TL:DR I try way too many backpacks so you don’t have to
I have many bags. So many I no longer keep an inventory in a spreadsheet but
use a relational database to track. For a very long time, I preferred
messenger bags but at age 36 I started developing muscle spasms in the right
shoulder. After a few years of off and on physical therapy, I figured out it
was the asymmetric load from the shoulder bag that was causing it (even though
the load was on the left shoulder). This left me no option but to switch to
backpacks exclusively, despite their less than ideal looks.
There are many reviews on the web, including on YouTube, but most are
influencer shills who will not disclose the flaws of the bags, or simply don’t
use the evaluation copies long enough to find out. Some sites like Carryology
have inherent conflicts of interest because they share ownership with a
manufacturer (Bellroy), and surprise surprise, those dominate the Best Of
rankings, go figure.
You can get more honest feedback on the many Reddit bag-related forums
(r/backpacks, r/ManyBaggers, r/onebag) or on blogs, but it does require
wading through post after post.
Here are my reviews on backpacks I have actually owned and used. But before we
start, you need to know what I carry in them to assess whether my needs are
congruent to yours:
- 13″ MacBook Air
- Sometimes a 17″ LG Gram 17 instead (running Linux, of course)
- 12.9″ iPad Pro 2020
- A Tech Dopp Kit
- A full-size mirrorless camera with mid-size lens (Nikon Z7, Fuji X-T4 or
- Apple AirPod Max or Sony WH-1000XM3 noise-cancelling headphones in their case
- London Undercover folding umbrella (I live in rainy London now…)
- Sometimes a Bluetooth mechanical keyboard (Keychron K7 in its fitted
- Zeiss Victory Pocket 8×25 binoculars, or if this is a serious
birdwatching trip, Swarovski NL Pure 8×42
- a water bottle
- a first-aid kit
Features I look for
- The quality of the straps (specially relevant for women and their distinct
- How well are they contoured and padded?
- Whether they have a sternum strap or not
- The material on the back, is it breathable, specially in warmer climes?
- Does the weight rest in the right position on your back?
- Quality of materials
- Water-resistance (taped seams, AquaGuard zippers)
- Abrasion resistance
- Is the material too rough and will it scuff your clothes, e.g. certain
grades of Cordura?
- Is it pleasant to the hand and looks good?
- Better technical materials like Dimension Polyant X-PAC or DSM Dyneema combine strength with light weight
- Zippers: YKK is a good choice, or higher-end brands like RiRi. No-name
zippers are a red flag: what other corners did they cut?
- Quality of stitching, e.g. bar-tacking in stress points
- Quality of hardware, e.g. metal instead of plastic, or premium hardware
like Fidlock or Austri-Alpin buckles
- Velcro is usually a bad sign, it is noisy, collects lint
- Bag makers are surprisingly bad at estimating the capacity of their bags,
even though there is an official ASTM standard for this
- Resist the temptation to overpack
- Ease of access and packing using a full-clamshell design
- Beware of excessively organized bags
- When you don’t need all of the organization, it still adds weight and
reduces the usable space in compartments.
- Several smaller compartments are less versatile than a single larger,
less organized but more flexible compartment that can take odd-sized
items like a camera, full-sized headphones, bike helmet or shopping
- I have never understood the point of cell phone pockets in a bag. By the
time you take the bag off, open it and extract your phone, surely the
call has gone to voice mail?
- Laptop compartment
- Is the laptop suspended? If not, and you put the backpack down on the
floor abruptly, the laptop will hit the hard floor and sustain damage
- Are there metallic zipper teeth that could scratch your laptop?
- Are the zippers waterproof, e.g. YKK AquaGuard? If not, water could get
in and damage your laptop
A very light minimalist backpack with a distinctive silhouette. The large main
compartment lets you organize as you see fit and is very versatile, with a
laptop sleeve if you need one. A full clamshell YKK Aquaguard zipper ensures
water-resistance, but it is also harder to open than conventional zippers (pro
tip: fold back the rain flap that shields them to make opening it easier). One
corner cut that should not have in a bag this price: the plastic hardware and
using a cheap Duraflex buckle in the sternum strap instead of a Fidlock. One
strange touch is the detachable clips at the top of the shoulder straps. They
serve no discernible purposes and make them susceptible to twisting, and
probably reduce durability. Made in the USA.
A larger work-oriented backpack with a separate laptop compartment and large
capacity. It has the same disappointing cheap hardware as in the Ridgepack and
the same shoulder strap clips. The bag does not have a full clamshell opening,
that makes it harder to pack or to access contents
A large bag for when that is called for, even if I doubt it actually has 30L
capacity, seems more like the 26L GoRuck GR1. It is made of quality materials
(X-PAC, but with a more abrasion-resistant Cordura bottom), and available in
colors other than boring black (I have it in green, even if is more of a dark
The water bottle pocket is excellent, large enough to hold a champagne bottle,
or more to the point, a large folding umbrella.
This bag has the same apparent capacity as my 19L Brown Buffalo, I would say
it is a 20L bag, certainly not 26L. Less structured than the Citadel, with
more usable space. The material is a fine-denier ballistic of some sort, not a
slick coated tarp-like fabric like on the Citadel. The built-in nonremovable
tech organizer, somewhat reminiscent of the Peak Design Tech Pouch in its
alternating pocket design, is a polarizing feature. It does obstruct the
opening of the bag a bit, and the retaining strap could be secured to the flap
A handsome, very organized bag, perhaps too much so. Unlike the Aer Tech Pack
2, it actually has a usable main compartment (as long as your laptop pocket is
not too stuffed), and the quality of materials is better. Bonus points for the
full-clamshell design and sternum strap. Very water-resistant (IPX7 rated, in
fact). I still prefer the less structured Shadow.
This is a limited edition version of their Dyneema Daypack V2 in
Dyneema Leather. Amazing material, but twice the price and less
practical as it is heavier and less water-resistant, but the things we do for
Dyneema Leather has the crinkled Tyvek-like look of Dyneema. It is too thin to
have the luxurious hand feel of leather, but it is certainly a kind of
The bag is incredibly light, has interesting touches like a triple zipper and
a collapsible internal water pocket. Sternum strap with fidlock, as could be
expected for the price. It is by far my favorite EDC bag when it is not
raining, and I got the regular Dyneema one for when it is.
A very slim backpack, meant to hold a laptop or notepad and not much
else. Very basic straps (canvas webbing, no padding or sternum strap, and
simplistic adjustment buckles, albeit metal). It’s made of canvas so I
would expect zero water-resistance. I suspect if you are tall enough you can
actually wear it concealed under your jacket or raincoat like the old
Betabrand Under-the-Jack Pack.
A very interesting photo backpack, a much better execution of the Peak Design
EDC backpack concept in my opinion. Has some smart touches like a tripod
holder designed for the Gitzo Traveler mini-tripod (hence the name), or a
stash for your lens cap.
The camera section has a removable insert whose sides can be unzipped for
quick access from the sides of the backpack, a better design than the Peak
Design. Unfortunately it has very limited space for stuff other than the
camera and laptop, which limits its usefulness as a travel or EDC bag.
Very small backpack I bought on a hot summer day where wearing my usual jacket
was not an option. Can barely hold a 12″ MacBook in its laptop sleeve, a
13″ MacBook Air or 12.9″ iPad Pro is out of the
question. Surprisingly comfortable straps.
Top-quality materials as befits the price, leather, Dyneema and Austri-Alpin
Cobra paragliding buckles. There is no way this is a 30L bag, 20L at most if
that. Interesting tapering shape towards the bottom. Not incredibly practical
but a looker.
UCON Acrobatics Alan bag, Olive ★★
My only roll-top backpack. Made of green neoprene. Tall but slim, moderate
capacity, very water-resistant, but limited organization inside. Ultimately I
hardly ever use it because the roll-top design, combined with a narrow and
very tall bag, makes it hard to pack.
Tumi Mission Bryant leather backpack ★★★★
This was my daily work bag for a long time. It was made by Tumi before their
acquisition by Samsonite after which quality has reportedly gone
downhill. Bought on sale from Vente-Privée.com. Very good quality, large
capacity, but currently in storage since I moved to the UK.
Knomo Albion, brown & black ★★★★
I have both the black and brown versions of this handsome full-grain leather
bag from British brand Knomo, well known for its elegant women’s laptop bags,
but that also has a line for men. The design is simple with fairly limited
organization, but it has ample capacity and looks good, and the price is an
outright steal for the quality (I paid $100 for my first on Massdrop and £134
for the second from their Covent Garden shop). Sadly it is discontinued, but
some new-old-stock is still available online.
A very large but very slim leather backpack made by Colombian artisans. I got
the large one in hunter green (you can never be too rich or too green is my
motto), it is really more of a dark olive green, and reasonably close to the
product photos on my calibrated monitor.
The bag is much sleeker than I expected, about 10cm thin. Because it is the
large size, the laptop pocket fits my LG Gram 17 perfectly, admittedly it is
fairly small for a 17″ laptop. I am 1m81/6′, and I wouldn’t
recommend the large size for someone shorter.
The leather quality is very good, I haven’t had the time to verify its water
resistance. The visible stitching looks saddle-stitched to my untrained
eyes. I opted for the baggage passthrough loop. It is made of black suede like
the back lining of the bag, I am not sure it is that worthwhile an option.
The straps are straight and padded with suede, very basic and not contoured to fit your body shape. I think they were designed to look good when you carry the back by the hand strap.
The interior lining is a black linen material, not the medium gray shown on
their website. On the plus side, that means stains won’t show, but it also
means stuff is harder to find inside, although I am not sure how much that
matters in a relatively small capacity bag like this.
Something to keep in mind: the bag doesn’t have an internal frame and the
leather is soft, not stiff, so you would expect it to flop if not filled or at
least with large items like a laptop or large sketchbook to keep its
structure. I’m not sure what the purpose of the two zippers is on the back
panel, they both open on the same small compartment. I suppose you could roll
a jacket or sweater and slide it in there.
GoRuck bags have an enviable reputation for durability, but the tacticool
(MOLLE and morale patch velcro) are a bit much for someone whose military
service is 30 years in the past. The Slick version, available from Huckberry,
drops those. It is a very large bag, with MOLLE inside you can attach admin
pouches or organizers to, a much better approach than velcro in my opinion,
even if it does take a while to attach. The laptop section is very well
protected. That said it is very crude, from the sandpaper-like Cordura
material, to the very plain zipper pulls (basically paracord tied at the ends
with heat-shrink tubing) and other details.
The Brown Buffalo Conceal Backpack V3 ★★★★
I have the 19L version in X-PAC. The build quality is excellent, but the
design is perfectible, and an already expensive bag is made more so by the
fact no laptop sleeve is included. The front side-loading compartment is
awkward to load a 13″ laptop into, and the velcro inside the main
compartment (to attach organizers or the laptop sleeve) is the completely
wrong approach as far as I am concerned. The two deep pockets are quite good,
though, large enough to hold a big water bottle or full-sized
keyboard. Unfortunately after the reboot of the company, the new versions have
dropped the best features and kept the questionable ones.
I have the X-PAC version (starting to sound like a refrain?). It is a good
travel bag, the bright orange lining makes it easy to find things in, the
design is not stiff and cramped like the Tech Pack 2. However the convertible
design (so you can use it as a briefcase) is a bad idea, that means it cannot
be a full clamshell and as neither fish nor fowl the design is compromised.
Very boxy. I now use it primarily to stow some electronics test & measurement
equipment (oscilloscope, power supply).
JanSport Mono Superbreak Mystic Pine ★★★
Cheap and cheerful (literally, a bright green) but has a surprisingly good
warranty. Can’t be beat for value.
Very slim bag that discourages overpacking. The side-access compartment is on
the small side and it is hard to insert a 13″ laptop without it
catching. There is some MOLLE on the bottom, but not obnoxiously so. The rear
compartment is designed to be used with the bag horizontal as you swing it,
but that is not how I use a bag so it works at cross-purposes. Mine is the very
short-lived green limited edition, a forest green in waxed canvas, quite
good-looking. Sadly, I must dock points for the lack of a sternum strap. The
compression straps on the side are completely useless and obstruct access to
the water bottle pockets.
I had the Tech Pack 2, used it for a couple of weeks then sold it. It is very
heavy, very stiff, and excessive organization means you end up with a lot of
tiny inflexible compartments that won’t accommodate bulkier items like a DSLR
or full-sized headphones. What’s worse, the tiny opening makes it very hard to
access stuff, and unlike my Flight Pack X-PAC there is no bright orange lining
to make things easy to find.
I have the Everyday V2. It’s not a good EDC bag at all and only a middling
camera bag. The mesh fabric on the side flaps does not feel right. If you like
the concept of mixed camera and EDC bag the Gitzo Century Traveler backpack is
a much better option, with clever design touches like a tripod carrier and
lens cap stash pocket.
Timbuk2 Blue Backpack ★★
A cheap and cheerful Timbuk2 backpack, don’t remember the model and it is
probably discontinued anyway. Not much to say about it.
Moleskine Green Leather classic backpack ★★
A medium-sized backpack in an olive drab leather. The interior lining is a bit
floppy and doesn’t seem all that durable. The bottom of the bag is molded EVA
foam and looks tacky in comparison with the rest of the design.
Moleskine Green Leather Device Bag ★★
A small, very thin bag that is part vertical briefcase and part backpack. Nice
green color, but little else to recommend it.
Porsche Design Backpack ★★★
One of the first bags I got. Small, trapezoidal design, quite elegant but the
materials are fairly ordinary and the leather grab handle has cracked.