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Review: Peak Design’s Travel Backpack unfortunately falls short in its goal to be one bag that does it all
posted Thursday, September 13, 2018 at 11:20 AM EDT
Peak Design is one of the most successful, fastest-growing brands in the photographic industry. The entire industry, not just bags. They have a massive fan base and even big names like Sony and DJI are working with them to create either co-branded products or custom embroidered swag. They have a massive following and a lot of people love what they do, including myself. That following helped them hit their goal for this latest bag, the Travel Series, on Kickstarter in less than a day, and as of the writing of this review, it has more than six times their $500,000 goal. All of that is why I'm going to be as detailed as I can in this review, covering everything I can about a simple backpack, dotting i's and crossing t's to make sure I've given proper explanations for my opinions.
Because as much as I like what Peak Design does and as much as I appreciate their heritage, product quality and people, I have a lot to say about their new Travel Backpack system on both sides of the aisle.
Before I get into the things that don't quite sit right with me, I'll first talk about the things this bag does do right. Because even though I'm not all sunshine and roses with the whole product, there are some really good things about this system that I truly appreciate.
Note: For this review we were provided pre-production samples of the bag, the Medium Camera Cube, the Wash Pouch, the Tech Pouch, a Small Packing Cube, and the Shoe Pouch. Peak Design has made several changes to the pre-production model we used for this review, and therefore some notes I would have made about certain features were left off because they were corrected in the final product.
The Cube System
This is a system, not just a backpack. If you go into this expecting a backpack that has a dedicated role, you'll be disappointed. As a bit of background, I own a backpack for each situation that can arise. I have a very large adventure pack with interior metal structure for maximum support, and I also have a pack that is designed to hold camera equipment and cross country skis simultaneously. I have a backpack just for my Phantom 4. I have two different day packs, one large and one small, depending on what I need to take with me. I even have three different sling packs for business meetings (one that looks more like a briefcase, one that is more like a fashion statement, and one that can actually hold a camera). With that background information, it should be clear that I think of all my bags having a very specific purpose, with some minor overlap.
Breaking with that mentality, I think the goal of the Peak Travel Backpack was to be any bag you needed for various trips that could fall under the term "Travel." That means a day trip, a trip to the office, or a week on the road. If you watch their Kickstarter video, they do show the bag in each of those cases and state how it can adjust to be anything you want. And for the most part, that's true! The bag is very versatile, has a ton of pockets, and touches of the little signature things about Peak Design bags that make them so good (like magnet closures, pocket design, and swivels on the straps).
I think what the Peak Design Travel Backpack does best isn't actually in the backpack, but in the "cube" system that comes with it.
First and easily the best, the Tech Pouch and the Wash Pouch are both just perfect. To this point, I've never had a dedicated tech pouch that I actually liked and wanted to regularly use. I have a few different ones that I eventually just packed cables in and stuck in a drawer, but nothing quite like what Peak Design has made here. They have managed to create a lot of usable space in a compact package.
If any of you had seen Jimmy Neutron growing up, you might remember his little cube that has infinite storage in it. It breaks the laws of physics. Well, this pouch can at times feel just like that. I've fit so much into this tech pouch and still managed to close it without much trouble. The ribbing and multiple compartments stretch and accommodate a vast array of items. For one trip, I took my DJI Copilot hard drive, a giant battery pack, ear buds in their charger, multiple cables, an SD card pouch, and both chargers for my Apple Watch and iPhone. On another trip, I packed a LaCie hard drive and its cable, a converter cable set, headphones, a second pair of headphones (because you never know), a Magic Mouse, a Rocket Blower, and my computer charger. In both cases, I still had more room to work with. When I'm traveling, that's about the limit of what accessories I bring with me, and this pouch was able to handle all of that and have room for more. It feels like they thought of everything with this pouch. There is even an exterior pocket with a small pass-through to the main compartment, so you can keep a battery in the main area and charge your phone or another device in the easier-to-reach, exterior zippered pocket. I keep using this thing and keep finding new stuff that makes me smile.
The wash pouch is a similar story of heaping praise. With a similar design, it holds everything I need for a week on the road (or more). Instead of the multiple-ribbed interior that works well for small things in the tech pouch, the wash pouch instead had a divider that crosses two main sections and a center divider that has a small pocket of its own. I was able to fit a travel soap bottle, regular-sized toothpaste, my Sonicare, regular sized stick of deodorant, full bottle of allergy pills, another allergy medication (I have a lot of allergies), ear plugs, grooming kit, hair product, and an electric razor. I got all that to fit and still didn't use two out of the three mesh pouches on one side or the central pocket. Seriously, you can get a lot into these.
What makes both these pouches so nice is that not only do they fit a lot, but they also let you access those items without having to dig around. Because of how the pouches fan out, they easily show you their contents and let you get to what you need quickly and easily.
This is some really nice, thoughtful innovation into an area I didn't realize needed innovating.
The clothing pouch is nice, and has a few features that make it stand out from other interior bags of similar purpose. Firstly, it expands. Though the small pouch we reviewed isn't quite large enough for more than a day or two's worth of clothing, it is nice that it pops itself larger in addition to being a flexible, stretchable material. Secondly, speaking of the material, it's perplexingly resilient and tough while also being soft, compressible, and flexible.
A note on this clothing pouch: you can't fit much more than light clothing in there, which is probably to be expected for those looking to purchase a travel bag. No heavy jackets, coats, or even hoodies will really fit in this very well (at least not the medium size bag we tested), and if they do you won't easily be fitting much else in it. So while this is a great option for summer or temperate weather destinations, it's not good if you're expecting cold.
At this point, I want to move on to the things that are just "okay" about the backpack.
The camera cube is well designed, yet not innovative. I'm personally not sure what else can really be done to innovate on the camera "Cube" housing, but I can't say much is new with what Peak Design did here. I will say that I really love their small dividers which remain sturdy and rigid yet are easily moved... But they're the same divider design you find in their other bags. However, that means you can fold up a flap that is sewn to the insides to create a more snug package for whatever you're carrying. Not new, but still useful. The larger dividers, the ones that move the full length of the cube, look like new designs to me, but are just Velcro-friendly rigid cloth bars that hold the other dividers. Nothing to write home about. The cube itself, say you stripped the inside bare and removed the dividers, is just a cloth cube that can be zippered shut and features a handle for easy removal and carry-ability. That's about all there is to report there.
The cube fits about two-thirds of the entire interior of the Travel Backpack and is secured in place by four small clips that slide into loops on the sides of the cube and the backpack. They make them look super easy to slip on and off in their Kickstarter video, but if you try and do this with the cube full and the bag with other contents in it, it's kind of a tedious task.
(NOTE: Peak Design reached out and without knowing my opinion on the little clasps that hold the cube in, noted that the beta sample I have is harder to work with than the final product. They included this along with a set of other tweaks they fix in the final bag. So while I can only speak to the sample I have, I trust that my qualms with this feature have been mediated in the finished product.)
The cube is moderately-sized, allowing you to carry a decent amount of camera equipment with you on your travels. Out of the box, the cube dividers are arranged to give you eight slots for storage, one of those slots is double sized down the center. Given the slots' average size, that means you can fit two cameras and four lenses in six of those pouches, then either a filter kit (which is what I was carrying) or a large telephoto lens down the center, and then the final slot can be used for carrying spare batteries, memory card pouches, spare tripod head, or any number of other small tech objects that photographers need.
That's not a ton of stuff, but I recognize that's enough for the average photographer. If you need more space (like I often do, since I'm a videographer and therefore my kit is substantially larger), you can gain six or so more slots by expanding to the Large Photo Cube... but then you sacrifice the ability to carry your Tech Pouch, Wash Pouch and most certainly any clothing pouches.
Being a travelers' backpack
And that's kind of the beginning of my uncertainty with this backpack. In their marketing, Peak Design makes a point to talk about how this bag can be anything you need it to be by transforming and adjusting it via modular pieces to go from office bag, to day pack, to full travel bag.
But in my experience, it's really not particularly good at being any of those things for a working, traveling photographer with the exception of one specific case. There are too many concessions you have to make when choosing what the bag is on a given day.
To illustrate, let me cover the different needs I have on different days:
Travel (airplane): I hate checking luggage, and I especially hate it if that luggage has photo equipment in it. I never do it. So the promise of a bag that can fit all my photo gear and my clothes in it sounded great. Unfortunately, it's not really possible with this bag. The Medium Cube, which could be large enough if I really slimmed my kit down to bare bones, takes up more than half the space of the interior of the bag. If I want to bring the Tech Pouch in addition to the Medium Cube, I now have a very small amount of square footage to try and fit clothing.
If this is a trip where I need to have business-appropriate attire, this is in no way happening. I could probably fit a couple changes of shirts, socks and underpants in there. Sports coat? Change of slacks? Oxford? Maybe, but it's getting tight. The front of the bag where you can expand the section fully opens up, and I could slide a few items in there, but it's close. More than two days? Not going to happen. Especially not if there is a cold climate where you are going.
Oh, and you can't fit all those things plus the wash pouch in there at the same time. Now you're really out of space. The Medium Cube plus the two pouches takes up the entire middle bag, so your only option will be to cram into the front of the bag where all your clothes can't wait to get wrinkled as they mash against each other in transit.
So while you could fit a few things in this backpack, it doesn't eliminate the need for a second bag if your trip is going to take more than two days. And since this backpack is so big, it's absolutely not fitting under the seat in front of me, meaning whatever bag I bring to supplement what doesn't fit in this bag needs to also be quite small. At this point, I would probably just pack a more complete duffel and check it rather than try and deal with this space problem with my carry-ons.
The "duffel" feature is made useful here by being a way to heft the bag into your car after exiting the airport. The promotional videos made for this bag make it look like the duffel feature is more prominant than it actually is, though. It's not meant to be used for long stretches of time as a duffel, but rather as a method to easily move it from one stationary position to another.
Travel (car): My aforementioned camping trip with the backpack is a prime example of this bag's shortcomings even when having more space via the back of a car is an option. Even bringing enough clothes for a couple days in a tent was a challenge, with the same issues regarding having to decide between the two pouches and having clothing rearing its head. I ended up bringing an additional duffel on this trip to carry other items just because there was no room for it on this trip.
Backpacking: This is a terrible idea with this backpack for a couple reasons. One, as I hope I've covered in the first two situations, there just isn't enough room in this backpack for much. You can probably leave the two pouches at home this time, since on a backpacking trip you really need to slim things down. It is feasible that you could get it all in the bag, but then a new problem arises: support.
This bag is not well supported for long treks on your back. Maybe a few miles, maybe a few hours, but beyond that you're going to start to feel the tug of some design problems for backpacking. One, there is no internal metal framing to keep the bag straight and secure on your back. Two, the waist straps are hilariously inadequate for not only backpacking as an activity, but for this bag as a whole (more on that later). Finally, the bag when empty is, like other Peak Design products, heavy. You don't tend to notice it with smaller bags like the Everyday Messenger and Everyday Backpack, but when you get up in size like this one does, the actual weight of the materials used begins to show.
But that's not even all: the shoulder straps are not adjustable at the shoulder level and are, for me and a few others I've spoken to, badly positioned and end up pinching and tilting on their own axis. More on that below.
Now I get it: this is not a backpacking backpack. It was not designed as one, but that won't stop some folks from thinking it might work in that situation when buying it. I just wanted to put this section in here so that I can dissuade anyone from thinking it would work well in this case.
Everyday Office Bag: Peak Design shows that the Travel Backpack can slim down and become more of an everyday wearable bag, but it's just not a likely scenario, at least not for me. Even when it gets slightly compressed (and I do mean slightly), it doesn't reduce the weight of the backpack at all (obviously) and, as I mentioned, it's not light. Also, the way the bag is designed and how the interior works makes it kind of weird to use if it doesn't have some kind of interior to it. It's rather cavernous all in one place, rather than how a "regular" bag divides its interior across two or three zipper compartments (think of a Jansport or L.L. Bean backpack). This backpack, on the other hand, because it's supposed to hold larger cubes in it, has just one giant compartment, which doesn't work so well for daily, everyday items. You'll end up carrying a mostly empty, giant backpack with you when you really just need something smaller for a sweatshirt and a laptop when you're jumping on the train to get to work.
Professional Camera Bag: Ok, here it actually can work pretty well, but you're going to need to get the larger camera cube insert. I don't see the medium cube being great for long-term, full time photo use because even if it does have enough size for you, half the bag is still empty and it feels like a very large bag to only use half of it. I can see a young studio fashion photographer liking this option because the design of the bag is better for such a use case than Peak Design's Everyday Backpack and can hold a heck of a lot more photo gear on top of that. This person also wouldn't need to wear the bag for long, could take it off when in a car or on public transportation, and wouldn't need to carry anything other than photo equipment in the bag since he or she is coming home later that night. It carries a good amount of equipment, easily fits in a laptop, chargers and cables, and as long as the lighting equipment is on set and doesn't need to fit in the bag, means that there might even be room for a light jacket in there too.
But... is it the best bag you can have for this? If you use the full-size photo cube, it's going to be pretty heavy. If you use the smaller cubes, why? At that point, just use a smaller bag. What's more, if you do want to have as much gear as can fit in the biggest cube, then is putting all of that on your back the best option? Maybe in New York or similar cities where stairs and public transport make roller bags challenging, but otherwise I am doing my best to keep weight off my shoulders. I'm not getting any younger.
Other not-so-good stuff
Aside from the design of the interior bag being a bit confusing for the number of ways Peak Design says you can use the bag, there are some straight up design decisions that aren't best for any type of backpack, especially those that are larger and heavier like the Travel Backpack is. Some of these touch on points I made above, but I wanted to be clear about how these are very crucial problems.
Peak Design has historically placed the carrying pockets and straps for tripods on the sides of their bags, and that has not changed here. I used to not really pay much attention to this, but their choice now makes very little sense. Firstly, I rarely have more than one tripod, so putting it on the side of the bag automatically makes the weight poorly distributed. It's not comfortable. Secondly. By placing it on the side, you're ignoring one of the benefits of having a back-facing opening bag: have a lot of space to carry stuff on the other side of the backpack. Yes, the Travel Backpack does have optional external straps but they aren't really as secure as the side pouches like on the Everyday Backpack due to the Travel Backpack's lack of a pocket on the front to secure the tripod (so it doesn't just slip out the straps). Finally, the side pockets you are given aren't very expansive, meaning if you have anything larger than a very small travel tripod, not all the legs fit in the side pockets. This last note isn't a big deal, but I had a hard time fitting my travel video tripod (the MeVideo Tripod) in this bag at all. It just doesn't let you expand those side pockets out enough. The way I did get it to fit, by only putting two legs in the pocket, didn't feel super secure to me.
Below you can see how I mounted two different tripods. The first is my smallest tripod, and even it doesn't fit that well in the bag. It's too tall, and the way the bag is designed doesn't let me distribute its height more evenly below the base of the bag. Also, you're seeing how far out the pocket can stretch here; with this small tripod, it's at its limit. In the second image, my smallest video tripod (the MeVideo) is far too large. Only two legs fit in the pocket and it hangs well above the height of the backpack.
I am a stickler when it comes to waist straps. I want them to actually do something other than just act as an unattractive belt. Good waist straps not only secure a bag to your hips, they also properly distribute weight around so that stress is relieved from your shoulders and back. The Travel Backpack has what I would qualify as bad waist straps. The straps themselves have no rigidity to them, so they can't actually hold or distribute any kind of weight; they just collapse. So while having bad waist straps is a bit better than having none, they don't actually do what heavy bags need them to do: distribute weight.
I will say, though, that the way that Peak Design got their straps to fold up and hide under the back padding was really smart. Little things like this are what they are known for, and yeah, it's a good design. It's probably why they didn't go with a more robust waist strap, because then you would not be able to fold them away like this.
It's a Short Bag
Backpacks that excel at distributing their weight try and make use of all possible directions. The Peak Design Travel Backpack seems to have forgotten that it had vertical space to use, and instead opted for depth. So while it may have the same liter carry size as other backpacks, it crams all that space into depth rather than height. The result is a bag that's just as heavy as others in its category that also makes that weight reside farther away from you as the wearer. The farther back you push the weight, the more you as the wearer have to lean forward to compensate. Compared to another backpack that I find to be much more comfortable (the Shimoda, for example), it's five inches shorter. That's a significant amount of real estate that has been moved from across my whole back to an area farther from my body.
I mentioned that these straps aren't adjustable at the shoulder, and that's a problem. While they do rotate at their hinge, they don't actually properly adjust to fit different heights and comfort levels. With smaller bags it's fine, but bigger bags absolutely need a way to better position the shoulder straps for each user. When worn where I would like to wear them, with the amount of tension I like across the chest, the straps actually bow up and inwards a little and that breaks their ability to evenly distribute weight. Instead of using the whole strap's width, I end up getting only about the interior half actually pressing against my body the entire time as I walk. This isn't comfortable. It's passable for a few hours, but soon after it can really become a literal pain.
Now I want to try and end on a positive note because that's how I am, so let's talk about a few design things I actually did like.
Rather than buttons or zippers everywhere, Peak Design once again uses magnets, and it's nice. The rain cover, which slides out of the bottom of the bag via it's own little pocket, is held closed by a magnet. The aforementioned waist straps that fold up into the back of the pack? Also held closed by magnets. Small pockets in the tech and wash pouches? Yup, clip together with magnets. There is something really satisfying about hearing something snap and hold in place via a magnet, and I love their use in this bag. I only wish they made use of them in more places.
The Camera Cube's Dividers
The cube itself is nothing special, but I do like Peak Design's dividers. I've mentioned this before when I've reviewed their other packs, but I really like how stiff and strong they are. These are no exception, and they're easy to remove and replace and they hold even heavier pieces of gear in position.
I will say that Peak Design has this new, weird little divider pouch thing that I think is meant to just sit up next to their real dividers. It's flimsy and has a little pouch with a small velcro pull tab on it. It might be for something like watch batteries (for intervelometers) or USB keys or something, but you can't really fit a lot in them. Maybe it's just for miscellaneous stuff you didn't have a place for anywhere else. In any case, I wish the pouch wasn't held closed by velcro, but instead magnets. Magnets rock. More magnets please.
Pockets... pockets everywhere
Peak Design advertises pockets galore on this bag, and they are correct: there are a bunch all over this backpack. Some can even be accessed from two different sides of a divider, which is awesome. I always had some place to stash even the smallest, last minute addition to my kit, which is nice. I feel like I'm still, to this day, discovering new pockets in this backpack. That's really neat. Until I forget I left something important in one of them and don't ever see it again... but that's on me.
What I liked:
- Bag is pretty good at transforming to multiple configurations
- The Wash Pouch and Tech Pouch are amazing. I am never traveling without them again
- Excellent dividers in the camera cubes, as expected
- Sneaky little compartments held together or closed by magnets that wonderfully hide away parts of the bag you aren't immediately using (like waist straps or the rain cover)
- Tons of pockets in pretty much every place you could imagine, and then more in places you didn't even consider
- Even without the rain cover, the Travel Backpack is pretty water resistant thanks to sealed zippers and the choice of a non-porous exterior material
- You can carry it as a duffel when moving it from one position to another. It's a slightly easier fulcrum point than the top or sides of the bag
What could use improvement:
- Bag never quite can be the "end all" backpack it's advertised as. It can't fit all of the needs of a traveling photographer all at once, unless the travels are for a very short time
- Too big and bulky to be a daily backpack, even when you scrunch down the top portion to slim the profile
- When empty, this backpack is way too heavy. I'm all about good materials, but not when they compromise by adding pounds of weight to the finished product
- Tripod mounts/pockets are on the sides. There are rear straps for mounting a tripod, but no way to prevent those items from slipping downwards since there's no pocket to secure the legs of a tripod
- Uncomfortable: the straps are not adjustable at the shoulders meaning if you aren't just the right build, the straps are going to pinch
- Waist straps are unhelpful and floppy, making them unable to properly redistribute weight
- Back-heavy: when you wear the pack, it doesn't want to push any weight to the sides, or make use of vertical space. This isn't helped by the expanding pocket making the bag even deeper and pushing weight even farther away from your body
I can't really say a bag is worse because it lacks Peak Design innovation, but what I can say is that there are scant few risks taken with this bag. Many of the cool design decisions (like the stiff dividers, the pull tabs on the zippers, pockets attached to dividers, the weather sealing on the zippers, etc) are all innovations made by other bag companies before and mushed together into one bag by Peak Design.
When you see it on someone's back, it's just kind of a big, black blob. Maybe you want that, but I would rather see something else from these guys who pride themselves on different takes in a sea of look-alikes. Everyone makes a giant black blob backpack, and I wanted Peak Design to shirk that trend. Unlike with the Everyday Messenger or Backpack, the Travel Backpack is more of an amalgamation of other bag designs from across the industry into a rather characterless, featureless, bland experience. And maybe I'm being harsh, as that is entirely possible because I love Peak Design and they set a high bar for themselves, but I really expected more out of their design team for this bag. I mention in the very first section of this review that there are Peak Design "touches" on bag that can be appreciated, and that's true. It's just... they're few and far between. The things that make Peak Design bags great are muted here, and that's really disappointing. Instead of a thoughtful, unique backpack that was Peak's take on a travel bag (and one that I would be willing to sacrifice on because it was unique and special, and so what if that means it weighs more) I instead was given a backpack that honestly could have been made by just about anyone. Aside from those aforementioned three or four places they use magnets, which is kind of their awesome schtick, and the thoughtful placement of the many pockets, there are a real lack of distinguishing features about this bag that makes it a Peak Design bag.
For all that, the asking price is rather steep. Empty, with no pouches or cubes, it's $235 on their Kickstarter ($300 MSRP). That purchase makes no sense because the backpack is really kind of useless without any internal compartments. To get those, you need to jump up to $400. That's a steep price for a bag with what I consider to have many caveats.
However with over 10,000 backers, I don't know that my opinion honestly matters. They're going to sell these, and that's good for them. I just don't know that rewarding them for making a bag that I honestly believe is below their capabilities as a team is good for all of us in the long term.
But man, they really did kill it with those two pouches though. Like, I actually do recommend pledging to their Kickstarter just enough to pick these up for yourself and putting them in any bag you like (they fit nicely in the Everyday Backpack, for example).