Monday, December 1, 2014

Topo Designs Day Pack Review

"I hate this bag, I hate this bag, I hate this bag."

That is what I said almost the entire trip to and from NYC.  I took the Day Pack as my only luggage and I rode the train and walked almost everywhere to give the pack a good test.  And the end result was that mantra, repeated over and over again.

"Where is my goddam Maxped PFII?"

In fact this review period is a perfect summary of the problem with hipster gear--form over function.  When I left for the trip, a friend at work said to me "That's a nice looking bag" and she is right.  But everything else about this pack is positively wretched.

The only point to read on any further is to see if the Topo Designs Day Pack breaks the record for lowest score.  Don't buy this.  Don't gift this.  Don't fill this full of shit, light it on fire, and toss it on the porch of your enemy.  It does nothing well.

Here is the product page.  There are lots of colors and the bag was $129 (MSRP is $149).  There is a smaller version of the pack, which may as well be called the Dora the Explorer Edition, but this version is the 22L version.  Here is a review (they inexplicably like the bag, well okay, maybe not inexplicably...).  Here is the bag (sadly purchased with site funds, think of this as a PSA--now you don't have to waste your money):

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I am not posting an affiliate link.  Why spread the cancer?

Twitter Review Summary: Hipsteritis as its worst--looks cool, works terribly.

Design: 0

As with most things this bad, it started at the drawing board.  Fundamentally, the problem is this--how the bag works was secondary to how the bag looks.  Here is a case in point--the side pockets, which are ostensibly for water bottles (that's what these pockets do on 100% of other bags that have them), did not work consistently.  If I packed the bag full, they didn't function.  If, however, I didn't stuff the bag full, they sometimes worked. It was a tight fit, but if you really wrestled with the bag, you could slide a Klean Kanteen in.  These pockets were designed to look minimal and clean, which is fine, but they still should work, or, they shouldn't be there at all.  To leave them there, in a place where we EXPECT a bottle pocket, and have them work some, but not all of the time, is just annoying.  

All sorts of things were like this about the bag.  The main straps were good, but they lacked a sternum strap, something that should be on a bag that was this expensive.  Undoubtedly such a strap would, again, take away from the clean look.  The end result is a less than comfortable carry.  The Topo sternum strap itself was a separate purchase and it too was garbage.  

Time and again, there were things about this bag that were simply wrong and they were wrong because to do otherwise would take away from the look Topo was trying to achieve.  I have yet to review another product more hellbent on achieving a certain look at the cost of functionality.

But if it was just that, I'd be okay, I'd give the product a 1 here, but there is more.  The bag's design has two other mortal sins.  First, the pen slot/small item organizer is in the main compartment.  When the bag is packed this is all but inaccessible.  To get stuff you have to either take things out or hope you can get to them.  Even when I wasn't in NYC and I was using this bag, the place of the small item organizer annoyed me.  When I actually packed the bag, it rose from "annoyance" to "pissing me off."

Then there is this--the bag doesn't do a great job of protecting your stuff.  In my Maxped bag, a bag that was $50 cheaper, BTW, there is a lot more padding on the back and stout non-permeable material on the bottom of the bag, in case you want to sit it down on something less than perfectly dry.  Nothing like that can be found on the Day Pack.  There were a couple of times when I set the pack down and heard a worrisome thud, caused by my iPad hitting the surface unprotected. There is a version that has a leather bottom, but from the pictures it looks like suede.  Ugh.

Fit and finish: 2 

For all of the design miscues, there is no disputing this is a well made item.  The stitching was flawless, the fabric was cut nicely, there were no stray threads of any kind.  This gives me hope for Topo as a brand.  They know how to do fit and finish, they just didn't incorporate that with a good design in this pack.

Carry: 1

The lack of a sternum strap out of the box is a bit annoying when competitors include one in bags half the price.  But that's not the real problem.  The real issue here is how the lack of organization and the placement of the small items organizer impacts carry.  When the pack is full, and a laptop is included (or in my case a iPad) it becomes very rigid.  There isn't enough padding to comfortably mold the pack to your back.

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When its not packed full, the lack of internal organization makes the pack feel sloshy on the back as stuff swings around and moves with momentum.  This is not a pack for day hikes or public transit commutes. You will constantly feel off balance.

Materials: 2

Again, a win for Topo as they picked all the right materials from all the right places.  The cordura is nice, the zipper pulls are great...I just wish there was a little more padding on the back and bottom of the bag, but those are problems associated with other things.  The materials chosen were great.

Accessibility: 0

If I would have stored my belongings in the mouth of a living alligator, teeth and all, I would have had an easier time getting to them.  Simply put, this is a fatal flaw, regardless of what else the Day Pack does wrong.  I was at a conference, taking notes and my pen ran out of ink.  I had to basically do the homeless person thing and unpack the entire bag to get access to the pen.

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The rear compartment is even worse.  It is so shallow and thin I only put small things in it, like my earbuds or a thin magazine, but when the pack was full, I couldn't reach anything.  Add to that the lack of organization, and I am flummoxed as to how Topo thinks this bag is a competitive offering.  That rear pocket is useless.  

But again, for this level of crapulence, you have to really dig and Topo did here.  The main compartment is basically a sack, other than the underwhelming pen slot/small item organizer.  At 22L this is a medium sized bag, but with almost no structure in the main compartment, I was left with the old "leave it on top" organization method.  That was fine in the 80s when everyone had packs that had two pockets and only two pockets.  But in a marketplace where Maxped's Pygmy Falcon II is $50 cheaper and Tom Bihn's Synapse is the same price or slightly more ($170 MSRP to $149 MSRP), this is just unacceptably awful. 

I'd give this thing a -1 if I could without breaking the scoring system.  IT WAS AWFUL.

Ease of Packing: 0

While the Day Pack can hold a lot of stuff, given its external appearance, its 22L interrior is not put to good use.  Additionally because of a shorter zipper track than many packs, such as the Maxped packs or the Tom Bihn packs, you have to be very strategic with how you put stuff in the Day Pack.  That  would be a 1, but here is the real problem--the more you pack it the less useful the other pockets are.  At one point in my trip, I had the bag packed, not to the brim, but well packed and I simply couldn't slip my water bottle, a Hydroflask, into the bottle pockets.  Try as I might, with force and manipulation, I couldn't get the bottle in.  It was so tight at one point I pushed, the pocket closed, and the bottle make a load banging sound on the table underneath the pack, attracting unwanted attention.  I then took stuff out of the pack, rearranged it, and put the bottle in.  Screw that.  This pack is just fundamentally broken.  It is a bad design, with cues that make you think it can do certain things, like carry water bottles, but with functionality that makes those tasks difficult.  Packing this bag is one of those things.

Pockets/Organization: 0 

I am sure you have guessed by now, but the lack of organization here is really stunning.  I get the minimalist aesthetic.  Not everything needs to be covered in MOLLE, but here they took that to the extreme AND even with the little bit of organization they did include, they did it poorly.  The pen/small objects organizer should NOT be in the main compartment.

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You shouldn't have to rifle through your clothes to get a pen.  This is such a fundamental lesson of pack design that even the barebones LL Bean and Jansports of the 80s knew this.  Putting the ONLY organizer in the bag in the main compartment is akin to putting the steering wheel of a car in some place other than the passenger compartment.  This is another fundamental failure of the Day Pack.  

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2

The ZIPPERS are great.

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They are smooth, they never mismatch, they can take a lot of pressure and still close.  The ZIPPERS are, however, comically large.  If you can get over their appearance, which I can, they are wonderful ZIPPERS.  The buckles are fine and there are no snaps on the bag.  Its all about the ginormous ZIPPERS.

Straps and belts: 0

Okay, so this is a $130 and there is no sternum strap.  How 1980s of Topo.  Worse yet, the sterum strap (sold separately) Is utter garbage.  During my testing it fell off about once every hour or so of use.  It is also terribly thin.  Once snapped in place, and assuming it doesn't fall off, it works okay.  But the built in sternum strap on my Pygmy Falcon II is way better and the waist/sternum combination on the regular Falcon is light years ahead of this sad excuse of a strap.  Even the top hand strap was thin and cheap:

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Modularity/expansion: 0

This pack can barely work without add ons, which Topo offers, I am not sure how they would incorporate here.  Unlike the Tom Bihn line or the Maxpedition line of packs, there is virtually no way to expand the pack, other than to just buy smaller bags that fit inside.  That's not really modularity though, especially compared to other options on the market.

Overall Score: 7 out of 20

Not quite the record, the Artifact seems poised to hold that title forever, but the Topo Designs Day Pack gave it a good shot.  This is like Sammy Sosa chasing Mark McGwire.  It feel JUST short.  In all seriousness, this is just a terrible design and joke of a pack in the modern market.  My Fieldline pack that was $11 at Wal-Mart is, in many real ways, better.  Aside from the superb, utterly perfect zippers, the Topo Designs Day Pack is just awful.  As I was walking through NYC and the sternum strap kept coming off I wanted to take the pack, throw it to the ground and light it on fire to warm the hobos nearby.  At least then it would be serving a purpose.  As a backpack it was a punch in the nuts.

Do not buy the Topo Designs Day Pack.  Its absolutely wretched. It is also emblematic of the problem with hipster gear--form over function in the worst possible way.  Throw this thing on the pile of junk that includes cutely named, painted handled axes from a company with a red cross logo.  If you want something that looks old fashioned and works, try a Filson bag.  If you want something that looks good and modern, try a Tom Bihn bag.  If you aren't afraid to go a little GI Joe, the Maxpedition line is much better and cheaper.  If you want an amazing and functional bag, try the Triple Aught Design Lightspeed. Simply put, there is no comparison that comes out in Topo's favor in the current market.  This is not a pack folks like us need to consider.  

16 comments:

  1. Been too long since the Cryo? I suppose that this time, instead of unnecessarily indignant commenters, you will have mustachioed bloggers file up to defend this fashion statement. You may even have a hashtag set up for this.

    In all seriousness, there are clearly some major problems with the bag. I've had a Tom Bihn Synapse 25 for almost two years, and it still surprises me with how perfect it is. It has the distinction of being the only piece of kit that hasn't led to more purchases, and I'd replace that bag in a heartbeat if it ever went missing.

    However. I feel that two of your criticisms are unfair. First, the lack of a sternum strap is not a serious design flaw. As a constant commuter, they would be nothing more than dangling bits of plastic 90% of the year. For hiking, they are excellent, but this bag (regardless of product literature) is clearly not designed for the outdoors.

    Second, I don't think that the carry strap looks cheap. It's the same one that is on the Synapse 25, and I've never had a problem with it. I'm assuming that your overall experience with the bag caused you to view it so negatively.

    If Topo is reading this (the review, not necessarily my comment) I hope they take the criticisms to heart. The bag looks good, and if they can make it function, they'll have a winner.

    -Gp

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    Replies
    1. The sternum strap is both not functional AND an add on. I get that some folks don't need one, but modern gear design is about giving folks options and here they don't do that. You can hide many sternum straps on modern packs, so its no big deal. As for the hand grab strap, that was just a small point, it didn't really take any points off.

      As for hashtags how about any of the following:

      #shaveyourfauxbeardthenwelltalk
      #fashionstatementvgooddesign
      #andyourpaintedhandleaxesuckstoo

      I could go on and on.

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    2. Just for clarity: when I said "looks good" I meant aesthetically.

      Still really enjoyed the review.

      Delete
  2. This review was a tsunami of win. I read every word.

    I am not knowledgeable about or especially into backpacks. I think the negative, critical reviews can be particularly educational for the reader unfamiliar with a given gear category. In the course of explaining why a piece of gear totally fails, you naturally have to explain to us how it should have functioned, hence what to look for.

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  3. Great review. The negative ones are always the most entertaining. I always suspected this brand was geared towards those who wanted to look cool taking their Macbooks out of the backpacks at Starbucks, kind of like this brand:

    http://www.herschelsupply.com/

    If you ever win the lottery, I'd love to see more Tom Bihn reviews, and bags in general. Which Fieldline pack is coming up? I assume the Montana...

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    Replies
    1. I handled a TOPO pack and agree with Tony on every point. It's basically a glorified sack with two straps. I'll add that it has odd and unhelpful proportions - to get that lean, streamlined look and hold 22L, the bag is massively, uselessly tall. It would need a kickstand to keep from falling over when packed.

      Herschel Supply make simple and affordable bags that lean hard on aesthetics. They're not as well designed for carry as say, Tom Bihn bags, but don't offend any more than your average Jansport.

      Delete
  4. Why is it reading bad reviews is so much more fun than reading good reviews?

    I have to disagree on the "looks good" comment. The color schemes on most Topo bags are garish, and the daisy chains, "gear loops," and lashing square (the last thing being a signature look, apparently) are in the most ridiculous of places, and on bags where they have no purpose.
    These bags look like something a grade-schooler should be carrying his lunch in, only more expensive and with an air of snootiness.

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    Replies
    1. In my defense, that particular color scheme is fairly appealing. As much as longtime readers may associate it with overpriced fluff (BestMadeCo, eat a **** for marking up a Sebenza - no one does that), deep blue with red and leather accents isn't bad. The interior of the bag is not so well coordinated, however. On my synapse, the steel exterior and the wasabi interior play really well together. Here, it looks like someone threw up in their bag.
      -Gp

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    2. Tony mentioned he had people compliment the bag in his review, so you are clearly not alone in thinking the pack is attractive. And yes, this particular color scheme is nicer than some of the other Topo bags I've seen. It's just the colors, especially the bright and splashy red accents, remind me of the colors on children's bags and toys.

      Delete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. The foundation record is sometimes for the foremost zero.5 some actually affirming or even a monetary records. just entirely ar attending to be obtained into our store in conjunction at the side of your payday loans newport_news verification of cash stream, your most smoking customary bank declaration and you primarily gift examine ikon ID or even identification.

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  7. I'm sorry to hear that you didn't like the Topo Daypack. I recently acquired the new Daypack to solve some of my complaints about the Topo Klettersack (lid becomes too top-heavy, shapeless when empty).

    I have been using my Topo packs quite a bit lately and really loving them.

    What I want in a bag is simple:
    - no extra straps
    - light weight, but with very tough fabric
    - one small things pocket and one big things pocket
    - minimal additional organization or padded laptop sleeve
    - doesn't look floppy when mostly empty
    - bonus points for Made in USA

    Let me tell you, this is a surprisingly difficult checklist and I would be thrilled to hear recommendations!

    I looked at Bihn, who seems to be the only other maker of high-end non-tactical day packs, and the organization is too much for me to handle. I spent a little bit of time with a friend's Synapse 25 and I couldn't figure out what each pocket would be assigned to hold, besides the incredibly designed bottle pocket. If I were the organized sort, Tom Bihn would obviously be preferable.

    The other pack that I like and use a lot is the Patagonia Black Hole Backpack (and duffels!) which meets most of my criteria but simply has too many unnecessary bits for me to give it unreserved praise. I don't need or want all this extra webbing like load lifters, sternum straps and waist belts on a small pack like this. They are unnecessary clutter and more things to get caught on stuff. My shoulders are fairly squared off (some people have more tapered shoulders) so I never need, nor use sternum straps on daypacks. The fabric and build quality is very high on the Black Hole, but it tries a little too hard to be all things to all people.

    The Topo bags address my desires perfectly, and as you noted, fit and finish is absolutely flawless. I really appreciate the fine attention to details like the full linings and snag-free zippers in these packs and their minimal design.

    Did I mention that every pocket, even the bottle slots on the sides are lined with their yellow packcloth? It's an amazing touch and makes every other bag I've seen seem unfinished. For a new manufacturer, the attention to detail is incomprehensible, and I hope to see Topo try their hand at more serious, less playful designs to give Bihn et al. competition.

    I rarely ever carry things like pens, books, and only occasionally carry an iPad in a slip case, so I do not want extra organizational features cluttering up my bag.

    For the Topo packs I switched which bottles I use. The standard narrow neck Kleen Kanteen fits perfectly and so do bicycle bottles. If you mostly only pack soft things, like a spare jacket and a handful of small gear items, then bottles go in and out easily. I've taken my Klettersack on many day hikes and bike rides without problem and don't see any issue with my Daypack either. I love that there is no elastic or mesh on these packs, because those are the first things I always wear out.

    For more technical use I'd use one of my Deuter and Osprey and Arcteryx and ZPacks and Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Black Diamond packs, but that's not what this is. It's a clean, minimal pack for urban use and light duty backcountry use, and it excels. This is a gym bag, a light hiker, and a commuter.

    Simply put, the Topo is a better built, better looking, and tougher backpack in the simple style of the Jansports we used to truck around as kids. If you need more organization than that, it is not for you.

    ReplyDelete
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  9. Here's an interview with your favorite people at Carryology. I couldn't get past that guy's goofy face/smile and Dr. Ruth eye glasses.

    http://www.carryology.com/bags/design-heads-jedd-rose-topo-designs/

    ReplyDelete
  10. I agree with Carrot. I think you missed the point of this pack, it's supposed to be simple. If you read the description and looked at a few pics before you purchased you could have saved yourself some money. This and a Goruck GR0 are my two favorite packs, excellent US made craftsmanship on both without a bunch of unneeded crap hanging off getting in the way. How many pens you need?

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    Replies
    1. I have a review of the Cotopaxi Kilaminjaro and it is vastly superior and still a "simple bag."

      Delete