click to enlarge image  

The Banjo Brothers Large Commuter Backpack
Model 01152 -
MSRP $89.99
by Fred Davidson - "mrfred" on the FG Forum
Photos (and excellent critical review) by Robin Dodson

(from the company website)
* Waterproof 2-layer design: outer ballistic nylon layer wears like iron; replaceable waterproof liner keeps contents dry in a downpour (will not keep water out if submerged, in case underwater-riding is your hobby). .
* Wide padded straps distribute load more evenly than messenger bags.
* Sits lower on the back than standard backpacks to reduce blind spots while riding.
* Chest strap and removable waist strap for stability.
* Large reflective stripes and tab for safety light.
* Quick-access side pocket fits mini-U lock.

This review is a bit unusual for two reasons. The first is how I got asked to do the review. I want to replace my commuter backpack. I started a thread on the Forum about it, and that led Dennis to send me this Banjo Brothers backpack. I would like to thank Dennis for the opportunity to review this interesting pack. As I hope this review makes clear: this not the pack for me, but it may attract other readers.

The second caveat is that we have actually seen this pack already on our website. This is the large version of a 1500 cubic-inch pack previously reviewed by Nils. I encourage you to take a moment and click over to Nils’ review – this new bag is essentially the same as the one that he reviewed, except that it is one-third larger at 2000 cubic inches. Nils liked the pack and mentioned a lot of good features and design strengths, and I agree with him on the technical features of the pack – there’s not much more I can say about matters like the stitching, strap design, feel while riding, and so forth. He wanted the pack to be a bit bigger – and this one is – and so perhaps for some riders like you, Nils, this one could be a perfect solution.

This new Banjo Brothers pack will not work for me, and the reason it will not has to do with the pack I currently use and the features to which I have become accustomed. To that end, I need to tell you a bit about the REI Teton – a pack which I admit is not designed for bicyclists.

I commute with two cables and two locks, most typically on the red Schwinn shown in this review. One cable is a thick Kryptonite (and a Kryptonite key lock), and the other is a cheaper black cable (and combination lock). Both cables can be seen in the REI Teton photos, and I carry the locks down inside that single-clasp outer pocket.

That single-clasp outside pocket is a nice design on the REI: it is very easy to use, even when it is raining or cold, and even when wearing thick gloves. I use the outside zippered pocket for typical stuff: a cellphone, maybe my calculator or flashdrive, sometimes other personal items. I don’t use the outside unzippered pocket very much. The inside easily carries a typical work load: some file folders, a book or two, sometimes a small laptop in a custom-sized padded case, and maybe some odds and ends like my cycling gloves if it got warmer during the day.

Being larger, there is no question that the Banjo Brothers pack can easily carry my typical load.

I want to replace the REI pack for two reasons: first, I’d like better protection from the elements for everything except the locks and cables, and second, I’d like some additional outside waterproof pockets and/or inner dividers or pockets. A little more interior space would be nice, but that’s not really essential.

Is this new Banjo Brothers Large Commuter pack an alternative for me?

Let’s start with the matter of where I like to carry my locks and cables. When you unclasp the main flap of the Banjo Brothers Large Commuter, there are the same additional outside pockets which Nils noted, and by coiling my cables a bit more tightly, I was able to store them as I am accustomed. I was also able to put my padlocks in another outside pocket. You can see the shank of one lock peeking through in the photo. I don’t want to open my entire backpack if I’m locking or unlocking the bike in the rain or snow – and this new pack avoids that problem, just as my present REI pack does.

However, once I used the outside pockets on the Banjo for my locks and cables, I had no remaining outside storage except for some tiny pockets for pens and such – and that leads us to the real design dilemma of the Banjo Brothers pack: it needs more dividers and pockets to attract commuters who like pockets, as I do. Where could Banjo Brothers put some additional pockets? If they keep to their wise design to protect outside pockets from the elements and thus to avoid the sides of the pack, then the only logical choice is inside the pack.

What is the inside of the pack like? As a field trial, I took the Banjo Brothers pack to our supermarket and brought back a twenty-five pound bag of cat litter, something I assure you is quite impossible with the REI backpack. That was the first time I’ve carried a bag of litter on my back on a bicycle, and it will probably the last, all in the cause of gathering data for this review! The Banjo Brothers pack carried the litter easily, much to the pleasure of Frankie and Rosie, our cats.

The inside of this new Banjo Brothers pack is big – it does provide exactly what Nils asked for in his review: the same style but more room. My wife (Robin Dodson) said: “I bet your green pack could fit entirely inside that one.” She was right. It fit easily, as I illustrate in one photo here – and the images of me riding are with that pack-in-a-pack load test.

These large loads are possible because the inside of the Banjo Brothers Commuter Backpack is one huge cavity. There are no dividers, side pockets, or separators. If you want to isolate an iPod or calculator or bottle of ibuprofen, and if you have used up the meagre outside pockets for cables and locks and pens and pencils and other whatnot (or if you want to be certain that the small items don’t get wet), then you are out of luck – you have to carry a small ditty bag inside or just chuck your precious cargo into the cavity. Clearly, Banjo Brothers have made a decision: commuters need a single large cavity. I disagree – I think some commuters may want that, but certainly not all. At the university where I work, most of the backpacks I see seem to have (a) multiple pockets and dividers inside and on the outside of the pack, that (b) get used in highly personal ways.

I agree with Nils on the overall design. Banjo Brothers have done a wonderful job to waterproof the pack – as the website claims, it is a solidly built pack with extremely strong seams, and there is a well-designed roll-top clasp to protect the inside cargo before you clasp the outer flap.

They then went one step further and created a removable inside liner – as Nils also notes. The liner is the fail-safe protection, and if you leave it in, then I am certain that no fluids will get in – or out, which is something you beer carriers may want to note. The liner is fastened to the pack by velcro at the upper pack opening, and when inserting and removing large loads, it tends to pull up and out of the pack, as I illustrate here with the cat litter.

I got the same phenomenon when removing other loads. It happens when the load catches on the upper rim of the liner and/or when the liner folds up inside and gets tangled in the load. I think that was a design mistake: they should have tacked some velcro at the bottom of the pack to hold the liner against casual pressure when removing cargo.

There’s a typical cell-phone carrier on the right backpack strap, and both Robin and I looked at with some worry about my cellphone getting wet – she examined it further, and pronounced it to be OK, because it is “velcroed to death.” (That’s her contribution to FGG jargon, you all!)

The Banjo Brothers website says the following about student and day backpacks, something Nils quoted as well: “Unfortunately your options have … been student backpacks that leak like a sieve, sit up too high, or cost a fortune.” The comment about leaking is very true. Although my commute is less than three miles each way, I have had damp books or papers on a few occasions, and that outside REI zip pocket is particularly vulnerable to the elements. The corporate website does not list pricing for this large pack, and so let’s assume it’s a bit above the MSRP of the pack that Nils reviewed – instead of $80, let’s assume it is $90 or $100. I have not done any price comparisons, but at that price point, I think the price is fair when you consider the waterproofing features. I don’t have strong feelings about where the pack rides on my back. During the cat litter field trial, about half-way home I felt the need to stop and adjust the straps. Perhaps if I had a longer commute with heavier loads, I’d learn to appreciate the features of adjustability that a pack like this provides.

I am not a bike messenger and have never worked as one, but the lack of dividers and pockets coupled with the huge inner cavity tell a story that does not speak to commuters but does speak to messengers. My advice to Banjo Brothers is:

First, re-market this one to messengers. There is a market for cavity-style messenger backpacks, such as the Ortlieb, which Nils and Dennis reviewed for our website – and with some clever advertising, this pack might also be marketed to commuters who do want a cavernous interior, as Nils requested.

Second, without sacrificing the strength and waterproofing seen here, design a new commuter backpack that does have multiple outer and inner pockets and some dividers. Continue the trend and produce this new pack in two sizes roughly comparable to the two sizes of this model.

(P.S. ... if liners are part of any backpack equation, put some velcro at the inside bottom of the packs to prevent the liner from pulling out when removing loads.

In sum, while there are some interesting design features of this backpack, it just is not what I am looking for. The main advantages are that waterproofing and construction seem very solid, and I should mention that the reflective tape is very effective (and is something I don't have on the REI).

The main disadvantages is that it lacks sufficient dividers and/or separate pockets. The location-on-the-back argument is an even split, and with extended use, I might accept their argument. Regarding price, when compared to packs that don’t resist water very well, it is a bargain. If you compare it to a heavily-waterproofed Ortlieb (MSRP $120), then it is also a bargain.

To me, these issues are outweighed by the cavity-versus-divider problem, which is the basis of my decision not to replace my REI pack with this Banjo Brothers backpack.

Maybe it’s all a matter of taste.
Are you a cavity lover? Check it out.
Are you a pocket and divider person, like me? Pass it by.
My overall Price/Value/Personal Needs Rating: 3 out of 5.

Fred - via email; comments and feedback are welcome.