Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: LL Bean Continental Rucksack

Anyone who's backpacked within the last five years is sure to have noticed a trend for the retro/nostalgic in backpack designs. If it doesn't look like it's been through 'Nam, or it isn't something Tintin would have worn, it isn't cool, functionality be damned. Okay, I love Tintin as much as anyone; I'll subscribe to that. But whenever I'm threatened with compromise when in the market for outdoor equipment, I turn to my home state's signature brand, LL Bean. It hardly meets the criteria as a designer brand, and 'LL Bean model' is a paradigm for a certain style and personality with which growing up in an upper-class region of New England I am all too familiar with. But there's something about the company's products that just feels right. Everything they manufacture wears its quality upon its sleeve, and doing regular business with them you get a real sense of their company motto of "treating our customers like human beings".
So to my own business. In the travel-related forums I frequent, the equipment for which people most often ask for recommendations is by far the backpack. Backpacks are interesting because I think people care more about the comfort and aesthetics of the things than they do about outdoor clothing. So whenever it seems appropriate, I never hesitate to recommend LL Bean's Continental Rucksack. This piece of equipment stands for everything which its manufacturer stands by. Having used the same one on all my excursions, both wilderness and cosmopolitan, for 8 years, I can commend its durability and versatility. And it's deceptively capacious. The specs don't look terribly impressive at 2,000 cubic inches; most serious hikers wouldn't look twice at it. But it can take an astonishing amount of abuse if you want to see how many extra pairs of underwear you can really stuff into it (just be careful which axis you test it on -- don't arch the back support too much or it'll bend and the support your shoulders get will be ruined). The side pockets can also take a stuffing if you're like me and like to carry about a gallon of water. And the outside pocket expands like a champ. Despite its simplicity, a pocket always appears for whatever you're looking to stow. And in my lazy opinion, simplicity in a backpack is a key element.
Drawbacks: The straps (not real fleece) are the only part of the product that seem to yield to the test of time. They can cinch up and dig into your shoulders at the armpit. Not everyone has this problem with bags; it depends on the shape of the shoulders. But it's a problem I can overlook in this particular case.
As for the waxed cotton fabric, it repels water up to a point. By no means does it claim to be waterproof to begin with, and over the years that resistance steadily drops.
And there's the fact that it doesn't have a belt. This is what most serious backpackers look for first in a bag. I managed to create a strap of my own by threading a piece of webbing through the brass loops at the bottom; this works quite well. If you're looking for aesthetics, you're not going to find many rucksacks you like that come with a belt.
9 out of 10 product. Will serve you well up Kilimanjaro, but those going up K2 should weigh their options.

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