The Saddleback Briefcase Odyssey

By Jeffrey the Barak

I am a man-bag flipper. I like my personal luggage, be it a briefcase, messenger, pouch or satchel. I was never one for going around with no stuff, or stuffing my pockets, so a bag just makes sense for me. I always regret leaving the house without one, and I’ve carried some form of day luggage around for four or five decades.

So I buy them, enjoy them, get bored, and sell them again as used bags.

I recently used the same bag for three years, a large tricolored messenger bag from Timbuk2. But it was too big, and sometimes a bag that is too big makes it difficult to find anything. A properly packed smaller bag will usually be a more efficient mode of carriage and retrieval.

After such a long stint with vinyl lined ballistic nylon, I had a hankering for leather, which I had been avoiding for some years. Convinced I might occasionally have to stuff dance shoes in my daily bag, I stayed with the messenger format and bought a nice soft high-end messenger in leather, by Osgoode Marley. It’s a nice bag that holds my Macbook and plenty more, and it’s not heavy, but it has internal features that do not please me. For a start it is lined in satin and has lots of zippers and compartments. This makes finding anything a constant fumble and some effort has to be taken to memorize where an item was stowed.

Aside from having to have a large section for the computer, I like to have an array of open, top-loading pouches for easy visual and manual access. Too many little things designed for pens and obsolete cellphones and business cards etc are just visual clutter to me.

My Saddleback medium briefcase in dark coffee brown

While I was researching this bag I also stumbled across the Saddleback Leather Company via Amazon, and then found their own website Saddlebackleather.com. This little firm based in Texas thinks outside the box and makes stunning leather items out of full grain leather, that’s right, full-grain, the thick stuff you see in tool belts and work boots. Because of this, and their refusal to include magnets, snaps, fabric lining, zippers etc., it means they can guarantee their bags for one hundred years.

Saddleback have earned a hardcore fan base and there are thousands of admirers, collectors and enthusiasts stocking up on various sized items that Saddleback sews together down in the land of the cowboys, (Texas and Mexico). The company founder and owner, Dave Munson, appears in a few demonstration videos and has acquired the fan status of an iconoclastic leader. He’s a really nice fellow too who genuinely appreciates his customers and aspiring customers.

I too was instantly an enthusiast of Saddleback Leather, and despite the fact I had recently purchased the aforementioned leather messenger, I plunged into a commitment and  acquired a medium briefcase. It took me a while, because I was scared of the advertised weight. I mean, did I really want a briefcase that weighed 6.5 pounds empty?

I bit the bullet and bought my medium sized dark coffee brown briefcase. What a work of art! For it’s size it does not hold as much as one crossing over from the nylon universe might expect, without very intelligent planning and packing, which is I suppose because it’s so thick and rigid, but beauty overrode practicality and I became inseparable from my bag. I would haul it around with nothing but a few items that could have fit into a two ounce nylon bag with ease.

I even went against my better judgement and took it as my airline carry on bag on a three day trip to Hawaii for a funeral. The Macbook and various other items were placed into the Saddleback and off I flew. (I did also check a large suitcase, because life is not a movie and little bags are not as big as houses on the inside).

And even in Honolulu, where hauling stuff around is never a pleasure, I carried it with me as I went about my business, and I still enjoyed having it around as a constant companion. That is until I went a walking! I walked for about two hours, around Ala Moana Shopping Mall, with no computer, just a water bottle, wallet, keys, hat, three pairs of glasses (various tints and focal lengths) and a tiny camera. I could have fit the same array into a really small nylon bag and weighed in under three pounds including the water, but here they were cruising in style in the medium Saddleback briefcase.

It was a hot, but breezy day, and of course it was cold inside the stores. But by the end of the walk, I had definitely begun to fall out of love with my bag. It was just too heavy for a two-hour hike in flip-flops. A leather bag that weighed five pounds less could have held the same stuff. Imagine putting a five pound dumbbell weight into your shoulder bag? Well if you could, you would remove that dumbbell right away, and therein lies the problem. A Saddleback Leather Briefcase may be a beautiful piece of art, but you can do without all the weight on a hike.

image (c) Saddleback Leather Company. Small Satchel.

So my Saddleback briefcase is now back at home beside me, leather cleaned and fed, and waiting for me to go out to a place not too far from my parking spot so it can be my best buddy again. Yes I came within a hair’s breadth of adding a small SaddleBack Leather Company Satchel into the mix, but I held back due to the 3 lbs weight, and the rigid format etc., and went for a less beautiful artifact crafted from nylon, that will hold more and yet weigh less than almost any single thing that I put inside it. In fact for a good visualization of what I am rambling about here, the Kipling bag that I bought weighs less than the two shoulder pads on the strap of the Saddleback Briefcase.

The Internet is a great research resource, but to really know a bag, even a local baggage store cannot eliminate all potential less-than-ideal decisions. You almost have to buy one and live with it to really know how it will work out in practice. Only after spending a few hundred dollars over time, and recouping some of it by flipping, can you truly know what size, format and material will work out to be your ideal bag. Of course at the aforementioned Ala Moana Shopping Center, I hauled my Saddleback into all the designer Italian bag stores and looked at man-bags costing up to three thousand dollars. But luckily for me, none were my style.

I know from expensive experience that too few and conversely too many compartments can be a liability, that satin or silk linings don’t work, that the weight of the empty bag is an important consideration, that too much depth and a dark interior, and even insufficient rigidity will make it hard to put your hand around what you are looking for, and that zippers can be undesirable if in the wrong spot and unworkable using only one hand.

We all carry fairly similar man-stuff but we each find what works best for us. It may be a vertical or horizontal messenger, it may be fat or thin, huge or compact and it may open in a variety of ways. Personally, I find the format of the cross body shoulder bag is the best for me, better than a two strap backpack, better than a hand bag, but the addition of a handle is good. However, what I like in terms of aesthetics (Saddleback) and what I like in actual use (Kipling) are two opposite beasts. One is very cool, and the other is extremely lightweight.

Ideally we may each need a small assortment of bags from which we select what to load up each day, and I do recommend that any bag be unloaded and reloaded often so you know what you have, what you need to have and what you need to leave at home. But as a minimalist I still pine for one perfect bag that replaces all others and becomes the ideal companion. If it were not for the inevitable weight of full grain leather, then my bag of choice would definitely be a Saddleback bag.

Jeffrey the Barak carries a lot of stupid stuff around and yet still insists he’s a minimalist.

13 Comments

  1. Hi there Jeffrey the Barak,

    Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate your honestly with the heaviness of it too. You’re right, there are lighter ones out there. My wife keeps getting on me about making a lighter version for her. Maybe one day. Until then, muscle will continue to be formed on the shoulders of the chosen. Hey, I like that. It sounds nice.

  2. Revisiting this article after ten months, I feel I should disclose that my ideal daily bag is now …. a Saddleback Leather Company large satchel. It weighs half as much as the medium briefcase reviewed here, but is every bit as cool, and it always seems to have room for whatever I need to carry. By the way, it’s light tobacco brown and aging nicely. JtB.

  3. I have been eyeballing these since a long time.
    Want to use them for my camera, customize it with some dense foam. Great good looking bag with ample of protection that doesn’t scream CAMERA!

  4. A few owners put foam or cut-up camera bags or cooler bags inside as custom inserts for camera gear. Sometimes the bag is worth more than the gear inside!

  5. I’ve been angsting over a large satchel vice medium briefcase. Your article may be what prods me to pull the trigger and get the satchel. Thank you.

  6. @rg They have different shapes, The messenger seemed too high. Too much rummaging in the dark.

  7. and is the satchel still your go-to daily bag? How are you able to you pack your laptop in it?

  8. @rg My laptop is the 11″ Macbook Air. If your laptop is any larger then it won’t fit in a large satchel. You must measure everything that you carry before you make your decision. Call Saddleback and they will help you.

  9. I’m shopping for bags right now going through the same struggle. I’m glad you wrote everything you did here – it’s definitely given me a reason to re-think my strategy.

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