The Fjällräven Rucksack No. 21 Medium ($170) is an attractive heritage-style weather-resistant twenty-liter urban daypack that works well on bike commutes and general travel.
As with any Fjällräven review, a brief lesson in Swedish is in order to ensure you pronounce it correctly. Get your tongue-roll on for the “r” and say it with me: “Fee-yelllllllllllllll-reh’vennnnnnnn!!!!”. Or, if you’re in a hurry, “Feeyelllrehvenn!”
Now you know how to say “arctic fox” in Swedish. (You’re welcome)
What I liked
Simplistic, heritage style but with a modern-day sensibility. This is a classic rucksack. Think dayhike into the wild circa 1962. You’re wearing wool knickers, clunky hiking boots, socks that reach your knees. Your hiking stick was fashioned on the fly from a nearby felled tree with your trekking knife. You’re wearing a red bandana and a floppy sun hat to keep the sun off your neck and face. Everything about you is cool, retro, secure in yourself. You are envied by all hikers you encounter. (“Did you see that pack?!” they whisper to each other? “So retro.”).
Meanwhile, back in the city. You board a commuter train or bus, walk through the airport, enter a coffee shop. People notice you. They notice your pack. And believe me, they WILL ask you what brand it is and where you got it because they want one too.
Nice features for everyday use, urban or otherwise. The main compartment, which is accessed via two leather straps, buckles, and a drawstring closure, offers a small secured zip pocket for valuables and a large, unpadded sleeve (can hold up to a seventeen-inch laptop), and a medium-sized unpadded sleeve. I use this pocket for my iPad. A drawstring pocket holds a thermos or water bottle in the upright position. The downside to this design is that I can’t get to my thermos or water bottle quickly.
Outside the pack is a medium-sized pocket that is semi-secure when the top flap is buckled down. I tend to use this one for my Kindle but I noticed that it can also hold a bicycle u-lock. However, securing the snaps of the top flap are labor intensive because the leather straps are very thick (but durable) and the metal nubbins are a bit bigger than then the holes in the leather straps. So quick access is not really possible with this pack.
Padded seat pad! At first I thought the purpose of this pad was for structure enhancement and as padding for your laptop. It actually does those things, but its intended purpose is to protect your butt from a filthy public bench in between flights or bus connections or keep your weary butt dry when resting on a wet log on a hike. It’s made with Fjällräven’s proprietary G-1000 fabric that is coated with Greenland Wax so it’s both waterproof and cleans up easily with a wet washcloth. More on that later.
Comfortable shoulder straps and backpanel. The Fjällräven Rucksack No. 21’s ergonomic shoulder straps contain enough padding to make them comfortable under heavier loads. Wider shoulder widths (e.g. larger males) may find them too narrow. However I found them to be comfortable.
The backpanel is made with two 2.5-wide strips of heavy closed-cell foam covered in canvas that runs vertically down both sides of the spine. It does conform to my back when in the cycling position but it isn’t really breathable. Since I live in Minneapolis and have been testing this pack in the November, December and January, the breathability was never an issue. But come July and August? I have a feeling longer bike commutes will result in some pretty serious back sweat.
Durable construction. The Fjällräven Rucksack No. 21 is arguably the best-constructed pack I’ve even encountered. It is made with Fjällräven’s proprietary G-1000 fabric, which is a tight, densely-woven composition of sixty-five percent polyester and thirty-five percent organic cotton. It is then treated with Greenland Wax, making it extremely durable and resistant to water, weather, dirt, grit and general abrasion. However, the Greenland Wax coating will need to re-applied over time to maintain the water- and weather-resistance.
What I didn’t like
Non-breathable backpanel. Year-round bike commuters, especially those who live in humid climates (like Minneapolis), will sweat profusely into the pack’s back on long rides on hot days. Will your backsweat seep into the pack’s interior and infiltrate your contents with funk? Probably not. As you walk through the hallways to your cubicle will people give you a wide berth? Probably yes.
I’d like to see Fjällräven add a breathable backpanel. It doesn’t have to along the lines of the Osprey AirScape backpanel but something in between that and what it currently has that doesn’t detract from its classic heritage rucksack design.
Access is labor-intensive if you’re in a hurry. Here’s how to gain access to the internal compartment: 1) Remove pack. 2) Undue the metal nubbies on the two leather straps. You may need to put some muscle into them at first until the leather softens. 3) Flip open the top flap. 4) Open the drawstring enclosure. 5) Enter the pack. Repeat steps in reverse order to close.
To be completely honest, this was only a hassle when I was at Outdoor Retailer and needed to access my water bottle or notebook or to insert a free pair of socks from the Balega booth. Still, I would love to see the internal drawstring closure go bye-bye and replaced with maybe a zipper or Velcro.
Lack of quick-access pockets. All packs need pockets you can get to quickly. The Fjällräven Rucksack No. 21 does have two unsecured quick-access pockets on the sides. But they are non-stretch and flush with pack so their usefulness is limited to carrying items that are flat and small, such as my Abus bike lock, wallet or cellphone. They won’t hold my 32oz Camelbak Chute but do hold my GSI Glacier Microlite 500 coffee mug. But, again, the downside is that because they aren’t flat items they encroach into the interior’s capacity.
Fjällräven is all about simplicity and the celebration of original, ancient designs (before all this laptop, eReader and smartphone bullshit poxed our culture) blended with the modern sensibilities of quality construction, durability and use-value.
There’s a common thread with Fjällräven gear: Outstanding materials and construction. Tight, intentional, careful stitching with super-heavy and durable thread. The fabric is a bombproof heavy-duty cotton canvas and the industrial-grade leather straps and buckles have might and heft and will probably last longer in this world than its wearer. Fjällräven cuts no corners.
My only beef is that it’s an epic adventure to get inside the pack and an epic adventure to close it back up. Fjällräven could speed it up by doing away with the drawstring enclosure. I know the top-loading pack design is common and popular–but usually you are securing the top flap with cheap plastic clips not heavy duty leather straps and metal nubbies that take some muscle to work through the strap holes.
You will not find a better-constructed pack anywhere. That’s why it’s a Gear Gals Piece of Recommended Gear.
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