In Praise of the Weekender Bag

The most perfect piece of luggage excels because of its simplicity and utility.

If early summer is focused principally on making it to the beach as much as possible, then the tail end of the season—when the weather mellows out somewhat and the fall seems to be rushing forward—is devoted to weekend trips. August is when hiking isn’t unbearable, when an out-of-town museum doesn’t seem so out of reach, when every cabin in a 50-mile radius isn’t booked solid. The requirements for these trips are simple, too: all you need is a weekend bag.

The weekend bag is a medium unto itself. There are various shades of meaning in the term. “Weekender” is one option, for the WASPy crowd heading to coastal Massachusetts. “Duffel bag” is the downmarket alternative, denoting an unstructured carrying case that’s probably stuffed with dirty clothes. “Valise” originated in the 17th century to refer to a hand-held piece of luggage. But why call it anything other than what it is: a single bag for a single weekend?

The item has very specific requirements. It must be sturdy enough to withstand a certain amount of knocking around during travel—special concern given to resting the bag on a dirty subway floor. It also needs a particular amount of volume, enough to contain a few changes of clothes, a dopp kit, and possibly a piece of outdoor gear. Bonus points if it can hold a bottle of wine (or whiskey). But the real trick is finding a bag that doesn’t have too much volume. You don’t want to be stuck carting around more than you need in the adult vacationer’s equivalent of a nerdy wheelie backpack.

Hence the appeal of Kaufmann Mercantile’s Weekender Bag. Through extensive personal testing, I have discovered that it is the perfect size for anywhere from three relatively complicated travel days to five simpler ones. It has a reinforced leather bottom with metal grommets, keeping it protected from any rough surfaces. The leather handles, shoulder strap, and buckles make it durable as well as sophisticated, without bowing to the heritage fetish for excess gear (how many antique zippers do you really need?). At $195, it’s also a relative bargain.

Other options abound, if you don’t want to take my first suggestion. The minimalist online retail brand Everlane has a twill weekender bag ($95) that zips up, a good alternative to Kaufmann Mercantile’s sometimes finicky fold-out system. The flat bottom also makes it structurally sound. On the other end of the scale, the New York boutique menswear designer Ernest Alexander has a $495 overnight bag with enough bells and whistles to justify the price, but not so ornamented that it doesn’t look functional. (The brand also produces a hefty $895 all-leather duffel, for weekend professionals.) Owen & Fred makes a preppy but not Nantucketian white and blue canvas duffel for $115.

A note on materials: Waxed canvas, enough of a subject for its own future investigation, is cotton canvas that has been painted with melted wax, which firms up and imbues the material with a degree of waterproofing and stain resistance. While it’s not as hard-wearing as leather, waxed canvas is plenty tough for a weekend bag, though it does add a bit of weight. L.L. Bean carries a heritage waxed duffel for $149 while Peg and Awl has a $320 weekender that’s more heavily waxed—check out the highlighted creases in the cloth.

The ultimate in travel gear, however, is the long-running leather brand Ghurka, launched in the seventies and named for British colonial Indian soldiers in the Himalayas. While unfailingly expensive, the brand makes sturdy products specifically designed for travel. The company even released a safari kit with stow-away products like this Officer’s Chair (only $2995). Slightly more affordable entries include all-leather weekender bags.

Such preciousness belies the true purpose of the weekend bag, however. It’s meant to rest on floors of farmhouses in the sunlight, knocked around a dirty yard, placed precipitously on a sandy dune. This is not the time to worry about scuffs; it’s an opportunity time to gain a few more. The embrace of portability and mobility, the potential implicit in such a vessel—I’m ready for the week bag, the month suitcase, and the year-long steamer trunk.