Here at Industry Outsider, we like a challenge. While we’re confident that reviewing a product on its own is a great way to share something of interest with our readers, we’ve found that comparing two or more pieces of gear at the same time can frequently uncover useful features as well as previously unnoticed shortcomings. This gives consumers an opportunity to make a more informed purchase decision. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.
With that in mind, we provided a couple of manufacturers with a short list of features we were looking for in backpacks at a certain pricepoint*, and asked them to make a suggestion. Ideally, we wanted to safely carry a laptop and basic business supplies, rather then a half dozen textbooks for school, as this would be more for the office commuter than a student. It should be water-resistant, yet have some room for beverages well-separated from electronics. Innovative features would be given heavy consideration. And it should have mad style. In the end, we ended up with two very diverse products, which made for an interesting review. We go to pit the High Sierra Stalwart backpack, with its more traditional design, against one of the latest from Timbuk2, the Light Bright Swig.
The Light Bright Swig is constructed of coated nylon with a good sized flap and waterproof zipper for their trademarked Swing Around Access laptop pocket. With external dimensions of 12.6″ x 16.93″, it’s not going to accommodate a really big laptop, but who wants to lug one of those around anyway? (One cool feature of their site is that you can look up your device, and they’ll tell you if it fits the chosen pack, and find other products for you) Notable elements include a reflective stripe, ergonomic straps that include a handy bottle opener, an external pocket for a U-lock or water bottle, and a rear loop for a light. Not included in the website’s description, there’s a handy little zippered stash pocket as well. Interior includes the laptop compartment, main storage, then a smaller compartment with some pen and pencil holders, a zippered pocket, some business card sized pockets and room for a few slices of leftover vegetarian pizza.
The High Sierra Stalwart is comprised of Grid-Weave Duralite®, according to the High Sierra website. This textured material has a shiny finish and appears to repel water quite well. At 19.25″ x 13.5″ x 9.5″, it should accommodate most laptops up to 17″. Heavy on features, it’s still a more traditional looking backpack comprised of three main zippered compartments, with the largest one containing the laptop sleeve. The littlest of the three is designed to keep your smaller items organized, and includes pen pockets, and a handy key fob. Just above the small open rear pocket is a zippered pocket with headphone port, perfect for your MP3 player, sunglasses, or anything you want to keep separate from the spacious main compartments. There are also some mesh pockets on the sides for water bottles, a handy mesh pocket on the left strap sized just right for a cell phone, a rear loop for a blinky light, and a little clip below that in case you need to attach something else.
So what are they like in the real world? To find out, we rotated them through a small group of bike commuters, and had them record their impressions separately, then meet for a group discussion. Our willing participants ranged in size from about 5′ and 100 pounds, up to 5′-10″, 200 pounds. That should cover most of us.
The Light Bright Swig fit surprisingly better than expected. From the littlest in the group to the biggest, even with a heavy jacket, it adjusted to everyone’s liking. The spacing of the straps where they attach at the top probably played a big role in this, but it certainly gets points for fit. Capacity seemed to be be just about right as well, although one tester (yes, he rides a fixed gear) mentioned this is not the bag you want for toting a weekend’s worth of PBR. If that matters to you, please make a note of it. Those of us that prefer our beer in bottles appreciated the included opener, even though it was used strictly for testing purposes. It’s an interesting design juxtaposition that the laptop access zipper appears to be as watertight as a duck’s bum, but the top flap is secured by velcro and buckles. For the unlucky commuter that got caught in one of our recent storms, the contents stayed dry, although he admitted to being wary of the flap. And while it got praise for styling and quality construction, no one was really a fan of the velcro closure. Yes, there are proper buckles too. But velcro’s just too noisy to be opening and closing in a classroom or office environment. Someone mentioned that if they bought this backpack, their first move would be to cut the velcro strip off. This probably wouldn’t offend the Timbuk2 designers, as they encourage hacks to their products in the name of usefulness. Other than that, the bag was well-received for being both fashionable and functional. Overall, the materials and construction were top notch. Another winner from Timbuk2.
From a capacity standpoint, the High Sierra Stalwart comes out on top – the Swig fits right inside the main compartment. But that’s hardly the best reason for buying it. Not only did it fit our testing group well, the back’s raised mesh padding provided a bit of extra cooling and comfort, which came in handy when it was fully loaded. The heavy duty, lightly padded carry loop on top also shows attention to detail – a bag designed to carry a lot should have a handle comfortable enough to accommodate heavy loads. It also fared well in the rain, but even better, a leaky bottle of water was contained in the smaller compartment, sparing a shiny new netbook from a watery grave. One of the favorite features was the pocket on the left strap. It was used for a phone, MP3 player, energy bar, and at least one banana, confirming that this thoughtful element should be standard on a backpack. Extra design points get awarded for the zipper pulls, which are adequately sized, textured, and easy to work with wet or gloved hands. Durable materials and flawless construction are the norm from High Sierra as well.
So is there a clear winner? Depends on what’s important to you. Either one will carry your stuff plus a notebook computer, and keep them safe and dry. While we’ve noted the differences in capacity up front, both companies offer larger and smaller backpacks, and the overall quality should be equal to what we’ve reviewed here. When we hatched the idea for this review, both backpacks had a similar MSRP, but the Stalwart is now selling on several sites for about half its original price. If value is your primary consideration, that makes it hard to beat. Most found the Swig to be much more stylish, but since the Stalwart is offered in several other colors, (our sample was red) that may not be a huge factor. Of course, Timbuk2 offers more street cred for cyclists that care about such things. But with its Airflow design, the High Sierra may keep you physically cooler. If cutting-edge style is important, check out the full Timbuk2 line. If you lean towards more classic design, but want innovation and value, High Sierra won’t disappoint.