26 October 2009

bikefix Initial Review: Mountain Hardwear Paladin bag

As even the most infrequent reader will know, we're huge bag freaks here at bikefix. The closet in my spare bedroom is full various packs that I've accumulated over the years- for some reason I just like a well though-out bag. The latest addition to my collection first caught my eye at our local REI with its sexy black coated tarp fabric. The more I looked, the more I liked- the water-resistant zippers, the cool zipper pulls, the outside mesh pockets and unobtrusive internal organization all seemed to address issues I have had with other packs.

What really sold me on the Paladin, though, was its laptop sleeve. While provisions for laptops are increasingly common, Mountain Hardwear saw fit to provide laptop access to a padded sleeve via a long zip on the side of the bag, making access easy, even with a full bag. Its 20L capacity seemed like it would swallow a good deal more than my (nominally 20L) 7 year old Vaude Splash- something I regularly wish for on winter afternoon commutes when my bag is stuffed with the morning's bulky cold-weather gear. A second full-length zip pocket on the back of the bag provides access to a document pocket. The lid has a small fleece-lined wallet/phone/iPod pocket that's accessible from the outside as well as a few pen holders, a larger zipped pocket and a couple of camera-sized pockets underneath. In the main compartment, there are two more stacked document pockets (one clear) up against the laptop sleeve and a pair of deep pockets along each side of the bag, into which I've been able to stuff one sneaker (though not dress shoe) or long-sleeved tee each. The pockets are lightweight and flexible, however and don't cut into storage space when not in use. There are both traditional webbing hang loops and a tubular aluminum grab handle on the top of the bag and a "Y" of nylon webbing up the back of the bag for carabiners and such. While marketed as a "daypack" rather than cycling-specific pack, the Palladin looked as though it would meet my commuting needs nicely.

The first time that the Palladin saw any real action was at Interbike this fall. The prospect of lugging a laptop, snacks, tons of catalogs and a bunch of bikefix Podium Tees around in a messenger bag for three days had me reaching for something with proper shoulder straps. For trade show duty, I have to say that the Palladin was just about perfect. With my laptop stashed in the main compartment, I was able to tuck catalogs and business cards into the sleeve without removing the bag itself. The mesh side pockets hold a standard water bottle without trouble and, despite a virtually nonexistent waistbelt (which is removable altogether), the Palladin handled 20+lb loads without complaint. By the end of the show, I was proud of the big black bag and of the compliments it attracted.

It wasn't until I returned home that I had the chance to transfer my commuting bag's contents to the Paladin and try it on the bike. When under-filled, the compression straps do a reasonable job of bringing the bag closer to the rider's back, and I suspect that they will work even better as the heavy fabric breaks in. The side pockets to a good job of holding miscellany such as keys, hats and gloves, though they can be hard to access with the compression straps attached. Speaking of which, the side compression straps are pretty poorly thought out. Because they are tethered to the backs of the side pockets, not only do they complicate side pocket access (without adding security), but they also prevent laptop access. It seems as though a better solution could be found without too much effort. The phone pocket on the strap is handy, but will hold only the smallest phones and iPods- no Blackberries or iPhones here. When riding, the stiffness of the back panel, a direct result of the laptop sleeve placement, makes the bag fairly uncomfortable and a bit unstable. The profiled mesh back pads can't compensate for the bag's flat shape and, when compared to the (Vaude, Deuter) suspension systems that I'm used to, can't compete ventilation-wise either. The result is a bag that feels a bit unstable on the bike, no matter how tight the shoulder, sternum or waist straps.

Further reducing the Mountain Hardwear's capability as a bicycle commuting pack are the complete lack of reflective material and/or blinky tabs. Neither are really needed on a daypack, but they really don't hurt, either. Given the price of the bag and the fact that black reflective material is widely available, this is more or less inexcusable. I was able to clip a light to the nylon webbing at the back of the bag, but its location was far from ideal- pointed skyward and without gravity helping to keep it attached (I used a broccoli rubber band to keep mine on. Add to these annoyances the rattling and clanging that the grab handle makes against the back of my helmet and the Paladin proves itself basically unsuitable for bicycle commuting.

As much as I love the Paladin for trade shows, and travel, it just doesn't cut it on the bike. I was sad to have to do it, but the big black bag went back to to REI. It's a great bag for those who travel by air (the easy laptop access and grab handle get big points there) or commute by train, by bus or on foot. Everyone who saw it liked the looks of the bag too- single and fashionable folks take note. The Paladin seems to be very well built and comes with a lifetime warranty- as it should be for $150. When all is said and done, it seems that Mountain Hardwear could make a few relatively easy tweaks to make the bag more cycling-friendly. If and when they do, I'd love to take another look.



1 comment:

Aaron Schultz said...

Thanks for the great review. I was looking at the Paladin for bike comuting but now have to rethink. www.aaronschultz.com