What's My Bag: Lightweight Backpack Edition
January 26, 2019 1:40 PM   Subscribe

I know you all have excellent opinions about bags and backpacks. Please share them with me! Difficulty level: must be lightweight, would love it to be waterproof, backpacks only.

I have neck/back issues, so I need something lightweight and well-balanced, and it definitely needs to be a backpack -- I love my old built-like-a-tank Chrome messenger bag, but I can no longer wear it, or anything like it, without pain. I've been using a plain cotton tote bag, but since the weight falls only on one shoulder, that's not working either.

I don't need it to be too large -- just big enough to hold a thermos/water bottle, swim gear, a rain jacket, and snacks, plus I'd like to be able to throw in a 13" laptop and its charger on occasion. Ideally it would be small enough (or squishable enough) to stuff into a small gym locker. And it would be waterproof, or at least water-resistant. And, very important: not made of material that will abrade clothing (an issue I've had with a few other packs and which seems kinda common).

Not terribly interested in expensively trendy options (Fjällräven/Herschel/etc.) but am willing to spend on a more-ethically-manufactured, very durable, or particularly well-crafted bag. And, hell, if I'm actually wrong and Kanken are in fact not heinously overpriced, please let me know!
posted by halation to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
A option may be the skiphop backpack diaper bags. I I've used one as my work bag with my laptop. It is comfortable, smaller than a regular backpack, and durible as they are designed to be around babies. They generally are more feminine in design but some of them are more gender neutral.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:53 PM on January 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have the jansport hatchet which I like a lot. I don’t think it’s particularly lighter/heavier than any packpack I’ve ever owned so I can’t speak to that part. But it has a laptop sleeve (I use an additional case on mine because I’m overly cautious), has room for about 3-5 notebooks and then room for some lunch bag type items on top of the notebooks (or where I’ll shove an extra fleece). It’s probably not technically waterproof but highly water resistant and doesn’t have that air vent material back you were talking about (as far as I can tell). I really like all the pockets it has as that keeps me organized through the day. From the things you mentioned wanting to carry I think it could fit them all unless your swim bag includes fins (you might be able to fit a pull bouy but it would awkwardly take up a lot of space. Jansport has always had excellent customer service as well. Some reviews mentioned wear happening quickly on the bag but I’ve been using mine every day in grad school (usually 12 hour days across two campuses) and I’m not seeing any. Even if you did I bet jansport would replace it quickly

You can also search videos on YouTube to get and idea of how much it can carry
posted by raccoon409 at 2:10 PM on January 26, 2019

I use this North St backpack. It's lightweight, waterproof, and fits a water bottle and 13" laptop with requisite cables and such with room to spare.
posted by kendrak at 2:21 PM on January 26, 2019

It is perhaps less fashionable than what you're looking for, but I have used a Deuter Speed Lite 20 as my ultralight day-pack and general purpose small-pack for *mumble* years and it's still in great shape. I took the waist and chest straps off because they just dangled most of the time. I see they've updated the design a bit since I got mine, but it's still basically the same bag. It would fit all the things you want it to fit. You can (and I have) use the water bladder sleeve as a document sleeve or to hold a 13" laptop, it serves perfectly well for that. In fact, I've managed to force a 15" laptop in there many a time without incident.

I see they've done away with the clever compression straps that can reverse around the back side and connect together for emergency extra storage of things like bulky coats, but also they seem to have given it a wider overall shape (which probably rides better, I've always felt that the straps on mine could connect a little farther apart up at the top there) and used more stretch fabric in the paneling rather than the mesh panels that mine has, which is another nice upgrade as it'll keep the profile more trim and water bottles more secure, while also giving easier access to the outer pouch. Swings and roundabouts, I guess. I do like that the upper compartment has its zipper closer to the back of your neck rather than farther away as compared to the zipper for the main compartment, which makes it a bit more secure in terms of valuables storage.

Overall I've found it to be a good design and very durable and I have gotten a great deal of trouble-free use out of it over the years. It is not waterproof, but I've doused it in Camp Dry on a few separate occasions and I've never ended up with a bag full of soaking wet gear despite being pretty blasé about taking it out in pretty much whatever weather.

A good bag, and I've been happy with it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:41 PM on January 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, and Camp Dry aside it does have a PU coating on the inside which gives it pretty solid water resistance right out of the box. Still not an actual dry bag, but really I've been in a lot of weather with it and it's been perfectly fine.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:47 PM on January 26, 2019

I’ve been using an IKEA Knalla backpack as a diaper bag for the last couple years. It’s the lightest a thing can possibly be and still be a backpack, I think. Water resistant, unstructured, can hold a surprising amount but is equally comfy when almost empty, adjustable straps. The fabric is thin and seems like it would be prone to tearing, but it’s held up surprisingly well for me.
posted by beandip at 3:04 PM on January 26, 2019

Osprey's lightweight backpacks may fit the bill, like the Talon 22. I used one for traveling around in Iceland. It's not waterproof, but it's water resistant and you can get a lightweight rain cover. I had an 11" MacBook Air that fit with plenty of extra room in the water bladder pocket, but you might want to find a store that has them in stock and bring your laptop to check.

I also like Tom Bihn's backpacks—my go-to one now is the Synapse 25, but a Synapse 18 would probably work for you. (I have a 15" laptop so need a bigger bag.) Bihn's bags are expensive, because they're handmade in the US by workers with a decent wage and benefits, but they are also well thought out and very durable.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:06 PM on January 26, 2019

Seconding Tom Bihn. They're pricey, but have so many thoughtful features & seem pretty rugged. I've had a Synapse 18 for a year or so, & the clever pockets let me put in stuff much more handily (& in a more organized & compact fashion -- so you fit more in than you'd think) than in lots of regular backpacks.
posted by diffuse at 3:12 PM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Chrome has lots of nice backpacks like the Echo Bravo which is 20l and I think meets all your requirements (waterproof, laptop,back fabric). I had a different Chrome backpack and I never had issues with the back fabric causing pilling but honestly I never heard of this as a problem before. Chrome doesn't list bag weights which is too bad. Timbuk2 has a number of nice bags but they're not super lightweight... just average.

When you say "lightweight" I wonder whether you mean in the ultralight sense... This Truce designs dyneema bag is at least 33% lighter than a regular bag with the same volume but $380 is kind of a lot.
posted by GuyZero at 3:53 PM on January 26, 2019

Nthing Tom Bihn. I use a Synapse 25 as my every day bag and love it, although it's too big for your needs. The Synapse 19 is a nice, small size, but might still be too heavy for you. However, it sounds like the Daylight Backpack could work for you. It's made to be lightweight, but according to the description, it can hold a 13" laptop. I can't say enough positive things about Tom Bihn's craftmanship and the quality of their bags. ) The Daylight Backpack is also cheaper than the Synapse line. And as described by brianogilvie above, they're a company that I feel good about supporting, even if they are on the pricier side.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:02 PM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, and as to dimensions, the Daylight Backpack is 12.3 oz or 15.4 oz. The lighter weight is if you choose the 400d Halcyon fabric, which is more lightweight, slick fabric. The heavier fabric is the 525 ballistic, which is what my bag comes in, but for fitting it into a gym locker and weight concerns, you might want to go with the Halcyon.

Oh, and the Tom Bihn forums are a super useful resource if you want to research questions about particular bags or colors for any Tom Bihn products.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:04 PM on January 26, 2019

I've had this Marmot summit pack for two years now. I use it every day for my bicycle commute, as well as hiking. For a $50 bag, I am impressed at how well it has held up. Water resistant, featherweight, no problems with chafing or abrading clothing, I also occasionally transport a 13" laptop. I've already considered buying one or two backups for when this one fails, although if it just keeps going, I may never have to.
posted by MrBobinski at 4:07 PM on January 26, 2019

Consider a Crumpler Mantra Compact. I've owned its predecessor for at least 5 years and it's still going strong. I can pack, like, a full bag of groceries into my current one with no issues, so I think it'll handle your space requirements easily. I have also squished it into many a locker. It has a padded 13" laptop compartment, padded sleeves, and is weatherproof.
posted by Panthalassa at 4:52 PM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I like the gregory miwok 18
posted by the twistinside at 5:20 PM on January 26, 2019

Sounds like I have some similar issues and I have switched from a Chrome messenger bag to one or the other of these backpacks that they make. The first is super light; the second slightly less so but it's more compact and has a space for a laptop.
posted by ferret branca at 6:01 PM on January 26, 2019

My Topo backpack has been amazing. I've taken it all over the world and it's always been extremely reliable. I've had mine for years and it's still in great shape. For an especially lightweight option, you might like their Trip Pack.
posted by thebots at 7:04 PM on January 26, 2019

REI Flash 18L is $27 right now, 18L, 10oz. It's ripstop nylon with a polyurethane coating, but not seam-sealed. It also has a hip belt, to take the load off your shoulders. You can thread the hip belt around the back through the daisy-chain to keep it out of the way when you're not using it. I've carried a 12" laptop in the water bladder sleeve of mine, with enough spare room that I'm confident a 13" laptop would fit.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 11:26 PM on January 26, 2019

Freitag offers many different backpacks. I have the Hazzard, Skipper, and Voyager, though the latters may be too big for you. They're all excellent.
posted by dobbs at 6:06 PM on January 27, 2019

The REI Flash 18 is good but very sack-like with no structure FYI. I do use it for hiking because it's so lightweight. The Flash 22 has a few more bells and whistles and water bottle holders and has a bit more structure. The 22 would hold a laptop way better than the 18 because the Flash 22's laptop/water reservoir compartment has a wider opening.

My favorite is still the Ruckpack 18. More water resistant, nice side pockets for small items and more rugged without weighing much more.
posted by extramundane at 6:03 AM on January 28, 2019

Another vote for the Chrome rolltops - I have had the Yalta for 6-7 years now and this thing is un-killable.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:04 PM on January 28, 2019

Because the asking and the answering of this question is one of the core rituals that holds this community together, I wanted to provide an update!

The Tom Binh Daylight was in fact exactly what I wanted, but I'm not in the US, and exchange rates / shipping / duties made it a difficult choice -- this is also partly why I wasn't going with Chrome, despite loving their bags and knowing they had some great options. They're just hard for me to get. I finally found some local retailers who carried Topo bags, and almost went with the Y-Pack, but it had the mesh-backed shoulder straps that I dislike.

So I ended up with... a Fjällräven Greenland Top. Pretty much the opposite of what I'd intended. But one was hanging up next to the Topo packs, and it was super light, and the fabric felt nice... so I poked around until I found one on sale! (A discontinued colourway, I think.)

Anyway, after some months out in the snow/sleet/rain, I can recommend it! The straps feel solid and are padded but not heavy. I like the simple metal hardware. The pockets are laid out sensibly. The fabric is soft to the touch and just feels nicer than Cordura, and though it's not waterproof, it does a surprisingly good job of keeping out the wet -- plus the store offered to re-wax the fabric as needed, no charge, for the lifetime of the bag. It has a throwback vibe, but in a "classic for a reason" way, not a trendy way. It also sits high on the back, which is good for my back/shoulder situation. Probably not super-ethical in manufacture, but the lack of exotic fabrics and the general durability make me hopeful that I will get a lot of use from it, over time. Don't let the Instagram hype put you off -- had I gone with my instincts, I would have missed out! (And their general backpack line seems better-built and less overpriced than the Kanken line by which I was initially judging.)
posted by halation at 2:54 PM on May 5, 2019

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