In the Retail world, ‘Back to School’ is a major calendar event. It drives sales across all kinds of industries, and not just for children. For many folks it’s just code for the end of summer, change of seasons in business and leisure, but for me – a man in my late 20s – I am literally going back to school, or university at least. Returning to education can require a change in priorities, and a bit of new equipment, often on a budget. I needed a pack that would help me carry everything I needed for my classes, with great laptop protection, that will look cool on campus. I settled on the 2017 version of The North Face Kaban.
You’ve seen The North Face. You’ve seen teenagers wearing their t-shirts, students wearing their jackets, commuters carrying their packs. You might even have seen Alex Honnold or Stephanie Howe or any of the adventurers or outdoor sportspeople they sponsor. But then again, you might not have done. TNF’s marketing works hard to position them next to Rab or Arcteryx, but they’re seen just as often next to Vans or Supreme.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it more accurately reflects the reality of the Kaban’s design. It’s an urban pack, plain and simple; designed to carry your books and electronics across town to work or school. The pack I bought is a new model in 2017, effectively a redesign of The North Face Kaban backpack (which had Transit and Charged variants) with an updated exterior look and pocket layout. Sometimes you’ll see this new model listed as Kaban, or Ka-Ban, and I’m not one hundred-percent on how you pronounce the name.
The nice thing about TNF’s exposure was that I was able to visit an actual shop, chat with staff, load up and try on the pack before I bought it. Too often our search takes us to brands being available online only, meaning the purchase is based on nothing but a couple of photographs and subject to an agonising wait for delivery. Certainly that made getting the right model easier, in a world where confusion is easy and small details can make all the difference.
The body of the pack is made from a 900D polyester, which is a stiff-feeling material that should hold up well to use, and the front panel is coated in TPE PVC. It’s worth noting here that the polyester isn’t a cordura, or a high-tenacity nylon. It’s not as hard wearing nor as lightweight as most outdoor or technical packs, especially with the PVC face. The plastic hardware isn’t ITW or National Moulding but another brand I wasn’t familiar with (Nifco, it turns out). The zippers are YKK and frankly I wouldn’t have bought the bag if they weren’t. Perhaps I’m spoilt but after using some truly high quality packs I’m aware that the materials here are a bit cheaper. They don’t have the same sense of bombproof durability or magical lustre that, say, a Mystery Ranch gives out. That’s the standard that I want to judge this pack against, but it falls slightly short. What the Kaban does is look very sleek, very cool and very minimalist.
The whole exterior keeps this stylish low profile, but not devoid of features. Two slash-opened pockets sit at the sides of the pack. When empty they lie entirely flat against the pack, which looks great but means any volume they have is stolen from the main compartment. When pushed they will take a 1L Nalgene, but they eat so much space from the pack that I ended up using them only for narrow items like an umbrella or a wooly hat, keeping my bottle inside the bag. Perhaps if these pockets were made from something like a stretch-woven tweave, we could gain some extra volume but retain to that flat look when not in use.
The bag also has a couple of external mounting points, although they’re not visible at first glance. Two small webbing tabs are discrete to the point that the sales staff in the North Face store hadn’t noticed them until I found their nook. They’re vertically above the side pockets which means if you were carrying something long and thin (probably not trekking poles, but maybe a tripod?) you could potentially make really good use of these points and some shock cord. For me wanting to keep a clean look, I made one of them a home for a tiny #1 s-biner, as a neat place to hang my hat. Finally there’s a cut-out strip similar to the traditional lash-tab at the base of the PVC face, which would make a great place for a reflector or light when cycling. Some folks don’t like visible branding in which case I’d be remiss not to point out the TNF logos, one on the face material (with the Kaban’s name written lower down) and one on the straps.
The straps and back panel are made of a kind of stiff, squidy foam. The straps themselves are wide and flex smoothly, hitting a good balance between structure and padding, although I found them a bit sweaty compared with the common place airmesh that other packs use. There’s a sternum strap included and the whole thing hugs nice and close to your body, making it a pretty nice carry for an average daily load.
The back panel is shaped with airflow in mind (North Face call this the ‘FlexVent™ suspension system’) and is actually curved in a way that rests the weight square on the hips and shoulders and lifts the pack itself away from your body. That is, it does if you maintain your very best straight-spine, skull-to-hip pilates stance. As soon as any kind of forward hunch is created that ventilation is lost and you have a flat but lightly padded board against your back. Again, perhaps I’m spoilt, but as far as load carriage goes this pack does have a top end in terms of what it can carry comfortably. I think with the size and design of the Kaban it’d be difficult to really overload, but if you’re carrying home the whole library, you might find yourself struggling a little.
The Kaban is a 26L pack with four compartments – one at the back for a laptop, a large, top-loading main compartment, an admin area with sleeves and pockets and a small ‘quick access’ pocket hidden at the front. Most of the colourways the pack comes in have a bright material lining which is useful; the black I bought has a kind of golden yellow that’s not as aggressive on the eyes as many hi-vis colours I’ve seen, but gives a good contrast against the pack’s contents.
The main compartment zips open from the top and is effectively a big bucket with no interior features besides the bright lining. Practically this is fine, so long as you know how to use the space, and the 900d panelling keeps the shape pretty steady whether it’s empty or full, so this is a great place to throw your jacket, lunchbox, books and whatever. It’s kinda shallow, so if you want to pack any larger objects (your DSLR in a case, for example) then you might find the pack’s low profile a bit limiting.
Some load-outs might benefit from a little bring-your-own organisation but this is for the user to decide, and rightly so. Likewise with the small front compartment; it’s hard to spot behind the seams and easy to get into without taking the pack off, but has no internal features and not much space. Just the right size for an A5 notepad. Feels like an obvious spot for a key keeper if you ask me, but that’s a small complaint.
All four main compartments of the Kaban seal with YKK zips which is a good thing. They’re quick and easy to get into. Fastidious users will want to swap out the pulls for heat-shrunk paracord or whatever they prefer, but the metal tags the zips come with are okay. The design of the openings works well but there were a couple of points of frustration. Firstly, the pack’s zips are not ambidextrous.
Only the admin compartment has two pulls, with the main and laptop areas zipping from one side to the other, open and closed. For the admin section this works well, meaning I can pull apart the zip and get a fairly symmetrical top opening that is naturally halted by the shape of the pack. The problem is that this shape also matches the main compartment’s zipper, and several times when I’ve opened the admin compartment like this I’ve grabbed the wrong zip, since both pulls rest next to one another. Heck, if I’m writing a wish-list it’d be really nice to see water-resistant zippers on this pack, at least around the laptop compartment which has the most precious cargo. Getting a dry-bag to line the main bucket area is easy, but needing extra protection for my computer defies the reason I bought this bag in the first place.
The admin section provides a great place to keep your pens or your tablet (there’s a fleecy soft sleeve), but nothing so perfect for your Leatherman or tourniquet. It does have room for them, of course, in three larger mesh pockets higher in the admin area, but the largest of the internal loops is only a couple of centimetres wide. The mesh pockets touching the body of the pack are different sizes and both fleece lined, making the larger of the two perfect for sunglasses. These are closed with a fold-over flap and I really like them, the feel secure and safe. The other mesh pocket (built into the zip-away flap) zips closed and has a key tether inside, and is pretty big. It’s big enough that it’s easy to drop things in and become a gear-soup, so I’ve had to be restrained in that regard. The zip for the admin compartment opens quite low on one side and so the lower space can be used for mid-sized items like a battery charger, keeping them safe and easy to access, albeit slightly loose.
The laptop compartment sits against your back and is generously padded on all sides, keeping the contents safe from the floor, objects elsewhere in the pack and other external collisions. There’s an additional feature in here that takes its queue from The North Face’s Access pack which debuted in 2016. The Access was something of a concept design with a lot of fancy features that didn’t work that well in practice – the store I visited didn’t even have them on display (although the salesperson offered to grab one ‘from the back’ if I wanted to take a look). One of the things that showed up in the Access was a series of ‘ejector tabs’ which would retrieve objects tucked away in pockets and lift them into the hand. The laptop compartment on the Kaban features one of those, a kind of cradle for your device that boosts it up to the opening of the pack. Basically, it works, but if it adds anything to the pack’s utility I’ve yet to find it. The same ejector feature pops up in the admin compartment, with a 10cm wide sleeve apparently designed for smartphones. Unfortunately, I almost never keep my phone in a bag. My girlfriend’s iPhone 5 disappears into the sleeve and only just appears when I pull the tab. It might make a good spot for an external hdd, and by chance I found it to be a perfect fit for my Monbento cutlery set, but even then the ejector tab isn’t something I feel it needs. Points to The North Face for innovation, shame about the application.
The features built into the Kaban are, therefore, hit and miss, but I do think they hit more often than not. It carries a day’s worth of kit comfortably, and in a way that makes everything easy to get at. It protects my laptop and other electronics really well and it looks cool as heck in the environment that it’s designed for. It’s also clearly part of a design continuum, taking elements from previous models, and no doubt influencing others to come. If you like the look of this pack but one detail is killing it for you, take a look next year.
The North Face are a huge brand by the standard of technical garments and gear, and as such they need to hit both the design needs and price point of a mass market. With that comes a degree of compromise and honestly, I can’t be too hard on TNF here. The materials aren’t top-of-the-range and this isn’t a world-changing pack, but the Kaban is a perfectly adequate piece of kit, with some nifty ideas thrown in.