In search of the perfect work bag: North St Weekender Backpack review
I just got back from an international travel trip to present at a conference, and had the chance to test out my new North St Weekender Backpack.
Before leaving I wasn’t sure which bag would end up being my daily carry for the conference, the Longchamp or the North St. The North St won out, hands down!
Construction: The bag is made of a rugged and durable X-pac “X51” canvas, which is to say it is a 510/1000 denier canvas backed by a slim waterproof coating on the backside. The “X” I think refers to the “X’ shaped reinforcement pattern on the underside which makes for stability of the fabric on the bias. It also has these shiny coated zippers which make the zippers water resistant. Unlike other water resistant zippers that I’ve used (e.g., on various soft coolers I’ve tried), these zippers were smooth and easy to pull, which I really liked. I also dig the shiny look which looks cool with the canvas. I was caught in a summer downpour with this backpack and my things stayed nice and dry.
Weight: This bag is light! I mean, really ridiculously light. The website says 2lbs 12oz and I believe them. Bags of comparable capacity (28L fully expanded) are easily 3lbs and up. I believe that many many features were optimized in order to make this bag feel light as air. One of them is the “single-layer construction.” A lot of the bag (mostly the side) isn’t lined, which you can see when you open and unzip the bag and reveal the X-pac backing. I think this probably cuts down on the weight by a lot. The main front and back panels of the bag are lined with a nice material which feels good to the hand, probably so that their velcro strips (sewn in to accommodate modular pouches for organization) would have something to be sewn to.
Expandability/Compressibility: This is a killer feature, and ultimately why I ended up using this bag as my conference daily carry. While it has a 28L capacity, it can be compressed down to a very very slim profile for those times when you don’t need to carry quite so much. That makes it extremely versatile to double as a day bag, and be only as big as you want it to be. While I love my Le Pliage weekender, it’s big and slouchy and looks a little odd when mostly empty.
Here are photos of the bag expanded and compressed, via the four velcro buckles on the sides. You can see the light switch in the back for size comparison. When fully slimmed down, the bag is hardly thicker than the light switch plate!
A close-up of the buckles show this system. The end of the webbing that the buckles attach to has a loop on it and is attached to the compression strap portion, so that you don’t have a really long dangly end. That being said, there is still a little dangling loop of webbing, it’s just not quite as cumbersome as it otherwise would be.
Other Notable Points
Those Buckles: So there are four of those compression buckles on the bag, two on either side. I was concerned that it would be annoying to have to undo and do up the buckles every time to get into the backpack. This turned out to be less annoying than I thought. I don’t often open up the bag fully in all the way around (clamshell open), just for packing for travel. For everyday access, I can open the bag about halfway and the zips are sturdy enough that they stay in place (and don’t keep unzipping all the way to the bottom when I don’t want them to). With that strategy I only have to undo the two top buckles to get the bag really wide open. And if I really want to I can leave the buckles undone. Finally, for quick access (say to the velcro pouches) I don’t need to undo any buckles, as there’s enough space at the top of the bag to reach a fair amount of stuff.
Stowable Backpack Straps: The bag has one feature which I wanted, which was stowable backpack straps. There are buckle attachment points at the bottom of the back panel, and its simple to unbuckle the straps and stuff the into the pocket behind the mesh back panel. This pocket is held closed with a simple magnetic snap. When the backpack straps are out, conceivably you could put some papers or something in that pocket.
The bottom buckle attachment points also can be tucked in behind the back mesh panel.
Incidentally, the bottom part of the mesh panel is pass-through right and left. I suppose if you wanted to, you could add thread your own hip belt through there, but I don’t think North St makes an option. Something that initially surprised me about the backpack straps was how thin they were. I mean, they looked really thin! There is a little bit of sturdy foam padding in them, and the body-facing side is made of the same mesh material as the back panel. I was skeptical at first because they looked too thin to be comfortable.
After a week of wearing the bag, I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded. Even with a full backpack the straps remained pretty comfortable and I didn’t once wish there were more padding. It also keeps the look slim and sleek. There is a built in buckle/webbing sternum strap, which I just wrapped up out of the way because I don’t typically use them.
Organization/Or Lack Thereof: The bag’s main compartment is one large continuous space without any bells or whistles. On the front panel and the back panel are two velcro strips, made so that you can attach their special pouches for organizational options, separate purchase necessary. Personally, I really like the fact that the main compartment is a huge empty box. That makes it easy to pack for travel, with or without packing cubes, and also easy to fit larger or awkwardly sized items (like a large lunch box or, ahem, a breast milk cooler and pump and pump accessories). Some folks prefer the bells and whistles of having a million different built-in pockets, but I find that often I can’t find a use for built-in pockets as some are always too big or too small to carry my particular items, leading to wasted space. Your mileage may vary with a system like that. I like the customizability of the North St system, where I can get pouches with the sizes and features that I need. I do think their pouches are a bit overpriced though, although they do seem constructed well.
The picture above of the bag expanded and zipped up from the side shows how the bag looks with the cooler inside. Fits easy-peasy!
Pockets. That being said, aside from the main compartment there are some pockets on the bag exterior. There is a nicely padded laptop pocket, which does stop about 3″ from the bottom of the bag which prevents your laptop from hitting the ground when you set the bag down. It easily fits my 15″ Surface Book 2.
There is also a quick access top pocket, which easily fits a phone, sunglasses, etc.
There are a few front zip pockets. The top one is larger, and has an internal sleeve with a few slip pockets.
The lower zip pocket is deceptively shallow. It does not reach all the way to the bottom of the bag, but is only about 4″ deep.
Finally, there is a central slip pocket with a magnetic button closure, which North St intends as a water bottle pocket. It is pretty deep and wide.
No Side Pockets, No Side Handles: Alas, the price to pay for that awesome expandability/compressibility is that there are absolutely zero features on the side. I don’t particularly like their front and center water bottle pocket. They advertise the central location as being “better balanced” but really I think it’s just awkward. When the bag is compressed flat, having the water bottle there in the middle gaping the pocket open is just awkward and sticking out.
I might just keep the bottle inside the bag. I also wish there could be a side handle for grabbing from the side. Again, not possible with the compressibility feature. Another feature I wish for would be a shoulder strap option. If only there were a little D-ring or a fabric loop or something on the top and bottom corners of the bag, that I could attach a shoulder strap to! That way, with the backpack straps stowed, I could have the option of a sideways messenger-style carry.
Hardware: There is no cool hardware on this bag. All the buckles seem to be an ordinary plastic. The zip ties are just plain knotted cord. I’m sure the plastic will hold up alright and I’m sure this contributes to the light weight of the bag, but still, it doesn’t feel “premium” per se.
Price/Quality: This bag is not cheap. If you sign up for their email, you can get a 10% off code (stayintouch10), which helps. Bundling with some of the pouches can save you $5 or so on the pouches. You are definitely paying for the made-in-America and made-to-order nature of the bag. I’m torn between thinking it is just slightly too expensive (maybe by about $30-$50) vs okay tolerable. There are a lot of other bags out there for travel and daily carry, and they may look like they have more features (more pockets, etc.). But mostly they are made in Asia in large batches, so it’s really a somewhat different comparison.
I think this is a great choice for a lightweight but durable bag which can work equally well as a daypack and as a travel bag due to its compressible/expandable nature. It is handsome and professional enough to pass in the office, but looks equally fine on the city streets or on a hike. The stowable backpack straps are a plus, and the customizable modular organization pouches are nice, albeit an extra cost. I would definitely check this out as an option for anyone looking for a versatile backpack/travel pack/day pack!