In his latest guest post, Practical Hacks contributor and bag aficionado Michael W. evaluates the usefulness of a new kids’ school backpack from Red Oxx as a flight or ” seat side” bag:

Although Red Oxx calls its new daypack the “K-12 Kat Pack Backpack,” the same basic design elements that make it great as a potential school pack – durability and being shaped to hold binders and books – also make it pretty sweet as a flight bag.  Indeed, Red Oxx’s second section of ad copy is entitled “Not Just for School – For Travel Too!”  So you can rest assured that Red Oxx intended this to fit average to small adults well, not just kids, and anticipated its use by “oldsters” for travel.

Here’s the Red Oxx K-12 school pack (L) next to a “real” K-6 school pack from Costco:

I am pretty sure I am not going to check in for my next flight to Asia with the Spiderman-themed kiddie pack on the right (though I have used a nondescript LLBean school pack in the past, for the sole reason that it is rectangular shaped – not tear drop like conventional packs – which makes for more efficient use of space during packing).

In the photo below, the approximately 18L Red Oxx school pack (R) next to a traditional tear-drop shaped daypack (the 22L Patagonia Yerba):

Despite the curve on the Patagonia straps, I find the straight shoulder straps on the Red Oxx equally comfortable.

Capacity and Capabilities

The Red Oxx K-12 school pack is approximately 4L smaller than the 22L Patagonia Yerba, and depending on your individual travel strategies you may need more than the official 1078 cubic inches of space in the Red Oxx (manufacturer’s spec) which equates to approximately 18L (it’s actually a little bigger than the published specs, if you take into account the water bottle holders). That’s why I like to refer to the Red Oxx as a “flight bag” rather than a “travel pack” – it helps to condition size expectations, setting aside the differences between “shoulder carry” (on a true “flight bag” like the Red Oxx Gator) and “backpack carry”.  Viewed as a “flight bag,” it is generously sized relative to the 649 cubic inch, approximately 11L Gator.

But to be honest, I find the Yerba to be right at the border of what I like for a travel pack, and definitely larger than I want to use for my local every-day-carry pack once I arrive.  Sure, I can stuff more into the Yerba, but “more” means more weight, and ultimately more weight means more fatigue and fewer places to stow it on an international flight with underseat space cramped with in-flight entertainment electronics, or on a smaller regional flight or packed mini-van to the beach. Sometimes I need the strict discipline of a smaller pack, and once I get to where I am going I am more likely to carry a smaller pack around town.

I have tried several “backpack” style carry bags, ranging in size from the “maximum allowed” (a Rick Steves Classic Backdoor Bag convertible travel pack, with a whopping 2500 cubic inches or 41L), to moderate (Patagonia 28L, 1700 c.i., Atacama and 22L, 1342 c.i., Yerba), to small (REI Flash 18L, 1098 c.i., tubular top loading ultralight – about the same size as the Red Oxx). The Classic Backdoor Bag was just WAY too large for carrying flight essentials and overnight emergency clothes (but it’s great for true “one bagging” with NO checked luggage). Both Patagonias – and other bags in that size range – work well for transit, but less well on the ground. The REI Flash was a perfectly sized, but hard to load and unload through the narrow top-only loading neck, and a little flimsy.

This new Red Oxx school pack seems just as rugged and solidly put together as my other Red Oxx pieces, but doesn’t punish you with a huge weight penalty (it is much lighter than the smaller Gator flight bag from RedOxx, and a little lighter than the Patagonias). At $80 it is $25 less than the Gator, yet it has 1078 cubic inches of zippered storage vs. 648 for the Gator, and weighs just 1.9 pounds compared to the 2.35 pounds of the Gator (manufacturer’s figures). The new school pack is truly a bargain for the quality of the design, materials, and workmanship (being made in the USA is really nice too). The fabric is better and the zippers are considerably better than the materials used in my LLBean school pack (and the shoulder straps are much more comfortable).

There is a trade-off for meeting this price point, for making the new school pack appealing to parents who are tired of “one grade,” virtually disposable, school packs:  there are NO organizing features at all, beyond, perhaps, the two exterior pockets, one a half-height pouch and the other a ¾ height slot pocket.  There is no cellphone pouch or pocket, no specific place for glasses, no slot for laptop or iPad (although an iPad will fit in the ¾ height slot pocket); this is basically a BYOO (Bring Your Own Organizers) flight pack.

Big Enough for Tablets & Netbooks?

There are two potential locations for a full-sized iPad – in a slipcase, an iPad won’t fit in the external half-height slot:

(But a Google Nexus 7 – and hopefully the upcoming iPad Mini – will):

(The Nexus 7 is in a new slipcase from Rickshaw Bagworks):

Fortunately, the iPad in a slip case WILL fit in the ¾ height exterior zipper pocket:

But an 11.6” netbook won’t:

There’s plenty of room inside the bag for an 11.6” netbook or MacBook Air or, according to the website, up to a 15” laptop (I tried my MacBook Pro 13.3” this morning, in a Tom Bihn Cache case, and it fits with room to spare):

Pros and Cons

Here are the quick pluses and minuses of this bag, viewed as a larger flight bag / smaller travel pack. Either as your main carry-on item, or as your smaller “personal item” – it straddles both categories – big enough to carry meaningful overnight supplies and change of clothing, yet small enough to fit under seat or in a regional overhead compartment:

Pros

  • Construction – superb. Pride of design and craftsmanship is evident throughout.
  • Design – designed for the long haul. No obvious wear points that aren’t tough. Even the mesh used for the water bottle pockets seems more durable than usual. RedOxx also has a good warranty to back it up as well. The only potential wear question I have, is the durability of the sueded fabric – it grips better on single-shoulder carry, but could potentially “polish down.”
  • “Square” construction (actually slightly rectangular) is well suited to travel packing. The deep (front to back) external half-height pocket provides easy access to a 7” or so tablet and your 3-1-1 pouch, or an iPad will fit the taller external panel slot, allowing you to keep your main compartment zip-tied for security. Alternatively the taller external panel slot is good for a thin windbreaker.
  • The Rick Steves large travel cube fits the main compartment almost perfectly – cube dimensions are 14x11x5, and RedOxx main compartment dimensions are 14.5×11.5×7.5. So there is no need to hunt down the “perfect” travel cube for the RedOxx if cubes are your preferred packing method. Assuming you don’t completely fill each of the 3 packing cubes that come in the $17.99 Steves set (one full size and two half size), you could lay in the full size one then the two half-size ones on top, to organize your clothing items.
  • … which leaves the exterior compartments for toiletries (the half-height compartment) and passport/papers (the flat ¾ height slot).
  • Nice exterior dimensions – small enough to fit under a seat or in a small (regional) overhead, even where a lot of your under seat space is crowded with the inflight electronics that are all too common on some Asian carriers.
  • Small enough to pass airline ticket counter and gate muster as a “personal item” if you are also carrying on a full size (Rick Steves Classic Backdoor, RedOxx AirBoss, Tom Bihn Aeronaut, etc.) item.
  • Fits smaller torsos just fine – since it’s also designed to serve as a school pack.
  • Very reasonable trade-off between size, weight, cost, and features. While a $30 or so, full-size school pack from Costco will have many more organizer pockets, and even a Patagonia medium daypack is cheaper, the RedOxx is likely to be much more durable and much less likely to go out of style.
  • Superb (best in class!) ‘industrial quality” flat zippers are not only rugged (but easy to use) they are also pilfer-resistant. (See Doug Dyment’s explanation of flat zippers, as used by Red Oxx, and the much-less secure coil zippers found on almost every other bag – including expensive ones! http://www.onebag.com/bags.html – the more common “coil zippers” let pilferers easily get around locked zipper tabs by just splitting open or “spilling” the zipper). For security, the strong zipper hasps can be locked with a traveler’s padlock or simply with zip ties. In a pinch even a twist tie or small carabiner clips will slow down a pick pocket. The large “monkey fist” nylon cord pulls that come with the Red Oxx bag seem to go counter to making the bag secure (because they are so easy to use to open the bag!) but on balance I decided to leave them on, since they are part of the Red Oxx signature “look” and because the monkey fists will hide the carabiner clips or zip ties that I put on during an overnight flight.
  • Three compartments – one main, one tall and flat, one half-height and with some depth – make sense in terms of typical packing strategies (passport and papers in the tall flat exterior slot pocket; clothing and crushables wrapped in clothing inside the main compartment; security transit items in the half-height, most external pocket). But you can divide your stuff up in any way that makes sense, and a large, small, and flat pocket seem to work for most travelers.
  • Ballistics nylon bottom. Their website says “for drag protection.” More abrasion resistance.
  • Water bottle pouches are gusseted at the bottom so they will expand to hold a water bottle without robbing space from the pack’s interior (compare to other packs – there isn’t any gusseting, and the water bottles protrudes into, and robs space from, the interior as a result). The elastic strap has more range of motion than similar arrangements in other packs, so the mouth is smaller than on most packs to help keep smaller items, like a watch cap or gloves, from falling out.
  • Bright red lining in the main compartment helps highlight small items when unpacking.
  • Suede shoulder straps are less slippery with single-shoulder carry.
  • “Grab handle” is a simple 1” webbing strap which is light, but easy to hold without cutting into my hand unlike some plastic-wrapped straps which do slice my hand. Also, plastic wraps degrade with age – this is a problem on a couple of my bags, they are splitting.
  • The bag has, imho, one of the best strength to weight ratios of bags out there. I don’t think there is a stronger bag for the weight – but there are many that are heavier.

 Cons

  • No inside, top, zipper pouch for holding small items. No place at all for a cellphone!

Somewhere in the middle

  • This is a 1078 cubic inch / 18L pack, counting the half-height exterior pouch but not counting the water bottle slots (which add about 150-200 additional cubic inches – the water bottle slots don’t have a zip or other closure, so it makes sense not to count the additional space they provide, but on the other hand the gusset design means they are truly additional space, not space robbed from the interior; so I figure they are worth an additional 150 (2 1L bottles) or 200 (stuffed small clothing) cubic inches). A smaller pack may be a plus or a minus for you.
  • No sternum strap or waist belt. I think for a travel bag both sternum strap and waist straps are overkill. It carries single shouldered pretty well though and the shoulder straps are comfortable.

Improvements I’d like to see:

If I could wave a magic Red Oxx wand and make a few changes to the K-12 backpack with travelers in mind, they’d include:

  • 1” taller for the “half height” pocket so it will take a full size, slipcased iPad on its side.
  • 1” taller for the “3/4 height” so it will take 8.5×11 paper without folding.
  • “O” ring (key ring) inside the main compartment the top for keys, or for hanging a phone or iPod Touch case (an “attachment point” for “Bring Your Own Organizers”).
  • A nylon panel on the back panel where papers, a thin windbreaker, or a thin, small laptop can slip in. Agreed, no shock absorption or padding (which would drive up costs and eat up space), but keeps stuff like that from flopping around.

Making it work as a flight bag

In terms of how I will deal with my desired “improvements” – I plan on traveling with a 7” tablet, not a 10”, in the future, and I can fold my letter and legal sized papers in half. So the first two points are niggles not criticals. For the “o” ring, I will have one added – it’s only a couple of bucks at the laundry I use. The lack of a nylon panel for keeping my laptop well-positioned isn’t an issue during transit since the bag will be packed full and that will keep the laptop in place. At my destination, it is more likely I will take my tablet or phone to a cafe than my laptop, so once again this is a “problem” I can work around. But I would like the panel for use in the states, where I am more likely to carry a laptop to a cafe (and leave the tablet at home).  Michael’s mods (click for larger view)–

Key Ring with Steves document pouch

D-Rings on K-12 backpack

A parting shot:

 

About as square as they get!

Links to products mentioned in this post:

Red Oxx K-12 Kat Pack Backpack – 31 ounces, 1078 cubic inches + 2 gusseted (non-space robbing) water bottle mesh pockets, $80.00

Red Oxx Gator flight bag, shoulder carry 70 ounces, 648 cubic inches, $105.00

REI Flash 18:  – 11 ounces, 1100 cubic inches, $34.50.

Rick Steves Packing Cubes:  $17.99 for a set of 3 – one full size, and two half-size.

Patagonia Yerba and Atacama

Remember, there’s no perfect travel bag. Only the perfect trip.

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12 Comments on First Look: Indestructible Red Oxx school kid backpack makes a fine flight bag

  1. Michael W. says:

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to blab on the front page and not just in comments! If I learned anything from this exercise, it is how _easy_ and _effortless_ YOU make it look every day, and how hard it is, to write for publication, in real life!

    I DID take the Kat Pack to my laundry’s seamstress to add a key chain holder in the front pouch and a couple of “D” rings in the main compartment to hand Eagle Creek travel pouches on. I am pleased with the results! This is an easy way to solve my desire for one or two small interior organizing pouches, and I actually prefer it to built-in pouches since I can choose the exact size and shape of my own pouches.

    I had to stow all my travel stuff (for an upcoming trip) in another bag while the Kat Pack was with the seamstress and so I used a much larger (in terms of appearance) extra High Sierra school pack I picked up for my kids from Costco last month. I was shocked to discover my gear, pulled out of the Kat Pack, simply wouldn’t all fit in the “larger” looking traditional school pack! The traditional school pack’s extra panels, slots, laptop slot padding, etc. and teardrop shape all “robbed” the traditional school pack of actual usable space. Go figure – smaller is larger? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t run that impromptu experiment. But square DOES beat teardrop, and minimalist (but tough as nails) construction DOES beat excessive organizing features.

    You didn’t include your usual “no conflict of interest” disclosures on this guest article. Your readers should know that all this junk is purchased by me personally and that none of the posted links are “commercial” i.e. they don’t pay for click. They are just there for convenience.

    I hope some of your other readers contribute articles as well in the future, it is very gracious of you to turn over your “baby” for these guest reports.

    [Reply]

    bill Reply:

    michael, can you post pics of your modifications?

    [Reply]

    Michael W. Reply:

    Sure, I will take them tomorrow and email them to Practical Hacks asap!

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    I’ve modified the post to include Michael’s two mods.

  2. anony mcgee says:

    I got this backpack too and i love it. i have two cons that michael didn’t list:

    1. there are two water bottle holders (one on each side) – why? The design would be much better with a handle on one side and a bottle holder on the other. nobody ever (practically) needs the extra holder, and because its such a versatile pack, a handle on the side would handle the weight we put in it.

    2. the other major flaw is related to the pack’s rectangular design. The rectangle is sweet in most cases, but it means that when you have it loaded heavily, the bottom “corners” dig into your back. Check out the cheapo bag manufacturers (those that start with J or E, for example).. There’s a reason the “teardrop” backpack shape is always supremely popular; because the bottom roundedness helps with the curvature of the back and carrying weights. In this vein move the straps to top of the back, not have them 5 inches down, would help with distribution of weight.

    basically, my criticisms come from using it as an adult with real weight; i don’t need that much more space/volume, but i’d like it to be more versatile with heavier loads.

    [Reply]

    Michael W. Reply:

    I think the suggestion about a handle on the side is very innovative, but I’ve never seen it on a conventional backpack before, only on the larger “convertible suitcase/backpack” designs. For me, the top strap is adequate for hand carry, although on the larger convertible suitcase backpack designs I agre a side handle helps keep shorter people (like me) from dragging the bottom of the bag on the ground during hand carry.

    I do like dual water bottle pouches. If I have the compartments zip-tied closed, the water bottle pouches are handy for stuffing a watchcap, or gloves, or even a thin nylon windbreaker.

    I agree that a “teardrop” shape is more comfortable across my shoulders (fits between my shoulder blades, sort of) for extended carry, but the two scenarios this bag works for me don’t really involve a lot of backpack style carry – in the city I prefer a lighter load and mostly shoulder carry anyway (except when shopping and keeping my hands free) while during air transit (BART to airport, airport terminal transits) the actual transit time is low although admittedly this is when the weights are highest. For a compact travel pack, though, rectangular always packs better for me (since I try to use packing cubes) and so I can deal with the negatives vs. a teardrop pack.

    As for overall comfort, it’s remarkable that we, as adults, fit the bag relatively well – it is designed for kids, after all, and this weekend I saw the Patagonia Poco Mas 15L pack at one of their company stores and it wouldn’t fit me at all! Ditto for my kids Spiderman pack which is pictured next to the Kat Pack. The straps are somewhat separated just so adult width shoulders can fit in – though frankly I do wonder how well this would work for taller/larger adults – I am only 5’7″.

    Glad you are enjoying yours despite the additional “cons” and I hope the “pros” outweigh them! What color did you get, and did you leave the “monkey fist” knots on it?

    [Reply]

    anony mcgee Reply:

    mike
    i’m also 5’7 and find the size to be perfect. i tend to travel VERY light and one backpack like this is the perfect size… my philosophy is, i can pack for one weekend or one month with the exact same amt of clothes (providing of course no fancy shoes for a wedding, etc). so, i’m looking basically for the “perfect pack” that i can use as a daypack but also as my traveler. that’s why a strap on the side is infinitely more useful than another webbing holder.

    the airboss and all those other packs are first too big if you’re a real ultralight traveler, and second have too many straps and things like that. i wanted this pack to have it all but you can’t win everything ;-)

    maybe i’ll bring it in to a tailor and have them remove one webbing and put a side strap there, that’d be perfect.

    [Reply]

    Michael W. Reply:

    They were just sent to Practical Hacks! I hope they are helpful, cost of D rings was 99 cents on close out from REI, found an extra key ring for the outside compartment, sewing was just $4.

    Michael W. Reply:

    Oops, my first reply was meant for the other commentator.

    I think adding the handle should be easy. This pack is simply (but ruggedly) constructed and minor modifications like the ones I did and the handle you are contemplating should be easy. Please send pictures if it turns out well!

  3. MtnMan says:

    Has anyone tried to use this backpack as a daypack/gymbag or short-range hiking pack? I’m interesting is seeing if this could be used for non-laptop payloads, where the heaviest items might be a small camera, a book, or one of those LunchBots mini-lunchboxes, or a GPS, shoes, etc.

    [Reply]

  4. Luke says:

    This year, we decided to buy a back pack that might actually last more than a year, especially because my son is going to be carrying a laptop sometimes to school. We ended up getting the Timbuk2 Showdown backpack:

    http://www.timbuk2.com/tb2/pro.....n-backpack

    It is 22L, so larger than the RedOxx, but it is not teardrop shaped, more of a rounded off rectangle. It carries a suprising amount, and looks smaller on the back than it actually is.

    [Reply]

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