Arkel Bug

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I have a car but prefer to get around the city by bike as much as possible. I own a pair of Arkel’s grocery bag-style panniers — higher-end versions of the previously reviewed Grocery Bag Panniers — which are great for shopping and commuting by bike, but I found myself wanting the carrying convenience of a backpack, so my hands would be free when I was off my bike. Arkel’s Bug was the best I found in this category.

I love this bag primarily because converting it to a very comfortable, functional backpack is as simple as pulling the shoulder straps from underneath a pair of Velcro flaps once I’ve removed the bag from my bike’s rear rack. The padding in the straps is good, and I have to remember to move a metal hook, so it doesn’t stick me in the back, but that’s easy. Carrying capacity is a little smaller than that of the grocery bag panniers, though still sufficient for my needs. Two small mesh pockets along with an easy-access zippered pocket on the Bug’s exterior make stowing and retrieving my water bottle and other frequent-use items a breeze.

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-- Colin Bogart  

Arkel bug
$170

Available from Arkel



Deuter Kanga Kid

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This pack is truly a cool tool. It’s the size of a daypack, yet zips open into a child carrier backpack. It’s so cool because it’s small enough to use as your everyday diaper bag, and then when your little one’s legs get tired (or you get tired of chasing your little one), you can put her in the pack.

I highly recommend Deuter’s Kid Comfort II for hiking with a toddler on board, but frame packs are about as portable as strollers – not very. The Kanga Kid, however, can really go everywhere with you. It has an internal frame (more of a shaped metal wedge) and a lumbar belt, so it’s strong enough to hold a child up to about 30 pounds (total recommended capacity, with cargo, is 33 pounds) without killing your shoulders.

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We bought this pack when my son was about six months old. It got a bunch of use until he was about 18 months. Included in that time were a few short impromptu hikes and innumerable trips to the grocery store. Use started to taper off mostly because my son preferred walking when we went out. He’s tall for his age and after about 20 months was too tall for the Kanga. Smaller kids could maybe push it up to two years. But the Kanga was really golden when he was just starting to walk (at about 1 year) and would get tired and need to be carried when we were out on the town. Since I used it as my diaper bag, and therefore always had it with me, I never had to worry about going back to the car for a stroller. I just packed him up and kept on going. It’s not easy to get a child into this pack without the help of another adult, but I managed to do it.

Kelty’s TC 2.1
is a very similar design, though I haven’t used it for comparison. Both companies have a number of backpack styles at parallel price points with comparable features and quality construction. I’m tall, and have found Deuter packs, both the Kanga Kid and the Kid Comfort II, fit me well.

-- Meghan Hedin  

Deuter Kanga Kid
$120

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Deuter



En Route 3-in-1 Travel Purse

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You’ve previously reviewed wallets on Cool Tools, so let’s have equal time, guys ;-) .This travel purse is actually the best everyday purse I’ve ever found. I’ve used and abused it for four years, and the purse still looks great. Its polyester microfiber sheds dirt and is machine washable. Best of all, the easy-to-open strap clips (satin brushed metal which continue looking good indefinitely) allow me to convert it to a waist pack in seconds. Worn as a waist pack, the front zippered section (with your money & credit cards) is easily accessible without removing the purse. It’s great for shopping and errand running. You can keep your hands free. You don’t have to hold onto it or shove it out of the way. You can’t put it down and forget it somewhere. Wearing it as a waist pack also helps deter pick-pockets and purse-snatchers, too. And, whenever necessary, you can convert right back to shoulder use in five seconds.

Here’s a rundown of the interior: flat pocket under Velcro flap in front (good for receipts). Unzipping the front compartment reveals two flat pockets and one zippered pocket (cash), then two more flat pockets (checks in one), one fronted by 8 card pockets (each can easily hold 5+ cards), and a pen loop. The back zipper reveals a large compartment — mine holds keys, cell phone, PDA, camera, folding brush, comb, lip gloss, sewing kit, mini first aid kit, tape measure, etc., I enhanced the inside of the back pocket by adding a Velcro strip, so small items don’t vanish below.

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I originally bought mine to improve my posture — no matter how big a purse I get, over time I’ll overfill it and gradually tilt sideways. Even the “healthy back” bags didn’t work. This one’s big enough to hold what I need, but small enough so it won’t get too heavy. It’s astonishing how much it can hold, but it’s small enough that if you really must carry a designer purse for a night on the town, you can drop this little beauty inside.

-- Barbara Dace  

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En Route 3-in-1 Travel Purse
$40
Manufactured by En Route Travelware

Available from Amazon

Or $35 from PackingLight



Military-Grade CamelBaks

Most bikers and hikers know or have a CamelBak. What many don’t realize, however, is the ones in most stores are ‘consumer grade.’ I’ve used them and they work great, but after a friend of mine showed me his military CamelBak (the “Viper” model), I purchased one and love it.

Instead of nylon, this pack is made of Cordura. It has never gotten scratched or torn despite some unplanned stops while biking (i.e. falling over). I landed on my back once; just got up, shook my head and continued on — no damage to the CamelBak at all. Tough stuff.

Instead of a thin blue tube, on my Viper, the tube is made of a harder plastic that’s not quite as bendy. It’s also sheathed in a neoprene cover, which keeps the water in the tube from getting as warm (with an uncovered tube, you get a mouthful or two of warm water at first). Instead of a bite-down nozzle, mine ends in an on/off switch (a rotating stopper). Plus, the removable mouthpiece comes with a rubber cover that can be removed by the teeth or thumb while on the go. You never get a dusty mouthpiece.

Some CamelBaks are flat to the body, mine has two foam inserts along the side, which creates a recessed portion in the middle that reduces sweat build up. This bag weighs almost two pounds (without water), which is heavier than the classic CamelBak, but it also holds 102 oz. — 30 oz. more than that same classic CamelBak. Also, some CamelBaks have a lot of available space for gear. The Viper doesn’t have a ton of room, but I can still store a pump, patch kit, tire removal kit, a shirt, wallet and keys.

The feature I love the most — and it’s the simplest — relates to the straps. On every backpack I own, the straps are too long to provide for adjustment. On my Viper, the straps are also adjustable — but they’ve included is a little piece of Velcro. It’s three times as wide as the roll strap, so after you adjust the strap just right, you roll up the strap around this Velcro strip and it closes on itself. Once you get it fitted right, you never have to deal with long, annoying straps all over the place. There are also d-rings on both sides of the shoulder straps to keep the tube from flapping all over the place, and a front chest strap.

My particular model typically costs half again as much as the consumer equivalent, but it’s the CamelBak as it should be. The way I look at it, if you already have a CamelBak you like and use, great. For me, these are not ‘consumption’ goods — I wanted one to last decades. And I know mine will outlast my biking life.

-- David Koonce  

Viper CamelBak
$66
Available from Botach Tactical

Manufactured by CamelBak Products, LLC



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Gossamer Whisper Uberlight Pack

Going with an ultralight pack like this is the easiest way to start reducing weight. This simple nylon sack pack weighs 4 ounces. There is no frame. You make a frame by first loading your tent in the bottom. You place your folded sleeping pad so it rests against your back and that gives structure to the pack. If you use folding tent poles, they are inserted inside the folds of the pad to give more structure. On top of the tent goes your sleeping bag. Then you add a couple of zip lock bags on top of that for your food and other belongings. I put my water containers in the outside flap. Then you simply roll the top a few turns and fix it with the velcro straps. There are no zippers, no heavy belts or straps, no compartments, pouches or other extras.

Most people are hooked on features. But, do you really need a separate compartment for your compass and a special web pocket for your water and a map case and three main compartments? I only need one compartment in my pack. Place your things in a few plastic bags. When you want something, pull out the bag you need. It is a relief, actually, to give up on all those compartments, pockets, zippers, thick padded straps, carbon frame and pounds of extras.

When you go the ultralight route your total pack weight will be less than 10 pounds and at that weight, you don’t need hiking boots either. They were designed for the olden days when packs were 40 plus pounds. Ultralight trail running shoes are a pleasure to wear.

Take a look at some of the features of some of the best selling, traditional weekend packs: carbon fiber frame, 4 pockets plus main compartment, dual-density padded shoulder straps, load lifter straps, cranial cavity (to make room for your head!), front bungee, tool loops, twin side water bottle pockets, removable lid doubles as a lumbar pack, interchangeable hip belt with fit zone, adjustable sternum strap with integrated whistle. Total weight: 6 pounds 9 ounces. That is 7 ounces less than my pack when it is fully loaded for a two-day trip!

-- John Aebi-Magee  

[This product remains out of stock, indefinitely. If/when that changes, we will reinstate our recommendation for this solid pack. In the meantime, for longer trips requiring more pack room, check out the G4, also by Gossamer; and see this book for a primer on how to Lighten Up! -- SL]

Whisper Uberlight Pack
$60
Available from Gossamer Gear



BBP Messenger Laptop Bag

Like many people, I’ve received a Kanchenchunga-sized pile of nylon conference give-away bags over the years. All very ho-hum. But after a recent conference I came home with a BBP bag. I was using an old Tumi bag, which I liked, but it was falling apart. This BBP bag turned up in the nick of time.

BBP makes a range of messenger-style briefcases. Their initials stand for “bum back packs” — bags for people with bad backs, and they hang near your bum. They’re thoughtfully designed, rugged, waterproof (ballistic nylon with rubberized interior), can be carried in a variety of ways (single shoulder, double shoulder like a backpack, slipped over the roll-aboard handle). Your laptop fits into a top-loading, well-padded, velour-lined outer pouch with a waterproof zipper, so the thing is super-accessible at airports and very well protected.

It’s a better bag. And at $85 it costs about a third of the price of most of the Tumi bags (the Tumi nylon brief cases list for about $400 now, and $500-600 in leather). Actually, I kept the old shoulder strap from the Tumi, which has a leather ergonomic pad that has morphed to fit my shoulder. It works fine on the BBP. It is even better and cheaper than the popular Timbuk2 bags. To get your laptop out of the Timbuk2, you have to open the bag (two clips), then open the inner pouch (velcro). To get your laptop out of the BBP, you just unzip the shiny black waterproof zipper on the top of the outer padded compartment. And the Timbuk2 costs $115 (and more if you get little optional thingies, which you don’t need on the $85 BBP as it has several extra pouches).

The medium size BBP holds my Apple 15″ PowerBook G4 perfectly in the outside padded sleeve. In the rest of the bag I slide two batteries (there’s a pouch just for those), power supply, dongle, a bit of USB stuff (like an indispensable 6″ Treo HotSync/Charging cable, and my pen-sized radio remote controller), a power adapter, some paperwork, three books (quaint, but they’re not available electronically), an iPod, cell phone, camera, wallet, keys, and bits and sundry pieces (my moleskine notebook, a couple pens, business cards, the usual). It’s actually hard to make the pile much smaller. It all fits into the medium BBP.

-- Michael Hawley  

BBP Hybrid Messenger/Backpack Laptop Bag
$95
Manufactured by BBP Bags

Available from Amazon

One way to carry it.



Grocery Bag Panniers

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Most bicycle panniers work well for touring, but don’t meet the needs of people who use their bikes for commuting or shopping everyday. The typical pannier has a main compartment sealed with a zipper or flap, plus a few smaller pockets. The tourist packs it like a hiker would pack a backpack. However, these bags don’t easily hold the urban cyclists’ cargo of shopping bags, daypacks, and laptop computers. An open-topped pannier that works more like a basket than a backpack provides a better way of carrying this kind of gear. These large bags, usually called grocery bag panniers, or shopping panniers, allow you to carry all kinds of oddly-shaped loads and fold flat when not in use. The key to using shopping bag panniers is to keep your gear in a separate bag that you can drop into the pannier. Day packs or book bags work well. I’ve used dry bags when it rains, but have found that plastic garbage bags are easier and cheaper. Having an open-topped bag also gives you a quick place to toss your bike lock, and the convenient access makes it easier to shed clothing layers as you warm up.

Several companies make them. The Jandd grocery bag pannier seems to be the sturdiest, but is also the most expensive, at around US$45 for a single pannier. REI sells a similar, but less refined, bag for US$80 per pair. My favorites, which I use everyday, are the Nashbar Townie baskets, which cost US$17 each. Unlike the other grocery bag panniers, they don’t use a rectangular metal frame to reinforce the top of the bag. This means that they don’t hold their shape quite as well as the others, but it lets the opening at the top adjust to different shaped cargo, like a bulky laptop bag. They’re cheap enough that I leave them on the bike all the time, but they remove quickly enough that I can conveniently take one with me to carry stuff while the bike is parked.

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For the true urban bike guerilla, Cobbworks* takes used 4-gallon food service containers and turns them into hard-shell, waterproof panniers. I rode with one of these before I got the Nashbar Townies. I prefer the Townies because they fold, and because they’re less bulky off the bike, but I miss being able to use the Cobbworks bucket as a stool when I have to fix a flat.

-- Tom Sackett  

[*Unfortunately, Cobbworks' website is no longer active. If you're interested in tracking down a pair, try OlyBikes in Olympia, WA. -- SL]

Jandd Grocery Bag Panniers
$59 per set
Available from Jandd

REI Novara ‘Round Town panniers
$45 per carrier
Available from REI

Nashbar Townie Basket (folded)
$25
Available from Nashbar



Ikea Tote Bag

Ikea sells these near the cash register. They are large — about 4 feet by 2 by 2, with two clever lengthened (short & long) handles, made of some nearly indestructible nylon-plasticy mesh fabric in Ikea blue. For a buck, they’re amazing. We put a mess at home, in the car, garden, garage. Great for dragging stuff from Sam’s Club, or dirt in the garden, hauling firewood or just whenever you’ve a lot of loose stuff to move.

– Vince Crisci

We use ‘em. Lightweight, generously oversized, foldable, durable, and only 99 cents. What’s not to like?

– KK

 

Frakta Tote Bag
$0.60 in Ikea stores only



Aloksaks

These are zip lock bags made from especially thick plastic with a special seal that guarantees waterproofness (and odor-proofness). They are good for separating clothing and food for camping and traveling. We keep everything from socks and underwear to cameras and passports in them. In monsoon season in Vietnam they held up quite well and kept our gear dry and tidy.

Aloksaks
$5+ (various sizes)
Manufactured by Watchful Eye Designs

Available from Amazon



CamelBak Hydration Systems

The closest thing to the Still Suits worn by the Fremen desert people in Frank Herbert’s Dune world, set 10,000 years in the future. You hydrate more often with these because you don’t have to reach for anything; the containers can carry up to about two liters. Also they don’t bang around on the outside of your pack; the new backpacks often build in pouches to accommodate them. They make insulated ones that don’t freeze, which I use for snowboarding.

Camelbak
$43
CamelBak Products, Inc.
1310 Redwood Way, Suite 200,
Petaluma, CA 94954
800/767-8725,707-792-9700

Available from Amazon