When Remote Equipment launched their Alpha 31 last year, they wanted to make a backpack that could cover any task. When a bag comes along claiming that it can do everything – that’s the urban commute through the week, the airline travel, and the saturday on the trail – my first assumption is that somewhere along the line the designers have made a compromise, trading performance for versatility, and thorough testing will root it out. Surely the different tasks are demanding enough that no one bag could stay comfortable, efficient, and protective enough without slipping up somewhere?
I received my Alpha 31 in February 2018, before the bag hit the market, for testing in the run-up to Remote Eq’s Kickstarter campaign. That means the unit I have is a preproduction sample and differs slightly from the public release, but not tremendously – the final model features some beefier stitching, load stabilisers on top of the straps, and not a lot extra. It also means I’ve had a full year now to test the Alpha, push it through a whole run of testing, turn over every leaf to see what the bag might be hiding.
Testing the Alpha 31 has been one for the long haul. The bag arrived with me midway through a season of heavy snowfall and became my daily driver, the extra space being perfect for my winter layers. Since then it’s flown three times and sat beside me for a 600 mile drive, cruising as my sole piece of luggage. I’ve also managed to fit the Alpha 31 into my hiking rotation, although it’s seen less time out of the city than packs dedicated for that role.
Another advantage of this lengthy testing period is that I feel more prepared to comment on the durability of the bag… not that, really, there’s anything to report. The X51 fabric is effectively bombproof, showing no signs of damage, wear, grub, anything. It’s still as stiff as the day I got it, which I love, and keeps out wet weather effectively, time and time again. The whole design pulls together for a really powerful look – one which gets “hey, cool bag” comments pretty regularly. The white internal lining has had the occasional run-in with reusable coffee-cups and now sports a few stains, but is still crisp and healthy. Even the stretchwoven tweave, used to shape the bottle pockets and internal sleeve, has retained much of its original tautness – the elasticity has decreased a little, but the pockets are far from bagging out or losing their shape.
The structure of the fabric is integral to the Alpha 31’s design. It’s built with versatility at its core, and delivers on that with an expansion/compression mechanism which takes the bag from the mid-20s right up to 36 litres in volume. By cinching the straps against the Alpha’s sides, and tightening the rolltop closure, users can adjust the capacity of the bag to meet their needs. At times for me that’s ranged from ‘lunch and a raincoat’ to ‘travel clothing for three weeks away, in winter, plus christmas presents.’ Being sewn from such robust materials helps the Alpha 31 keep its shape, remaining functional even when being twisted and warped over and over. This level of adjustment is what enables Remote Equipment to fulfill their ‘one bag for all uses’ ambition: if you need more space, you make it bigger. Even when packed to either absolute extreme, the central space remains accessible due to a zippered panel in the bag’s front. Over the past couple years similar ‘hybrid rolltop’ systems have appeared in offerings from the likes of Peak Design, Boundary Supply and Attitude Supply, suggesting that a handful of designers have all hit on the same solution concurrently, but it’s marked out as a core feature here.
Despite the quality of the build, the Alpha 31 isn’t hefty in the hand. The two top grab handles are fairly basic loops of webbing, but do fine for lifting the bag and moving it short distances. On the body, this pack is a dream. The straps are elegantly shaped and structured in a way that spreads gently across the shoulders and chest. The back panel is rigid (thanks to a HDPE sheet inside) but well padded with a light foam and backed with the same stretchy tweave material as the bottle pockets – this hits a sweet spot of non-abrasive friction that keeps the bag steady in movement. The whole bag is shaped in a way that holds its contents high, but directs weight into the lumbar where it’s best carried by the body. As I said, Remote Eq went on to add load-lifter straps after the kickstarter was funded, but I’m not sure they’re necessary. Even when loaded up, I can walk or cycle for hours with the Alpha 31 on my back without any significant fatigue. It’s not quite as comfortable as my hiking packs with dedicated hip belts and adjustable yokes, but it comes with none of the bulk, none of the hassle of fitting, and none of the weird looks walking through town. Honestly, I can’t praise Remote Equipment enough on this, it’s such a simple design but ranks among the most comfortable bags I’ve ever worn.
In terms of how the bag packs out, it’s similarly inspired. Access is carefully weighed against stability. As above, the large main compartment can be loaded through the top or by zipping open the front panel. An additional zip the full length of one side enables quick access to the rear sleeve, keeping a laptop or water bladder separate from the loose gear inside the bag – being able to fetch my computer quickly makes airport security a breeze. Two tall pockets perch on the front (matching up with the access panel), their zips aligned so they can be accessed when the bag is swung around the wearer’s front. One final zip leads into a small mesh pocket, somewhat hidden behind the wearer’s head when carried. This is sized for a wallet or set of keys, but (since it drops into the main compartment) can be a little difficult to drawn from when the bag is stuffed.
Overall I think the layout of this bag is intuitive, versatile and utilitarian – it doesn’t take much thought to find a way of setting the bag up to a different set of needs. That goes both ways – there’s nothing about this design that prescribes a certain function, like pen slots that would be useful for urban daily carry, but a waste of fabric when travelling or hiking. Even the bottle pockets are shaped in a way that makes them practically invisible when empty, but capable of holding sizeable containers when needed, even if the bag itself is full.
Performance like this is achieved by small and well thought out touches in the design. Remote Equipment have peppered these across the bag, from the super-subtle hydration port, the water resistant zippers, to the minimal webbing strip for mounting a bike light or reflector. Against all the praise, after using the Alpha for the widest range of applications I could over the past year, I do have to accept that the design does compromise in the face of specialisation for certain roles. If I were only carrying this for the urban daily commute, I’d probably prefer to have some more dedicated small-item organisation. I’m frequent and demanding enough a hiker that the Alpha will never be my first choice for a day in the mountains. There’ll be times (and users) for whom this bag will always be too large to be comfortable or useful. But, with the range of uses at its heart (and a killer look), I really feel like this is an excellent bag.
Of course, much of this review is redundant – I’ve reviewed the Alpha 31 before and my opinions have hardly changed in that time. Even more so, in the time between drafting and publishing this review, Remote Equipment sold out of their stock of bags, and have said they’re moving onto new products for 2019, news which deserves much excitement. It may be now that the only way to source an Alpha is through the secondary market, except that they aren’t coming up for sale very often either. My advice would be, if you do see one for sale: grab it. It’ll do everything.