- Buyer's Guide
Buyer’s Guide: the Best Custom Backpack and Bag Makers
For the carry enthusiast, a good bag is a thing of beauty. But whisper the word ‘bespoke’ or ‘custom’ and the game changes. There’s a whole new level of appreciation. And we’re not just speaking fabrics. We’re getting down to the details. Thread colors. Shoulder strap orientation. Tailored pocket setups. And all along the design spectrum from tweaks to existing models, to completely custom from scratch. So to celebrate this particular carry niche and its broad scope of offerings, we’ve rounded up some of the best custom backpack and bag makers in the market…
Alpine and Climbing
For those not in the know, the first impression you’re likely to get of McHale Packs is a dated website. But don’t let that low-key exterior fool you. Those who are in the know will assure you, when you pull back that curtain you’ll find some of the best ultralight custom backpacks available. Period. McHale backpacks are built to be tough yet ultralight, simple and functional, and ultimately reliable when you’re in the back of beyond and need your carry to perform well. And if they need to make a little weight sacrifice to do this, they will. Yes, you’re still getting super lightweight, but sometimes superior performance means they may weigh more than other ultralight alternatives. The bags are custom made in Seattle, Washington, and though it’s primarily a mail-order business you can visit the shop by appointment for a fitting in person. But don’t worry if you can’t get there in person; rest assured they’ll take the time to ensure you’re well taken care of when creating your own custom pack, from getting the fit right to determining what features will best suit your needs. Plus you can also get a demo pack to try out various features in person and see if they’re right for you.
You’re a seasoned hiking pro looking for a thru-hike companion. Or you simply have a great idea in mind for your weekend outdoor adventure carry. Regardless of why you’re after a custom backpack, if you’re in the market for ultralight backpacks meticulously made by hand, Chris Zimmer can help you out. Each bag is made by Chris in Ohio and designed to suit your specific requirements. You can choose your preferred volume, material, what kind of pocket setup you want, and any other features that will make your custom piece perfect for you. Fabrics include the likes of X-Pac, Dyneema X and Hybrid Cuben Fiber material, with designs that find the sweet spot between trail-ready toughness and light weight.
Some brands take urban-ready packs and dial up the durability for outdoor use. But Alpin Mountain Co. takes the opposite approach, creating bags made for alpine use but pared back for a cleaner, understated aesthetic that transitions into urban settings. Handy when it’s time to duck off the trail for a supply restock or swap out the ski slopes for a warming drink by a toasty fire. As they like to say, mountain DNA with urban minimalism. Based in Truckee, California, the brand makes their gear by hand and offers both ready-made and custom options for a personalized fit and feature set.
Superior Wilderness Designs was born through a desire to create gear that the founders longed to have on their own adventures. Brandon McIntyre and Ashley Thick are the team behind the Michigan-based brand, creating made-to-order ultralight backpacks that don’t just focus on cutting weight but also fuse quality, durability and versatility. The backpacks are handmade with options for torso size, body and base fabrics and colors. They also offer a variety of custom backpack modification options that can be added to any of their packs including pockets and pouches, compression, load lifters and more.
Atom Packs was founded by Tom Gale, a maker just as passionate about packs as he is about clocking up the trail miles. Thousands of miles of hiking, countless trial-and-error successes and failures, plus a dedication to continuously honing his skills and improving his designs has led to Atom Packs. A brand based in the UK’s Lake District National Park and focused on creating backpacks for hikers, climbers and mountaineers. Bags are made to order and shipped across the globe. There are plenty of options for tailoring the standard pack designs including body color, size, and fabric choices. But if you’re looking for something different, custom options are the way to go. Since each pack is made to order, it’s easy to tailor it to your customization preferences. You can also get fitted in the workshop by appointment if you’re in the area. So if you’ve got an idea in mind, reach out to Chris. He’s always keen to bring your ideal bag to life, no matter how weird or wonderful it might be.
Alpine Luddites is a one-man crafting machine helmed by John Campbell. John makes alpine and classic backpacks as well as bikepacking bags, each one built to order with meticulous attention to detail. John gained inspiration for his brand from the small climbing brands of the 70’s and 80’s such as Chouinard Equipment, Karrimor and Kletterworks. He learned to sew by making his own outdoor gear when he couldn’t find what he wanted on the market. And he honed those sewing skills working for Dana Design in Montana in the 90’s. John sews his packs in Colorado, with ready-made options available as well as standard designs with a choice of sizing, materials and colors. But if you want something unique, a fully custom option will set you up well. You’ll be able to dial in the fit, fabrics, colors, trim, webbing, zipper placement, pocket selection and more to create a top-notch bespoke bag that will serve you well for years to come.
Snagging a custom bag from Rucksack Village is rare – the waiting list is super long and new orders are currently capped – but if you do, it’s worth the wait. The brand’s founder, James Kamo, takes a considered approach to his custom designs but isn’t scared to get playful too. Questions such as intended use, material preferences, and whether you’re left or right-handed go hand in hand with inquiries over what your spirit animal would be. All with the intention of digging down into the details of each user to design a bag that doesn’t just suit their needs but really reflects their personality too.
1733 are a Chicago-based bag manufacturer owned by two brothers. Everything is designed, cut and sewn from their Humboldt Park base. Their handmade, in-house manufacturing ensures quality and durability in each design, with small batches to help keep things fresh and interesting. Their custom options include tweaking existing designs with your ideal colorways, materials or special features, as well as creating your perfect bag from scratch. Creations span backpacks, Dopp kits, hip packs, totes and plenty more (even a dog carrier), so your imagination is the limit.
Greenroom136 is a Malaysia-based bag company that offers a range of rugged, urban-ready bags. And when it comes to custom pieces, you’ve got plenty of options on the table. Greenroom136 offers a selection of designs to base your custom piece off, including messengers and backpacks. Once you’ve picked your base design, then it’s time to really dig down into the details. Pretty much every aspect of the bag is customizable. How many panels do you want? What hardware choices do you prefer? Do you want strap keepers, a morale panel, Velcro silencers, a key loop, or a secret pocket? What colorway do you want? An online template lets you easily spec your desired design and see how much it will cost too.
Francli was born as a partnership between Frances Baseley and Ali Goodman, initially intended to be a three-month creative project. Many years down the line, Francli is still going strong, dedicated to handcrafted quality and utilizing salvaged and British-made materials. The Cornwall-based brand offers customization services on your own unique piece as well as small batches of Francli designs. Bags are designed with considerations to specific carry needs and environments, as well as reflections of the user’s personality and preferences. Whether you’re after a backpack for adventure use, an organizer for work tools, a duffel for weekend travel or something completely out of the box, Francli is keen to hear your ideas and help make them happen.
This British brand crafts bags that are designed for relishing life on the move, whether it’s the daily commute, a fun day trip or a weekend away. All with a distinct and clean minimal vibe. Made to last and not fail, this is heirloom stuff right here. And the best part: they’re totally open to any sort of customization you’d like: hardware switches, fabrics plays, new pocketing, you name it. From design to delivery, it should take up to 4-6 weeks.
North St. Bags are a Portland-based bag brand dedicated to durable functionality and local manufacturing. Their bags are backed by a lifetime guarantee and made in-house, with all of their fabrics and most of their hardware and trim sourced in the USA. And the brand makes it easy for you to put your own stamp on their tough and practical pieces through a range of custom colorway and printed accent panel options, plus the ability to add Velcro-in pockets to tailor the organization setup to your needs too.
Dustin Spencer founded Vermilyea Pelle in 2008, but his passion for quality leather craftsmanship began at a much younger age. From age four he was captivated by the leather goods he found in his grandfather’s horse tack room, from headstalls to boots and saddles. As a young teenager he spent time making small leather bags and moccasins, and later worked as a cobbler for 12 years. The tools and skills he acquired along the way were vital in forging his own leather craftsmanship brand. Vermilyea Pelle creates handmade, vintage-inspired pieces with premium materials such as waxed canvas and Horween leather. It’s a brand built very much on a respect for heirloom quality, traditional construction techniques and heritage materials. The brand has also built relationships with premium brands such as Horween with whom they developed custom tannage recipes.
Treesizeverse is a one-man bag making operation based in Belgium. The founder, Ronald Ceuppens, utilized his artistic and tailoring skills to forge a brand with a distinct and handsome aesthetic. Unique pieces full of character and charm are meticulously made by hand using durable and beautiful materials that will stand the test of time. Waxed canvas, leather, vintage wool and more unusual options such as Piñatex™ come together in eye-catching designs that function well while ageing gracefully and developing their own distinct look over time. You never quite know what might crop up next, but you can be sure it’ll be a striking mix of form and function and a real conversation starter.
Founded in 2007, Rickshaw Bagworks has built up a loyal following thanks to their functional, durable urban carry that salutes simplicity, practicality and quality. And if you appreciate customization options, you’ve come to the right place. In addition to standard, ready-made options, their diverse range is customizable with a wide choice of exterior and interior fabrics and colorways. There are lots of styles to choose from including duffels, totes, backpacks, messengers, pouches, tech sleeves and more. And they’re all made in Rickshaw’s own San Francisco factory.
The Brown Buffalo was founded by our good friend Douglas Davidson, whose design experience spans around two decades and design stints with industry powerhouses such as The North Face and Burton Snowboards. Suffice it to say, he knows what he’s doing behind a sewing machine, with the skills to create on par with the best in the business. In addition to standard designs, custom pieces are available courtesy of the brand’s California-based factory. Premium materials, thoughtful design and expert handmade craftsmanship result in top-notch custom pieces you’ll be proud to own and use on the daily. The only downside? There’s around a four to five-month waiting list for custom bags. But trust us, that kind of quality is worth it.
Partial to pouches? DMadeBags makes the kind of pouches you could pore over lovingly for hours and still struggle to choose just one. Premium materials such as 1000D Cordura and X-Pac come together in killer colorway combos and efficient, versatile designs for storing everything from office supplies to toiletries and even an AeroPress (’cause why not?). The pouches are made by hand in Ohio and you can check out readily available inventory on the DMadeBags site. And if you don’t see something that’s just right (or have a cool idea in mind you’d love to see come to life), you can DM via Instagram to chat about custom pieces.
If you’re a fan of tactical carry, the name Mel Terkla is probably familiar to you. That’s because Mel has spent more than 12 years designing Kifaru’s tactical line. But PocketUp is a brand that spans multiple carry spheres, from adventure travel to EDC, search and rescue, and more. PocketUp is all about keeping your gear tidy and accessible on the go through a variety of pockets and pouches. Founded by Mel and his wife Rena, the pouches and pockets are made in the USA with a variety of materials such as 400D nylon pack cloth and 1000D Cordura. Available in a range of sizes, colors and designs, the pockets and pouches can store clothing, shoes, toiletries, first aid supplies and more. And they make it easy to not only organize your gear but transfer it between bags too. PocketUp are currently not accepting requests for custom work that requires a design or pattern change to the existing designs. But if you’re keen for a different material or color combination to what’s available, you can send Mel a PM, email him at email@example.com or call him at 831-566-2337 to discuss your idea.
Made by hand in Berkeley, California, ILE bags are built with a commitment to simplicity, durability and practicality to adapt to a hard day’s grind and laid-back weekends alike. And if you’re keen for a personalised take on their rugged and reliable bags, you can choose custom design options on the ILE Default and Default Mini. While the webbing, thread and binding are always black, you’ve got free rein on the number of pack colors, with a current build time of 10 days (subject to change). And if you’re after something more customized, you can get in touch with ILE and discuss whether they can make your ideas a reality.
R.E.Load may be a small brand but they’re big on customization options. And this Philadelphia-based brand knows all about the custom scene. After all, it was founded by bike messengers and has been crafting handmade bags since 1998. In addition to their ready-made range, you can get stuck into shaping your dream bag with multiple options covering materials, colors, and features. Maybe you’re a fan of 1000D Cordura or prefer Ballistic Nylon. Perhaps you have the ideal color combination in mind, from the thread, webbing, lining, and trim, to the front, back, sides and flap. And with their Color Picker you can get an idea of what your bag will look like. R.E.Load dishes up a huge range of features to choose from including external and internal pockets, dividers, compression straps, shoulder strap and shoulder orientation options, buckles, reflective detailing and more. And they can even stitch a personalized appliqué graphic to your bag for that extra-special touch.
When it comes to quality carry, YNOT don’t mess around. All their bags are handmade in-house in Toronto, Canada, with a lot of their fabric and plastic hardware made in the USA. And in addition to a wide range of standard designs including backpacks, messengers, duffels, slings and more, they’re also on point in the customization department. Their ‘Design Your Own’ option allows you to pick and choose from a variety of features including colors and fabrics, pocket additions, zip changes, compression straps and buckle preferences.
One of the original players in the bike carry scene, Chrome Industries have a legion of fans that appreciate their rugged durability and on/off bike versatility. And if you love custom pieces, there’s even more reason to dig Chrome. Pop into any of the Chrome Hubs and you’ll find talented custom sewers ready to help you create that badass bag you’ve been longing for. Whether you want to pick a particular color combination, add patches, or turn salvaged fabric into a new bag, Chrome’s custom sewers have the skills and passion to see you right.
Mer Bags founder Rob Nelson has been handcrafting bags since 2001. And his appreciation of hard-wearing gear ensures you won’t need to be gentle with your own Mer Bag. Made to embrace active use, the bags are built in Brooklyn using materials sourced in the USA. In addition to ready-made options you can give your setup the special treatment with a custom made-to-order option. There’s a bunch of base designs to choose from such as backpacks, messengers, and pouches, with a multitude of customization options to really make them your own. Customize the fabric choice, colors on the base and body, trim, webbing, thread, lining, the strap style, the bag size, and even add additional pockets.
A customized bag sewn in San Francisco within three weeks of your order. Built with durable functionality in mind and a lifetime guarantee. Sound good? Then scope out Timbuk2’s custom offerings. You can choose from a range of base designs including backpacks, messengers, a tote and crossbody bag. If you’re keen on a little inspiration you can opt for Designer Inspired which lets you take the bag as is or tweak details. Alternatively you can choose Blank Canvas and customize one of the base designs from scratch. Get creative with zipper choices, body fabric and color options, as well as preferences on pocket, binding and webbing colorways.
If you think we’ve missed any brands or makers of note, please share your recommendations in the comments!