Sunday, 24/9/2017 | 3:06 UTC+0

Waterfield backpacks are an expensively acquired taste

Waterfield Designs is one of the legions of San Francisco boutiques catering to the personal tech transportation needs of the city’s wealthy hipsters. Think Peak Design before Peak Design existed. For the past few months, I have been testing two of Waterfield’s backpacks, both costing $329: the svelte and minimalist Staad and the fit-your-entire-life-in-it Bolt. It’s good that I’ve had them for so long, because it took me a while to get accustomed to their peculiarities, and another while longer to fully appreciate the quality of their materials. Now, though, I’m a fan.

Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first: you don’t need to spend upwards of $300 for a decent backpack to house your laptop, camera, and Nintendo Switch. Just like you don’t need to upgrade your flight to business class and you don’t need a BMW in a world full of Volkswagens. Economy and business passengers all land at the same time, and with speed limits, all cars trudge along at the same speed. But we spend more on those higher-tier goods and services because of how they make us feel.

Waterfield Designs Bolt backpack

Bolt backpack Waterfield Designs

And how do I feel about Waterfield’s backpacks? Very positive. They’ve proven themselves reliable over a wide range of testing circumstances, and I’ve now replaced my Peak Design Everyday Backpack with the Waterfield Staad. Waterfield’s rustic and not at all techie aesthetic feels refreshing, and there’s an honesty in the materials used, which are exactly what they look like: real, thick leather and, depending on the model you choose, waxed canvas for a retro look or ballistic nylon for an indestructible one.

I took the Staad to CES in Las Vegas this January, putting it through the most gruelling test on my annual schedule. On any CES trip, my backpack has to contend with the contradictory demands of fitting every piece of equipment I have and giving me easy and immediate access to all of it. There’s no option to dash back to my hotel room to pick up a forgotten lens, and, ironically for a show touting the supposed imminence of our wireless future, I’m constantly reaching for a cable, charger, or wired accessory.

Waterfield Designs Staad Slim and Stout

Waterfield Designs Staad Slim and Stout

Staad Slim and Stout backpack sizes Waterfield Designs

The larger, so-called Stout version of the Staad, which I’ve been using, is still a beguilingly slim and minimal bag. When I only carry a laptop and other small things in it, it’s practically flat, but it has an uncanny ability to expand and accommodate huge items like full-frame DSLRs as well. I was switching between two mirrorless Sony cameras during CES, with the bulkier Alpha 7R II sliding in and out of the Staad with ease. When fully loaded out, this backpack reminds me of competitive eaters like Takeru Kobayashi and Matt Stonie: it fits vastly more inside of it than its exterior looks would suggest.

I had no shortage of space for my CES loadout with the Staad, but organizing my assortment of cables, chargers, external batteries, headphones, and spare smartphones was not an easy task. Being a top-loading bag, the Staad basically necessitates that I stack everything inside of it, and I’m already on the record saying that side-loading access is the best way to design any backpack. What I wound up with was a very stylish, classy-looking bag that contained a veritable mess of tech paraphernalia. Two particular issues worth highlighting: the price for the Staad’s sleek looks is the absence of a water bottle holder on the side, I miss that; and the leather flap at the top is big enough to cover and accommodate more stuff, but it only cinches in one position, whereas some alternatives like the Everyday Backpack from Peak Design will expand to fit more.

Staad Stout backpack interior

Staad Stout backpack interior

Staad Stout backpack interior Waterfield Designs

So the trial by fire at CES was far from flawless, but the Staad remained a favorite of mine because of the way it fit me and, vain though it may be, for its gorgeous looks. The shoulder straps on this and the Bolt backpack are sheer luxury. They have just the right amount of padding to never dig into my shoulders, and I consider their lack of sternum or waist straps a bonus. Waterfield deliberately designed the straps on its backpacks to be a little closer together to keep the pack more stable when worn with a full load. So I never feel the need for extra stability, and I appreciate the cleaner look.

Another couple of clever design touches on the Staad are worth mentioning. The buckle holding down the top flap is borrowed from World War II ammunition clips and it’ll resist even the strongest of tugs on the cover itself, but opens with ease when its tab is pulled. Once you open it, you can still carry the bag by the top handle, because the pack’s weight is properly distributed and it retains an upright shape instead of spilling all your stuff on the floor. That may seem like a weird scenario, but rushing around with an open backpack was actually quite common for me during CES.

My perseverance with the Staad paid off in the end, as I did figure out a better way to use the bag, and the answer was to go modular. I came across a disused makeup travel kit that happened to be the perfect size to house the majority of my floating gadgets, then I assigned charging cables to one of the interior pockets and data cables plus card readers to the other, and suddenly the interior of the bag was as neat and tidy as the exterior. The two external pockets deserve a mention too, because they also fit big and useful things and make them available in a snap.

Bolt backpack in ballistic nylon and chocolate leather

Bolt backpack in ballistic nylon and chocolate leather

Bolt backpack in ballistic nylon and chocolate leather Waterfield Designs

The Waterfield Bolt, on the other hand, was a far less complicated beast. This backpack is designed for weekend trips or gym excursions, and as such, it fits roughly half a wardrobe’s worth of clothing. I used it as my primary piece of luggage on a half-week trip to Amsterdam and it was plentiful. In terms of space for tech gear, I can jam a full 15-inch Alienware gaming laptop into its laptop compartment plus an ultrabook like the Razer Blade Stealth into the slot supposedly designed for tablets. No matter how hard I try, I still haven’t been able to find a thing in my possession that’s misshapen or large enough to not fit into this cavernous backpack.

Like the Staad, the Bolt is replete with hand-stitched leather detailing, high-quality splash-proof zippers, and a golden interior. Unlike the Staad, here you’ll find two bottle pockets, a big zippered front pocket, and two more slots at the front for keeping things like your passport or a small book. This bag has roughly double the amount of space that I need on most days, so it really wasn’t the one for me. If you’re not going to fill it up, the Bolt doesn’t wear too well, and I often found the weight of my stuff digging into the back of my waist just because it was all sitting at the bottom of such a big chasm of space. On the odd occasions where I needed to really load up on stuff, though, it was nice to have this bag around.

I tested the Bolt in the ballistic nylon finish and the Staad in the waxed canvas, but you can have either bag in either material. The nylon really feels like it’ll last for centuries, and I’ve been unable to do anything to tarnish it during my review. But even so, I think it’d be a crime to get a Staad in nylon, because the style of that bag is perfectly matched to the old school canvas look. That’s still a hardy material, but it just feels nicer to the touch than the nylon and will age beautifully along with the full-grain leather.

The best way I can summarize Waterfield’s backpacks is that they feel like something my grandfather might have used. And I mean this in the best possible way: they exhibit a practical, low-tech, but thoughtful use of materials, and their unrefined look feels organic and inviting to the touch. The Staad has remained unchanged since its introduction more than three years ago because it really is a great and enduring design. It’s too soon to say the same about the Bolt, but both backpacks exhibit the high quality of Waterfield’s handiwork.

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