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Road Tests :: Côte&Ciel Isar Rucksack (SXSW ’13 edition)

by , June 26, 2013

Cote Ciel Isar Rucksack Road Test 16

That is one fancy backpack.”  

I heard this statement, verbatim, at least a dozen or more times while having the Côte&Ciel Isar Rucksack‘s padded straps slung over my shoulders during the week-long city-wide takeover of South by Southwest 2013.  We’ve actually done a serious in-depth Road Test (Part 1 and Part 2) on this incredible pack a few years ago, back in October of 2010.  Being that this review is now slightly dated and that they’ve made some minor updates to the design since then, we were interested to take another fresh and current look at this truly interesting pack from a slightly different angle.  Kind of like Côte&Ciel’s (French for “coast” and “sky”) take on carry…from a slightly different angle.

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Myself, being a bit of a car nut who has owned a bunch of old SAABs, Ando’s brilliant description of the C&C brand, “the SAAB of the carry world”, really peaked my curiosity.  I wanted to know more about their brand and this flagship product of theirs.  Without hesitation, I reached out to the friendly folks over at C&C to propose the idea of a brutal and incredibly-demanding week-long SXSW-edition Road Test of the Isar Rucksack.  They agreed and were excited at the idea.  And so was I… even though I knew from previous experience what the tiring and endless week had in store for my mind, body and soul.

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Some background…SX takes place across the entire city of Austin.  Because of this, I’d be primarily bicycling on my Surly Crosscheck, walking, driving, and cabbing to venues all over.  I would be spending something like 12-18 hours out there in the fray each day, all week long, without stopping home except for sleeping at the end of the night/morning.  Because of all this, I’d need everything on me at all times.  Stuff like a backup clean shirt, bike tools, bike lights, phone charger, water, sunblock, real badges/passes/credentials, fake badges/passes/credentials, and though unlikely, even gear in case of rain.  Plus, my bag would need to hold everything that is given to me/forced upon me at the events during the week, which is enough to fill a VW van or two.  It would also have to seamlessly blend into some grungy events as well as some “classy VIP” parties that I’d sneak/get into.  I use the quotations loosely, as I don’t take these events very seriously.  Additionally, in previous years temperatures have ranged from 90°F to 30°F in a single week, though usually hovering in the 90’s.  So I’d need options and gear for both extremes.  These factors are a lot to consider.  If a backpack can stand up to a week at SX, it can handle nearly anything.  I was hopeful that the Isar Rucksack could deliver.

Cote Ciel Isar Rucksack Road Test 1

Well, it delivered.  It stood up without flinching to the gauntlet of SXSW.  However, my plans changed with a lost (or potentially stolen) camera at the end of the week-long festival.  This quickly eliminated 100% of the product shots I nabbed of the Isar in action; hanging with bands, BSing with minor celebrities, meeting Grumpy Cat herself, in action shots on my back while riding my bicycle, and being in attendance at some unforgettable SX events.  All completely gone.  Wonderful.  I did maintain all of my careful notes on the Isar throughout the festival, so I was still ahead in that respect.  I just wanted to explain this in order to be totally honest with you folks, the photos shown have been taken after the fact to recreate and represent the moments/scenarios/features that my notes refer to.  So you’re not going to see the massive crowds and hoards of SX hipsters in the background as planned.  However, the lighting and focus should be much better in these shots, so maybe this was a blessing in disguise.  There was one photo of the Isar I discovered that made it through unscathed…a blurry iPhone photo (above).  Snapped around 3AM of the final Saturday night of SX, as we were closing down a showcase on the East Side.  Let’s start here, at the end.

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The Isar Rucksack had taken a beating that day, but still looked fresh, clean and new thanks to the waxed canvas main pack fabric.  Although I never ended up getting caught in the rain during the whole festival, that particular day the Isar had all sorts of liquids spilled on it, from cold water to warm Lonestar beer; who knows what else. And it all slipped right off without leaving a mark behind.  Not to mention, it kept all that moisture away from my laptop that I had with me.  This is thanks to the canvas fabric used for the pack’s exterior.  Though the C&C website doesn’t actually provide detailed specifics of the material, it is a lightly-waxed, cotton-based canvas with just enough weight (oz/yd) to the fabric to make it durable and long-lasting.  About as thick as a canvas work jacket.  Possibly 16 oz/yd in weight, but that is just my guess.

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Speaking of carrying my laptop (13″ MacBook Air), the past 5 SXSW festivals I’ve been to I refrained from bringing a laptop out into the madness with me for many different reasons; theft, water damage, and the fear of impact/drop protection, just to name a few.  I wouldn’t have even considered carrying it with me even once, but the Isar’s thickly padded laptop compartment, located in the inner depths of the bag, gave me the initial confidence to give it a try.  So I did.  After the first day I ever brought a laptop with me to SX I decided to give it another try.  And then another.  Then a couple more tries.  Quickly my days of carrying a laptop into SX went from zero to multiple.  Even with getting tossed around, dropped on the ground, tripped over, bumped into, and so on, the laptop was protected from any form of damage whatsoever in this soft secure bunker.  To get into this rear protective zone, you take off the pack and unzip the dual full-length zippers that follow the perimeter of the backpanel.  It opens up like a clamshell, giving you unhindered access to all your tech goodies.  The process is shown below (click photo to enlarge).

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There are five pockets in total back here (one being zippered).  This rear zippered pocket I used for items that I needed somewhat frequently, as I personally found the rear easier to access than the front, YMMV.  A laptop or two, a tablet or two, charging cables, and plenty more could slide easily in the back.  Côte&Ciel eloquently describes their inspiration for the protective aspect of their bag designs, “We take inspiration from nature in a design and production process we call organic construction.  The form and function is conceived as a body, evolving from the interplay of organs, bones, muscles and skin.  And your device sits right at the heart of it, with our compartment construction working as a protective skeleton that’s surrounded by a fabric skin.

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Carrying the rest of my gear was a breeze, thanks to the two separate main compartments.  We covered the rear “gadget zone” compartment above.  On the opposite side, the “front zone” was really nice for tossing in crushable items like extra clothes or a (bulky) Dickies jacket I acquired via a giveaway at some party.  The two compression straps inside efficiently helped to minimize volume as well.  Now this is where the Isar functions almost like a duffel, without looking like a duffel on your back; a wide mouth opening, large volume, zippered access, interior compression straps, then cinching down tightly with the two exterior straps.  Shown above (click photo to enlarge), is the step-by-step process of how the front compartment goes from open to closed.  I wanted to clearly illustrate this transition, as I felt that it hasn’t been accurately shown in other reviews or sources online, baffling me until I had the chance to interact with it hands-on.

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Inside the front area, there are also two nicely sized zippered pockets.  Located at the top of the interior, the smaller of the two pockets (shown above) was perfectly sized for my portable cell phone charging kit that I bring out to festivals and events where I’m constantly on the move (made up of two 2000mAh LiPo batteries and various cables for charging…clutch).  Easy to access when necessary, but packed away enough so they’re out of the way when I didn’t need them.  At the right side of the front zone opening, running parallel with the zippered access, is the rectangular and larger of the two zippered pockets (shown below).  This was used for all the extra stuff; keys, bike lights, bike multitool, wristbands, badges, tube patch kit, etc.  Peace of mind to know that all my important stuff was tucked away into one zippered pocket that would be nearly impossible for anyone else to access while wearing the pack on my back, due to the bag’s unusual access to the front compartment.  Additionally, the dual main compartments (separated by a triple layer wall of fabric) allows for an easy method of carrying in sneaking in an extra ounce or two of the firewater that the security guy at the entrance would quickly find (and remove) in a more traditional pack.

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Since SXSW 2013 stayed relatively cool, in the 80’s and 90’s (in Celcius: 27 up to 37),  the padded backpanel wasn’t a problem with sweat.  And that is usually a big issue for me, as I perspire a lot when I ride my bicycle in the blazing Texas heat of Spring and Summer.  Though, I imagine if the mercury were to rise over 100, the non-ventilated cotton canvas backpanel could have been uncomfortable.  Keep in mind, this isn’t some adventure pack that uses airmesh (blech!) or a fancy hovering breathable suspension, so know that getting into it.  For me, as long as it remained relatively cool, it was surprisingly not an issue at all.  The padding on the shoulder straps and back was nice, thick, squishy and comfortable, which was a bonus.  Especially since I was wearing this pack on my shoulders for multiple hours daily.

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Over-the-left-shoulder visibility.  I’ve talked about it before.  It might seem trivial and nit-picky, but it is a real life thing.  In the US, we ride on the right side of the road.  Coincidentally, this is also the side of the road that we bicycle on.  So when you’re making a left turn and/or just checking for traffic behind you, it is important that you can see over your left shoulder.  I was worried that the Isar’s unique front panel would block my rear/peripheral vision.  It didn’t.  That flap stayed out of the way, located more towards the center of the pack while I was peddling in the prone position down in the drops.  Never had an issue.

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The build and quality are what I would expect of a bag that costs at least $100-$150 more than the Isar’s current price tag (€189 / $248).  For what you get, and for what goes into this, I’m baffled by the price.  The custom hardware is fantastic, a detail that you don’t see very often.  Six heavy duty metal zipper pullers with laser etched branding feel great on the fingertips, plus four metal webbing adjust hardware bits (three small, one large) with the same custom laser etching.  The zipper sliders are large enough and easy enough to use while walking and even while biking.  Same goes for the webbing adjust hardware.  No fumbling around over tiny zippers or headaches messing with straps.

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And when the Isar was put to the test on the ground, in gravel/dirt/hot pavement and among several thousand moving feet, I never feared a hole, rip or tear.  In fact, even after the SX week of abuse (and the use I’ve given it since then), there doesn’t seem to be any visible wear whatsoever.  I had figured that I would spot at least some scuffs or battle scars, maybe a loose thread.  At least something you’d notice.  But even three months later, it still looks as if it could go up on the shelf as new.

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Let’s finally get back to that comment, “That is one fancy backpack.”  Curiosity comes included with the Isar Rucksack.  People will take notice of this quirky aesthetic.  Now, don’t get confused, I use the word “quirky” in the most positive way possible.  As I’ve mentioned my old SAAB passion above, this is the word that would get lovingly tossed around a lot in those circles.  Côte&Ciel explains a bit about their design and aesthetic, “In progressive shapes that embody modernity, simplicity and style,” following with “travel goods that balance modern fabrics with architectural shapes, to make sure bags, rucksacks and sleeves that complement your lifestyle.”  The Isar Rucksack is certainly one of the most unique packs I’ve ever used and seen out there in the softgoods world.  The pattern-making on this must have taken a ton of refinement to get dialed in to this perfect size and silhouette (for reference in the photo below, I am 6’0″ tall and this is the Medium option).

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The extremely innovative and unique lines/shapes/access points of the Isar are perfectly balanced with the beautiful muted olive tone and its real-world functionality.  In other words, it doesn’t just have a pretty face, it has some serious thought and brains behind it.  And though there is no way to quantify this theory, I felt like it balanced looking suitable for both the grungier SX events and the “classy VIP” events.  For example, you wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to a punk show where they’re throwing uncooked chicken and you wouldn’t go shirtless with jorts to a major design firm’s interaction design party in the W.  The Isar walked that line confidently and successfully.  It looked good when it needed to and dressed down and casual when it needed to.  All of their products (bags, sleeves, pouches and more) share this aesthetic and mentality, each are worth a careful look.  Myself, I think the aesthetic is great-looking and nothing short of innovative.  “Built for entrepreneurs on the move.”  I couldn’t agree more.  SXSW 2013 approved.

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