Review: Commuter backpacks from Blaq, Thule and Ortlieb

Blaq Design Kagero – $250

Tester: Eric McKeegan

BT38 Products-2Blaq Designs makes a variety of sturdy bags out of Portland, Oregon. How sturdy? Blaq says “We believe that a bag should be able to endure being thrown on the ground, kicked to the curb, ridden through a rainstorm, sprayed with a line of road grime, and over-stuffed with sharp objects. For year after year after year after year.” That sounds like my kinda bag.

Blaq sent me the Kagero, an new mid-size, roll-top addition to its two strap line-up. A heavy-duty seamless floating tarp liner has proven to be absolutely watertight, but the zippered front pocket is unlined and only water resistant. The external material is heavy cordura, the single zipper is super-beefy and all straps and buckles feel more than strong enough for the job. Six compression straps can keep the bag small, and the contents tight; I only used the pair around the side pockets to keep my water bottle and u-lock from bouncing out. I’d be into longer straps on the bottom of the bag to secure bulky stuff like a jacket, yoga mat, or bed roll, a few more inches would help a lot.

Internal organization is limited to a laptop sleeve, which is well protected by the padded back panel. The shoulder straps are wide and comfortable, and I’m thankful for the waist belt, which keeps the bag from bouncing around when my commutes get too rad for just shoulder straps. This is well designed and executed bag.

The $250 price tag includes custom colors in the body, trim, liner and logo. For ten bucks more, you get a reflective stripe across the bottom or top. Backed by a generous lifetime warranty, the Kagero is a serious investment for the rider who asks a lot of a bag.

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Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Commuter Backpack – $160

Tester: Justin Steiner

BT38 Products-3Though Thule is a name most often associated with racks and cargo boxes, the company has been steadily branching out by producing panniers, backpacks and travel cases. We’ve been impressed with all of the Thule bags we’ve tested over the years and this pack is no different. Quality construction and materials certainly help justify the asking price.

The main compartment is accessed via a zippered, roll-top closure. Inside, a removable laptop sleeve accommodates up to a 15-inch machine and a 10-inch tablet. This removable sleeve connects to the bag’s back panel, suspending it from the bottom of the bag. With 24 liters of capacity, this bag’s middle-of-the-road size is perfect for commutes where you need to carry a flat repair kit, computer, change of clothes, shoes and your lunch.

I really appreciate the genius, hard-shell pocket on the side of the bag. It’s the perfect place to protect items like your glasses or phone. The organizer pockets on the front of the bag are well-sorted and convenient to use. A rain cover and helmet holder deploy out of the bottom of the bag when needed.

Two minor gripes. First, while including a zipper on the roll-top closure provides an extra level of security; it also adds another step to the process of opening and closing the bag. Second, I’m a big fan of waist straps on backpacks designed for riding, and wish this bag offered one. The added stability is welcome for anyone who likes to jump the occasional curb on the way home from work. Ultimately, this bag’s positives far outweigh those minor drawbacks.

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Ortlieb Velocity – $115

Tester: Katherine Fuller

Ortlieb V Duo

This bag has seemingly been around forever, which is about as long as I think I’ve owned mine. While the Velocity is not new, it’s notable if what you want is a waterproof, indestructible, cavernous bag that is as simple and reliable as they come. Think of it as a pannier for your back. Capacity is 20 liters, or 1,220 cubic inches. If I’m stocked up on basics, I can stuff a week’s worth of groceries in there.

The Velocity features a stiff but padded back, padded shoulder straps, and beefy chest and waist buckles. The placement of the back foam allows for some welcome air circulation. Inside, there’s a small organizer pocket helpful for a wallet and keys that snaps to the rear of the pack (the snaps means it’s removable). There is a useful handle at the top, a place to clip a light on the back, a little reflective logo on the rear and not much else. But what else do you need?

I carry my laptop in it only after encasing it in a padded cover as there is no laptop compartment. Without anything else in the bag, the laptop will flop forward and back inside the pack, so make sure to at least stuff a rain jacket in there, or something else that will hold the computer in place.

Notably, the roll top closes best if you roll it toward the back even though rolling it down toward the front is more natural. Rolling it toward the front will cause you to think the Velcro strap isn’t long enough. If you still think that, Ortlieb sells a Velcro strap extender, as well as a cellphone holster for the shoulder straps.

In all, I really like the Velocity, which is why I bought it with my own money a few years ago. I was overwhelmed by choice in commuter packs and settled on this because it’s waterproof, unpretentious, unfussy and comfortable when loaded down. I use it all the time.

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