5 dumb things backpack designers need to stop doing

As many of you may know, I am an endless complaining machine that cannot be satisfied even by the most magnificent of creations anywhere to be found. This debilitating curse manifests itself most thoroughly when it comes to high-tech travel gear, much of which is cartoonishly ruined by moronic designers who seem to have absolutely no idea that even the smallest of modifications could vastly improve their creations by several orders of magnitude.

I have no earthly idea how they’re able to screw things up so frequently, and many a strongly-worded-letter has departed from my desk, only to be cursorily answered or summarily ignored by the willfully foolish recipients whose job descriptions apparently do not include “making things not suck.”

So I’ll just complain here instead.

Hobos with a bindle
My new pack.

Backpack manufacturers make a massive variety of packs, churning out the designs every single year, with a billion different sizes, colors, configurations, and everything else. You’d think they’d provide enough variety to satiate the needs of even the most discerning of pack enthusiasts. But nay. Somehow they still manage to screw things up all over the place.

Now I’ll readily admit that in many cases, my subjective needs are not universally ideal; travel-specific packs require a somewhat different set of features compared to hiking packs, and the comparative rarity of travel packs means I quite often have to make do with a hiking pack, which is a bit like giving dog food to a crocodile. He’ll eat it, sure, but it’s still dumb.

But they’re not getting away so easily. Nay! I am here to complain, and complain I shall.

The following problems consist exclusively of design flaws that are not subjectively unsuitable for my purposes, but are just objectively stupid. They’re wrong. Plain and simple. And people need to stop doing them.

Let’s begin.

Backpack design flaws that need to stop immediately

1. Stupidly tiny “water bottle” pockets

I have absolutely no idea how this trend started. I think it has something to do with the popularity of hydration bladders, and backpack manufacturers figured that’s all they had to worry about. If everybody just has a hydration bladder, they won’t be storing a water bottle in a side pocket.

But not everybody has a hydration bladder. In fact I’d be willing to bet that more people have water bottles than hydration bladders, and they need a place to put them goddammit. Where the hell can they go besides the damn side pocket?!?! Not in the main compartment of the pack, surely. Not only is it a stupid hassle to take it out whenever you need a sip of water, but if there’s a leak of any kind, all of a sudden your day is ruined.

But I see backpacks all over the place…seemingly the majority of them…that have extraordinarily small side pockets with no ability to expand whatsoever. Which means they’ll be flat against the wall of the pack itself with a round water bottle trying to find its way inside! You’re literally stuck trying to fit a round object into a flat compartment. Do they even bother trying to fit any of those bottles that are sold in the same stores into the side pockets before shipping the product out the door?!?!

But they even issue promotional photos displaying a water bottle fitting into the pocket. Quite often the pack itself is only partially filled, meaning the water bottle dug into the empty space of the main compartment, meaning if the bag were full, you’d be out of luck.

And it’s not like they can’t handle solving this problem. It’s actually stupidly easy. All they have to do is:

  • Use stretchy fabric
  • Fold the fabric

In fact you only really need to do one or the other. In either case, the fabric will lay flat when the pocket is empty, and pop open when you stuff a water bottle inside. It’s literally that simple. And even if you don’t need to fit a water bottle in there, it’s still objectively superior anyway.

Behold:

Backpack side pockets
It’s like magic!!!

I will never stop complaining about this, because it’s the most annoying thing in the world to me. I shouldn’t have to figure water bottle location into pack purchase decision making. They should just all be good.

2. Compression straps that cover the side pockets

So it’s one thing to make a side pocket so stupidly small that you can’t use it. But it’s another thing entirely to have a perfectly good pocket and lash something right over the top.

They’re called “compression” straps, and you have to pull them tightly to compress the pack. And you know what happens when you pull a strap tightly over a pocket? You can’t use the pocket anymore. You literally have to decide whether you’re going to use the pocket, or the strap, but not both. Or at least, not very well. The strap won’t be doing much in the way of compression if it’s loose enough to access the pocket itself, and thus is pointless.

The worst offense is when not one but two straps go right over the side pocket. On packs so small that they don’t need the double strap anyway!

In some cases, these straps can actually be routed behind the side pocket, so they won’t get in the way of things. But the fact that certain companies allow this option only on some of their packs is incredibly annoying. It’s also not even the best way to solve the problem.

Once again, a variety of solutions exist. Here’s the easiest one:

Side pocket compression straps
You can just SEE the silliness.

You can cut them off, but why don’t they just not do stupid things to begin with?!?!

3. Filthy dirty lie “panel” loading

This is mainly a vocabulary problem. Allow me to elaborate:

Backpacks come in a few varieties: Top loaders, which consist of giant cylindrical main compartments with a lid on the top; and panel loaders, which have a large, horseshoe-shaped zipper which allows the entire pack to be opened up like a suitcase.

Except when they fail to make the zipper go all the way to the bottom of the pack and you can only open it halfway. Plus, they’ll put the zipper in the middle of the pack, rather than at the edge, making it even more difficult to open completely.

Which means it’s not a panel goddammit. Check the damn dictionary!

Now I’ll admit that in some cases the half-panel loaders (that’s what I’m calling them) have their merits. School, for example. When you want to flip through a few books, all of which are balanced vertically, you’d want to open the pack from the top and flip through the options and take your pick. This works better than a full-length panel loader, which you’d sort of need to place flat on the ground to see what’s inside, and even then, you’d probably only be able to see one book at a time, unless you arranged them differently than anyone in the world ever has.

But it’s a terrible way to organize anything else. If you’ve ever had a sock at the bottom of the pack, you need to unload the whole damn thing to find it. And this is the weakness of half-panel loaders. They are by far the most difficult type to fill to capacity. And once you’ve packed them nearly full, it’s incredibly difficult to access anything at all.

It’s not to say they’re bad, but they’re horrible in certain cases. Travel, for example. And regardless, they certainly shouldn’t be called “panel” loaders.

Panel loading explanation.
Dome loaders? I don’t know.

Again, half-panel loaders have their merits, but when I say I want a panel loader, I mean a real one.

And there’s a very clever hybrid solution found in the Kelty Redwing, which combines top loading with panel loading into a single zipper. Unfortunately, it was one of the most horrifically uncomfortable things I’ve ever experienced.

4. “Bridge” shoulder strap

Bridge shoulder strap
A bridge too far. From sanity.

I have no idea who thought up this incredibly stupid idea. I bet it went something like this:

“Hey guys! Let’s change something that’s been working perfectly for decades!”

“Um, why?”

“Because fuck you, that’s why!”

I’m referring to the so-called “haul loop” found at the top of the pack. You can use it to pick up the bag, hang it on something, or whatever. And a few companies have started making bags where the haul loop is integrated into the shoulder straps, forming a bridge between them.

This is a terrible idea. I mean really awful. It means you cannot adjust the pack to fit high up on your back. You are required to carry it lower on your back than you otherwise could, meaning if you like wearing it up high, you’re stuck with something digging into the back of your neck all day.

I’m pretty sure the designers consisted of incredibly large people who wear their packs low and never bothered checking with anyone else.

Oh, and the haul loop is smaller and thus harder to grab, and it’s vertically positioned rather than horizontally, so it’ll dig into your fingers more. Hooray!

Bridge shoulder strap
I really want someone to explain the thought process behind this one. I am really oblivious.

Seriously, how did no one say anything?

5. Centrally-placed vertical zipper

Okay, I know this one is kind of a reach, because it’s somewhat obscure. But it’s also dumb.

I’ve only seen this in a few places, and I think it’s supposed to be for maps, which are (usually) vertical pamphlets that can be slipped inside flat pockets with tall zippers. But tall, centrally-located vertical zippers are just incredibly stupid.

Firstly, it’s hard to put small things in there. It’s practically impossible seeing inside while trying to find them, and they might even fall out. And secondly, it’s also difficult putting large things in there. It seems like a decent place for a rain jacket, but the process consists of stuffing the jacket into the left half of the compartment, and then stuffing the rest into the right half. You literally cannot access the entire pocket all at once, because it’s just this tiny slit that’s somehow supposed to provide access to this massive pocket.

I had this sort of zipper on an old pack of mine, and I literally did not use the pocket. Ever. It just sat uselessly. It’s so difficult trying to take things in and out that I just didn’t bother anymore.

Vertical zipper
Was that so hard?

I really don’t get this one either. If you’re supposed to fit tall, flat papers into there, it would still work better to put the zipper literally anywhere else. Horizontally across the top, or vertically along the side. But, best of all, upside-down letter U. Done and done.

Backpack design error objective vs. subjective

Now I’ll readily admit that my particular needs may not be the same as those of someone else. But in the cases listed above, with the exception of the panel-loader vocabulary problem, the design choices are just objectively wrong. And, annoyingly, they are incredibly frequent. I really have no idea why they continue to exist.

I wonder if it’s simply that most people are more or less fine with a pack as long as it’s good, and they’ll live with the limitations as long as it holds up to serious use. I’d feel that way as well, but when I see design flaws, especially incredibly dumb ones, it just ruins my whole day.

A few more:

  • Backpack manufacturers have apparently not realized that the load lifter straps (the small strap on top of the shoulder strap, that pulls the pack closer to your body) can be routed quite conveniently into hydration bladder port straps. Pretty much ever pack has a tiny strap, on the shoulder strap, where a hydration bladder hose is held in place. It’s also a great place to stick the load lifter straps so they don’t flail around annoyingly. The reason I think pack manufacturers haven’t realized this is that sometimes they’ll only put a strap on one side, instead of both.
  • You know those hip stabilizer straps? Basically, it’s the small strap, on top of the hip strap, that pulls the pack closer to your body. It also forms a dangly thing that, if you have dual hip belt pockets with a slot where the dangly strap can go, can be kept out of the way. Once again, I don’t think pack manufacturers have quite realized this, because many of them give you only one hip belt pocket and the strap on the other side dangles annoyingly.
  • When the base is rounded instead of flat, the pack falls over whenever you set it down. It’s incredibly annoying.
  • If you have a top loader pack whose lid pocket attaches to a strap whose only connection point to the pack itself is at the very bottom of the pack, every time you unclip the buckle to open the pack, the strap will fall all the way to the ground. There could be something to prevent this, and it would be incredibly easy. I used dental floss. I’m sure they could do something a little more clever.

And you’ll notice that in many of the pictures shown above, the “bad” pack was an Osprey pack. And there’s a reason for that. Osprey make a million different packs, and plenty of people are happy with plenty of them, but…if I want to find a pack that’ll annoy the hell out of me, I know exactly where to go. Osprey is the absolute biggest culprit of tiny side pockets, and straps covering the side pocket anyway. Among other things.

I intend to continue complaining about these problems until I become such a thorn in the side of these companies that they are forced to acquiesce to my demands. Wish me luck!

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad

135 Comments on “5 dumb things backpack designers need to stop doing”

  1. Just found your blog Sanrky. I love it–someone that actually knows how to write a proper sentence and a coherent paragraph and puts that skill to good use. Way to go.

    You wonder why these companies do the stupid things they do nowadays? Ans. MONEY!

    Anything to save a tenth of a million. Who cares about future performance, reputation, etc. Make that profit now, “let’s go, hurry up, chop, chop” the boss said.

    For my external water bottle, I’ve resorted to using a “GSI plastic flask (BPA free of course)” which is only 0.5L but that’s enough for me. Just don’t let a cop or a conservation officer see you drink from it.\\\ :-)

    “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” ~ Dr. Seuss

    1. I did that exact same thing. Damn those hard-to-use side water bottle pockets with their flat geometry intended to house a cylindrical object. So yes, I bought some flat-sided plastic flasks. Unfortunately there was a really hot summer at some point and they warped, so the GSI one would have been better. But nowadays I just try to carry the bottle inside the backpack somewhere, and just take bigger gulps every once in a while, and I don’t have to go crazy about tiny side pockets. But that won’t stop me from complaining about them.

  2. I am not alone. Pulled out my Jansport external frame, bought 30 years ago on a teenagers budget. The suspension system, aside from being an archaic design, had rotted pretty bad. With excitement and an adults income I went shopping for a modern pack. Disappointment isn’t a strong enough word. Duffel bags with shoulder straps, urgh. Looking for replacement hip belts and shoulder straps.

    1. I know Kelty does some external frame packs, although I’m not sure if they’re good or not. They have pros and cons, of course, but they’re rare enough that you can’t always find what you might want.

  3. Osprey rucksacks are very expensive. Are they really worth it? Whats so special about them…? The name?
    North Face seem okay.
    Karrimor seem of cheap quality these days.
    Lowe Alpine seems good ish!?

    Whats the opinions ..?

    1. Osprey has a lifetime warranty and they have a great reputation for replacing or repairing whatever you bring them, no questions asked. That’s part of what you’re paying for. But the designs always have something weird that annoys me, which is why I tell people to look at Gregory if they’re looking for hiking packs.

  4. Hi, I just happened to stumble on your blog, because I was googling for an answer as to why some packs have a small hole at the bottom of the pack. To me it doesn’t make sense because then you can’t put your pack down on the ground because it might be wet, and you run the risk of water entering into the bag. I have 2 bags that are like that: one is a gift, the other one I bought it without noticing it. Both are ultralight packs with hydration pockets. Will you happen to know why?

    1. The only thing I can think of is that the hydration bladder might leak, and it needs an exit route so the water can escape in case of a leak. If that’s not the reason, or if the opening is somehow somewhere else besides where it’ll be relevant to the hydration bladder…then it’s just completely insane.

  5. Have a look at the Deuter Freerider Pro 30:
    http://www.deuter.com/US/us/snowsports/freerider-pro-30-33534-117.html

    Although it’s advertized as a backpack for snowsports, I find it to be a really nice daypack when you have to lug a bit of gear.
    Nice panel flap on the back that opens almost all the way down (~1 inch). Easy to get a hefty 15″ laptop in and out.
    In addition, the main compartment also has a zipper to be accessed from the top.

    On the picture it looks like the sidepockets (one on each side, nice and stretchy) are covered by the strap, but the strap sits high enough that you can can easily tug the pocket down and get a full size 1.5l bottle in and out.
    The side pocket is deep enough to hold the full 1.5l bottle without using the strap to secure it.

    The ski loops at the bottomn can be tugged in when not needed, so they don’t get in the way.

    The waist belt is nice and fully featured (not a minimal one like on many smaller backpacks), but is removable for easy traveling when you don’t need it.

    Got a few Deuter backpacks and always found their quality to be excellent.

    1. I do like some of what Deuter does, although I’ve never found a pack of theirs that fits nicely on me. But if you can get past that, they have some high-quality gear. I do prefer Gregory packs, though. Their Z series is great.

      1. Snarky, I too like the Gregs, and I seriously looked at a replacement for weight reduction earlier this year but could not find one to fit me regardless of the sizes they have. I want the weight evenly distributed on my shoulders and stay there when I move around. I don’t want to feel any shifting or sliding on my back when loaded with 48lbs (that’s the most I haul in the backwoods).

        A new Greg I saw a few weeks ago has no shoulder strap height adjustments apparently so I’m learning to love my old MEC Ibex 65L I bought a few years ago. It’s a little heavier than I’d like it to be but it’s chipmunk proof (there are teethmarks) and it does the trick for me.

        1. Hmm…Gregory usually has different torso sizes, rather than adjustability. It works well enough for me to get the pack in my t-shirt size, and then it fits well.

  6. Because of your snarky attitude it took me a while to find a decent pack.

    I do not like to have everything in the pack, I like a smaller main pack and be able to lash large items to the outside, like a sleeping bag, pad and tent, which are the 3 most space robbing things you will carry in a backpack.

    I think I have found the closest to perfect pack, the REI Trail 40. Large lower straps for even an 8″ round compression bag to fit, top has one two. Two rows of daisy chain webbing for whatever else (I currently have an Osprey crampon pocket mounted).

    Panel opening but you can join two clips together which will allow only 1\3rd of the panel to open turning it into a top loading.

    A decent amount of pockets, not too many to be annoying though.

    Holds large water bottles, 2 back to pack pockets on one side and one on the other, plus a zippered side pocket.

    Has a laptop sleeve for a 15.5″ laptop.

    My only issue is the bottom is not square, so it does fall over if not leaning against something.

    It’s also just the right travel size \ carry on size.

    If you want smaller they make a 30 and a 20 as well.

    1. Yeah, I like that one. It’s relatively new, but I hope they keep it around, or update the design, instead of getting rid of it.

      1. IMHO the only two things it needs to be perfect and compression straps and internal compression straps. Only to be able to force a heavy load to stay near the body while lighter things can flop about. I’m considering having webbing loops added in order to accommodate this.

  7. water bottle pockets. I recently did a backpacking trip with two friends and all three of us relied on each other to get our water bottles out of the pockets. I have Osprey Ariel pack, my friend has Osprey Viva. I joked that they have contortionists in their R&D department that test the bags because there’s almost no way I can pull a 500ml bottle of water out of the side compartment without dislocating a shoulder. After 4 days on the trail and a strained rotator cuff, I managed once to put the water bottle back in thru the bottom of the side pocket… it was a proud moment.
    My solution: found an Outdoor Research water bottle holder with Velcro that attaches to the hipbelt. Bear spray on one hip, water on the other…. https://www.amazon.com/Outdoor-Research-Water-Bottle-Tote/dp/B00B2MJG1Y
    too bad Osprey doesn’t think of these things…

    1. I’ve seen a few packs that have horizontal water bottle pockets, so you can pull them out with the pack still on, but it’s still not as easy as a hydration bladder. I think these companies just assume that’s what everyone’s using these days.

    2. Now just looked at that..other than needing a belt it may just be an answer – nice shout! I don’t need bear spary fortunately as I am now fixated on NZ treks…unless the locals get a little wild.

  8. I’ve been searching for an incredibly strong backpack due to the fact that I’ve had three military grade backpacks from 4th grade through my senior year of high school and I’ve managed to break all of them whether it’s because the bottom ripped open since I carried every binder for every class with me in my bag since my lockers were in the most inconvenient parts of school possible in relation to my classes, the body itself split in half from constant use, the zipper-sealed side pocket’s bottom ripped out from being poked with pencils and such, the metal parts of the zippers snapped in half, etc. My last one was a Bulldog Extreme Large Molle Tactical Backpack and was fantastic. However, my typical daily load was 23lbs on a good day and 44lbs on the day of a band related activity. Thus, the top of the shoulder strap began to rip off from the body. I’ve only had it for a year and a half now. My father has had Targus Brilliance II laptop backpack for almost a decade now, carries 30lbs+ in it everyday, only uses one shoulder strap and the thing has never broken. It’s so unfair.

    Anyway, your rant was absolutely hilarious and so insightful! I totally agree with every point you made and I’m glad someone finally discussed the pitiful design issues of many backpacks today.

    I do have one comment about a quote from your post. It says ” Pretty much ever pack has a tiny strap, on the shoulder strap, where a hydration bladder hose is held in place.” There’s a typo after the words “pretty much”. It should be “every”. Other than that, great article and I hope you eventually find peace with a decent backpack!

    1. You sound like you should take a look at GoRuck. Military-style bags with a legendary reputation. They’re a little on the heavy side, which is why I haven’t tried them, but it sounds like you’re used to that anyway. People love them.

    2. I think I would rock the same boat as yours Bri (is that the saying?) . I love strong backpacks too. My issue is not really about ripping them soon, but about them being able to carry all my heavy stuff and everything I need on my escape trails (which are normally so many). I think every person that loves fishing will agree that these common “medium grade” backpacks don’t just come around. They are a hustle for no reason. I have always stuck to Millitary grade backpacks and I don’t think I will ever divert my attention.

      PS: LOL and you are such a grammar cop! I didn’t even notice that.

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