Although the sight of technical (and even tactical) backpacks on our city streets has become more common, in the office a certain dress code still holds sway. For folks who’re required to pull on a shirt and tie for work, a dusty backpack fresh off the trail kinda spoils the outfit. At the same time, looking business smart does need to mean buying into something flimsy and fashionable, or square and techy – that’s where Manhattan Portage come in. The brand has been running since 1983, hitting their own niche of “New York Tough and Downtown Smart” across cities all over the world. After speaking with them they sent me over their Prospect backpack to test out.
The bag has accompanied me on my daily commute across the testing period, into my work space or out meeting clients. My walk to work isn’t an epic trek, but the Prospect has needed to carry everything I could want for a range of tasks, including a stack of books or traipsing around museums and galleries on a short city-break. It’s worth noting that the bag I’ve been testing is, officially speaking, the second version of the Prospect – Manhattan Portage don’t list what was changed on their website, but what they do show is a black version with a dark lining, whereas my blue bag has a bright red interior.
Colours accounted for, the materials all across the bag are very nice. The exterior is made of famously tough 1000D Cordura. There’s some kind of PVC textured panel across the front, further adorned with a strip of 3M reflective material lower down, for the benefit of cyclists at night. A reflector or light is usually something I add myself and, testing the bag in late winter, I was grateful to have it included, especially since the Prospect has nowhere to mount such things on the exterior.
The webbing used throughout is a glossy, seatbelt material, adding to the veneer of quality so important to the Prospect’s approach. This approach is taken further into the hardware of the bag – Manhattan Portage have not only used YKK zippers across the bag, but apparently also their plastics, meaning that the buckles and triglides on the Prospect also bare YKK branding next to MP’s own stamp. Wrapped around the top grab handle is real leather, firm but gentle in the hand. Overall the fabric choices make for a solid bag that held up to the abuse I put it through, and hits the notes the company are going for – with a little digging it’s possible to find examples of their bags lasting several decades, and propped up by a lifetime warranty.
This priority on fabrics (for both looks and durability) seems typical for a purely urban model like the Prospect, but unfortunately comes at a cost to other aspects of the design. The bag’s main straps are broad enough not to cut into the shoulder when worn but otherwise entirely straightforward, with no contouring or particular structure to bear the bag’s contents more effectively. The back panel is similarly unsophisticated – it has a rough airmesh and some light padding, but nothing about the design functions to direct or suspend the load from the body to be more comfortable. When carrying any kind of weight, the Prospect folded, dangling off my shoulders and pressing in odd places. Over longer periods I needed frequent breaks from the load on my back.
What redeems these kind of straps is their ease of use and quickness to pick up (or put down). If the bag is only ever being carried from the back of your car to your desk and home again, it’ll probably work without a hitch. On the other hand if you’re consistently putting miles under your feet, I don’t think this bag is your best option.
In terms of actual contents, the boxy dimensions of the Prospect make an obvious match for a laptop computer, documents, and other flat rectangles. Externally there are two side pockets – they struck me as small to begin with but I found would take a full sized nalgene once the fabric had broken in. The interior has a padded sleeve against its back for electronics, plus additional dividers for papers or files. For small items such as pens, the Prospect has a pretty lacklustre admin panel built into the front wall. The pocketing on this isn’t great, since most of them are open topped and not deep enough to be secure, let alone terribly useful. The only solution for ‘quick access’ is a deep zippered pocket behind the textured front panel, but I’m hesitant to throw my wallet or the access cards I use for work in there since it isn’t especially secure and has no kind of organisation.
One extra zip, against the seam of the back panel, excited me at first glance – I hoped this might be a hidden pocket, exactly what I wanted for my secure, quick access role – instead it opened inexplicably into the main compartment of the bag, where it was partially blocked by the padded wall of the laptop sleeve. In theory this opening could present a handy means of reaching into the bag without taking it completely off the shoulders, but in practice the opening is too narrow and positioned in the wrong place to be useful. The lack of effective organisation is exacerbated in the Prospect’s design, since the primary (and effectively only) means of access to the bag’s main compartment is through a wide top opening, which rolls shut and fastens with a length of webbing on the front. Being unable to flatten the bag out (as one would with a clamshell style opening) limits the way it can be filled, and slows use when trying to grab contents.
The slim profile means, at least, the bag stays close to the back and didn’t bounce around in motion. Likewise, it moved through crowds smoothly and didn’t cause havoc on public transport. Bearing in mind what Manhattan Portage actually made the Prospect to do, I can’t come down too hard on it for not performing like a hiking bag with an internal frame. Some criticism needs to be levelled at the design though: the 21L volume will work fine for the average commuter carrying essentials to work and the laptop sleeve is a firm win here, but so many other elements of the Prospect could be more practical when giving people access to what they carry.
The styling of the whole Manhattan Portage line is what will draw people to the brand. The Prospect is part of their ‘black label’ collection, hence the ruggedness to the build, some even feature PALS-inspired webbing for pouches. Folks who prefer a cleaner exterior may fare better with their ‘Red Label,’ whereas their heritage designs can be found under the ‘Token Bags’ heading. As someone who takes this kind of gear a little too seriously, I don’t mind looking a little outdoorsy. Personally, I need more in the way of comfort from my daily bag, which means I’m going to keep searching.