Pop.
The Urban Assault has almost all the features of more expensive Mystery Ranch bags, fits my frame well and the 18 fits my kids ok, while still fitting me in a pinch. It has a solid laptop sleeve and enough versatility that you could take it just about anywhere without issue. The big miss for most people is going to be around hydration — it offers no water bottle pockets and no easy way to install/secure a water bladder in the bag. That said, it’s hard to find many faults with this bag and will serve most people really well for as long as they want.
I do have an upgrade pick on this, which is a little harder than I thought to whittle down as I didn’t want to point someone at a $300+ GR1 — which is the best upgrade. Instead I think many will be served by the Aer Daypack 2 if you find the Urban Assault 21 doesn’t fit your style, or needs. While the Urban Assault can easily handle office/travel/outdoors, you might want something that can do business casual better, that’s the Aer.
With those three bags you should be able to tackle most anything the average person does. From travel, to nature walks, to heading to the office or coffee shop to get some work done. And, at that, I managed to still keep all the bag picks under $150 each, while not as compelling as the price I got the flashlights down to — all of these items should last a decade or more.