When I first saw Topeak’s Air BackPack at Interbike a couple of years back, I thought that it was a really neat idea. Most large-capacity packs benefit from a bit of structure to manage their load and protect the rider from their contacts- but that structure can make for bulky, heavy bags that are hard to pack for travel. To address these shortcomings, Topeak built their Air BackPack relies on structure provided by (surprise!) air. A pair of air chambers constructed much like an inflatable mattress do the work of other bags’ aluminum, plastic, and foam. Genius? Or a solution without a problem? Hit the jump to find out…
The Air BackPack comes packed in a 5x10in stuff sack, clearly communicating the bag’s intended use. The hip and back panel chambers are inflated by an included bulb pump- the sort most often seen attached to blood pressure cuffs. When asked why the cycling-specific bag wouldn’t use Schraeder or Presta valves to take advantage of the (Topeak, of course) pump that most riders would carry regardless, the company responded that it was out of concern for overinflation. The bulb pump is given its own pocket within a zippered pocket on the left side of the bag. On the opposite side is an easily-accessed mesh pocket for snacks, small tools, and/or a camera.
Inside the vertical-zip main pocket, attached to the pack with four clips, is Topeak’s Gear Core organizer. A fabric panel covered on both sides with pockets, the Gear Core does a good job of organizing items that might otherwise sit in the bottom of the bag. Unfortunately, accessing all of the Gear Core’s outward-facing pockets with the organizer in place can be fiddly- and removing the Gear Core to get at the far side is more hassle than it’s worth. Both a water-resistant pack cover and a helmet holder deploy from dedicated pockets at the bottom of the bag.
Aside from an odd mix of lightweight and dated materials in the pack itself, the first real signs of trouble with the Topeak Air came seconds from the trailhead. The 2L bladder is oddly small- especially given the pack’s 11L capacity- and has a small, not-terribly-cleaning-friendly opening. Once filled, the bite valve began to leak immediately and proceeded to soak the back of my car on the short drive to the trailhead. On the trail, the persistent drip had me trying to drain the bladder as quickly as possible- a challenge given the valve and tubing’s amazingly meager flow. I cannot think of any bladder I’ve used that required more effort to drink from while drenching my leg so completely. I eventually crimped the tube and resolved never to use the provided bladder again.
After cutting the bottom off of the short floating bladder sleeve and inserting a 3L Osprey bladder (chosen for its structure as much as the fact that it was handy), I was able to focus on the BackPack itself. Though the Air has a decent amount of structure in its back panel and the Gear Core keeps small contents handy, the rest of the bag is unfortunately shapeless, and doesn’t provide any compression capability to control smaller loads. As a result, on most rides the Topeak was a bit floppy and shapeless. Given the air bladders’ airtight construction, it shouldn’t have been surprising that the pack’s large back doesn’t breathe well. At all. The ribbed channels do help somewhat, but the Air BackPack really isn’t a bag well suited to hot or humid climates.
As much as I like the idea, the execution of the Topeak Air BackPack falls short on too many levels for me to recommend it- and that’s before taking the $170 suggested retail price into account. And this is coming from someone who really wanted to like the bag. The concept may still have legs, though- using air-filled tubes in a more strategic manner, inflated to higher pressures with a bicycle pump (maybe with a blowoff valve to prevent damage), and padded with a wicking material could make for a very cool bag. At some point I’d love to see Topeak’s next effort and to give a better-executed version a try.