As many of you who read The Gadgeteer know, I am a bit of a fanatic about gear bags and have reviewed my fair share of them. From the Ellington Europa Field Bag (no longer manufactured) to the Duluth Trading Fire Hose Bag, I have tried many bags over the years. All of them have, to some degree, left me a little cold. In some cases, it wasn’t quite large enough to hold everything I really need to have with me on a daily basis, or they were a little too large for my needs. My primary uses for a bag are for bringing my laptop and papers to school with me (a job that the SF Bags Waterfield Medium Cargo Bag has performed nicely for the last two years), taking with me when I go out for a weekend trip (including the Victorinox Horizontal Tote, the Fire Hose Field Bag, the Europa Field Bag, the Olympia tote) and to hold my gear when I take my annual storm chasing trip (the Roadwired Pod, Podzilla, Photo/Video Convertible Bag, CityWalker pack, Lowepro D-Res waistpack, among others). After Julie’s reviews of Saddleback Leather Company products, I have been trying to justify dropping a huge chunk of change on a Satchel for some time. I spent a whole day last week doing nothing but trying to find every single photo, video and review of the medium satchel online. I finally called the nice people at Saddleback, had a very good conversation with the woman who answered the phone, and managed somehow to purchase the Medium Satchel in Dark Coffee Brown while talking. Funny how that can happen! Shipping prices got expensive in a hurry, so I went with ground shipping. As Tom Petty said so eloquently, the waiting is the hardest part! I figured after a couple of years of agonizing over this purchase, another week wouldn’t kill me.
It was not on my porch one moment, then it was. In a brown box. I took it inside, slit the plastic tape keeping it from me, threw back the paper padding and carefully removed the plastic bag protecting it. I took the rich, dark brown bag out of its confinement and held it up to my eyes.
You know how fingerprints can appear out of nowhere on the surface of an iPod? Well, scratches are kind of like that on this thick leather. Within moments of unwrapping it, the pristine leather surface was covered in scratches. This bag is not a bag for someone who worships pretty leather pieces. It’s meant to be beaten up, and the process starts right out of the bag. If you freak out when your car gets scratched for the first time, then avoid this bag. It WILL get messed up in a hurry. Saddleback accepts returns, but only if the bag is in new condition. Well, it stops being in new condition right out of the box. Be ready for that.
Once you get over the heart attack of instant scratches, the charm of the bag hits you. The leather is thick and supple, yet stiff. That should work itself out with age. The stitching is thick thread (about a millimeter thick) and the stitches themselves are wide (about 5 mm between stitch holes). All edges have two rows of stitches, about 1 cm apart, to keep the leather pieces strongly together.
The termination points of the stitches appear to have been melted to prevent fraying. Stress points are tacked with rivets with an aged bronze patina.
The hardware is thick and rugged, made for utility and not looks. There is some appearance of wear and oxidation on the D rings and the O rings. The only exception to this is the swivel clip hardware that holds the shoulder strap to the bag. They are bright and shiny and very sturdy.
The mechanism is one I have never seen before, two jaws that interlock right at the point where they sit against the connecting ring.
The D-rings are attached to the bag with a loop of 1/8” thick leather, stitched and riveted to the side of the bag. There is also a very long leather strap that is riveted to the inside of the bag (no stitching) with a key clip at the far end. This strap is a bit too long to be useful, though the clip is pretty decent. I would be tempted to slice the strap off, but I might want to resell this bag some day.
On either side of the bag are leather pockets designed to fit a water bottle. These are pretty slim, though…I don’t think you could actually get a water bottle in there. Since they are not sealable at the top, I would be leery of putting anything valuable in there. Maybe they will stretch with age, but as they come now, they are fairly prehensile.
On the back of the bag is an open pocket for papers or even a magazine, as long as it is inserted vertically. There is a fair bit of friction, however, so getting your papers into it unrumpled will be a challenge.
Here is the back of the bag with an Orion Telescope ad magazine and a Make magazine stuffed into the back pocket:
And here is the interior of the rear pocket!
The top of the bag is home to a rugged carry handle. It’s made of a single piece of leather, very cunningly folded and stitched to create an excellent way to carry the bag in the hand. The handle is attached to the top flap of the bag by the same kind of leather loop/stitch/rivet arrangement as the D-rings are. It is very sturdy and quite comfortable.
Behind the handle is an O-ring designed to be used to convert this bag into a backpack. The point where the metal closes to form the loop is pretty roughly finished. Not that it will cut you, but it is not the polished kind of hardware you would expect to find in a high-end leather bag. Then again, the bag is meant to exude a rustic flavor, not a frou-frou metrosexual vibe.
Converting the bag into a backpack requires you to unstrap the adjustment buckle, remove one of the two shoulder pads, attach one end of the strap to a bottom D-ring, thread the strap through the top O-ring, slide the second shoulder pad back on, then rebuckle the adjustment strap and attach it to the bottom d-ring on the other side. It sounds worse than it is. The conversion takes about one minute.
The front of the bag contains the strap and belt buckle that fastens the front flap closed. I don’t think that this belt will wear out over a million opening and closing cycles. It’s made of a double layer of leather stitched together with one row of stitches. There is a belt loop at the bottom to keep the strap from flapping around. After two weeks of use, the strap is now flexible enough to be easy to use. It was a bit stiff at first, it does work itself out.
The bottom of the bag is ringed with four D-rings. The front and back wall of the bag extend past the bottom panel, making the bag very stable to stand up. These D-rings can be used to attach the bag to the back of a motorcycle, if you want, or to attach a small camera tripod or umbrella. You’ll need your own straps to do this, but the rings are there in case you want to use them. The rings on the back wall of the bag are what you attach the shoulder strap to when converting the bag into a backpack.
Now, for the inside of this bag. With the thickness of the stitches, Saddleback recommends taking ¼ inch off the dimensions on all sides. The bag is 12” X 9”, so I should be able to fit a 10” netbook in its neoprene case easily into it. Nope. Not going to happen. The small side pockets on the inside pooch out to the point where it is not really possible to fit something the size of a netbook in a case in there. I bought a Waterfield iPod accessory case to fit into it (10” long) and it just fits. With the side pouches, you will probably get about 9 ½ inches of usable width out of the inside of the bag and about 3 ½ inches of usable depth without deforming the bag. In order to give me more room, I stuffed all of my old original series Advanced Dungeons and Dragons hardcover books in there to stretch the leather a little. It did work to flatten the inner pockets to a degree, so there is a little bit more room in there now.
The material that is used to line the inside of the bag is pigskin. Suede can be ordered upon request. The material is extremely tough and I am not at all worried about tearing it as I might if it were a fabric lining. The lining is on the front wall, the bottom and the back wall, and the back inside pocket is made of pigskin as well. The pigskin extends all the way to the edges of the flap. The left and right wall is not pigskin, nor are the small side pockets.
The back wall has a pocket sized to fit the iPad in a case. I was able to stuff my Toshiba netbook into it without its case, it is a VERY tight fit. I put it in with the battery side sticking out into the bag, rather than pressing into the back wall of the bag, where it might leave permanent impressions.
I can fit my iPad in its folio case, Viliv N5 in its case, a 500 GB external hard drive in its case and the Waterfield iPod accessory bag in front of that, with the iPod Camera Connection kit, my Canon S90 digital camera (not shown because I used to to take the picture) and various USB cables. There is also room for a small spiral notepad. My multitool takes up residence in one internal side pocket along with an iPad stylus and a laser pointer, and the other side pocket is stuffed with pens. The keyper is attached to a side d-ring on the outside of the bag just to keep it out of the way. This still leaves some room in the bag, but I don’t want to push it.
I have attached my school ID badge on one D-loop and a small carabiner with an LED flashlight attached to it to the other D loop. The flashlight is tucked into one of the outside pockets. My Kestrel 4000 weather meter is tucked into the other side pocket. It is now ready for school!
So is it the be-all and end-all of my bag addiction? Not really. It’s a great bag, but not one that will cause me to throw all my other bags away. It is durable as any bag I have ever seen and should last a long, long time…and it looks amazing. It will look even better as it gets beaten up over the years. A lot of the photos I have seen of this bag show that people really like to decorate their bag. Very often, you will see a cross dangling from the carry handle. I decided to go my own way and put a Flying Spaghetti Monster charm there. I took my Geocaching tie-tack and pushed the pin into one of the threading holes with a tiny dab of cyanoacrylate glue in the hole to hold it in place.
You can personalize it any way you want, this bag is screaming to be personalized. And used. And abused. Over and over and over again. If you are a fan of fine leather bags, this might not be the bag for you. There’s nothing refined about this bag. It’s about rough-hewn edges; big, beefy hardware and using it to fight off bears in the woods. There is nothing about it that screams “I’M A MAN PURSE!” to the world. It’s like a miniature briefcase that you can carry your iPad, netbook and other essentials with you as you go about your manly way. If you are a woman, you can feel pretty manly carrying this bag around. I wish it had about half an inch more room on all sides, but to get more room you’d have to move up to the large satchel, which might be overkill. I don’t know. It is a pretty heavy bag, but in a good way. Perhaps I’ll get to review the large satchel some day! What is for sure is that this bag is a keeper.
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