Gear Review: Saddleback Leather Backpack

Saddleback Leather claims "they'll fight over it when you're dead" of their backpack. After breaking a snap, we're ready to discuss why they may not have to.

December 30, 2019

Saddleback Leather's motto "They'll fight over it when you're dead" tells you what you need to know upfront. This bag will be durable and coveted. It looks great, it's made from full grain, genuine leather, and the bags are made without 'breakable parts'. Challenge accepted.

Saddleback Leather "Original" Backpack

Duration of Testing: 6 years

Utility – 4

Durability – 9

Comfort – 4

Weight – 2

Cost – 3

Overall – 5/10

Bottom Line: Excellent piece of gear - but not for the vast majority of people.

‍Saddleback Leather back in the saddle

One of the things that is important to know, but not spend much time on is that disposability sucks. At this point in my life, when I buy something, I don't want to think about buying it again in another 5 or 10 years. This has led to the "buy quality, cry once" philosophy.

Saddleback Leather's "Original" backpack is certainly that.

‍The interior layout is simple, but sufficient. Space is limited, so packing intelligently is paramount.

The design is functional and simple; four small interior pockets with an 11.75" x 16.75" x 6.75 space. A rear pouch that's slim and perfect for a tarp, if that's something you're interested in carrying. The exterior pockets leave a little to be desired; one main body that's covered by the backpack's flap (requiring the bag to be opened to access) and two side pockets that are barely big enough to squeeze a couple 32oz Nalgene bottles in to.

The layout could be improved as well. Anyone serious about getting into adventures is going to recognize the lack of drainage grommets as a fundamental liability. If this pack takes on water, it'll be a 60 pound weight in no time, with no way of venting. Beyond that, the design is simple and sufficient, without worrying too much about giving the end user all the pouches they could dream of.

In terms of durability, the original backpack is second to nothing I've ever seen. The leather is thick, very tough, and the stitching around D-rings is as close to bombproof as you can get. The bag is double stitched with an impressive thread and even after years of abuse, shows no signs of material defect.

We wouldn't be reviewing the bag if we hadn't found a way to break it, however. It would be unfair to SBL to leave out that this is the original "Tank" backpack, and the design has been updated and features new shoulder strap hardware. With that said, during some urban mobility training, the eyelet wore down the fastener and a strap fell free. The bag had, at this point, lived with about 25 pounds of gear in it, and had gone everywhere from the mountains of the Cascades to the caverns of New Mexico while I ran, jumped, climbed, trained and explored with it. A conservative estimate puts the bag at roughly 800 miles of hard use. When I say this bag was abused daily, that means it was gettin used every day, without a day off.

A cable tie was enough to fix the issue. Field repairability is always good.‍

A quick cable tie around both D-rings and the bag was back in business. I dropped a line to SBL to let them know I'd had a breakage, and they were absolutely true to their word. The bag was fixed, and the straps were upgraded at no extra cost.

It should be obvious then, that for a bag of this size, it was remarkably comfortable. The sturdy construction gives the impression of a back that has a frame for support, while still resting on the shoulders. Configured as it was, it was a little too heavy to not have hip support, but regardless, it wears very nice.

The weight is where the sun starts to set on this pack. Weighing a whopping 8.5 pounds empty, it's borderline absurd for anyone not deliberately trying to make a statement by having a large, expensive, beautifully made backpack. That said, if we take into account that our forebears relied on just such goods, we can contextualize the weight and say it's the price you pay for something that is as close to 'unfailing' as possible.

As we round the corner from absurd weight to exorbitant cost, I think most people will have their minds made

up that this bag isn't the one for them. At (as of this writing) ~$620, there are options that are more utilitarian, lighter, and cheaper... though not many as well built or aesthetic. Aesthetic doesn't solve problems though, which leaves us with the final thoughts and bottom line:

It's a great pack. It's comfortable, tough as a coffin nail, and beautifully crafted... but it's just too heavy and expensive to be a reasonable option for those looking for an everyday backpack. I love what Saddleback is doing, and curated, heirloom quality kit is something we take seriously at ISG.

Make no mistake, this pack is capable of doing whatever you need done for the rest of your life, and into the next generation, so if that's what you're after, look no further... But it does so at the expense of weight, interior space management, and cost.


Aaron YR

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