Road Test :: Topo Designs Daypack
Made in America. That term used to be taken for granted, after all, where else would things be made? However, now, more than ever, we are seeing a revival of goods sourced and produced locally, in small batches. As an American consumer, it’s also becoming less challenging to find domestic goods, especially with pundits like A Continuous Lean’s Michael William’s blog, Fuck Yeah Made in USA. But, I digress. This review isn’t about goods made in the US; it’s about a daypack that touches on most of what I am looking for in a bag, while getting very little wrong.
Topo Designs makes all their bags by hand in a LEED certified building near the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado. They source their Cordura from a converted mill in Conneticut and the YKK zippers are from America as well. Currently, there are five bags in the collection, each occupying a distinct category. I really appreciate this because it reduces the paralysis of choice for the consumer. I asked co-founder, Mark Hansen, to send me a sample of their Daypack and he happily obliged.
Just one look at the bag and nostalgia is immediately invoked. We are used to seeing extremes here at Carryology – you either have highly technical bags with military styling and influence or you have very fashionable bags often made of leather and exuding clean lines. The Topo Designs Daypack walks somewhere in the middle, or maybe not on the line at all. You have a choice of six colorways and the main color dominates the bag. There is some contrast with the zipper pulls and leather patches, but for the most part, you have a pretty uniform canvas. Can you guess what bag it reminds me of? I bet you had one in school.
Despite the initial déjà vu experience, that’s where the similarities end. The Daypack is a fun mix of functionality and a style that’s very approachable. I can’t help but feel a vibe of Japanese influence and when I asked Mark about it, he admitted that they are fans of the way the Japanese take American products and put a spin on it. The bag measures 16 inches tall, which is at the upper limit of what I prefer for my 19.5 inch torso. Wearing it feels slightly larger than a normal Jansport backpack, but not at all uncomfortable or too large. It has a volume of just under 17 liters which is just perfect for a daypack, as far as I am concerned. If you take a look at the pictures, you’ll notice that it has a narrow rectangular shape. This means it’s great for hold flat and tall items (like legal documents, contracts, etc.) but not that great for bulky items like a basketball or boxes shaped like cubes.
I would describe the Daypack as having a minimal form. It’s not a loose bag that collapses against it’s own weight but it’s also not a rigid bag with lots of form. There is no bottom support or padding or any really stiff panels. And, since it’s pretty tall, much taller than a standard document or book, there’s a tendency for the bag to sort of droop over a bit. I like leaning it against my desk at work.
What I really liked about the Daypack is the mix of available pockets. I love pockets because I like to be organized but brands tend to go with either too much or too little. The Daypack has a large outside panel pocket plus the one under the main zipper. Inside the primary compartment, along the back panel, you’ll find a series of little pockets and sleeves. I told Mark that I thought they must have read my mind when designing the bag because it has exactly the pockets I need for what I carry. Obviously, this will vary with each person, but for me, it was a dream come true. In those organization pockets, I carry: a pen, Moleskine notebook, business card holder, Doane Paper notepad, and flash drives.
Speaking of the inside panel, it’s made of a coated pack cloth liner. The outside is 1000d CORDURA nylon fabric which can stand up to fading, abrasion, rot, and mildew. It’s highly water repellent and dries quick if you happen to get it wet. This means I am comfortable throwing the bag down on the ground if I am playing a game of pickup basketball, but it doesn’t mean I’ll walk around for hours in the rain with it. Heading from the cab to your door during a storm won’t have any effect on the bag or its contents. I love that there’s a grab handle on top. I know I mention it in ever review but it still boggles my mind when I see a company omit it.
I appreciated the little details of the bag like the natural leather lash tabs and the contrasting (red) pull straps. The stainless hardware on the shoulder straps also really stand out among the sea of plastic you mostly see in this industry. The labeling is very minimal which I liked; just a small patch for the logo plus a tiny tab with the American flag. They use large YKK zippers which are a dream to open and close – so smooth and no snagging! The best part about them is if your hands are full, you can zip them open or close with just one hand. There’s no need to hold the fabric with another hand to give it enough tautness to glide.
Topo Designs intelligently designed the shoulders straps to be extra wide and slightly padded to aid in weight dispersion and comfort. However, without a chest strap, I sometimes feel like the straps don’t really sit “right” on my body. I feel like they sit at the edge of my shoulders, where my armpits are. So far, this hasn’t proven to be an issue with the loads I’ve been carrying. I just wish the straps sat closer to the middle. I also had issues with the buckles respecting my preferred adjustment length intact. Each day, I would notice the straps slipped in the buckles so I ended up with maximum extension. This is easily fixed by pulling down on the ends. Still, it’s an annoyance.
Simplicity: I really enjoy the simple lines of the bag. The designers clearly thought about what users want in a bag – something that is functional yet looks good. I think they were able to deliver with a daypack that is largely unobtrusive yet has tricks up its shoulder
Price: At under $100 USD for a bag that I have used for over a month as my go to everyday bag, this represents a huge value. There’s another player in this category right now, offering very affordable bags that look great. The problem is the quality is not up there. In contrast, the Topo Designs Daypack represents a huge value.
Small features: I am digging the large zippers, organization compartments, leather tabs and metal hardware. These small features really add character to the bag.
Leather: While I love that they are using leather on the bag, the sample I received experienced immediate wear on the leather. It looks and feels dried out. They went with a type of stiff, semi-shiny, leather which really shows creases and wrinkles. I wish they would have chosen either a suede leather or one which wears in a more beautiful way.
Straps: Like I mentioned earlier, I find it pretty annoying that the straps don’t stay adjusted. I think there’s a problem with the buckles because my straps reset pretty much every day.
If it wasn’t evident enough that these guys were on top of their game, I emailed Mark a few weeks ago and pointed these flaws out to him. He replied that they had in fact caught these two issues and had already fixed them in the new batch. To address the straps, they changed the way the straps were sewn, which in turn made the hardware tighter and less prone to slippage. They have also upgraded to a higher quality hide for the leather patches.
Topo Designs represents what’s right with the carry world today. What we have here are handmade goods, made domestically, that look great, and are (actually) affordable. The founders clearly have an ethos of being environmentally (and socially) conscious and have somehow managed to walk that line between tree-hugger and big corporation, with all the positives of each and none of the annoying cons. The Daypack holds everything you’d need to go to work or school, is comfortable to wear, can stand up to a beating, and is versatile enough to work in almost any situation, with almost any wardrobe. What more could you ask for?
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