Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: Ortlieb Velocity backpack

For years, I was a haul-stuff-by-rack-only person. I remember being sort of hostile to the idea of backpacks and messenger bags. Actually a bit angry. Weird.

I could probably trace the evolution of rack to messenger bag to backpack by analyzing my blog posts over the years, but I'll leave that to the historical scholars to sort out. One specific event that I remember wanting a backpack for, was the Midnight Century. That may have been the catalyst.

The Setup
Anyway, the problem with backpacks is that they make you all sweaty. The problem with messenger bags is that they are just awkward for non-messenger scenarios. I'll get more into that when I review the Patagonia messenger bag in the next few days. Also, it's worth mentioning here that the people at Orlieb refer to this Velocity backpack as a "messenger style backpack." To be clear, when I say, "messenger bag," I mean messenger bag in the way you think I mean it.
River City Red blog. Beer is forthcoming I'm told.

I bought this bag about two years ago after discovering that backpacks have their place. There are two general scenarios where I like to have a backpack:

1) When I want the load to be on me. Duh. But the point of that is about having a dynamic load. It's easier illustrate what it's not by thinking about riding a bike that's loaded on a rear or a front rack. Even if a bike is optimized for carrying loads, there's extra lunky weight that makes bike handling more of a chore. For on-road, or non-technical off-road riding, having a load attached to your bike isn't much of an issue. But if you are riding on terrain that requires a bit of bike man-handling or other fussery, having weight hanging off your bike can be annoying. By putting the weight on your back, you can still man-handle the bike and the weight of the load is not as a significant factor.

I over-pack this bag a lot.

2) Load portability. Ok, I just wanted to use the word "portability;" hopefully, I be able to use "performant" soon too. But what I mean by portability in this case makes sense in the commute-with-many-stops scenario. My commute involves getting on a bus, putting the bike on the front rack of the bus, stopping a school building. On the way home, I'll stop at the store. Sometimes dealing with a bike is a pain in the ass. You've got to lock it up, deal with your helmet. When it's cold, you've got gloves, hat, etc. This "portability" idea is that it's nice just to have on less thing to fuss with on your bike. The load just stays on your back. I'm not selling this well, especially given how easy it is to attach well-designed panniers and handlebar bags. But how about this for portability: backpacks are easier to port to other, non-bike load-carrying scenarios. Bam! A Berthoud handlebar bag is all the bee's knees on your rando bike, but it's not too awesome on a hike. See what I'm saying?

The review

This bag is good. Like all Orlieb stuff it's made to last, it's totally waterproof, and it's just well-though-out in that smug German way. To wit:

  • It's got the fancy weird foam things on the back. The point of these, I think -- aside from just making it sort of comfortable -- is to add some airflow to minimize the sweat issue. I still sweat like a pig when I use it on long, hard rides, but I'd probably sweat more like a hog without them.
  • Huge, comfy, poofy, easy-to-adjust shoulder straps. Monster straps. There are some little reflective bits sewn into the straps too. That can't hurt.
  • Shoulder straps also include D-rings for hanging your keys, which is both functional and cool looking. I am often self-conscious about this look and as a result, I typically hang the keys from my belt loop. Cause that's different.

Dig those shoulder straps.
  • Speaking of straps, the waist strap is so very satisfyingly substantial in two ways: it's wide, and the buckle is Solid. (note the capital "S" there).
  • There's the chest strap thing too for huge loads.
  • The load-carrying design uses the patented Orlieb Hole™: no pockets, no zippers, no fussery. I love that. Well, there is a pocket hanger thing that snaps into the side. I use it for pens, mechanical pencils, a velcro strap (to be explained later), and my quickie lock that looks like handcuffs. Note those are all mostly flat items so as not to interfere with the Hole™.
Dig that strap!

So of course, there's stuff I don't like, but in this case, it leads to an interesting conclusion. Stand by:
  • I wish it were bigger. I overload it frequently. 
  • I wish the top closed with the same strap and bitchin' buckle that is used for the waist strap. Instead, there's a non-adjustable velcro strap that's not long enough for big fat loads. For a modest upcharge, you can purchase an extender strap, which helps. But why not just put an adjustable strap with a buckle? I mean, why not?
  • I wish there was a big giant reflective thing on the back. That's a lot of real estate to not take reflective advantage of. 
  • Relatedly, I wish there was a place to attach a blinky on the back. (This deficiency has been remedied in the latest version of this bag.)

The conclusion? I bought the wrong version of Ortlieb backpack. If I could do it all again, I'd get the Messenger Bag Pro.

The Messenger Bag Pro is bigger. It has a "transparent window" on the back where a guy could slide in some reflective stuff. A guy could also clip a blinky onto the top of the window.

But, it also has the cheesy velcro strap on top. I argue that the cheesy velcro strap should be replaced by an adjustable strap + buckle.

All in all: it's a bag worth buying. Ortlieb is one of the few brands you can count on to last for a long time, so even though it's expensive, Ortlieb stuff is a big value in the long run. I'm an Ortlieb fan from way back. Here's a review I wrote for OTM a couple years ago about the Ortlieb Panniers. I need to port that over to this blog.

This is an abnormally cat-heavy post. But the kittens are over-represented today. Poor Tiger is hating life. He's locked inside with the cone of shame. Only  four more days Tiger! Poor bastard.


Michelle Swanson said...

I used my Ortlieb messenger bag for my entire undergraduate commute in rainy Seattle, and it was awesome. I share your frustration with the lack of reflectors, which I resolved with an assload of reflective tape. I also put a bumper sticker across the back that said, "We don't have a democracy. We have an auction," which attracted a lot of unwanted attention from the Larouchites on campus. Persistent, them.

Two quibbles: the shoulder straps became significantly less cushy after a while, and that sternum strap? NOT MADE FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE BOOBS. German engineering, indeed.

adventure! said...

My main bag is a North St. "Avenue B" convertible backpack/pannier. So it skirts the best of both worlds: off your back when you don't want it on your back, and on your back when you want the "portability" aspect.

John Speare said...

Michelle -- the sternum strap is oddly attached too, if we really want to get particular. I wonder if mine was just sewn on the wrong side...

Adventure! -- North St looks like really nice stuff. I like the idea top tube tool pouch. there wasn't a pic of your bag on their site at the moment. I'd like to see it -- it's a hard design to make both of those scenarios work well...

ortlieb has a backpack connector that turns their normal panniers into backpacks, but it's not awesome for actual "real" hiking or backpack scenarios. BUT I've yet to see or use a basic pannier that nails everything like the straight up classic Ortlieb panniers.

adventure! said...

John, the Avenue B are currently out of production right now, but Curtis of North St plans to bring it back at some point. Full details here:

Yeah, it's hard to do the convertible thing well, but from what I've seen North St does the best job. There are compromises, though, but at least Curtis is always working on refining the design.

Anonymous said...

Semi-off topic, but do you still like and use your Front bag from Swift? I'm thinking of getting that one or the smaller one and was looking for a 'long term use' review

River City Red said...

Thanks for the link to the beer blog. Crazy good strategy to combine the two best things on the internet - cat pictures and beer. Winning combo for sure.

Stine said...

I keep an extra long velcro strap inside for those big loads-- but I agree on the annoyance. A big plus, in my opinion-- the removable shoulder straps! Stink be gone!
Still love this pack, but my SealLine is still my favorite for waterproof max capacity fun. Might have to switch back for the winter...

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