Or alternately, “My Complicated Relationship With a Backpack”
Back at CES, I was loaded with so much gear that I truly didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it through the day. On Day 1 I was using my roller case, and when it was obvious that wasn’t going to work I switched to my backpack for the rest of the time and left half my gear at the hotel. It didn’t matter; my shoulders ached, my back was killing me, and my feet felt like ragged stumps by the end of the day.
One day, while dragging myself down yet another aisle, a gentleman called out to us and said he knew exactly what I needed. He explained that his company had developed a type of backpack that made it seem like you were only carrying half the weight and it was perfect for times like these. Such bold claims are usually the territory of snake oil and cure-all elixirs, but he gave us a demonstration using a fully weighted pack and we were all instantly sold! We were so excited that we interviewed him right there on the spot!
What Is It?
Airbac’s claim to fame is an air bladder that is built into the bottom and lower back of the bag. The position of this bladder helps keep the weight of the bag spread out over a greater area and cushions you from the bag itself. The bladder itself is advertised as being able to keep air for over a year and only needs to be topped off with a hand pump after that. Should something go wrong with the bladder, you can contact Airbac and they will send out a new one for you.
Anything more than that would be over explaining it. It’s a backpack.
The idea of putting a pillow of air into the bottom of the backpack seems like too simple an idea to work . . . BUT IT WORKS. The first time you put your bag on while fully loaded, you can’t help but notice how much happier your back is. It’s not that the weight is taken off you, it’s just that it’s spread around to more of you and so makes less of an impact on any one part of you. The shoulder straps are also heavily padded and never dug into me or shifted as I moved. There is also a fully adjustable chest strap to help further hold the shoulder straps in place should you need it.
The outside of all three of our bags were well build with a high quality material. Stitches were made to endure abuse and the straps themselves didn’t stretch or give out. Pockets were well thought out and spacious and two of us had the added benefit of water bottle holders that held everything in place. Two of us also had a pass-through for headphones so you can store your device inside the bag while you listen to it.
Inside the bag, the thoughtful touches didn’t end. Despite having an air bladder at the bottom of the bag, the inner compartment never bulged or moved around oddly thanks to a rigid flat piece in the bottom that helped support everything inside. The usual pre-arranged dividers are there for pens and business cards, but don’t get in the way if you don’t need them (which they often do in other bags). The laptop section is padded with a velcro strap to help hold your computer in place.
This isn’t normal for us; normally I’d jump right into the cons of a product at this point. However, we’ve been testing these bags every day since we got them in February. In that time we’ve noticed some things that shouldn’t be considered cons, nor are they pros. They simply are little quirks we’ve noticed and would like to share.
I often forget just how much weight I am carrying, which can be a bad thing when I take my backpack off and I’m not applying enough force. It’s also weird when your feet feel like they’re carrying a lot of weight, but your back doesn’t think so. Honestly makes you think that there’s something wrong with your shoes. The thicker shoulder straps take a while to get used to; made it hard to put on at first until I got the hang of it.
I recently used the backpack on a trip to Mexico and Central America. It also doubled as my carry-on luggage for each one of my flights which was super convenient but the extra bulk provided by the air bladder made it somewhat difficult to navigate crowded aisles when getting on and off the planes.
Everyone keeps asking why I have a flashlight on my backpack, and I have to keep explaining that it’s the fill port for the air bladder. It’s nice and chromed, but does it have to be dead center on the back? Couldn’t it be hidden away somewhere else? That’d make it easier to refill when needed, too. The first few times I put it on the ground, I forgot it had the air bladder and it would just flop over because the bottom is not flat. Learned very quickly that I need to lay it against something or on its straps when putting it down. I also kept forgetting just how much weight was in the pack, so when I’d go to take it off I wouldn’t be ready for it and almost dropped it a couple times.
What’s Not Awesome?
The air bladder has . . . issues. Remember when Nike first came out with that “pump” for their sneakers and everyone made jokes about the shoes popping when you walked? Yeah, it didn’t happen but the pumps themselves did give out. The same joke could be made here, but like the shoes it’s not the air bladder that gives out. In fact, to date, we still don’t know what failed on our packs (oh yeah, didn’t I mention that all three packs have failed). I simply put my backpack on one day and noticed it didn’t feel the same as it usually did. Over the course of the day, I watched it sink lower and lower until the air was completely gone. Upon letting Airbac know about this, they quickly sent out a new bladder with instructions on how to replace it. The new bladder lasted half the time the original one did.
Zohner’s bladder went out about the time of the Salt Lake Fan eXpirience and he also promptly received a replacement. His second one has held air so far. Schmidty’s failed about a month ago and has not been replaced yet. I’ve tested all of my air bladders and as best I can tell the valve design they use is letting a tiny amount of air out over time. To see if it was something we were doing, I’ve tried putting nothing but my laptop in it, gently resting it on soft things when I put it down, or even just half inflating it. Nothing helps.
Other than the air issue, there are little quirks about the design that stand out as well. Neither mine nor Schmidty’s bags were actually able to hold the laptop size they claimed. On both of them, we’d have to peel the bag over the corners of the laptop to get them in. While this might sound like the laptop is snugly held in place, what it actually meant was the computers were pushing out through the fabric and were in real danger of getting damaged.
I’m honestly not sure how this would happened, unless when designing the packs, Airbac simply took the measurements for a MacBook (which admittedly are smaller than other laptops in their class) and assumed all other laptops should be the same size.
One last issue is with the headphones pass-through on my bag not actually passing through. The rubber grommet is sewn right onto the fabric, however the fabric underneath it was never cut open. Thinking this might actually be a feature in case you never would use a pass-through, I checked the other bags. Despite my hopes, however, they had a proper pass-through with the fabric cut and hemmed to prevent fraying. This is likely an issue with quality control and isn’t the worst thing, however it is an oddity. Honestly, I’d like to see pass-through ports go away entirely as I don’t know anyone who uses them anyway.
After I wrote this, I received another update from the folks at Airbac, who are unbelievably helpful and fast. They sent out new air bladders for both Schmidty and I that used a totally new material and beefier valve design. The new bladder didn’t work for my backpack, as it wouldn’t take in any air at all. Airbac sent me out another valve to use, but that didn’t work either! In the end I found that their new valve design is so tightly made that air isn’t allowed into the bladder at all!
To get around this, I took the valve out of the stem and inflated the bladder. When it was full, I removed the pump and quickly threaded the valve back into place. Putting the new heavy duty metal cap in place finished it all off and I was ready to go. Schmidty’s bladder valve is one you inflate by mouth and so he didn’t have this issue. Both of the new bladder types are made of much heavier material with seams that seem to be thicker.
Since installing the new air bladders, we have not messed around; I went on a trip over the 4th of July and basically abused the pack at every turn and Schmidty has been dropping his and hit it against everything around him. The new bladders have held and we haven’t lost any air at all.
Before we go any further, I should point out that we loved our bags. Really loved them. They did exactly what they claimed to do, and for IT road warriors like us it was unbelievable how much of a difference they made on our day. I loved my bag so much, I honestly got a little depressed when it stopped working. I did not want to back to my old backpack, and there was a week or so (which I’ll refer to as my mourning period) where I simply refused to wear any backpack at all and left all my gear at home.
In the end, however, I had to take my gear with me again and I was forced to decide if a Airbac with a flat air bladder was worth using. I personally have decided that it is, though it no longer has its main feature anymore. The shoulder straps are still comfortable and the materials are still top notch. [NOTE: Please see update above]
Despite this, I cannot recommend Airbac yet. The retail on each of our packs was $85-$90 each. That’s a fair price for a backpack that can take everything you need, last for the long haul, and save your back in the process. It’s NOT a fair price for a pack that may or may not hold its air (remember, ours had an 57% failure rate), may not hold your laptop, and may not have had all its parts put on correctly. The design and concept behind it is SO GOOD, and it works SO WELL. I cannot make it through my day without this pack carrying my gear for me. But I shouldn’t need to MacGuyver it together to make it work.
That being said, if you do get one and have any issues, Airbac’s customer service has been second to none and we’ve always had a replacement part promptly sent to us without question.