By Jason Heaton
on 11.21.13
Photo by Gishani

Not far behind the invention of the wheel, in terms of ingenuity, is the wheeled duffel. We love duffels and their ability to swallow up loads of gear while maintaining a minimalist durability and adventuresome style. But before you load said lumpy bag on the back of a yak or lash it to the top of a Land Rover, you’ve got to get it through the airport — and for that reason, the addition of wheels and a handle are welcome. The problem is, most wheeled duffels are either good at wheeling or good at holding gear, but seldom both; that’s not to mention most have a hybrid appearance that neither looks stylish on the concourse nor rugged in the outback. But that’s not true of the Victorinox Swiss Army Alpineer Wheeled Duffel ($250), a bag we’ve dragged around three countries and four mountain ranges since June.

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By now, everyone knows that Victorinox Swiss Army makes more than famous pocketknives. The brand’s watches, clothes and luggage all seem to abide by the same functional philosophy as their knives while maintaining a hint of European style. The Alpineer casts more of an upscale vibe than most bags of this ilk; think ski weekend in Gstaad instead of trek to Everest base camp. The Teleolon/Versatek nylon outer fabric is sleek and substantial, holding its shape thanks to an internal frame that allows the bag to stand upright, loaded or empty. A bold Swiss Army shield is embroidered on the front, and the Victorinox name emblazoned on both flanks of the bag — it’s a bit ostentatious, but offset by the bag’s muted colorways. The only flashes of color are four orange rubber strap keepers that hold down the tails of the crossover compression straps, which double as carry handles on top of the bag. While these rubber keepers are a nice idea, fabric would have been a better choice; two of ours were promptly torn off during rough handling.

Overall, build quality is excellent. Thick YKK zippers are used throughout and are predictably snag-free. The wheels are virtually silent and free rolling; in fact, the best thing that can be said about them is that they’re unnoticeable. The retractable handle works as advertised; there is no wobble when it’s extended. The handle stows into a zippered top compartment for safe keeping when you bid it farewell at the ticket counter. The Alpineer has one zippered outer pocket that is large enough for shoes or dirty unmentionables and one small Velcro pocket on either side of the bag for which we still haven’t found a use. An ID card slot is badly positioned on the bottom of the bag and was ripped after only one trip, rendering it useless.

The main compartment is accessed through a U-shaped zipper that is large enough to load almost anything in spite of the rigid internal frame. That frame and the handle’s internal routing don’t intrude on space as much as some other wheeled bags, which means that packing is a cinch. We even managed to stow two sets of trekking poles, a pair of mountaineering boots and all our bulky clothes for a week in the Alps with room to spare. Internal compression straps keep things snug. Once the bag is zipped shut, those crossover straps also keep the load from shifting, but the positioning of the handles makes carrying the bag a bit awkward. Reflective strips on the straps are an interesting touch, though we haven’t yet encountered a situation where they’d be handy.

The best test for luggage is travel, and we subjected the Victorinox Swiss Army Alpineer Wheeled Duffel to just about all forms of it, from airline baggage compartments to trains, the interior of a cramped gondola making its way up a Swiss mountainside, and even a helicopter ride to a remote mountain lodge. After half a year of use, the bag is still going strong, ready for more miles and more adventures.