I’ve been looking for the ideal bag; much like any ideal, it’s not so much that one achieves the ideal per se but instead decides the ideal-for-now. I think I may have found it.
I’ve gone through a few of the well-known quality bag brands in search of the ideal, such as Timbuk2, Mission Workshop, and GoRuck. Each brand has its advantages, form factors, and preferred materials. I’ll spend some time in future posts going through those details per bag, but today’s focus is Chrome Industries’ Vale Sling Bag.
I’d been aware of Chrome for some time, having seen their distinctive seat-belt buckle design on their messenger bags. I didn’t like the idea of the weight or noise of that element of the bag, and while I avoided their messengers for that reason, I was tempted by a backpack they had released that had a 20L capacity that could expand to 40L with the use of compression straps.
Unfortunately most of the suite of products available from the aforementioned brands are some form of sporty, given their origins in the bike messenger and military communities. While robust, the best they could manage in terms of style was urban-chic. Any outfit at or above “dressy casual” would seem poorly matched with most of their lines, save for perhaps the black messengers from Timbuk2.
The typical pairing to a button-down with slacks and dress shoes is often a leather briefcase, either in hand or on a strap. The more robust of these run into the hundreds of dollars and cannot avoid being stiff and heavy. Also due to the choice of leather, often the bags cannot expand much when occasionally adding large items, such as a folded jacket or even blazer. Often the hardware (clips, buckles, and so on) goes with the “old-school” theme of leather bags and often are not as usable as modern designs. Finally, the straps usually do not come with strap pads and are relatively thin strips of leather, poorly distributing the bag’s weight on a shoulder or across the chest.
Timbuk2 recently expanded into the business-casual space with a new design with a “Luxe” trim that replaces most of their plastic hardware with metal, keeps the YKK zippers, and goes for a styled nylon material (there’s also the option of 300D polyester) that looks more like fabric but still retains the water-proof features of their coated nylon. While certainly a step in the right direction, it still harkens back to its bike messenger roots and would do well in the more casual environment of San Francisco but may seem out of place in New York or London.
Chrome Industries recently introduced the Vale Sling, a 16L bag made of 600D polyester fabric. The look fits well what I think of as business-casual, with a mix of dark grey and black, mostly black metal hardware, and a simple metal buckle in place of Chrome’s seat-belt buckle. While some have complained about the omission of this signature feature, the bag’s theme is meant to be understated, and the seat belt buckle wouldn’t fit with that intent.
There are three pockets. The main pocket sits in the middle of the bag with a laptop slot and a few small slots for pens and other little items. The front pocket is mostly for thin items needed quickly such as gloves and a beanie and is about half the height of the main pocket. The innermost pocket sits closest to your body, is easily accessible when the bag is swung around to the front of your body, and can easily contain the common items you might keep in your pockets. I use it to hold my phone, wallet, and headphones.
My only gripe about the pockets from the outside is the zipper direction. The innermost pocket opens from left to right when facing you slung forward and the zipper rests at the “bottom” of the bag when slung over your shoulder. However, the opposite is true of the front pocket, while the middle pocket has zippers from either side and thus allows you to make the choice yourself. It seems to be it would have been more consistent to have the outer pocket open in the same direction as the inner one, as well as making it less likely to wander open on its own. That said, the YKK zippers are rather sturdy and it’s not likely to happen, but it seems an odd inconsistency to me nonetheless.
The strap pairs with a built-in strap pad of sorts on the left shoulder. Unfortunately, like many Chrome bags, this means the bag cannot be reconfigured if you prefer to hang messengers over your right shoulder, unlike many (though not all) Timbuk2s with removable straps. The strap itself is about the right width for a fully-loaded bag of this size, not to big as to be very noticeable and yet not too small as to dig in when weighed down. A simple plastic strap retainer allows the user to adjust the tightness of the strap easily while not being as large or obtrusive (though slightly less useful as a result) as Timbuk2’s strap adjuster. A clever loopback of the strap end eliminates the excess strap that would flop around on most designs. My only gripe here is the small stretch loop that keeps the excess strap from flopping around will probably lose its elasticity over time and need to be replaced. The strap also has a small balance strap, one that wraps under your arm and buckles to the main strap. I haven’t needed it thus far, but it is also removable if you prefer not to use it.
The handle too is similarly well-sized: not too wide for the bag, slightly padded, and usable. It sits in between the back pocket and the main central pocket.
The main central pocket uses a light grey nylon liner, which does make it slightly easier to find items and is an appreciated detail. While it might stand to be another color entirely to increase contrast, it also makes opening the bag subtle unlike, say, a bag with a bright orange liner.
However, the main pocket features my main gripe with this bag; the claim that the laptop pocket can hold a 13” laptop. While I don’t own a 13” MacBook Pro, a friend of mine does. Despite featuring in the product photos, it is not an easy business getting that laptop in and out of the laptop slot. The pocket is a thin and light material that does stretch to accommodate, and it may break in to make the process easier over time, but on its face it does seem a bit of a stretch to claim 13” laptops fit in this bag. It would be more fair to say a subset of thin and light 13” laptops would fit, more like the 13” MacBook Air and definitely a 12” MacBook or either iPad Pro with keyboard. Edit: I tried the 2012 13” MacBook Air, which is slightly larger than a 2017 13” MacBook Pro and thus was a very poor fit, though it could be forced to fit.
The main pocket also features this bag’s party piece, which are the compression straps that run along the length of the bag. When the main pocket is empty, the straps pull the outside of the main pocket towards your body, slimming the bag on your back. When you fill it up, the straps move towards the center of the bag, expanding the space in the main pocket and allowing for large soft items like a jacket. It’s a great feature of this bag and requires no user intervention; it just works.
Currently, I’m carrying a 10.5 iPad Pro with keyboard, a spare jacket, a small collapsible umbrella, a small water bottle, my wallet, phone, AirPods, slim backup battery, and medium-sized sunglasses case with some room to spare. All of this weight is well-distributed across the strap and back pad, and the bag itself sticks to me well and doesn’t flop around.
I highly recommend this one for your every-day carry needs. It’s on the right side of large-enough, can expand to carry some incidentals, and doesn’t call attention to itself. Besides dark grey (listed as “Black” at their web site), it comes in sandy color they call “Dune” which would pair well with summer outfits and lighter colors.