Travelling with Tech: Knomo Harpsden Backpack Review

I’ve been a backseat fan of Knomo ever since I tested their Saxby and Bungo messenger bags. I love their combination of clean, business-like exterior finish with sometimes playful, vibrant colours inside. That’s why I practically fell over myself to say “yes” to trying one of their newer backpacks.

I was keen both to see how Knomo have grown and developed in the intervening years, and how they’ve approached the technology uprising and the increasing popularity of large smartphones, larger tablets, who-knows-what-size laptops, and all the peripherals, batteries and paraphernalia that surround them.

I tested the Saxby over 7 years ago, shortly after the original iPad launched and tablet computers very first transitioned from being obtuse and obscure to becoming a mainstream appliance. My tablet PCs of the time included the Nokia N810 which I still have and adore to this day, but was rather more pocket-sized than its modern-day counterparts. Back then, portable batteries weren’t quite so commodity as they are today, and I paired my tablet with a Proporta TurboCharger.

I’ll forgive you for thinking that in those 7 years I’d shed some gadget weight, but battery energy density hasn’t really changed, while mobile devices get more and more power hungry, yet confoundingly thinner and thinner. My laptop has bounced down from an old MacBook Pro, to a sleek 13″ Retina, and back up again to a 14″ would-be desktop. While I’ve lost interest in my iPad, I often carry a Nintendo 3DS or a PS Vita, my OpenPandora, or another gaming device to while away the nearly 4 hour train journey I frequent. Sometimes I even carry a couple of PS3 controllers. And, recently, all of these things at once. That was… a challenge.

I’ve long since given up on messenger bags which, combined with a heavy laptop and all these extra gubbins, had actually started causing me quite severe pain in my shoulder. The shift to backpacks has been a welcome one, making it much more comfortable to carry a bevvy of technical tat. My daily driver has been a Fjällräven Kånken – a backpack designed for Swedish school children – which D bought me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I’m a huge fan of its boxy shape, and I’ll be damned if the thing isn’t tough as nails to boot- I’ve carried everything from supermarket shops to laptops and socks on my back. I really should write about it sometime.

But I digress. My point is that backpacks are my new messenger bags, and so I set upon Knomo’s website searching for something suitable for my behemoth battlestation and gaggle of gadgetry.

It wasn’t easy. I had to fight back my magpie tendencies to gravitate toward anything with a vibrant colourful interior and instead pick something that fit my style and, uh, Sheffield’s unpredictable weather. Protecting my laptop and gadgets from rain is a big concern. I can shrug off a downpour with a cup of tea and a change of clothes, but a downpour’s worth of moisture into my laptop’s USB ports and it’s game over. I settled upon the Harpsden a water resistant backpack that would keep my precious gadgets protected from the elements without sacrificing an iota of style.

In fact, the water resistance of the Knomo Harpsden seems to lead design choices that lend it a more understated, minimalist look. You wont find leaky stitched seams holding the panels of the bag itself together here. The Harpsden is crafted from high-frequency welded/heat sealed nylon, using a 70 year perfected technique for locally heating nylon to form a strong, waterproof join.

Not one to take such claims at face value I actually took the brand new backpack and dunked a corner into a bowl of water. The result? A noticeable patch on the outside, but no sign of water ingress whatsoever. Not quite satisfied with this I grabbed a cup of water and poured it into the bag (I’m deadly serious) to see if it would hold. It did, although there was a very small amount of moisture beading off the outside. This was through tiny holes which seem to run along the weld itself. If a tiny bead of water is the most that I can accomplish with these rather overzealous tests then I’m pretty confident the Harpsden will keep my laptop dry in torrential rain.

So, of course, I tested that too… well, unintentionally. This last week in Sheffield has been nothing if not wet:

The weakest links in the water resistance are usually the zips but Knomo are wise to this common shortfall. Knomo have carefully placed a small overhang over the vertical zip for the front pocket, discouraging moisture from seeping in at the end of the zip run. Additionally, both the main zip and vertical zip also have black trim running their length and totally concealing the zip itself.

The design concealed behind this trim is absolutely ingenious; the zip is mounted such that it can move back and forth. When you zip up the Harpsden the seam is pulled together and the zip pulls out from underneath to lock together. When you unzip the Harpsden, the zip retreats behind the black trim. It’s simple, elegant and brilliant. By contrast, the Fjällräven Kånken is your standard affair, relying upon an overhanging fabric flap to protect it from the elements, and many bags use the zips as a feature, avoiding any water ingress protection altogether.

While I’m geeking out about design features, the chest strap is cool too. It’s not just adjustable for fit, but can also slide up and down along about 15cm of rail so you can move it to a height that’s move comfortable. This is achieved through nylon piping which is sewn into the fabric to form the rail, the chest strap is then clipped over it. It requires a little force to move, so it doesn’t slip down. I walk fast, which tends to shake my backpacks off, and the chest strap has been invaluable for keeping the main straps in check.

The straps themselves are nice and wide, about 7cm at the top, tapering slightly down to 6cm. I’ve found that narrower straps tend to cut into my shoulders, so I’m a fan of wide straps; they better distribute the weight of a bag full of gadgets. On the flip side, they’re less practical for summer… but we don’t seem to be having much of that lately! They’re also moderately padded and sit comfortably. I do find the straps tend to loosen up over time (this is a problem to some degree with all backpacks), but Knomo have created easy-to-pull loops in the straps you pull to tighten them up so it’s really easy to tighten until comfortable.

Affixed to the straps are reflective patches for night-time visibility, and immediately below these are a pair of hard plastic loops (one per strap) for attaching carabiner clips. These are a, at first glance, an odd sight on such an otherwise minimalist backpack, but a welcome addition that lets the Harpsden carry you from an office commute to a outdoors adventure; incidentally the very lifestyle Knomo pitch this bag at.

Between the backpack and your back is a good deal of breathable padding. I find it surprisingly effective at keeping my back cooler than other packs- the Kånken I mentioned before is so terrible in this respect that I often check to see if my laptop’s woken up and started cooking itself. No such problem with the Harpsden… yet. Summer is still to come!

Stitched into the back is also a handle for carrying the pack, it’s decently wide but clearly not designed, in respect to comfort that is, for carrying any sort of load for any length of time. But it is a backpack, after all! A subtle Knomo logo in black and orange adorns the bottom corner. I love how Knomo play fast and loose with their logo and take pains to blend their branding with the style of the bag. The only other places you’ll find their name is on the zippers, and the internal label. The label isn’t just vanity, however, it serves a purpose. It displays a unique code, known as a Knomo ID, which can be registered online and later used to identify you as the owner should you ever lose your backpack.

Also on the inside, you’ll see an array of what appear to be rather modest sized pockets. At first glance I was pretty sure my 14″ Razer Blade laptop would never fit into the main padded pouch. I was wrong. The pouch swallowed my bulky Razer Blade whole, and has totally eliminated the need for a separate neoprene pouch which previously added a lot of bulk to my daily carry. It also easily fit the new 13″ MacBook Pro, the old 13″ Retina MacBook Pro, the old, old 13″ Unibody MacBook Pro (oh god that feels huge and heavy and dated now!) and, thus, should pretty easily fit all 13″ and most 14″ laptops and almost certainly things like the Dell XPS 15 too. For reference my Razer Blade is 13.6 x 9.3 x 0.7 inches- the width doesn’t matter so much, but the depth (.

I found the smaller pockets handy for cables, the medium ones for my laptop’s AC adaptor (the main bit of it anyway, I leave the bit that connects to the wall behind and have one at home and at work) and sunglasses, the slightly larger ones for random Raspberry Pi add-ons that I’m ferrying about to work on and develop, and the pen pockets for… haha, who am I kidding. I don’t use pens.

Also attached to the inside is a clip for keeping a set of keys conveniently located away from all the junk that accumulates at the bottom of any bag. You have to be careful not to accidentally flip it into the laptop pocket, though, since metal clips and laptop lids don’t mix well! Keys, even less so!

The pockets being mounted on the back of the bag keeps the center of gravity of all my junk as close to my back as possible. This makes everything feel lighter and more comfortable to carry. They also make it easier to access the important stuff, versus the clothes, and larger devices, kits and boxes that I tend to toss into the bottom.

The bag itself is cavernous, more than enough space for a long weekend of spare clothes, a laptop and more. Due to its construction it keeps its shape well, and it takes a little pressure to displace the air inside. A mostly empty backpack forms a sort-of protective airbag, since the water resistance makes it tricky (although not impossible) for air to escape. The minimalist construction and slightly rigid shape make it a little tricky to zip up; there’s nothing to grip onto! But with practise, and a little weight in the bag, you can just grab both zips and pull them toward the top.

I’ve not found a use for the outside pocket yet. Honestly, I could live without it. What I’d rather have instead, although I’m willing to concede that it would ruin the clean lines of this backpack, is somewhere to tuck a bottle of water that’s not inside with all my stuff! Fortunately I’ve seen carabiner water bottle clips around which would solve this problem quite neatly (and in a variety of delightful colours :D).

A modest amount of bottom padding (the bag’s bottom, not yours!) completes the bag, it doesn’t have to be significant since your laptop will be raised up in the internal pocket and well protected. The nylon that the bag is constructed of is also surprisingly tough, too. I’ve clumsily scuffed and scraped it around a few times- cringing every time I do- and it’s showing no scuff marks yet.

The Harpsden is available in grey and also blue direct from Knomo and will set you back £89 which is square in the mid-range pricing for good quality backpacks. While you’ll find many, many designer label bags around this price range, I doubt you’ll find many as functional and carefully considered as the Knomo Harpsden. I’m thrilled to be able to use it now as my daily carry.

 
  • Achmed Awad

    Great article. I found the front pocket to be great while traveling and tuck away flight tickets and my passport. It’s easy to reach without the need to cram them in my jeans or inside of the bag.