Urban Velo

Banjo Brothers Cycling Commuter Backpack

banjo_brothers_commuter_backpack_01Several years ago single-strap messenger bags exploded into the urban cycling market. Cyclists were looking for simple, good-looking bags that can carry a bunch of important stuff, while keeping it all dry. Style-wise, they added an edginess that embraced urban living, and provided a solidarity between urban riders that helped create a “cool factor” for riding a bike. For years many of us used messenger bags, admittedly for the cool factor, but also because there were very few other bags on the market that met the simplicity, style, and waterproof construction criteria. Messengers ride bikes in the city, a lot, so they must know what’s best for urban riding, right?

The problem is that most cyclists aren’t messengers. We don’t need to have quick and easy access to our cargo, nor are we very often carrying copy boxes. After several years of riding with single-strap bags, many urban riders began to find new aches and, like myself, see a noticeable difference in the shape of my shoulder. We realized that messenger bags take a lot of effort to make comfortable when they’re full of canned tomatoes or a laptop. Even more importantly, we realized that messenger bags aren’t very comfortable when you’re off the bike. It may only take fifteen minutes of riding to get to your favorite bar to see a band, but that also means three or four hours of standing around with all the weight on one shoulder.

Some companies realized this emerging market, and began to create backpack style bags that met the same criteria as the messenger bag, but were designed for the rest of us that aren’t messengers, but mere commuters and urban riders. Banjo Brothers was one of the earlier ones on the scene with their waterproof Commuter Backpack that comes in either a 1500 and 2000 cubic centimeter capacity. Pictured and tested was a new white version for 2010.

banjo_brothers_commuter_backpack_02Until the more recent surge of dual strap cycling bags hit the market, one of the few options available was the classic, and inexpensive, student style backpack. Even the more expensive water resistant models leaked—unacceptable if you need to carry a laptop or a library book around. The Banjo Brothers Cycling Backpack was designed with the urban commuter in mind. The dual layer roll-top design, also used successfully in their water-proof panniers, gives full confidence that anything inside will remain dry. Although the roll-top design is a time-proven way to keep things dry, it does tend to make it difficult to access items at the bottom, as well as encourage overloading, but who doesn’t do that?

banjo_brothers_commuter_backpack_03I particularly like the removable waterproof inner layer—a thick plastic embedded with a rip-stop webbing and held in place with velcro. The ability to remove the most important part of the bag is comforting, as it’s cheaply replaceable as well as allowing me the ability to easily clean out the compost that tends to accumulate at the nether regions of my bags. The outer layer is a textured plastic similar to the inner layer of most messenger bags. Although it adds another layer to keep water out, I’d be interested to see how it holds up after a few years of folding and rolling. I suppose that’s why the bottom of the bag, the part that sees the most abuse, is made of a different material—classic messenger bag cordura. If the exterior wears anything like an aged messenger bag interior, I’ll be glad that the bullet-proof and replaceable inner layer is there. Although my personal preference leans toward more natural looking fibers, the faux cordura look does attempt to make the bag look not so artificial.

Functionally the bag is designed very simply, with an attention to detail on the features. It lies far enough down on your back that it barely interferes with a rearward glance. The padding is minimal and provides a bit of ventilation. The main part of the bag is one large compartment with nothing internal to keep things separate or organized. A laptop needs to be placed in vertically, and I find this feels much more secure than carrying one in a traditional messenger bag. On the outside of the bag, Banjo Brothers added some small-item pouches, the largest of which is zippered and fits a map and a few tools nicely, while the smaller one seems to be spec’d to fit a standard flask. There are also three pen or marker carrying spaces, with the biggest able to fit a Magnum 44. This whole area is covered by a large flap (with two reflective racing stripes) that presumably protects this area from water, although in a heavy downpour it’s exposed to the elements some, so I’m a bit reluctant to carry my cellphone in here. The side of the bag has a fully exposed pocket that has proved extremely useful for carrying a U-Lock, a map, a water bottle, or any other item that you may want easy access to. Lastly, there is a loop for attaching a blinky light, sewn in such a way that the blinky will actually point backwards, instead of to the sky.

My biggest criticism is with the shoulder straps and that they seem a bit long. I’m a fairly average sized guy, and I found that I needed the straps pulled taut to have the bag feel solidly attached to my back, eliminating any ability to tighten more. This was further confirmed when I let my roommate, who has a much smaller frame than me, and breasts, try on the bag. She also found that the vertically-adjustable sternum strap should be a bit higher to help pull the shoulder straps in around her parts, to get them from lying on top of them. In Banjo Brothers defense, they did seem to attempt to design the shoulder straps with the female anatomy in mind, but didn’t consider the smaller framed people as much. Admittedly it has to be tough to design something for a human body that comes in so many shapes and sizes.

Style-wise, the bag looks “bikey” enough that other cyclists will give you the pez, but it could still pass as a “normal” backpack if you don’t want to seem too sporty. Although the white makes me feel like a white belt or sky-diver, it’s definitely growing on me with black bags available if you just can’. If you’re OK with the “Made in China” tag, the price point for this quality at $79.99/$89.99 (1500/2000 cu in) is hard to beat.

21 Comments

  1. aadaamOctober 6, 2009 at 4:14 am

    Great review. Good points about the limitations of a classical messenger bag, however, I haven’t found the problems to be that bad. You just need to switch shoulders from time to time and put the bag on the floor / ground when listening to a band.

    I have tried several backpacks for riding, none of them specially made for this purpose. They all shared some disturbing things I don’t experience with messenger-style one-strap bags:
    - almost all of my back is covered, so the sweating surface is definitely bigger;
    - even worse, it also covers the area right under my neck which seems to drive me crazy on a ride;
    - I just hate the straps in my armpits;
    - when packed to the maximum, I have the feeling of being strangled.
    Does this backpack solve these problems?

    By the way, a lot of messengers are also switching to backpack-style messenger bags like that of Ortlieb. And if you’re looking for custom-made stuff, I know about Bagaboo’s Ransel (http://bagaboo.hu/ransel-backpack/), it’s probably possible to ask for a bag that fits not only your taste, but also your frame and features. Of course it’s pricier…

  2. David TOctober 6, 2009 at 7:27 am

    By the way, a lot of messengers are also switching to backpack-style messenger bags like that of Ortlieb

    Many european messengers have been using the roll-top ortlieb backpack for years.

  3. aadaamOctober 6, 2009 at 9:07 am

    @ David T: correct, actually the orange backpack has been a trademark of the biggest messenger company in my city (i.e. in Europe) for the past couple of years.

  4. CyclingOctober 6, 2009 at 9:59 am

    I have difficult to find that stuff in my counrty

  5. ConradOctober 6, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    I just bought one of these about a month ago after reading all the great reviews on blogs like this and it is fantastic. No complaints at all so far. Very comfortable, roomy, easy to clean. The pockets are great, the reflective strips and tail light tab are great. It stays low enough to not block my vision and fits tightly and very comfortably. I’ve been using it when I’m not riding too. Great quality and cheaper than similar bags I was looking at.

    For reference, I’m 6’4″ and bought the larger (2000 cu in) bag.

  6. AaronOctober 6, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    I’ve had this bag for about a year now and i love it. I too am small framed, 5’2″ and have had problems with the fit but that’s mainly when i’m off the bike and walking when there’s not much in it. Otherwise, even under full loads it fits well if it’s low slung, and even on me the sternum strap doesn’t feel strangling at all. I’ve ridden in terrible downpours and freezing shit and never once has anything in any pockets gotten wet. In short, a super bag at an awesome price.

  7. CarterOctober 6, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Thats a sick pack. Is the white currently available? Also, is there anything on the straps to hold an mp3 player of any sort? I ride with headphones alot and that was a selling point for my current pack but its not water proof.

  8. Andy NOctober 6, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    “I just hate the straps in my armpits”

    A properly-sized sternum strap will pull the main straps towards the center of your chest and out of your armpits. You want the strap to ride about two fingers width higher than your solar plexus.

  9. PaulOctober 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Aadaam,

    No bag that you wear on your back is going to solve those problems and still be secure enough to not swing around when you need to sprint with 30 or 40 lbs of groceries in it. You’re probably best off switching panniers, and I say that as someone who hates panniers on my main commuter bike (a Giant OCR). I use a Pac Designs Ultimate and love it, but you would likely have the same complaints about that.

    A question for those who have tried this bag: I tried a Chrome Ivan and it was a great bag except for the fact that I could not get it to be secure and not dig into my shoulders when riding in the drops, which is where I am most of the time in the city. Do you find this backpack comfortable when riding in the drops?

  10. HarveyOctober 6, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    For most bicyclists, any commute or ride longer than a 1/2 to one hour using a backpack or messenger bag is going to make your back ache.

    With panniers, you avoid the back problem and if you use two panniers the bike will be able to be balanced a bit easier. Most one pannier bicyclists learn to lean a bit more to the side without a loaded pannier! Like backpack & messenger bag bicycle users their posture needs periodic adjustment! LOL

    Using two panniers is a better option not only for the balancing effect but also because they provide more visible surface area for motorists to see you.

    Yes, a backpack is handy and far more chic than carrying a pannier or two panniers into a store, office, or classroom. Personally I hate to carry anything in my hands. (as in Period.)

    As for the commentator who rides with his headphones, what are you nuts? You’re missing out on the sounds of urban cycling; urban park cycling (nature sounds); and the shouts of irate vehicle drivers. It is very dangerous to use headphones while bicycling.

  11. CarterOctober 6, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Im sorry I probably needed to clarify my situation. My commute involves a fire road that leads to my college campus. Thats why Id be interested in a waterproof backpack that could carry my ipod in. I dont ride with headphones when I have to go through traffic I have more common sense than to do so. But when I spend 5-6 hours a day on a campus, all I miss out on are the shouts of angry students I cut off. Id rather keep jammin along. I do agree with your logic of safety and enjoying the sounds of cycling. I enjoy it all the same.

  12. aadaamOctober 7, 2009 at 4:08 am

    Thanks for the tips. Actually, I’m pretty satisfied with my large messenger bag. Less sweat than a same size backpack I’ve tried so far, I don’t feel strangled, it’s quite secure even when I’m in the drops or during a sprint and I’ve tried it for longer rides and it’s comfortable (ok, didn’t put so much weight in it, filled it mainly with lighter stuff like clothes + repair kit + U-lock). Aches are not a major issue and I go swimming regularly which helps a lot: it straightens out things and makes the muscles stronger, which in turn makes aches less likely. I suffer more when working in front of the screen for a whole day…

    The only disadvantage I’ve experienced is being off the bike. Panniers are good for touring, but not in the city. Wouldn’t like to leave them outside in the city, not even for 5 minutes.

    Anyway, if anyone gave me a backpack to try (for free of course), I’d gladly write a review about it.

  13. rachel dingOctober 7, 2009 at 10:44 am

    short review of this bag from bikeshopgirl. at the end she says she’ll be doing a long-term review. the review doesn’t offer anything that this one doesn’t – but it does have pictures of the bag on a lady:

    http://bikeshopgirl.com/2009/09/preview-banjo-brothers-commuter-backpack/

    if banjo brothers made an affordable babe-version of this bag that still fit a ton of stuff and had the roll-top, i’d be ALL OVER IT.

  14. erokOctober 7, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I found that this pack takes up less surface area on my back than a similar sized single strap messenger bag.

    i should have added that there are also some handy vertical straps integrated into the shoulder straps to attach pouches for small electronic devices like phone, camera, etc. they are vertical, so most pouches that are meant for belts wouldn’t work, but banjo bros sells the proper ones of course.

  15. erokOctober 7, 2009 at 10:59 am

    @ Paul. like i said in the review, i’m a fairly average frame dude all around, and i don’t find the shoulder straps digging into me when i’m in the drops, ie the bag still feels comfortable. the straps have sort of an “S” curve to them, which i think is Banjo Bros attempt to deal with this issue.

  16. JeremyOctober 13, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    To throw out my two cents, I bought this bag and returned it after a week of use (caveat, some of my issues may have subsequently been redesigned). The back had almost no padding, so everything dug into my skinny frame. It only seemed to ride low (like they claim) if you are short or if you don’t tighten the straps. The straps were all made of that cheap webbing I associate with external-frame backpacks from the 80s. The roll-top only rolls once, and the sewing/cutting suggests amateurism. I’ve been using an Ortlieb messenger backpack for 2 years now (8.5 mile commute each way), and though I wish it had a few more internal organizers, I find it to be everything this bag was not: Well structured, well-designed, and made of high-quality materials. The one plus is that it’s relatively cheap.

  17. kathrynFebruary 11, 2010 at 11:24 am

    when oh when will I find a good commuter backpack??

    I ride by bike in the warm Miami sun, off and around the city for meetings most days – but as a small woman (5’5″), I still haven’t found a backpack that is both comfortable and functional/sturdy.

    Help?! (thanks*)

  18. Head PhoneMay 26, 2010 at 6:55 am

    Many brands offer over the ear style, noise reducing neckband headphones similar to other styles but with greater comfort and mobility. There is also one other benefit which may be the least important for many but the most important for plenty. If you’re anything like me, you spend a good deal of effort managing my hair each day and neckband headphones the solution if you don’t want to end up with headband hair after a long day at the office or some extended game play.

  19. jcAugust 9, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    @erok
    if you don’t mind me asking, how tall are you and what size bag were you modeling?

  20. Product Review: #01150-W WaterProof Cycling Packpack, WhiteSeptember 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    [...] Review: #01150-W WaterProof Cycling Packpack, White September 11, 2010 by admin This review of the Banjo Brothers White Waterproof Backpack review originally appeared on the Urban-Velo Website October of [...]

  21. SergeyOctober 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    1500 to 2000 cubic centimeters ? That kind of backpack could fit in a pocket if folded (((-: Cubic inches looks more like it.

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