This a guest post from Jay Emme, a 40-something guy who hails from Zombie Central:  Atlanta, Georgia.  Jay holds an advanced degree and a couple of graduate certificates, and his work as a data research specialist requires frequent travel.  Jay’s hobbies include spending time with his family, a good conspiracy theory, and collecting gadgets and gizmos.   A plus for a Practical Hacks contributor, Jay is currently in therapy for a world class bag fetish.

If you went to a leather artisan 70 years ago and said “I need you to make me something that will hold a bunch of stuff and last a long time while I travel the world,” a Saddleback bag is what you would have ended up with.

They’re built like old Chevy’s:  simple design with big functional parts that don’t wear out fast.  If you’ve never seen Saddleback products you should hop on over to Saddlebackleather.com and feast your eyes. These bags are wicked nice!

Saddleback calls the bag reviewed here the “Classic Briefcase” and it’s available in 4 different colors, and three sizes (S, M, XL). My choice from them was something exquisite: A Saddleback Leather large Classic Briefcase in Chestnut Brown.

Specifications

  • 100 Year Warranty
  • 100% Thick full grain boot leather (mine is horse hide)
  • Pigskin lining (Suede available as special order)
  • No breakable parts, e.g. zippers, snap, etc.
  • Converts quickly into a backpack
  • Hidden nylon reinforcing straps
  • Hidden false bottom
  • Key strap
  • 8 Exterior D-rings
  • 2 side exterior pockets to hold a GPS or a water bottle
  • Removable shoulder strap
  • Removable side straps that double as a belt for size 34″ – 36″ or a tie down in a pinch
  • 2 open interior pockets for gadgets (each is approximately 4.5 inches deep)
  • 2 side interior pen pockets
  • Only 3 major seams
  • Dimensions: 16″w X 12″h X 9″d
  • Weight: 7.5 pounds

Impressions and Comments

Saddleback bags are rustic looking, and you can almost imagine one of these things falling off the back of a horse. This is not a formal business attire briefcase. The quality of my bag was even, with the leather generally matching in all areas. There was one handle loop that was a bit frayed and worn when I first got the bag. Later on that loop became a bit of a problem because it wasn’t holding a D-ring in place properly. Not the end of the world, but a subtle reminder that these bags are not the epitome of fine leather.

The coloration of the leather was exactly as shown on the web site. I got my bag in December of 2008 and used it as my business travel bag for over a year. The nylon reinforcement in the straps started to show in areas where the leather stretched from normal use, particularly the holes for the buckles. The color didn’t fade much but the bag did collect a whole new texture in small scratches and scuffs. That’s normal for leather, and it gives the bag character. Right before I sold the bag I sat down and gave it a really good cleaning and conditioning. The texture smoothed out nicely and the bag assumed a slightly darker color similar to a reddish brown.

Saddleback products incorporate no zippers, Velcro, or complicated pockets. Everything is very basic and some of the conveniences you expect in a modern bag are missing. They are mildly water repellent, and not at all waterproof. These bags are large open designs with huge amounts of room and little compartmentalization.

If you’re the kind of person who travels with a lot of electronics and “stuff” this is going to be your first hurdle with Saddleback. The open pockets in the bag stretch and stuff starts sliding out of them when you stuff this bag under the seat in front of you on the plane. You will end up having to put all of your stuff in a bunch of smaller bags (inside your big leather bag) and then you have a hard time reaching that stuff. You need two hands to unbuckle the flap strap, and then you need one hand to hold the flap open while you reach in with the other hand to unzip a smaller pouch and grab your (whatever). Then you need two hands again to close the bag and buckle that strap. Getting inside one of these things while on the move in an airport is simply heartbreaking.

Did I mention the bag is very heavy? I tried using it as a backpack once and it was not exactly comfortable, but passable for short periods. All that fine quality leather weighs a lot, especially when you fill the bag up with all the stuff you can carry in it. It’s a crying shame really. Cows lined up right before their natural deaths so they could live on in the form of a Saddleback bag.

The customer service I received while ordering the bag was good, with prompt responses to email inquiries. The website easy to navigate, and is a polished work of high quality marketing. When you go to the website you are bombarded with pictures of exotic and rustic locales mixed in with photos of Saddleback products. The feeling you get is that these are tough bags for active people. There are pictures of people climbing mountains and paddling canoes. Real whip and raider jacket type stuff. They want you to believe you can do anything with these bags.

The thing is, people who travel a bunch and go to exotic locales learn real quickly that there is a place for everything and everything should be in that place. That means lots of pockets, zippers, Velcro, and compartments. Lightweight, waterproof, and durable are the building blocks of moving around the world with a bunch of stuff.  Saddleback is none of these.

They are beautiful bags that look great everywhere you go. If you’re not a trendy student or someone who works in a relaxed office atmosphere, the novelty will wear off — fast. Interested in a really hot bag that will turn heads and collect compliments at the office or on the quad? This is your bag. Slogging across long concourses, walking 20 minutes to work on crowded streets, need to grab stuff out of your bag quickly?   Find something that’s lighter weight, with user- and traveler-friendly features.  This ‘aint your bag.

The verdict

Although I love the look, feel, and idea of the Saddleback Classic Briefcase, it’s hardly a great bag for the traveler, and as such, leaves me feeling ambivalent.  And in case you missed it earlier in this piece, I sold mine.

The verdict?  Great for school and urban style atmospheres, bad as a travel bag.

The Saddleback Leather Briefcase is $519+ (depending upon size); see it here – Saddleback Classic Briefcase

Similar Posts:

26 Comments on Saddleback Leather Briefcase: Beautiful briefcase turns ugly as a travel bag

  1. MikeB says:

    I totally agree with your assessment. I received one of these as a gift and carried it for about a month before selling it to a buddy of mine, who after about 3 months sold it to someone else.

    The consensus, it’s an excellent example of form over function.

    [Reply]

  2. R.C. says:

    Excellent review. I always feel like too many bag reviews are from users who either don’t test these bags over time, or don’t comment on the actual daily use of the bag. (I love the observation about having to hold the lid open while going into the bag.) This is real, practical stuff.
    May I suggest a similiar, yet more functional (and less expensive bag): The Frost River Correspondent. I recently acquired one of these bags and am using it as a briefcase for work (I had previously used a Timbuk2 Medium Messenger for the past 7 years, and while it was a top notch bag, I was looking for something more professional.)
    The Frost River Correspondent is made of waxed canvas with a leather bottom. It has two small outside pockets that close with buckles and a back slip pocket. Inside the main zippered pocket is a full length slip pocket, a full length zippered pocket, and smaller slip pockets for phones, pens, etc. There is also a business card holder. Two important PRACTICAL things that Frost River gets right: 1.) As far as I can tell from my daily load, the bag is made to stand up on its own. 2.) The main zipper opening…the zipper runs deep down each side of the bag. This allows for a large opening into the main compartment when zipped open all the way. Too many zippered bags don’t run the zippers down the sides very far, making it difficult to get stuff in and out.
    Two things Frost River could improve on: 1.) The shoulder strap is webbing-like and unpadded. It is uncomfortable. 2.) Aesthetically, I would like to see the leather handles made shorter and the large Frost River patch on the front removed.
    Overall, a fine and practical bag, that balances form with function. It is made in America.
    I can do a more full review if requested.

    http://www.frostriver.com/brie.....ndent.html

    [Reply]

  3. Jay says:

    Thanks for the positive feedback gents. As with most publications, the review looks good because an editor is always lurking around somewhere making sure it all makes sense (Kevin).

    Thats the first time I’ve seen Frost River on their own (they used to be part of Duluth Bag Company iirc). Canvas and thick cotton (22 ounce +) is always a good alternative to leather for sturdy bag construction. My personal favorites are the Filson bags.

    [Reply]

  4. William says:

    I love my Saddleback classic briefcase.

    [Reply]

    jason Reply:

    exactly… as do i.

    i’m not a high strung guy who needs to pull my cell phone and ipad out of my bag in an instant. i went through 4 messenger bags in 10 years and that’s why i have a saddleback.

    [Reply]

  5. I would love to buy your bag if you still have it and are interested in parting with it :) I cant afford to buy a new one.

    [Reply]

    Jay Reply:

    Heather, sorry it took so long for me to respond.

    I sold my Saddleback quite some time back. I would point you in this direction for a bag that is almost identical to it (except for the branding):

    http://www.crazyhorseleather.com/

    I have seen this bag up close and personal. It appears to be made by the same source that Saddleback uses for theirs. If the branding and marketing is not important to you, they cost roughly half and will function for you in exactly the same manner. Still expensive, but not as expensive.

    [Reply]

  6. Bob says:

    I’ve only owned my Saddleback briefcase for a week and I love it. I use it daily (college student). While I do carry around “gadgets”, I don’t see the need to carry around so much that the pockets aren’t enough. But I suppose it’s different when you’re using it as a traveling bag, opposed to daily carry to class.
    Also, you can easily open it with 1 hand once you break it in. Yes, close it too and get stuff out of it. Did you ever try that? Again I’ve only used mine for a week (owned it for a month) and I can almost open it with 1 hand, and get things out of without having to hold the top open.

    And commenting on this statement:
    “Lightweight, waterproof, and durable are the building blocks of moving around the world with a bunch of stuff. Saddleback is none of these.”

    That’s not true. Lightweight, of course not. But that’s a price you pay for having full grain durable leather. Yes durable. I’ve seen people sell their bags of 4 years+ and they look like new (aside from the scratches and patina which are a part of charm of Saddleback bags). And from personal experience, they are quite waterproof. I’ve been caught in the rain twice with my Saddleback on the way to class and it still looks great and none of my notebooks are wet, unlike my backpack where they’ll get a little soggy. At most, the leather will discolor but you can fix that with some drying, leather cleaner and conditioning.

    I do agree with your consensus that they may not be the ideal travel bag because of lack of compartments and weight for those who are in average or below-average shape.

    [Reply]

    Jay Reply:

    Bob,

    I feel a few counterpoints are in order;

    1. In the luggage world, “waterproof” implies impervious to water. Those two large slots between the flag and the sides of the bag are large open spaces where water will enter the bag. Not water proof. As you indicated water will discolor the bag requiring cosmetic repair work. Waterproof bags along the lines of ballistic nylon, etc, do not discolor from everyday rain water. Water resistant yes, waterproof no.

    2. Lighweight is critical when you travel domestically and abroad. Your bag is part of your carry weight and that weight means less essentials for the road and more money at the ticket counter. Durable is huge when a good bag costs hundreds. Saddleback may last a long time when properly cared for. I stress that. It is a leather bag and it will need constant care after hard use.

    3. I carried my Saddleback around for a year. I travelled with it everywhere. I used it for just about everything I could while travelling. My bag was broken in. One week of use is not “broken in”. When you’re at school do you carry your bag on one shoulder while you drag a heavy roll aboard in the other? No. Most travellers do. As I said, I used this bag for a year in the exact manner most travllers will use it and it was difficult to walk and pull that roll aboard with one hand while trying to access the Saddleback the way an airport traveller will. I did that for over a million miles of travel. It will not work well for a frequent flier.

    Bob, It’s great you’re enjoying your Saddleback Brief. I think it’s a wonderful looking bag and a great fashion statement. I stand firmly by my comments regarding the ease of use of this bag as a primary travel brief:

    Great for school and urban style atmospheres, bad as a travel bag.

    [Reply]

  7. Robert says:

    Two hands to open, I’ve owned the medium size briefcase for several years now and with practice you can open and close it with one hand. It takes time to learn how to do that.

    As for travel, not sure what you bring, but whether for business or pleasure I travel light and take only what I really need, not what I might. Does the bag get heavy, sure but when you plan right it the additional weight can be minimal. The same is true for rain. The leather does not bleed or rub off in the rain, I’ve been in Seattle for work plenty of times and the rain doesn’t do much to affect the bag as a whole. And zippers, really. Those break. I’d rather use a timbuk2 bag without any zippers then deal with them breaking.

    I’m already planning to give this bag to my son when he goes off to school.

    [Reply]

  8. Larry Gorman says:

    Bought beautiful $600 Italian made bag for son, and my wife got the same for me, at Barney’s – NY. The handle has come off repeatedly, the strap is useless, the extenders to use it having rivets that popped off after only one year. We each carry a Saddleback Bag now. Got his for him as 30th birthday gift – LOVES it – but he IS 6’5″ and the large is perfect for him. I am 5’11” and got the medium. No, they are not light – but they certainly are DURABLE unlike the other crap we bought. As for Saddleback imitations? BEWARE – most are made in China, lack the quality of manufacture, and they smell funny. Got one through Amazon.com and hated it – returned it IMMEDIATELY. Open a Saddleback bag and the whole room will smell of leather. To each his own – the only drawback I see to Saddleback is the weight. Otherwise? the only way to go for a rugged look.

    [Reply]

  9. Agarwal says:

    Very true. Wish I had read this before I got sucked in by the nice stories “he” tells on the website. Quite unusable.

    [Reply]

  10. Rob says:

    From another perspective, I’m not going to change Jay’s mind, but here are my thoughts….

    I own several SB items, to include a large and medium classic briefcase (Tobacco & dark chocolate respectively), as well as some smaller items (ipad case, wallet(s), etc…).

    I think the key in all of this is how much you like a durable leather product. How much the patina of a leather piece is worth to you. I go back and forth between synthetics and leather but also seem to come back to leather for the reasons above.

    Yeah it’s heavy, work out more…full grain leather ain’t light. It’s what you get in a durable leather bag.

    Not as compartmentalized with a place for everything, use organizing stuff like Skooba. I’m not directing my comments at you Jay…just responding to the common complaints about SBL bags in general.

    I’m coming up on 2 million miles flying and I haven’t found that it slows me down. When I don’t feel like carrying it, I put it on my roll-aboard and wheel both together. When I carry it, it’s usually carried across my body as opposed to on one shoulder. When I need something, I just swing the bag across my body without taking it off and I can get anything in the bag. If you have to sit down (on a tram to go from terminal to terminal or in the city) swinging it around also rests it nicely on your lap.

    In my experience it takes one hand to open/close. Is it as quick as a zipper or buttons, of course not, but it’s not slow either. But the buckle system is much more durable…it’ll never break.

    As for water and rain, in my experience it has to do more with the finish/color than a general statement.

    The tobacco color/finish that I have is basically unfinished leather with an almost suede feel, even though it’s the top of the skin and it definitely sheds no water. In fact it soaks it up like a sponge. Good, bad, or indifferent they don’t make it like that anymore. I don’t know when they stopped but the current stuff is the same color, but now with less suede texture. Water beads for a bit but does still soak in.

    The dark chocolate brown (DCB), on the other hand, beads water. The water beads and just rolls right off. I was just in Scotland the other week and it was pretty wet. No problem with the bag getting wet or anything inside. I have not treated the leather or done anything to the bag. I believe it has to do more with whatever is used to darken the leather. The leather as a whole is stiffer than the tobacco also. They both start out stiff, but the tobacco breaks in much differently. My large tobacco bag slouches a lot when empty (about half it’s over height is lost) vs. the medium DCB which stands tall like the day I got it.

    On my bags, both flaps adequately cover any gaps that might let water in. I have never had anything get wet inside with either bag. Once the tobacco bag took 3 days to fully dry after a rain, but the inside was always dry. I will say the large bag soaked in rain was HEAVY. It felt like an extra 10lbs, LOL!!!

    I now carry the medium bag almost exclusively, because I don’t carry a 17″ laptop anymore. The medium fits my ipad nicely with room to spare plus all of the other EDC stuff I have. I’m 6’01” 210lbs and I felt like the large was too big if you didn’t need to carry a large laptop. The medium will fit a 13″ easily and a 15″ if you squeeze it in.

    Sorry this is so long, but I guess I just wanted to share my experiences, and also say that in my case, it has nothing to do with wanting to look adventurous or anything. It’s more an appreciation for leather…full grain leather that will patina, age, and look better and better as it gets older. You can’t say that about synthetic bags or most things in general. And when you like something that much it’s funny how the weight and other popular criticisms don’t really apply…you’ll find a way to make it work ;-)

    Cheers, Rob

    [Reply]

    Larry Gorman Reply:

    Totally agree with everything you said. I have the tobacco medium and my son the chestnut large. Totally different texture and character. His shows nothing – mine every little scuff – but that adds character as far as I am concerned. Saddlebakc explained that the dye in the chestnut and coffee make them more impervious to things and the leather a “harder” finish. I wanted to get a Dave’s deal tobacco bag – liked its color and character – but while I was on the phone talking about it with the rep – someone else bought it!!! Saddleback sold me a first quality bag for the same price – THAT is the kind of company they are. As for the bag’s scuffs – a treatment with the Chamberlain leather milk once a month or so with daily use, and it comes out great. The stuff really soaks into the leather and at first you think – OMG – it is dark forever! But it dries back to the original color and all is well. $600 for the Italian bag that self destructed – or , in my case, $380 for a bag that will last me the rest of my life and get better looking along the way? A no brainer. Too heavy for you? Lift some weights and be a man.

    [Reply]

    Emad Reply:

    Hey Rob, thanks for the great review. You mentioned you had experience with both Tobacco and Dark Coffee brown colors. Your insight was invaluable as far as the texture goes. I’m still trying to decide between the two. It seems that, from pictures, the DCB doesn’t age very well. You see very distinct nail scratches and the discoloration is not ‘natural’ seeming. The Tobacco seems to do amazing as it ages, with all the scuffs and oils. What has been your experience, and what would you recommend?

    [Reply]

  11. Elie says:

    Thank you very much for your honest review. I agree that these are excellent bags, but most people don’t realize that marketing plays a huge role in how these bags are perceived.

    -A marketing student

    [Reply]

    Ji Reply:

    True, but marketing plays a part in how most things are perceived….good, bad, or indifferent…whether we know it or not.

    So what does that mean?

    [Reply]

  12. B says:

    Thanks for this review. I’ve looked at quite a few, especially over at gadgeteer where they seem to have a hard-on for all the products from this company with nary a complaint. I was willing to overlook a few of the issues (open sides, weight, anecdotes of poor stitching) because it seemed like such a hard-wearing product that I was swayed. Your review definitely made me line up my needs and standards of cost + construction to realise this is not the product for me.

    There are some pretty stringent supporters for this bag, and apparently people who don’t like it are not manly/weak or all other products are China-made shite. I was under the impression that the bag was made in Mexico, which I have never bought products from as far as I know, but have also never heard of its quality production.

    I won’t deny that I enjoy the look and have loved the durability of full grain leather bags and trunks, but I cannot justify the $500+ cost with the actual product, of which the design is hardly original as the company claims. It seems like a crazy markup and very good marketing that I was actually tempted by. I think I will instead look for a local leather worker; the quality can be verified and the cost will be substantially less.

    [Reply]

    Larry Gorman Reply:

    Look for a Dave’s deal. Quality every bit as good as first quality with some scuffs that will clean up. Mine was $380. Son’s large the same price. Get one and inspect it yourself. I am in Manhattan – want to see mine? Drop me an e-mail. whistle7322@yahoo.com

    [Reply]

  13. Hollie says:

    Great review. I have two satchels (a medium and large), and I’m selling both of them after discovering exactly what you did. I do feel the bags are durable, but they’re impossible to travel with unless you put everything into smaller bags. I’ve been at a check-in point digging through all the little bags trying to find the right one. Meanwhile, if you aren’t careful and the bag tips to one side, all those little bags fall out. ARGH.

    I’ve since discovered Tom Bihn bags and I’m hooked – wow, so light, and so easy to find everything when I need it!

    [Reply]

  14. Tryclyde says:

    The problem is that Saddleback tries to be everything to everyone. Their website shows people with their bags wading in a swamp with an alligator, diving with sharks, and kayaking down a remote river. A Saddleback bag would be a poor choice for a leisurely hike through the woods let alone activities such as these. These bags are good for going to and from work/school with and that’s about it. If you’re planning on doing outdoor activities with one of them, you’re much better off buying a good, durable backpack.

    [Reply]

  15. Spence says:

    I think I have figured out why I love this briefcase, and why I am a perfect target market for a bag like this (medium classic). I am an engineer/outdoors man/photographer that travels with lots of heavy objects: laptop, ipad, magazines, folders, multiple books, a Nikon d7000 camera with a 50mm lens, and magazines. All related to work. My old briefcases would pull rivets through the leather due to the weight. This one hasn’t failed me yet after about a year and I sense no weaknesses developing. In airport lines, I slide the belt through and take my laptop and ipad out. My ziplocked bags are in the magazine sleeve. Two easy motions, you’re through the line. It fits under the seat in front of me, and I have everything I need in one bag that fits over my shoulder. The leather started out too pristine and stiff a little more “mahogany” colored, but now it’s loosened up and is the color of a favorite pair of boots. I wanted something that would grow on me and last a long time, and I think this is it. If you have ever owned a saddle or pair of boots, you’ll understand the relationship that you can have with a well made product of good leather. If I’m going on a trip and don’t need to carry all that stuff, I take a backpack (Marmot is my favorite so far). Otherwise, I’m tired of replacing straps, zippers, and buckles.

    [Reply]

  16. Pat Muldon says:

    If you want an SB bag purchase a Deal or hit ebay/craigs list.
    They are great looking bags that will last forever but for the retail price you could do much better. My med. chestnut briefcase did not work for me as a “briefcase” or frequent flyer bag. I still use for home to office, an overnight bag and an occasional quick trip. The briefcase is durable enough for adventurey travel but the weight can be a killer – think more safari trip than backpack through Thailand.

    [Reply]

  17. John DuPree says:

    I have a classic brifcase, messenger bag and backpack. Love them all. I travel to a lot of factories where ruggedness is important. I like the simplicity and quality of these bags. Dont have a problem with the lack of pockets. Getting into the bag is a hassle sometimes…but then again I dont have to worry about busting a zipper when Im on a tower or stack. …….I dont ever plan on selling my bags.

    [Reply]

  18. Dennis says:

    I have been looking at similar bags. The saddleback is just too expensive for me though. There are some malasyian stuff on ebay, I dunno if thats good or not. I am mostly after a camera / laptop bag that can also work for carrying a modest amount of stuff when travelling, in addition to a proper travelling case that is.

    I think the Copper River Voyager bag might be more suitable for me, since it comes with a liner for a camera and instead of buckles it has buttons, also much cheaper.

    Still it’s hard to decide…

    [Reply]

  19. Ed says:

    Great review. I’ve had my thin SB for a few years, and as I’ve dramatically increased my travel, I’m looking for something lighter and with easier access to the contents. I don’t think that I will sell my SB (and I might get the laptop bag), but what do you recommend that is lighter, practical but yet can be worn in a business setting – with a suit? Also hailing from Atlanta, BTW.

    [Reply]

Leave a Reply