- Buyer's Guide
Many stories begin with a main character and his or her trusty sidekick – in this case, a man named Dave Munson and his dog called Blue. They enjoy great travels and adventures together (exploring Mexico), get through tight scrapes (a close call with a crooked federale and figuring out where the next meal is coming from) and achieve a desired goal (creating a world-renowned bag-making company). The story of Saddleback Leather is one of hard work, ingenuity, perseverance and a dedication to crafting products that are worthy of the tagline “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.” With such a reputation and history behind it, when the opportunity to road test the Saddleback Leather Messenger Bag arose it required a suitably fitting means of putting it through its paces – one that resulted in a story of a main character (the bag), a sidekick dog and varied adventures. However, whether the main character would turn out to be a protagonist or antagonist was yet to be seen…
- Name: Messenger Bag
- Brand: Saddleback Leather Co.
- Format: messenger, backpack and briefcase
- Measurement: Exterior: 12 ¾” W x 14 ½” H x 4 ¼” D; Interior: 12 ½” W x 14” H x 4” D
- Weight: 5.5 lbs
- Material: Full-grain leather
- Price US$ 382
Who It Suits
People who are looking for a top-quality piece of leather carry that can lend itself to work and leisure use. If you want a bag that rocks a rugged-chic style and is not going to fall apart, wherever life may take you, this is it.
Who It Doesn’t Suit
People who love lots of organization in their carry or who want a bag to store their tech. There aren’t a lot of pockets and other organization options with this messenger and no dedicated padded sections for protecting tech gadgets or fragile items. That’s not to say you can’t carry tech in the bag, just that there are better options out there. This bag also won’t suit people who are after a lightweight carry solution.
Enter our main character who emerges out of its cardboard packaging box and protective plastic bag with…well, frankly, plenty of character. The aesthetics of the bag won’t appeal to everyone – no bag does – but I feel confident in saying Indiana Jones would approve. It gives off an air of stylish and tough reliability and there is no denying it feels like a quality bag every time you handle it. The bag lends itself to formal and work situations as well as leisure and travel environments, so there’s no reason not to use it as your go-to bag for the office or day-to-day use around town before whisking it away for a weekend of adventure.
My first thought on seeing my Dark Coffee Brown carry companion was “Wow, it’s a thing of beauty…” I wasn’t the only person to think this, as literally within ten minutes of venturing outside on my first grand adventure (to hunt down a birthday present for a loved one) I received compliments on what a fine-looking bag it is. I also took it to a friend’s wedding and though it was far larger than I required for keys, a phone, some makeup and a small camera in its carry case, I felt it was smart enough to suit a wedding environment.
As mentioned above, Saddleback’s tagline is “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.” They’re not lying. Saddleback makes their bags with as few seams as possible. They also opt for larger but fewer pieces of leather instead of numerous smaller pieces. All of this contributes towards the strength and durability of their bags. This video provides entertaining insight into Saddleback’s construction process, as does the craftsmanship section on their website.
This particular bag is solid in the construction department. No issues cropped up during general everyday use as well as during its most extensive adventure when it logged serious air miles courtesy of my trip from Scotland to South Africa for the wedding mentioned above. I used the messenger as my carry-on for a number of international and local flights and it didn’t just survive being shoved under airplane seats, in overhead luggage bins, through airport security checks and as my daily carry in South Africa – it relished the journey. It’s gathered some scratches along the way and is developing its own distinct look (which I think all adds to its charm) but there haven’t been any problems with failing hardware, stitching or poor materials.
However, the wide variety of videos that showcase the intriguing ways Saddleback Leather bags are put to the test got me thinking…what extra testing could I do to put this bag through its paces? I figured it should be something relevant to a large number of users (after all, it’s unlikely most Saddleback owners are going to come face to face with a crocodile anytime soon). They could potentially have their bag run over by a bike though. So I roped in some assistants and threw the bag under the bus (well, bike)…
The bag wasn’t even phased by this, so I figured, why stop there when it’s possible the bag could accidentally be driven over by a car…
Then I thought, “So what if I don’t have a convenient crocodile, I’ll make do with my handy husky instead” and got him to pull the bag along a dusty, pebbled footpath during one of his walks…
Suffice it to say, the bag survived all of this and even the little dimple marks that appeared in the bag after it had been under the car disappeared simply by brushing a hand back and forth over them.
The messenger is constructed out of beautiful full-grain leather (and I mean really beautiful) and stitched with tough polyester thread. The tanning is top-notch – the leather is tanned all the way through rather than just on the surface, as can be seen at the unfinished and unpainted edges. Arguably the unfinished edges aren’t as refined in aesthetics as they could be but this didn’t bother me (this is a matter of personal preference, though I think it adds to the rugged vibe of the bag).
The bag is designed to have no breakable parts (such as zippers) in order to enhance the overall durability. It does feature eight nickel-plated brass D-rings, while copper and brass rivets are used in stress areas of the bag. The hardware is very durable and I’ve experienced no problems with it or the stitching where it attaches to the bag, both in normal use and when I loaded the messenger full of heavy items and attached it via carabiners to my backpack for another adventure – a camping trip on Cramond Island near Edinburgh. The bag was a trooper and provided handy extra storage when I needed it.
The Saddleback Messenger Bag isn’t just a messenger. In fact, it’s three bags in one as it can convert from a messenger to a backpack and can also be carried as a briefcase via the top handle. Converting the bag from a messenger to a backpack is a simple process of unclipping the strap from the top D-rings and clipping one end to one of the bottom D-rings, before threading the strap through the O-ring at the top of the bag and then clipping the other end of the strap to the bottom D-ring on the other side of the bag. It is possible to push the shoulder strap pad through the O-ring while converting the bag to a backpack, though it is a squeeze and users may find it easier to remove the pad first and then replace it once the strap is through. [For reference, I’m 1.72 m tall]
Another feature of the bag is the versatile nature of the strap. Dave Munson mentions on the Saddleback website that he has used the straps from his bags as dog leads. This intriguing idea was one I had to try, so I roped in the road testing services of my Siberian Husky. After all, if any dog is going to test the durability of a lead, it’s going to be one that is bred to pull and run.
So I attached the strap to my husky’s harness and let him have at it – much pulling, twisting and rolling through long grass, and dragging over the ground ensued but at the end of it my husky had not managed to leg it into the hills because the Saddleback strap performed admirably.
If you do choose to use the strap for other things or alternatively are using the bag in its backpack format, you may need to fix the end of the strap in place as it is quite long and can flap around a bit. However, this isn’t much of an issue in messenger format as I tucked the excess strap length into one of the D-rings which held it in place well.
As I mentioned earlier, I used the bag as my carry-on luggage and when I chose to keep it with me rather than putting it in the overhead bin, I didn’t have any problems fitting it under the seat in front of me. So another feature is that it’s a convenient size for cabin luggage.
I was surprised how much stuff this bag can fit. When I used it as my carry-on bag it held a leather jacket, a 15-inch laptop in its sleeve, a laptop charging cable and mouse, my passport and travel documents, my wallet, a small digital camera, my phone and a book. Plus there was space to spare, so I could have squeezed in some more small items if I’d needed to. The flap height is adjustable so you can get taller or shorter items in as needed. It will also happily carry items such as groceries, wine bottles and shoes with ease.
Accessing the contents in the main compartment is straightforward enough, though not as quick as opening a zipped bag or one with side release buckles would be. The strap for the lid flap wore in and became more flexible with use. The side pockets and back pocket provided quick access to the contents.
Pockets and Organizing
The Saddleback Messenger Bag leans towards minimalist when it comes to organization. The bag has two interior slip pockets (one on each side of the bag) and an interior key clip. There are two exterior side pockets and an exterior back slip pocket. The bag also comes with a removable internal divider. Though I can see the potential benefits of the divider, I personally didn’t use it for the bag. However, I did come across alternative uses for it while reading reviews of the bag on Amazon. One customer suggested using the divider as a writing pad or a mouse pad. I decided to try using it as a mouse pad and it works really well.
As I highlighted previously, this bag is not particularly well-suited to people who like tech protection or organization in their carry. There are no padded sections for delicate items or expensive gadgets. The tough leather and construction will help to protect the contents against impact but I would advise carrying tech in protective sleeves for that added bit of protection. In terms of interior organization, it would be nice to have a pocket or two situated higher up in the bag (currently both interior pockets are located at the bottom of each side) to avoid the contents getting squashed by items in the bottom of the bag.
However, the main issue I had concerning pockets was with the two exterior side pockets. These are both completely open so any items in them are exposed to the elements as well as opportunistic thieves. The only thing I carried in these was a water bottle, which was a snug fit for a 500ml bottle, circumference approximately 8 inches or 20.5 cm. If you carry a larger water bottle, you’re going to have to put it elsewhere. It would be great to have the pockets of the Saddleback Simple Backpack which combine slip pockets and buckle closures so you can enjoy the benefits of quick access and protection of the contents depending on your needs. Though the back slip pocket is open too, I found this pocket far more useful since it was concealed when the bag was in backpack mode and was deep enough to hide the contents from prying eyes in messenger mode, while providing easy access to the contents as needed.
The shoulder strap has two pads so your shoulders will get some relief whether you’re carrying the bag as a messenger or backpack. The strap length can be adjusted to situate the bag on your body according to your personal preferences for both messenger and backpack mode.
However, every realistic story character has flaws and the Saddleback messenger is not without its downsides. One of the primary ones is its weight. This bag is heavy, coming in at 5.5 lbs (2.5kg). The weight is understandable due to the quality components and carrying the bag as a backpack will help to make the weight less noticeable. However, no matter how you package it, you’ll never be able to call this bag lightweight. I personally would opt for another bag rather than the Saddleback Messenger Bag if I knew I was going to be walking around for several hours at a time carrying it. However, for shorter periods of time it’s fine.
I ventured out into the rain a few times with the bag and didn’t have any problem with water getting into the main compartment (avoid using the exposed exterior pockets if you don’t want items getting wet). The tops of the sides of the bag are under the main compartment’s flap but they can pop outwards sometimes, resulting in Gorby gaps. There is a way to avoid this happening by clipping the strap onto both the top front and back D-rings rather than the single D-ring on each side of the bag. However, it is something to be aware of.
Alternatives to consider
The folks at Saddleback Leather are obviously confident in their products but happy for people to shop around first, which is why their own website lists alternative good-quality brands to consider for people who are seeking leather bags that will last.
· Top-notch construction
· Quality materials
· Versatile three-way carry
· Rugged yet stylish for work and leisure use
Not So Good
· Expensive (but worth the money)
· Exposed exterior side pockets
. Lack of organization and protection for delicate items
Simply put, this bag is more than you’ll need for most of the time. There is plenty of space for carrying day-to-day or travel items, the construction and durability is first-rate and it looks fantastic. That being said, it’s not a bag for everyone and every situation – it’s heavy and would benefit from tweaking the organization and pocketing. Plus, price is another factor that will have people hesitating to buy this bag. It costs $382 which is a lot of money to part with for a bag. They say quality hurts once – but it still hurts. Is it worth the money though? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt it is. This is the toughest bag I’ve ever used and I personally feel it’s worth every penny – but it is a lot of pennies.
It’s not perfect (no bag is) but it wants to be a part of your journeys both near and far – and when the going gets tough it will stick by you and not let you down. It’s also going to pick up scuffs and scrapes during those journeys, but then a bag like this isn’t aiming to look pristine all the time. Perhaps it’s an odd thing to say about a bag, but the Saddleback Leather Messenger Bag has heart, a characteristic that in my opinion makes it a worthy protagonist for your personal carry story.
Editor’s Note: The bag for this road test was supplied by Saddleback Leather.
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