For a long time I’ve been a messenger bag fanatic. My wife may even say I’m a bag fanatic. I like bags and could own many more than I already do, if I had somewhere to store them. There always seems to be a reason to get a new backpack or messenger bag for some specific use case which the current crop I own doesn’t quite fit as well as I’d like.
For my daily cycling commute that has meant a messenger bag for most of the last 10 years. My most recent one and still my favourite was the Mission Workshop shed, which I reviewed. Unfortunately a number of years ago I dislocated my right shoulder and that’s meant that the messenger bag loaded up daily has started to become more than my shoulder can handle.
I’ve also started carrying more stuff back and forth. I now often have a pair of shoes to workout in, plus workout clothes plus lunch, laptop, Kindle, bike repair tools and tubes, and a few other accessories used at the gym. While the Shed can handle this load, it’s pretty full and heavy on my left shoulder and I was getting pain in it regularly.
It was time to get away from a messenger style bag and look at a backpack.
Some of the contenders
While I ended up with an Especial Cuatro, it wasn't the only one I looked at. Some of the other options on my final list were:
Initially I was very hesitant to even make anything from Timbuk2 an option as we've had some of their messenger bags in the past and they always were more 'pretty' than functional and waterproof. It's only since the addition of the Especial line that I feel they've developed something one could use year round in a rainy climate.
After much consideration I decided to go with the Especial Cuatro for a few reasons:
- It adjusts from 38L to 50L via a zippered expansion
- It has an easily accessed wallet pocket on the back panel
- It has an easy to access full sized document pocket on the back panel
- Two pockets on the side that can hold either a water bottle or a Ulock
- At the time of purchase I read it had a laptop sleeve. A year later I don't see this, and I'll comment on that
I'll start with my last point about the laptop sleeve and the fact that it doesn't have one. I originally ordered one from Amazon which turned out to be the 2014 version and when that didn't have a laptop compartment I returned it and was very careful reading any product listings to be sure that the version I was ordering had a laptop specific compartment. Alas, despite my detailed reading the one I bought still didn't have said laptop sleeve.
Having owned a Chrome Metropolis (no specific laptop compartment) and a Mission Workshop Shed (has a specific laptop compartment) I know that having a pack designed specifically to hold a laptop yields a better bag. My Shed comfortably held much more than my Metropolis. Knowing this I very much wanted that laptop sleeve and bought the second one figuring I’d have it.
As I said, reading all the material available on the Cuatro as I write this review there is nothing about a laptop sleeve. So either my careful reading was not so careful, or the listings I read have changed and had a mistake. Either way, this bag does not have a laptop sleeve.
Moving past the lack of said laptop sleeve, the Especial Cuatro has a few great safety features like the reflective paneling on the back and a light attachment for your rear flashing light. I’ve had a light attached to the back for around 6 months at all times and even in/out of the car or hiking it’s stayed firmly attached. The reflective panels on the back are something that the Shed din’t have nor does the Rambler from Mission Workshop or the GR1. I suppose you could add some yourself, but since the Cuatro already had them it seemed like a waste of my time as I liked the rest of the Cuatro as well.
This bag is cavernous, seriously you're going to have a hard time finding some things inside it's main compartment. Case in point is a Fischer Space Pen I thought I had lost 3 months ago which I found as I unpacked the bag totally. It was just sitting in the bottom and I had missed it despite digging around the bag a few times.
There is only one internal pocket for organization, and it's fairly small. I've managed to get a comb in it (need a comb at all times with little girls) spare pens, spare Field Notes book, and a few other miscellaneous items. To the zipper pull of that pocket I've attached a key lanyard so that I can clip my keys inside the bag when it's rainy out and I don't want keys in my pocket while riding.
Finally, the bag has two side pockets suitable for water bottles or your U-lock. The bag is proportioned so that it's easy to access your lock by simply dropping the bag off one shoulder. It slides out with a bit of a pull to release the Velcro and can easily be placed back in the bag by reversing the process.
So far I've neglected one key feature of the bag that makes it something special. It's expandable from 38L to 58L by unzipping an expansion panel. In the almost 12 months I've owned this bag, I've only ever barely unzipped the top of this panel a few times to stick large parcels in to the bag. I bought it thinking I'd use this feature lots but I haven't. By adding a strap to my daily carry I can put large boxes on my rack instead of inside my bag and then I don't really need the extra space inside the bag.
Problems with the Especial Cuatro
You may be on the quest for a perfect bag, but you're never going to find it. There is always going to be something that's less than optimal. One of those things with the Cuatro is that the top of the bag almost always has a bit of a fold that pokes out from under the top flap. This is not an issue on a dry day, but since I live outside of Vancouver BC, I spend a bunch of the year commuting in the pouring rain and having rain go directly in the bag is not good for my electronics. I've taken to always checking to make sure that I've pushed this little fold back under the flap of the pack, and yet I've forgot a few times and had a bit of water inside the bag. Nothing has been ruined but that's mainly because I've forgot on days that just had a light drizzle instead of a full downpour.
@todo pic of the 'poke' showing
The second problem deals with the magnetic buckles that hold the main flap down. First off, they're super cool I regularly have people admire how they work. The issue is that I regularly brush against a door frame as I'm taking my bike in or out of a building and undo them. This leaves a very long strap hanging down at risk of getting caught in my wheels.
I love, and hate these buckles. I wish there was some sort of push tab on them as well so that they would not be inadvertently opened while brushing a door.
The final issue is that the bag is so big that the top corners partially block my view during a shoulder check. I'm 5'9" tall so not super tall but not a midget and this is the biggest thing that annoyed me at first. Coming from a messenger bag which rotates nicely with you as you shoulder check, the reduction of visible space was worrisome at first. I don't notice it so much now, but I turn further to make sure I can see what's coming up behind me on my daily commute.
Other Outdoor use
My initial plan had been to get a bag that was not only good for my daily bike commute, but something I could take day hiking comfortably. While the Cuatro has carried the burden of bike commuting easily, I've not found it to be all that great when it comes to day hikes.
@todo add picture of the bag at Lindeman
Then main issue is that this is a big bag at 38 litres and is heavy when loaded up with stuff for a family of 4 on a day hike. On a proper larger day pack (like the Osprey Variant 37 I own) you'd get a hipbelt which would carry much of the load Sadly the hipbelt on the Cuatro is not up to that challenge. It performs well at stabilizing the load on your back for cycling, but that's it. The thin piece of webbing that makes up the hipbelt does nothing to transfer the load from your shoulders to your hips so if your looking for a bag that will handle biking and hiking, look somewhere else.
This dual use is where the offerings from Mission Workshop and Road Runner may have performed much better. They both have what looks to be solidly built hipbelts like you'd find on larger day packs.
With the Especial Cuatro not living up to my hopes I've ended up purchasing an Osprey Variant 37 to use as my short weekend pack or for hauling ropes and gear on trips. Watch for an upcoming review on it as a day pack and small multi-day pack.
If you’re looking for a daily commuting bag that can handle huge loads from time to time without needing to feel huge every day, then the Cuatro is a great bag.
If you’re looking for something that can double as a hiking pack and bike commuting pack, then look somewhere else. Something like the bags from Mission
Workshop or Road Runner will suit a dual use much better.