Before buying the Côte et Ciel Isar Rucksack, I was still using the same backpack I’d used in high school. That bag is tough and probably cost less than $80, but it’s not terribly good looking. It’s the kind of bag I had no shame of throwing down at the foot of my school locker, but it just doesn’t match the way I dress any more. It doesn’t feel like it suits me in 2015.
I actually like messenger bags more than backpacks. I like their accessibility, how easy they are to remove from a shoulder, and I like where they sit on my body as I walk around. However, for carrying heavier loads for longer periods of time, nothing beats two proper backpack straps. Backpacks distribute weight more evenly across my shoulders, they allow me to keep a more even posture, and they can often fit more stuff.
I acknowledge that duffel bags are the go-to bag for schlepping large amounts of stuff around, but I don’t like walking around for very long with a duffel bag. I think it’s inefficient to have one hand taken up at all times. So for the weekend trips or heavier weekdays, I wanted a new go-to backpack.
I looked at a number of alternatives before deciding on the Isar.
- The GoRuck GR1 holds monstrous amounts of stuff and will likely outlive everyone I know, but it’s too tactical for my tastes. I wanted something tough, but still a little dressy.
- Tom Bihn bags are highly reviewed by Ben Brooks, but they’re either too bright or use too much nylon as a base material for my liking.
- Killspencer makes a Daypack with interesting organizational features for notebooks and accessories, but it still looks a little vanilla, and I worry about the leather in the rain.
- The Hard Graft Back2Back looks like a good transformable backpack that fits a respectable amount of stuff, but I think it looks a little too wide when worn on the back (it could just be the model, though).
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a review of the Isar Rucksack on Minimally Minimal that I made a final decision. I had seen the Isar months before, but it wasn’t clear from the product shots how the bag actually worked. I was worried it would be a design that valued form over function. However, once I saw how much could be packed into the bag without distorting its shape, I was sold. I went out a few weeks later to Queen Street West and bought an Isar in Icelandic Grey from Nomad for about $325 CAD. That was in May of 2014.
A Laptop Duffel Backpack
When I’m asked about the Isar, my elevator pitch is this: it’s basically a thin laptop backpack with a duffel bag grafted right onto it. That’s a brutal way of putting it that strips out all the magic of the design, but it gets the point across.
One great feature of the Isar is that it can be really secure for your laptop, tablets, and important travel documents. The laptop section sits right against your back and cannot be opened while you have the bag on — it doesn’t get much more secure than that. Actually opening this rear section often requires me to bend the backpack straps forward, but once everything is unzipped, everything inside is very easy to access. The laptop compartment on the Large size fits up to a 17-inch laptop, so it holds my 13-inch rMBP just fine. The tablet pocket is right beside the laptop pocket, and it fits my iPad Air 2, but not very snugly. Most times, I prefer to just place my iPad at the bottom of the compartment, which has side guards that accordion out (to keep small items from accidentally falling out). There’s a zippered pouch opposite the laptop, which is a great place to store a passport during travel.
Depending on how you fold it, the front compartment of the Isar can look like a sail or a shark fin. This area is fantastic for holding unusually sized items, and there are several sets of compression straps to keep items in place, or keep everything snug when the bag is fully packed. The whole thing zips shut with a long vertical zipper that runs the length of the bag.
The gigantic interior of the front compartment has two zippered pouches for storing smaller items. I use these for pens, cables, moisturizer, and sanitizer. The flat part of the compartment has two compression straps for keeping clothing nice and flat during transport. I’ve used this for suit jackets on long weekend wedding trips, and the Isar has not disappointed me. Larger items like umbrellas, bicycle helmets, textbooks, and camera just sit loosely in the main compartment.
It’s really this magical main compartment that drew me to the bag in the first place. I find myself more and more attracted to unique or unusual designs, and I love how the Isar manages to create a unique shape without having a very rigid body. The shape of the bag changes a lot depending on what you put in it, but it also maintains its good looks regardless of whether it’s full or empty. Most bags look like rigid containers for your stuff, but my Isar looks like a canvas cover that has been considerately draped over your things.
Instead of reviewing the backpack by just rotating it on a pedestal made of paragraphs, I thought I’d discuss a few different use cases where the Isar’s design shines.
Walking with the Isar
I really like that the Isar has enough organization to help me quickly grab small items, even while I’m walking around town. The grab handle, which sits at the top of the two backpack straps, is comfortable to hold. The top of the straps are thick, wide, and padded, which means you can wear this bag for hours. It’s really great for day trips around the city.
Holding the Isar by the grab handle and unzipping the main compartment to grab my camera is easy. In fact, grabbing any large item — be it a camera or an umbrella — is easy thanks to the large main compartment. It’s also fun to use the little secret pocket, located on the bottom-left side of the bag. I know some people keep their phones here.
I’ve found the raw canvas to be pretty durable in my travels thus far. The material will soak up some rain because it’s not treated, but it also dries out fairly quickly, and it’s definitely thick enough to keep my electronics protected during a quick dash through the rain. I wouldn’t go biking through a storm with this bag on, but it works if you’re just walking home without an umbrella.
The good news is that the Isar is available in a variety of different colour and fabric combinations, so if raw canvas isn’t your style, there’s likely another version of the bag that has what you’re looking for.
The large Isar is just big enough to fit on my lap in a cramped situation. The back “fin” of the back does puff out, but it can easily be flattened for squeezing into tighter spaces. When there’s enough space on the train, I like to sit down and grab the iPad from the rear laptop compartment, and then prop it up on the bag as if it were a little reading stand.
The grab handle also shines for situations where there’s only standing room. Lots of backpacks tend to have dinky little handles that are painful to hold because they’re too thin and insufficient, so my hat goes off to Côte et Ciel for designing a good, solid handle.
If there was a primary reason for buying this backpack, it would be weekend trips and vacations. Packing this bag up with two days worth of clothing, umbrella, and my MacBook and iPad reaches the 15 lbs. mark in terms of weight.
I put the bag through a pretty thorough testing during my vacation to Vancouver last year. We’d walk around all day, logging 12 km on foot, and we’d jam food and jackets into the backpack as needed. I was dog tired at the end of the day, but the Isar made the load manageable while still allowing easy access to smaller items. It would have been nice to have the option of a sternum strap for helping with really heavy loads, but I could always add one myself, since there is webbing stitched onto each of the straps.
I’m also surprised at how versatile this bag is in the looks department. You can flatten the entire front compartment down when the bag is empty, so it doesn’t tend to stick out very far. Adjusting the external compression strap is all that’s needed to turn Isar from a daypack into a weekend bag.
I’ve managed to fit the following on a single trip:
- MacBook w/ charger
- iPad w/ charger
- Full suit w/ jacket and tie
- compact umbrella
- extra underwear and socks
- extra shirt
- full complement of cables
- sunglasses in case
Fitting all of those items tidily into the bag without crumpling everything is really, really cool — this level of compartmentalization is definitely a rare feature in a backpack.
This isn’t the kind of bag I’d take kayaking or for really mud-filled adventures, but for most everything else, I’m confident in the Isar’s ability to handle the punishment. The only part that has me a little concerned is a small rip that I can see in the handle. On inspection, the damage seems to be mainly cosmetic, since the load-bearing portion of the handle is still completely intact, but I thought it was worth mentioning in this review.
There’s also minor wear and tear on the metal hardware, where the paint is starting to chip away a little, revealing what looks to be brass or copper (although I’m really no materials expert). None of the metal hardware has shown any signs of bending or breaking though: it’s tough stuff.
There really aren’t very many things I’d nitpick in the Isar, and the only warning I’d issue regarding this bag is to think about its size. I bought an Isar in large because that was what was available locally, but if I’d really had my pick, I’d probably have picked this bag up in a medium. I think the medium size (which is sizes for 15-inch MacBook Pros) would make it easier to use during lighter trips.
I’d say that, unless you know you want to carry a monster 17-inch laptop around, 99% of people should stick with the smaller Isar size. It’s also worth paying attention to the various fabric combinations available for this bag. The nylon versions are cheaper and look a little more square when folded, and the leather versions will require a little more looking-after when they get wet. I’m still happy that I chose raw canvas; I like the way it wears over time, and I find the thickness of the fabric reassuring.
If you’re on the market for a durable, tech-friendly backpack that defies convention, you’ll want to consider the Isar.