The Harlem Globetrotters travel more than 100,000 miles a year, 30,000 of them back and forth to airports. But one needn't log such distances to care just as much about one's luggage as the Globies do. In particular, vacationers pursuing their sports are realizing that the heavy, old-fashioned rigid suitcase with its stiff corners is not really the thing for carrying sporting equipment. Thus the switch to lighter, softer bags that can hold gear for a variety of sports, from skiing to tennis, and practically anything else you may want to take.

The trend probably was started by the airlines when they introduced their shoulder bags. The convenience was a revelation, and a market was created almost overnight. Sporting goods firms were especially quick off the mark.

"Our gear bags were used by athletes in the late '50s," says Adidas executive Chris Severn. "At first, we didn't have many to give away. It was mostly the Olympic athletes who had them, so they became a real status symbol. It was sometime between the Melbourne and Rome Olympics that we were able to make them more available, and they became a fad. We have more than 20 styles now, and it's not unusual to see a grandmother with an Adidas bag slung over her shoulder."

L. L. Bean, the mail-order house that Leon Leonwood Bean started in Free-port, Maine in 1912, reports that the same duffel it has carried in its catalog for 30 years has become so popular that it sold 14,000 in 1976, twice the sales of two years before. Bean also sold 64,000 yachting bags. (These are sometimes called ice bags, and they used to be called coal bags—which indeed they were. Each held 100 pounds of coal, so that a delivery man, carrying one in each hand, knew that after 10 trips to the cellar he had delivered a ton of coal.)

Gary Comer, of Lands' End, another mail-order house, reports that more than 90,000 of their duffels were sold last year, "but many of them are never going to see the sea. More and more people are traveling abroad with an extra empty duffel in their regular luggage to fill later." Culver Modisette, of The Great World of Ecology Sports Catalog, says, "People are buying our Nordic cross-country pack just because they like the look of it. And students have taken to using it to carry books."

More specialized lightweight packs have long been designed for athletes who carry a lot of equipment while they exercise—backpackers and those who tour on skis or bicycles. These have influenced the development of bags for more general use. Ron Krenzel, a former Alpine racer now in design and development at Athalon Products, says that some of their bags are "an offshoot of the rucksack. Ours feature dual straps so that they can be carried either by hand or on one's back. There's a certain kind of person who won't carry a rucksack on his back," he explains. "This way, the option is his, and when he is carrying skis, a duffel bag with skiwear, another bag with boots and some small items, he is liable to find that the back-straps come in mighty handy." The new dual-strapped bags come in a variety of shapes and materials.

Almost every sport has a bag especially designed by people who participate in it. A sailor-designed duffel for saltwater travel will have waterproof compartments and rustproof plastic zippers, with extra flaps over the zippers to help keep out water.

Gear bags are sold in many places: sporting goods stores that supply camping equipment, ski and tennis shops, track-and-field outfitters, marine supply outlets, mail-order catalogs specializing in sporting equipment and some military surplus stores.

Though most bags are relatively inexpensive, they vary greatly in quality. Chances are that the bags carried in a surplus store will lack important extras and durability. Sea magazine says, for example, that "the typical Navy-style seabag is the drawstring duffel. The drawback is that it opens only at one end, limiting access to contents. Articles at the bottom may be lost forever. Still, Navy surplus outlets offer these in lightweight canvas or nylon, new or used, starting at $2.49. But the bargain is dubious, since seam construction is poor and the damp leaks in. A better quality of product of similar design is the Sunshine Duff Sport Bag, which sells for $8.95."

Wherever you buy a bag, remember when checking it out that zippers are usually the weakest point. One should use extra straps when carrying heavy gear. Handles and straps must be sturdy and be both sewn and riveted to the material for extra strength. Seams must be unbroken. Outside pockets and pouches will eliminate rummaging through a bag for small articles. When possible, choose a bag with separate compartments for clean and dirty, or for wet and dry, clothing. (L. L. Bean sells a pack of four drawstring sacks, called "pack organizers," in assorted colors and sizes for $5.50.) One should check fabric for weight, water repellency and quality. Choosing the right size is also important, because a duffel or soft bag will travel better if it is fully packed. Remember, it is surprising how much can be crammed into a small bag.

The proliferation of gear bags probably means that no one bag or fabric is going to have the semantic impact that Orvis claims for early hunter's canvas. Its catalog says (unsubstantiated, alas, by the usual authorities) that the canvas-back duck derived its name from the fact that market hunters, when sending the birds to restaurants, marked their shipping bags "canvas back"—meaning they wanted the bags returned—and the term stuck to the duck.

People still treasure soft bags. "Almost anything will slip uncomplainingly into one," says Ron Krenzel. "Soft bags won't tear up the upholstery of your car. They get much smaller when they are empty. A bit of soft comfort in a world of hard corners."

(1) Head's tennis tote bag ($35) has a racket cover that zips on and off. (2) The modified waterproof tackle bag ($69) from the Orvis Catalog can hold 200 pounds of camera equipment. (3) At ha Ion Products' ski boots and gear bag ($26) comes with this nylon liner to separate boots or laundry from clean clothes. (4) The sailing duffel ($23) with superstrong rolled handles, end compartments, rustproof zippers and plastic liner (an additional $6.50) is from Lands' End Catalog. (5) Nylon duffels from Medalist Universal come in graduated sizes ($ 15, $20, $25). (6) The Arena swimmer's bag ($28) keeps clothing dry in a center section, with wet gear stowed in the waterproof end compartments. (7) Athalon's canvas-and-suede duffel ($30) keeps clean and soiled clothing separate, thanks to a large nylon sleeve. (8) Vener Associates' commodious 4-ounce nylon rucksack ($10) solves baggage weight problems. (9) The U.S. Ski Team bag ($23) by Demetre zips, unzips and rezips in a variety of ways. (10) A linen-and-canvas canoe pack ($31.75) with backstraps comes from The Great World of Ecology Sports Catalog. (11) A security satchel ($75, either size) of heavy belting canvas, brass and cowhide from Medalist Canvas Products is standard gear at local banks. The smaller bag is popular at the U.N. as a diplomatic pouch or dispatch case.