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February 27, 2008

WaterField Cargo Messenger Bag

I have become an accidental messenger bag collector. Yes, I do ride a single-speed urban assault bike and yes, messenger bags make perfect sense for short jaunts around town, but I think the real reason I prefer them is because they are masculine. Any proper messenger bag gives you the ability to carry your stuff around without the metrosexual overtones of the dreaded man-bag.

Messengers also do yeoman duty as briefcase/attaché replacements. Even back when I was an executive type toiling in dreary corporate fortresses, I never got comfortable with the inflated self-importance suggested by a briefcase. I always got a kick out of slinging something informal and collegiate over my starched shirt, as if to say, "Yeah, I make six figures, live in a McMansion, and drive a Lexus but that's not who I really am inside."

My first messenger bag was one I picked up at the launch of Wired Magazine in 1993. It was a black Timbuk2 Messenger with a big fluorescent pink Wired logo on it. It was just one big sack with no internal pockets of any kind. Took me a while to realize that you just throw whatever in there and let it adapt itself to the shape of your back. I was hooked. When I decided to stop carrying around a magazine billboard I picked up another Timbuk2 Messenger ($95), a large red-black-red one with an internal flap containing pockets for mobile phones and such. Still have it 15 years later and it looks as good as the day I bought it, even though I've beaten the crap out of the thing and never so much as wiped it down. When I need to haul a big load of anything that can spill, this is the bag I use. The rubbery interior coating is thick yet pliable, keeping the contents protected and quiet while also being waterproof both ways. If you favor your beer in bottles as I do, this may be the beach bag for you.

Several other messenger-style bags have come my way over the years. I reviewed a Trager Courier Laptop ($167) that was lightweight and attractive but which I ultimately found to be a pain in the keister. With its matte-black interior and myriad undifferentiated pockets it was difficult to figure out where everything was in that bag. The wimpy nylon section dividers just sort of flopped around when I tried to put things in the pockets one-handed. Papers and magazines would get trashed in the thin document compartments. And the instant you set the thing down the whole rig would flop over to the ground due to the bag's minimal structural stiffness. Even though it measured 16" x 13" x 6" it could only hold a smallish laptop AND you had to buy a separate padded sleeve for it since the bag had no built-in padding for a computer. This bag would be okay for carrying a sandwich and a couple of books to class but that's about it. I see Trager now has a proper messenger bag line, so perhaps I'll give them another look -- assuming they'll speak to me after they read this.

Next came a promising messenger-ish bag from Incase. It was a structured, wedge-shaped affair that offered tons of useful space, great laptop protection, and really cool aesthetics but literally fell down in the daily usefulness department; it would not, under any circumstances, remain upright. The company no longer makes this model and that's probably a good thing.

My next victim was a Tenba Messenger PM-17c ($115), a serious bag made for photojournalists who don't want to look like photojournalists. This has become the bag against which I judge all others. It is extremely well organized, with pockets galore that work well in daily use. Paper compartments are well separated and just stiff enough to keep their contents in presentable shape. The interior is light grey so I can easily find things in dim light. It's built to take a beating with burly hardware, stout materials, taped seams, and a thick rubberized bottom. It is designed to be extremely comfortable in use. Thick pads along the bag's backside, grab handle, and shoulder pad make it effortless to schlep for hours. And it looks somewhat like a piece of military surplus, particularly in Olive Drab; no one will ever call a Tenba Messenger a man-bag. And somehow this 2.8-pound, 18" x 13" x 7" bag manages to look smaller than it actually is. You can fit a 17" laptop in the padded rear compartment but at a glance you'd probably never guess it could handle that. I toss my trusty old 12" PowerBook in vertically, with an accessory bag alongside carrying an AC adapter, a DC adapter, a mouse, a clip-on webcam, and all my cables. I've even used the Tenba for overnight trips. It swallows up a change of casual clothes and a shaving kit easily yet still manages to look more like a book satchel than a piece of luggage. Since it qualifies as a "personal item" instead of a roll-aboard I can usually take my electric guitar onto the plane instead of checking it.

So into my contented, Tenba-toting life comes a lovely WaterField Cargo Medium ($199) and a pile of matching accessories. WaterField, AKA sfbags.com, has been making extremely well-regarded cases for many years, all designed and made in San Francisco where, as the company proudly proclaims, "Rent is high, labor expensive, and competition is intense." Which they follow with, "We wouldn't go anywhere else." You've got to love 'em.

The incredibly nice people their sent me their flagship Cargo messenger bag, medium size with black and yellow "Taxi Indium" accent flap and the paragliding harness buckle. They also offer this bag with an airplane seat buckle, but now that flying has lost all its charm for me, I'd rather not see that particular piece of chrome everyday, thank you very much.

First impressions:

1. Wow, it's really pretty -- maybe too pretty for a man to carry anywhere outside San Francisco or NYC?

2. How can it be so light yet hold its shape so well?

3. The outside phone pocket is on the wrong side. Is the designer a leftie?

4. Okay, I see the big pockets, but where are all the little pockets?

5. There is no padding anywhere on this bag except the shoulder strap.

At this point, I'm feeling like I might be looking at a beautifully executed designer's dream of what messenger bags look like in some alternate universe. Compared to the determined utility of my Tenba, the WaterField Cargo seems kinda puny and costs about twice as much. Yet WaterField bags have so many glowing reviews from journalists and breathless testimonials from customers that I decide I must be missing something here.

That's when the light came on: It's the accessories, stupid! You can't evaluate this bag without taking into account the SleeveCase, the CableGuy and/or the GearPouch. Okay, I'm BSing you on the GearPouch thing since I don't actually have one to review. But if it's anywhere near as good as the three different-sized CableGuys I received, then I think we'll all be okay. (Note to self: Order a GearPouch!)

The WaterField Cargo is not a bag, it's a modular system. That's why WaterField offers the "Mambo Combo:" a bag, a laptop sleeve, and an accessory organizer for one reduced price. You can custom order just what you need and still save $24 or so.

Let's start with the SleeveCase. Like the Trager bag, the Cargo lacks a padded laptop compartment so you'll have to order one along with your Cargo. I requested the horizontal SleeveCase for my MacBook ($39) and it fits like the proverbial glove, offering 6mm of neoprene protection from anything coming from the bottom or the side. The top is open, so I'll just have to hope the Cargo's thick ballistic nylon fends off anything falling from on high. (You can custom order a padded top flap for an additional $15 -- I wish I had done so.) The fit is so perfect that WaterField included a little strap loop at the bottom so you can pull the case off without having to use just your fingers to clamp the top of your computer. The SleeveCase works great as an around-the-house carrier for my machine and there is even a handy pocket on one side for small items, but there are no D-rings for a strap unless you custom order them for an additional $12, or $18 with a matching strap. The SleeveCase is a superbly designed thing, far better than any other minimalist laptop case I've used, including designs from Trager, Tom Bihn, Incase, and several others whose brands I've forgotten.

For items like AC adapters and cables, you'll want one or more CableGuy gear cases. These come in three sizes, all of which fit into one or another pocket in the Cargo. The Large model ($25) spans the width of the front zippered pocket and makes a workable shaving kit if you keep your liquids in ziplocks for safety. The Medium model ($22) holds all my laptop stuff, as described above in the Tenba paragraph. The Small model ($19) is a catch-all for foreign coins, receipts, small tools, guitar picks, and so on. None of them are padded, but the edges are sewn in such a way that they provide a good deal of protection from bumps and the lack of padding keeps the whole rig slim and easy to manage in tight quarters.

And that is really the main difference between the WaterField Cargo and the Tenba Messenger. Packed for a hypothetical trip with identical gear, the Tenba is shorter but thicker -- it can serve as a pillow if you're desperate. Even completely empty it's a little pudgy. The WaterField is inches slimmer and easier to navigate with in crowded spaces but not as comfortable to carry long distances. Your priorities and travel style will decide for you.

Then there is the gadget pocket issue. It seems like a trivial thing but in daily use, it's kind of a big deal. No bag designer can know exactly what you will be stuffing in your bag, so you either get lots of smaller, different sized pockets or fewer large ones. The WaterField leans toward the larger size, with two paperback book-sized deep pockets under the front zipper flap, the underside of which is graced with a shallower wide pocket. In the rear compartment where your laptop and/or clothes live, there is a row of three pockets, a slimmer one that's roughly iPod/iPhone size, and an ID/biz card pocket. You also have an external phone-size pocket on right side of the bag but you may not like it there. Since I spend so much time with a heavy guitar hanging from my left shoulder, I always sling my bag strap over my right shoulder to keep my back in balance. Worn thus, my phone would be behind me on my right in a blind spot that thieves will not fail to notice. Park my $400 iPhone there? I think not. I use that pocket for pens, mints, cheap sunglasses, combs, and other items of negligible value.

And now we tackle the prettiness issue. Laugh all you want, metro-boy -- I live in Idaho where things like this matter to a bloke. I suggest ordering your Cargo in black if you feel self-conscious wearing all that splashy color. On a bike, of course, the bright colors are a good thing, which is why I went for the screaming yellow Taxi Indium on mine. The usual rules of male coolness are somewhat less strict when cycling -- where else can a dude wear spandex and not elicit chuckles from the punters? At the cafe, however, it's a different story. Look at this photo of Indiana Jones with his battered canvas bag. Now imagine that bag festooned with a cheerful yellow checkerboard pattern -- 'nuff said.

Verdict? I am retiring the Tenba and going with the WaterField. The case-within-a-case modularity fits my travel style better than the Tenba's generic approach. And the slimness of the Cargo may even make my crazy life run just a little smoother. When I'm overseas on tour for several months at a stretch, I live out of my luggage in a way the average daily commuter never will. Last summer I went nine straight weeks living out of a messenger bag, a small duffle bag, and a guitar case. Everything has to work in perfect harmony, from insane airport security lines to dinky rental cars to ale-soaked greenrooms to closet-size quarters in back of the pub. And sometimes you have to be able to instantly grab everything you own and run like hell. Weight, bulk, reliability, and organization become hugely important on the road. I feel confident my WaterField gear will do just fine.

~David MacNeill

WaterField Cargo at sfbags.com

Posted by dtm at February 27, 2008 07:05 PM