Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Beer Bucket and Beyond: A Review of the Banjo Brothers Commuter Backpack...

UPDATE, May 9, 2008: I'm in contact with Mike from Banjo Brothers, who has offered to replace the bag free of charge with a larger model. According to Mike, the drybags have been redesigned to be more robust, so the problems I experienced should now be addressed.
UPDATE, April 30, 2008: In the five or so months that I've used this bag, the inner "drybag" described below has begun to crack around the top edges and has developed a quarter-sized hole in the side and a two-inch split along one seam. Also, the webbing on one of the shouder straps has begun to fray substantially where it contacts the cinch buckle, threatening to dump the whole works one day without warning. In the interest of full disclosure: I did use the pack daily for those four months, and on occasion I carried some relatively heavy loads; however, none of them contained sharp objects or anything that I would expect to cause a puncture.

On April 9 and again on April 13 (2008), I tried contacting Banjo Brothers by email to see what my warranty options were. To date, I've received no reply. It's clear, in retrospect, that the cost-savings with this pack come at the expense of quality. Sadly, I cannot recommend this pack based on my experience, both with the bag and with what I can only perceive as a lack of customer service. Your experience may vary. Read on...

The first thing that struck me upon opening the Banjo Brothers Commuter Backpack is the color of the interior: white.

Bleached-bone white. Ass-of-Casper white. White, white, white.

Why white? If you've ever dug around in a backpack at night for a coveted object, sans light, you know the answer already: a dark interior turns the pack into a black hole, swallowing your junk like a toothless maw and sending it deep into duodenal recesses from which it doesn't return until the light of day. So, white is good here.

The next thing I noticed is that this white interior is actually a removable drysack, tacked inside the "ballistic nylon" pack shell by conservative use of a hook-and-loop closure system. The drysack achieves dryness in part with a rolltop and cinch-buckle design. Now, drysacks keep water out, hence their name. The alcoholic Einstein in me, however, was thinking about things from a different angle, quickly staggering across the closely-spaced cobblestones of drunken deduction to arrive at a dazzling conclusion: a waterproof bag is also a watertight container. Ipso-fucking-facto: this drybag, filled with quality beer and some ice, would make for a highly portable, dripless cooler. And look, it's even shaped properly for the job: rectangular, wide, deep, and pleated, like a grocery bag. Dimensions for a medium Commuter Backpack come out to 17" tall by 12" wide by 8" deep, yielding 1500 cubic inches of dead air in all.

But wait, there's more. Load the bag with ice and a six-pack or two, place your dainties and some foodstuff in separate drybags (separate drybags not included) and place them on top, roll the whole thing closed, and you're ready to hit your next punk bike enduro, seedy assignation in the park, or uptown social event in style. No more worries that some dollar-store degenerate will sneakily pilch your last Old Rasputin from the community fridge or unmarked cooler, eschewing his own crass contribution (a Straubs, perhaps, or some other watery domestic), which goes as untouched as a warm specimen cup, assuming he even bothered to bring one.

Okay, so it's a portable cooler, anything else? Glad you asked.

The Good:

The Commuter Backpack sits low on the back like a messenger bag, making those furtive, over-the-shoulder glances at the shapely backsides of passing cyclists a snap. This arrangement also contributes to a low center of gravity, permitting better balance as you flee from the local saw-bellied constable, who has just turned a blind eye from speeding motorists to watch you roll cautiously through a stop.

The pack is lightly cushioned with three low-profile strips of padding—one on either side and a shorter one down the middle. Just enough to do the job for soft cargo, but a little under-equipped for hard or heavy items. Speaking of cush, the shoulder straps are nice and wide and anatomically sculpted to preclude the dreaded cheese-slicer effect, provided you don't overstuff the pack. There is a removable waist belt that pivots on snap-links at either side—no more fucking around trying to straighten out the straps before buckling. Don't like waist belts? Unclip it and toss it—the pack rides well without it, settling in nicely against the lumbars and staying there. There's also a sliding chest strap to stabilize the pack and hold down your groodies, if ya got 'em.

The pack is black on the outside. The plus here requires no explanation beyond the obvious: black is eternally cool—hell, it's the color of the river Cocytus, for Pan's sake. Banjo Brothers gets around the obvious drawback (nighttime invisibility) by running twin racing-stripe reflectors down the "quarter-panel contact zone", so that the cellphone holding, Starbucks slurping, Suburban cowboy or urban Explorer who might otherwise perforate your sigmoid flexure with his two-and-a-half-ton motorized scalpel has absolutely no conscionable excuse for doing so. Along these lines, Banjo Brothers saw fit to also include a blinker-light loop for extra confidence at night.

The pack is voluminous. It could easily hold two stacked six-packs and a bomber or two, with room for a couple layers and a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich on top. It also holds my 15-inch Powerbook and padded cover with room to spare. Nice.

The pack is capped with a waterproof storm flap that buckles closed, making for twofold protection against the watery elements and tidying up the look of the whole works. The flap extends almost all the way down the pack to cover the outside compartments (some zippered, some hooked-and-looped) where a cellphone or wallet, small tools, and a pump ride nicely and remain exceedingly accessible. Of course, the flap coverage diminishes as you fill the pack, no getting around that.

The pack has drainage holes in the shell so that any water finding its way between the shell and the drysack exits quickly through a few grommets. There is a loop at the top from which to hang the pack—ideal for making room at the local pub for that special person who will come to realize her or his mistake more fully with each passing drink.

The pack is rugged, having come through my recent mano a mano with a DC cab as unscathed as my own bag of bones, save for a few minor mars on the racing-stripe reflectors. Ballistic nylon, indeed.

The pack is curiously devoid of garrish logos, settling for an understated, almost invisible tag (à la a Levi's pocket label) halfway down the side of the storm flap. No rolling billboard with this baby—my blinker light has more ad copy!

The Bad or Marginally Ugly:

The Commuter Backpack is a bit on the heavy side, owing, no doubt, to the dual (drysack and shell) design and the use of burly materials throughout. In real use, this typically goes unnoticed, and dry haulables can be worth their weight in gold. Wet underwear not only sucks, it chafes! On sunny days, remove the drysack to lose some chub.

The pack has no internal pockets, making cargo subdivision within impossible. Fortunately, most small items will fit in the aforementioned external compartments: a roomy zippered area behind a smaller closable pocket and three...uh...penholder slots (penholder slots?...and three?...WTF?...wasted space, methinks). And there's no key lanyard. Why pack makers forget this helpful feature is beyond me; I like the warm and fuzzy feeling I get when I stagger from the pub knowing my keys are going with me.

The pack sports an external pocket on the left side intended for a small u-lock. However, the lamentable absence of any closure system earns it a rating of Functionally Dubious at best. A snap in the center would have gone a long way toward inspiring confidence. As it is, I can't imagine what I'd trust to this open pouch unattended, so I think this feature missed the mark.1

Bottom Line:

An excellent pack, overall. Well-designed, with only a paltry snag here or there to snivel over. Definately a good deal for the money; 80 clams for a waterproof bag is hard to beat. I'd buy it again, although as rugged as it is, I don't think it'll come to that.

1. After closer inspection, it seems that two water bottles might fit nicely in this pocket...or perhaps two cans of Dale's Pale Ale. However, the absence of an elasticized edge still makes this storage space a bit of a dice toss.


riderx said...

Good review, lots of good detail, but give some love to the pen pockets. It is not all zeros and ones wired to the in-tard-web. Some of us actually like to take pen to paper once in a while. And just like that Powerbook craps out on the battery occasionally, your pen may run dry, so you need a slot for a back up and one for a pencil. Three sounds perfect ;)

Oh yeah, nice Straubs reference!

Icon O. Classt said...

True, the pen is mightier than the keyboard--I like to draw, so you'll get no argument from me on that. But there's no reason why you can't put pens in the other pockets (or in the pocket they could have put in place of the penholders) and be happy. As it is, no pens = wasted space.

DT said...

Is there a zipper anywhere on the inside? If it's got a pull tab with a hole in it, you can attach your keys to it. I'm with you on the pen holders. One is cool, if you have more than that, put them in a regular pocket and just switch it out if your pen dies, ha. I like how my Chrome bag has small pockets, especially good for small things you don't want floating around in the big space, but stuff that you absolutely can't lose (keys, wallet, spare change, etc.). In that sense, the Chrome excels.

I'm liking the separate dry bag too!

Icon O. Classt said...

Naw, no inside pocket, dt. I'll have to check out the Chrome pack.

gmr2048 said...

Perhaps the small "pen" pockets are actually meant for another use?

Hjalti said...

Heh. He said Ass-of-Casper. Heh heh.

I'm always striving to bring up the tone of the debate.

YuriB said...

You had me at,
"...a dark interior turns the pack into a black hole, swallowing your junk like a toothless maw and sending it deep into duodenal recesses from which it doesn't return until the light of day."