StuffPaul McAleer

A Brief History of Bags

StuffPaul McAleer

I care more than a little about my daily bag.

While my commute has changed quite a bit over the past several years – I drive now, and have a very tiny walk to the office – I still rely on my bag to hold my essentials. Things like my work MacBook, my water bottle, a slew of notebooks and related designer-y stuff, my lunch, small toiletries... these are in my daily carry. The secondary purpose of my bag, outside of just carrying stuff, is to be my carry-on during business travel. It needs to be a trusted companion with enough storage for me to put all of my stuff in it, yet can't be ugly.  For years, through it all, I've stuck with messenger bags.

But the time has come for me to switch to a backpack. My back, legs, and shoulders are simply no longer interested in holding a messenger bag. I've narrowed down a few options for a new bag. For those interested in the past, though, I wanted to share a look back at where I've been.

It was a lovely Monday in October, 1977... hm. Wait. We don't need to get that detailed.

Bags of Paul Past

eBags backpack (~2007-2009): My first foray into the world of bags other than company-given ones (mostly), and no longer available, this was essentially a backpack with a single thick shoulder strap. Big features included a water bottle holder and a little spot for a CD player! And there wasn't an “official” place for my laptop. Black and white, which wasn't my style. Overall grade: C.

Timbuk2 Blogger 2.0 (2009-2011): The first bag I really loved. The Blogger 2.0 had a separate compartment for a laptop, in back, and was TSA-compliant – another bonus. Notably, this bag was capable of holding two computers: a 5-pound Mac at the time and a 5-pound PC. Did I do that? Yes. Did it hurt? A little. But, great shoulder strap padding on this one. Two side pockets, deep pockets in front. I went with a black and brown color combo. This bag is still functioning today, primarily as a clothing/toiletries day bag when my other ones don't fill the bill. I don't use it as my daily carry because it's not my style, and it's just too bulky. Overall grade: A.

Timbuk2 Eula (~2011): A downgrade from a giant bag, and reflecting my status as not needing to bring a laptop to and from work. The Eula was custom, so I went for a dapper waxed canvas (green and brown). The bag itself did a great job of holding my stuff, but really wasn't designed for laptops of any stripe. My MacBook Air just barely fit, and my MacBook Pro was truly straining it. I still use this bag, too, but more as a purse when needed. Overall grade: A.

Navali Mainstay (2015)So I thought, “Hey, I just need a bigger Eula!” Timbuk2 didn't sell it; I tried their Dashboard bag, but I really just didn't like its size, shape, and lack of compartments. So, I gave the Mainstay a try. It was not lovable. Fickle front snaps made every interaction with it a mess. The waxed canvas wasn't as high quality as the Eula's. There was padding on the shoulder strap that only went as high as my chest. A zipper pull broke. While mostly attractive, it just couldn't cut the mustard. I started to look for a new bag last year, a few months after I got this. I have this bag and no longer use it. I mostly don't like it. Overall grade: D.

Rickshaw Zero (2015-now)My employer provided us with these bags, the large version of the Rickshaw Zero. They are not your typical corporate boring bags; in fact, I generally think my bag is nice. It's unstructured, for better or worse. There are two large pockets up front, and I added Velcro closures so contents stayed secure. It... it is large. Rickshaw has a modular, Velcro (again) system for their bags, so I can swap smaller bags in and out as I please, which is lovely! And while I had no choice in the color, it's a great grey herringbone with an orange interior. But, there is no shoulder strap padding and it can be unwieldy... I need to hoist it over my head in order to get it cross-body. Not a great move. And there's no top handle, so a quick grab is tough. (The Mainstay didn't have one either.) It is pretty much the heir apparent to the Blogger 2.0, just sans structure and better-looking. Still... my shoulders... they hurt. Overall grade: A.

What I Carry

Contents. Not enough Field Notes, natch.

Contents. Not enough Field Notes, natch.

It had been about 7 years since I last inventoried what I carry in an orderly fashion, so here is what I usually have in there, sans any lunch or ephemeral stuff.

This, of course, was a nice excuse for me to determine what stuff I actually didn't need to have around. The answer: old business cards, stickers, an empty tiny case, and nearly-outmoded storage (USB sticks and SD cards). The small orange bag came with my Rickshaw; the grey one behind it was one I picked up at Rickshaw's shop in SF.

What do I really need my bag to do? Well, it has to carry my stuff, obviously, without strain nor stress on me. My bag also needs to look at least a little stylish. I can appreciate the aesthetic of a Tom Bihn Synapse but it's just outside of what I like. The bag also needs to be of good quality. Even my low-cost eBags backpack held up for multiple years. Outside of the Navali, each of the bags I've had has stood up to cross-country travel and daily usage. That's a requirement.

While I need some access to some items in my bag, I've grown accustom to having little access to things due to my Rickshaw's layout. So I don't mind taking a bag off to get a water bottle, for instance.

Within the it's stuff division, I also want using the bag to be pleasant. I don't want it to be a chore. I want it to just work for me.


Left: Topo Designs Y-Pack (named for its strap & closure, presumably) in turquoise. Right: Timbuk2 Walker, 2014 model, in midnight.  (Photo color-corrected due to cold, poor lighting.)

Left: Topo Designs Y-Pack (named for its strap & closure, presumably) in turquoise. Right: Timbuk2 Walker, 2014 model, in midnight. (Photo color-corrected due to cold, poor lighting.)

Baglimination Round 1

After soliciting more opinions on Twitter, I narrowed down my search to a few brands I knew and loved (Tom Bihn, Timbuk2, Rickshaw) and found a few new ones too (Osprey, Topo Designs, amongst others). Friends recommended both brands and specific models I hadn't heard of, and some I had! I've decided to audition two bags for starters. I'll give these bags a go, and if they don't work out, they'll be ELIMINATED. Here are the first two contenders. DING DING.

Timbuk2 Walker (2014)A handsome bag without looking too masculine nor utilitarian, I've always liked this style and line from Timbuk2. And given I have a good track record with them outside of the Dashboard, I wanted to give them another go. This old model was on a fine deal at REI, so it was an easy choice. It appears the pockets are a little different on this year's model, but the storage is similar. The outer small pocket looks handy. A little concerned about ventilation. But basically, pockets.

Topo Designs Y-Pack: Topo is a local company (yay!) and they have a great shop not far from my office. I've been intrigued by their stuff and the Y-Pack in turquoise really put me over the line. It's a clean and simple design. I don't even mind the logo placement. I'm unsure if the lack of any apparent pockets will be a thing for me, but it might be. My gut feeling is that this one really won't work out, but I need to try it anyway. I do like that they're made here, too.

Detail of the Topo's latch and larger-than-I-thought logo patch. At least it's nicely done.

Detail of the Topo's latch and larger-than-I-thought logo patch. At least it's nicely done.

First Impressions: Topo Designs Y-Pack

The Y-Pack is definitely more along the lines of a one compartment, just put all your shit in it kind of bag. But I appreciate this simplicity. The main compartment is accessed by undoing the latch in front. It's not as simple as Velcro, but it gives about as easily and appears to be nowhere near as fussy as the Navali.

The top flap is also the sole outer pocket. It's deep with a chunky zipper and bright red pull; very satisfying. There's no liner so, for now, I can see my Field Notes and earbuds living here. (In these photos I put my toiletries and other items in here, but it was a little awkward and caused the top flap to slump down.)

Inside, there's a cheerful yellow separator that keeps the MacBook safe. The padding is modest but appears sufficient. The main compartment is deep, so again, this bag requires the use of smaller bags. Interestingly, my 27oz Klean Kanteen fits perfectly, horizontally, at the bottom of the bag. The MacBook's space is also just right for the 13". Oh, one thing that is interesting: the main compartment has a drawstring closure (also in red, nice). It's a curious detail, but I rather like it.

The Y-Pack is lightweight and feels so, when I have it on. It is noticeably easier for me to carry versus the Rickshaw, and the straps are on the far ends of my shoulders – a good, stable place.

Everything's in, and it looks nearly the same from front as when it's closed – nice.

Everything's in, and it looks nearly the same from front as when it's closed – nice.

First Impressions: Timbuk2 Walker (2014)

It's a Timbuk2 bag. What stood out immediately was the number of pockets: it's a lot! There are umpteen million interior pockets (science!), one exterior pocket with a nice fat zipper and the Timbuk2 signature key strap inside, and one more exterior pocket for, I imagine, a small umbrella or a water bottle smaller than mine.

This is a big bag. Size-wise, you can see above that it almost dwarves the Topo. I was surprised by this. My MacBook fits fine in the attractively-lined interior compartment, but it appears designed for a 15" or larger laptop – there's more than a small amount of wiggle room.

The main flap closes via snaps (two positions, very nice), and again, it's more picky than Velcro but far less than the Navali. I could see this being a tiny nuisance but not to the point of real annoyance. The main interior compartment is deep – deeper than the Topo, naturally, and it very nearly requires the use of bags as well. The pockets mostly save it, although one of the interior pockets – the one facing the main compartment – is shallow.

The Walker is a heavy bag, even when empty. It's nearly double the weight of the Topo. And I felt it when I had it on. The Walker is noticeable. Its straps are much thicker, padded, and slightly more comfortable than the Topo but they also crowded in closer to my neck. Not pleasant.

The quality and attractiveness of the bag isn't lost on me. This thing looks good. It also very much fits in a business aesthetic.

First Impressions: In Summary

I thought the Walker would be an easy winner here, but I'll be honest: I really like the Y-Pack. The Walker's size and weight puts it in a different class of bag and I'm not convinced I need all that space. The Walker reminds me of a well-updated version of the Blogger 2.0. But it also reminds me of why I didn't want to keep using the Blogger: it's bulky.

The materials and colors of these bags are also quite different. The Y-Pack is a Colorado bag, no doubt: functional, simple, no-nonsense, and the bright colors give it spirit. The Timbuk2 is a richer and higher-end set of materials right down to the leather zipper pulls. So the Timbuk2 will arguably fit in more places than the Topo. But for what I actually need, a vast majority of the time, the Topo will fill the bill.

I'm going to give the Topo a good workout this week but, I'll be honest with you: unless something goes horribly wrong, it's my pick for now.