The idealist in me wants to be able to buy everything from small companies and Kickstarter outfits. It’s extremely rewarding when you can spend your money with a classic family business like Grado or a young startup like Peak Design and help to support good ideas while obtaining a benefit for yourself. But the reality is that most good ideas fail to live up to their conceptual greatness — and that’s where the RiutBag "reverse backpack" lands. Initially funded on Kickstarter and the subject of a lovely founder story, the RiutBag is full of unfulfilled feel-good promise.
I admit to being charmed by the "why isn’t everyone doing this" simplicity of the RiutBag’s conceit: it strips all zippers and openings from the rear of the bag and puts them on the side with the straps on, facing the wearer. This leaves a neat and tidy appearance on the exterior, but more importantly secures all your gear against clandestine ingress by strangers. As a regular flier and a reluctant commuter on London’s underground, I love the low-tech security afforded by the RiutBag; it’s like automatic padlocks are kicking in every time you toss this thing on your shoulders.
I tested the larger RiutBag R15, costing £99 in the UK, which by present currency trends should be roughly 57 cents in the US (or around $121). There’s also a £79 ($97) R10 and a budget-friendly £29 ($36) RiutBag Go. The R15’s name indicates the capacity of the bag, 15 liters, and that’s where my grievances with the RiutBag begin. This pack is roughly the same size as the Peak Design Everyday Backpack that my colleague Thomas Ricker just reviewed, but it has a quarter less space than that 20L bag. The R15 is also quite heavy and stiff, whether it contains anything or not. This would be alright if the RiutBag’s interior was cleverly organized and compartmentalized, but that aspect of its design also left me underwhelmed.
Two very large water bottle pockets sit on either side of the Riut, however they don’t stick out from the bag, they protrude into it. That’s neat if you’re regularly toting water around with you — always a good idea — but it cuts even more into the space available on the inside, which is mostly just a big, unsegmented chasm. For my purposes, which are mainly concerned with transporting a variety of tech gear, this freeform main compartment simply doesn’t cut it. I need some way to stow my headphones and my camera separately from each other — so that I can access one without spilling the other on the floor.
To the RiutBag’s credit, the laptop compartment opens up fully, making it easy to pass through airport security checks without having to extract your laptop. But, as I say, the chances of having your bulkier and bumpier items fall out of the bag while doing so are pretty high. There’s a decent organizer section just in front of the laptop slot, allowing for the storage of a tablet, pens, and whatever else you might typically pop into the secondary front pocket of your backpack.
A nicely padded pocket at the top of the bag will fit and protect your sunglasses, wallet, and smartphone. It’s quite large, measuring almost 4 inches in depth and 10 inches across. Like the side pockets for water, this also intrudes into the main compartment. The final, D-shaped pocket is on the outside of the bag, sitting just above the wearer’s waistline: it’s designed to accommodate your most commonly accessed items and is again thickly padded to keep everything safe.
The outer shell is made out of waterproof Cordura, which also has a foam lining for extra protection. I’m conscious this will sound counterintuitive, but I find all the abundant padding on this backpack a burden rather than a benefit. Even the shoulder straps are overladen with padding — which I would never need because there’s no way I could overload the awkwardly shaped main compartment of this bag. The overwhelming issue with the RiutBag is that it’s rather crude: those pesky bottle pockets, for example, would be less irritating if they were somehow smaller or made of a less stiff material. The top pocket is a nice idea, but it’s hard to get quick access to the full thing because of the straps, which are themselves wide and thick enough to overwhelm slender shoulders.
My priority with any backpack is efficiency. I don’t care how it looks — really, sometimes unattractiveness can be an advantage — and I’m not too bothered about extras like water resistance and the like. I just need to max out what I can carry in a portable package and I want to be able to whip out my laptop or camera at a moment’s notice. With the RiutBag, I can’t say that I’ve been able to achieve either goal. It seems torn between being an ultra-simple bag with a straightforward open main compartment or a more structured pack with purpose-built pockets and slots. Maybe if I had another, smaller bag to jam inside the RiutBag, this would make for an excellent protector from the elements and prying hands, but at a price north of $100, the RiutBag should be able to handle all everyday tasks without recourse to external help.
If it were smaller, simpler, lighter, and less overwhelming in its padding, the RiutBag could still be a great backpack, because its core idea is sound. The peace of mind that comes from not having to check your bag’s contents all the time is a valuable advantage that Riut has over conventional bag designs. The 12-liter RiutBag Go looks sort of like that ideal, however it doesn’t offer a protected laptop slot and its interior has no sorting or organizing compartments to speak of. My uneven experience with the RiutBag R15 leaves me unable to recommend the flagship backpack from this company. It’s a nice idea in search of better execution.