So I’m heading back to uni this October to start my Masters (shock horror!) Two things I had to retire after finishing up my Bachelor’s was my Oakley Flak Pack (Version 1) daypack and my laptop which died 2 months after my last exam. (Perhaps my 300000+ word honours thesis tired it out…. ) I’ve since bought a new laptop (well, it was new in 2011…. though with a quad core i7, 8GB of RAM and a 256Gb SSD, it still runs quick) so the search is now on before I head back to school to find a bag to carry it around in…
Basically, I bought the Flak Pack back in the day because I was in desperate need of a laptop carrier and it was discounted by 30% when I searched during O-Week.
Over the life of the bag, I really appreciated the ruggedness of the bag and the capacity. That being said, it was not without it’s flaws. Below are some of the pros and cons.
- Ruggedness- not sure what grade of nylon it was made out of, but the bag wasn’t treated very well (dragged and pushed on the ground, etc) but it survived.
- Capacity of the main pocket was huge. Would easily fit a full ring binder and a few textbooks.
- Comfort of shoulder straps even with heavy loads was good. I mean, I remember lugging 10-12kg of steel bar back and forth between UNSW and Ultimo TAFE without any issues!
- The laptop sleeve was not quite big enough for my 15.4″ laptop. Slight effort was required to do up the zip. Over the life of the bag, the fabric and stitching relaxed slightly making it a little easier, however it was probably best suited to 14″-sized laptops and below
- The side zip pockets were an awkward size. It couldn’t quite fit a drink bottle, unless the zip was open and if the zip was open, there were no straps to secure bottle. They could just fit my old Dell power supply, but not my new one.
- No compression straps to keep load close to your back
- The organisation pocket, whilst spacious had awkward pen holders (horizontal elastic loops – pens never stayed in) and the two, velcro-sealed elastic pockets inside were too small for anything useful.
- The fleece-lined sunglasses holder could easily be crushed by the contents in the bag.
- The stitching holding the shoulder straps on started to come undone after 3 years of continuous use – had to sew it back on.
Anyway, since then I’ve gone without having an actual backpack to carry my laptop around. I’ve just using one of those neoprene sleeves and whatever bag I have, including my Camelbak Linchpin and a messenger laptop bag which I picked up at the 2012 Land Warfare Conference in Melbourne. However, knowing that I’ll be heading back to uni at the end of the month and knowing that I’ll be required to walk or bike a couple of kilometres each day, my search for a new laptop backpack was on.
Based on my experiences with the Flak Pack and knowing my habits, my search began for a backpack which has the following:
- Ability to fit a 15.4″ laptop easily
- Have side pockets able to secure a drink bottle
- Have side compression straps to help secure load
- Ensure plenty of space in the main pocket – enough for an overnight or weekend away.
- Have room/pocket to stow the power supply as well as external hard drives
- If it came with a sunglasses pouch, ensure that it was crush resistant
- Have comfortable carrying straps
- Be reasonable priced and available in the UK (where I’m currently residing) (under $150.00 AUD)
- Needs to be black. This is to make it fit into more ‘business’ environments and an attempt to be inconspicuous.
With these requirements in mind, I scoured the internet and the retail shops around Edinburgh and London (and Interlaken for that matter) for a winner. Having read through reviews from T3, BestLaptopBackpackReview.com, LaptopMag.com, eBags.com and SnarkyTravel, I quickly concluded that most of the bags were either too small for my needs, too ‘fashionable’ for my liking (I just want a black backpack), or too expensive. However, I have narrowed it down to the following four:
The Camelbak Urban Assault is not featured in any of the reviews posted above, nor is it sold in any of the major retail stores which I went to. I did get a chance to see this bag however, a couple of years back at the aforementioned Land Warfare Conference where Camelbak, via LEGear.com.au had their products on display. The reason it’s not on display in most retail stores is that it’s part of the Camelbak Maximum Gear range (their military range). This means a couple of things – it’s probably the toughest bag you’ll own and with a lifetime warranty, it’ll probably outlast you… Anyway, below are my pros and cons of the bag…
- Quality materials – made out of 840 and 1680 denier Cordura nylon.
- It’s one of the few bags which are completely black, though the “maximum gear” skull logo might put a few people off
- Plenty of space in all the main compartments, and good organisation in the main pocket – total capacity 32L
- The largest enclosed side pockets, though they eat into the internal space of the main compartment. They will easily house a drink bottle.
- It’s hydration bladder compatible, though only if you don’t carry a laptop – i.e. could be used as a occasional hiking daypack
- When I tried it on with some weight, the D buckle attachment on the shoulder straps was really really comfortable (though others have reported differently)
- Overflow compartment to put bulky items, a pair of shoes, wet umbrella etc.
- Water resistant zips are used
- If you stuff it full, it is quite big, though the compression straps do help a little
- It’s pricey – LEGear.com.au sells it for $239.00AUD when I last checked, though Amazon.com has it for around $169.00USD
- I can’t find a seller in the UK for it and import taxes in the UK are stupendous…
- Tied with the North Face Surge II in weight – 1.4kg
Probably best known for their vehicle roof racks and storage systems, Thule also make a range of luggage, including the Thule EnRoute Escort pack. It’s a 29L pack which on paper, seems to be the goods. Again, pros and cons below:
- The cheapest of the four (in the UK) at the time of writing if you can shop around. I managed to find one for sale for 40% off, at 74 GBP, or around $135.00 AUD.
- The side pockets can fit a water bottle pretty easily, including my 1L Nalgene.
- Padded compartment for both a laptop and a tablet. My 15.4″ laptop fits inside of it.
- Plenty of organisation- as you can see in the video, there’s plenty of pockets and compartments
- The sunglasses compartment is crush resistant
- It’s tied lightest of the four at 1.1kg
- It’s pretty much black. Nothing else to it except a few blue pull cords.
- Has a stowable waist belt
- Hard to find in a retail store. The 32L Thule Crossover is more readily available, but I ruled this out because it did not have compression straps and cost up to twice as much.
- Not sure of the material which it is made out of… I guess only time will tell. Probably similar to that used in the Oakley Flak Pack
- No pen holders!!
- It is the smallest of the three with a capacity of 29L vs 32L
- Not too sure on the water-resistance of the zips to the main compartment. Will probably have to pack a rain cover for it
The easiest to find
North Face products can be bought anywhere and you would rarely go a day walking around the city without seeing somebody wearing one… That’s because their products are not bad overall. I was seriously considering buying either the Surge (32L) or the Recon (29L) models.
Basically, if you want a more outdoors-orientated model, get the Recon. If you want a more weekend travel-carry on bag style, get the Surge. The Recon is hydration bladder compatible (again, if you’re not carrying a laptop) and is the cheaper of the two (RRP $99USD or 80GBP on their website) and also has a open front pocket for stowing a rain jacket, umbrella, shoes etc. The Surge is larger and more expensive (RRP $130USD or 100GBP on their website).
- Available anywhere and everywhere. Prices vary however.
- Both use the same materials as the Camelbak Urban Assault (up to 1680D Cordura)
- Recon is hydration compatible
- Plenty of pockets and good organisation compartment (same in both)
- Well sized side compartments and well positioned compression straps
- Not really a con, but I don’t like the white stitching… Can I say not as black as the others?
- Prices vary – especially in the UK where things like this are much more expensive than Australia or the USA.
Overall, I purchased the Thule EnRoute Escort from Amazon for 74GBP. If I did not find it for that price on Amazon (normal RRP was 100GBP), I probably would have bought the North Face Recon.
I’m probably going to stitch in a loop on the inside of the Escort such that I can hang a hydration bladder in there, making it almost on equal terms with the Recon on features, though I will be still missing the external pocket which is featured on the Camelbak Urban Assault and the Recon.
Though I’ve reviewed the bags for my own personal requirements, if you are looking for a bag which:
- Can carry at least a 15.4″ laptop
- Is black or mostly black (can’t care less about being fashionable)
- Has good organisation
- Has at least 29L of carrying capacity – enough for me for a weekend trip
- Can securely carry a water bottle on the side
- Has compression straps to secure load
- Costs around $150.00 AUD, depending on where you buy… (I.e. If I was in Oz, I would buy the Urban Assault from the States)
Then I would personally recommend any of the four…
Hope this helps anyone in a similar position to me!