If you’re reading this, you probably own a backpack or two. You probably have an idea of what you like, and which companies produce the bags you like. If your favourite brand is bringing out a new pack, you can probably guess how it’ll look and function, to some degree. Every so often though, you see a brand new design, from a new company, that makes you sit up and pay attention. Remote Equipment have done that – their first bag has just launched, and it’s called the Alpha 31.
The company may be new, but Remote Equipment aren’t novices. Based in Berkeley California, their founder Philip has over ten years working in design. The bag’s growth process, with decisions and various prototypes, has been proudly showcased via their Instagram over the past year. Anyone can see that Philip knows what he’s doing, and has turned around a product with a unique look, some killer materials, and an awesome set of features. The Alpha 31 is designed for urban ‘everyday’ use but built to travel, and to stand up to the elements when taking it outdoors. The result is a bag with a lot going on, that requires a lot of testing.
As I said, the Alpha 31 has a unique exterior; it’s a roll-top pack, with a zippered panel for front access… or rather, it’s a panel loader with a roll-up baffle at the top for expansion. Remote Equipment obviously considered the pros and cons of both, and decided not to compromise. In practice I used both of these openings equally – the panel was great for quick access or grabbing my lunchbox from the bottom of the pack; the roll-top got used when I was taking the time to fully load or unload the pack, or if I wanted to stuff my jacket in the top for a while. The pack rolls up or down easily, meaning I can take or leave an extra 5 litres where I need it.
The body of the pack is made from Dimension Polyant’s X51, which is a laminate using 1000d Cordura, plus extra reinforcements and polyester for water resistance. The result is a super cool fabric, originally designed for making sails, but is popping up more and more in the backpack market. This was the first time I had handled the stuff – it is fairly heavy and coarse to the touch – I love how stiff it feels, and consequently the bag holds its sewn shape pretty well even when empty. Weatherproofing is clearly a major consideration with the Alpha 31’s design – the zippers are either water resistant or covered with a generous flap. As a result, I was able to carry the bag out in rain and even heavy snow without any suggestion of seepage or moisture getting inside.
The pack arrived with me right before I was due to head out for the day. Rather than leaving it in its box I opened up the pack’s top, and dropped in my entire TAD Fastpack Litespeed, plus an additional litre of water, before dashing into town. The Alpha 31 fit my shoulders instantly – a quick zip of the strap adjustment was all it needed. Running jobs around town I was able to get in and out of my bag-within-bag easily, and then when I wanted to add some extra shopping (including a kilogram each of rice and peanut butter) I had no problem finding the space or carrying the weight.
The Alpha 31’s ability to carry weight has been, in my testing, consistently impressive. Shoulder straps are controversial, so I’m being serious when I write this: for this pack’s intended use, these are the best shoulder straps I have ever used. They are wide and flexible, with a good amount of firm padding built in. Through testing, I have carried the bag empty and under heavy loads (think canned food and milk), and the Alpha 31 has remained comfortable through all of it – not ‘adjustable yoke and padded belt’ comfortable, but with none of the hassle that comes with those things. Often a technical pack will be completely overkill for everyday use around town, since getting the thing on and off the body involves negotiating multiple buckles and half a dozen straps or pads. This pack has a sternum strap and an HDPE framesheet (both removable), which no doubt help enormously, but in my opinion, Remote Equipment have absolutely nailed it with the straps on this pack. I’d like the stitched loops on the end of the shoulder straps to be a little bigger… that’s level of nitpicking I’m having to stoop to, to find anything I actually want to change about the Alpha 31.
I have zero concerns about the durability of this pack, either. The materials are tough, all the hardware is premium quality with YKK zips and ITW buckles being used throughout. Remote Equipment have stated that the production model will feature additional bar-tacked stitching, and a slightly larger flap over the front zipper, but that no other changes to design or construction are anticipated. They will also be manufactured in the US, which means Phillip can visit the factory to inspect the build himself.
When worn the pack sits high and flat against the body, with the frame-sheet resting evenly. This makes it stable and comfortable for cycling, but gives it the potential to overheat against the back – in practice, I didn’t find it any more sweaty than flat Airmesh; a little moisture is a less a negative than just a reality as far as packs go. Taking the Alpha 31 out in the hills, it handled the load and activity well enough, if not as comfortably as a purpose-built hiking pack. I think for many folks, having one bag for work, travel and leisure will be worth the slight compromise.
With my daily work or school load, the Alpha 31 is great. It’s a little bigger than I’d usually roll with – when it needs to, the pack fills out to 36L, and I could easily get a weekend away out of it. With compression it can easily become much smaller, but even then it’s a little large for casual ‘see what happens’ loads. Fortunately, the stiffness of the material keeps the bag structured when empty.
In terms of organisation, there is a small pocket at the top, right behind the wearer’s head, which is the right size for a passport or a wallet. The front of the pack features a pair of tubular pockets, each with a zip on each side. These look quite distinctive – I had a friend ask if I was carrying a lifejacket on the front of my bag – but have a decent capacity. For long items like an umbrella or bike pump they’re great; they also work well for stuffing in hats and gloves. For small objects like pens, multitools or chapstick, the pockets’ length runs the risk of them falling into a gear soup in the bottom – one thing missing from the Alpha 31 is an admin section with slots or loops for organisation, although this is quickly remedied with a pouch or organiser.
I initially thought these tube pockets would be used to store bottles, but the pack actually has two side pockets which are better for this role. When empty, they are so low profile that they disappear against the pack, but being made from stretch-woven material means they can comfortably accommodate large bottles. In addition, a sewn pleat at the bottom means that the pocket will naturally flatten when empty, and fold underneath the bottle when full. They’re easy to use with one hand, and steal no space from inside the pack when filled. The Alpha 31 has made bottle pockets the way they should be, and I want these on all my packs, from now on.
Also on the outside of the pack are two generous grab handles near the top, and two more webbing loops lower down that are meant for holding ice tools or walking poles (they’ll interface with included shock-cord lengths mid-way up). I didn’t test this feature once and I don’t know how much winter mountaineering my Alpha 31 will see, but I bet these loops would be good for holding a camera tripod. If not, the shock-cord is simple to remove, and the other loops make for another spot to pull your bag off the luggage rack. Between them is one extra tab for mounting a bike light or a reflector.
Internally, much of the Alpha 31 is one big space, with a white lining to aid visibility. It drops into a bucket at the bottom which is easy to get at via the front panel. The inner side of that panel features a flat mesh pocket which is a few millimetres too narrow for an A4 pad. Against the back of this main compartment is a laptop sleeve, made of the same stretchy material as the bottle pockets, which will double for carrying a hydration bladder.
The sleeve fully swallows my slender 13” Chromebook, and would safely hold a much bigger machine. The sleeve will keep a laptop separate from other contents and raised slightly off the ground but doesn’t offer much else in the way of protection, in which case I’ve opted to use a padded case for my computer inside this pack. Above it is a subtle hanging loop and hydration port; this uses more stretch material to close fully when not in use, again preventing water ingress. Lastly, the sleeve itself has a dedicated zip which runs up the side of the pack, allowing the user to draw from it without going through the roll top opening, which works very well.
If you can’t tell, I really like this pack. It’s comfortable, looks cool, and has stood up to whatever I’ve thrown at it. Of course, no pack can do every job; there are folks for whom the Alpha 31 will be too big, or lack a feature that they really need, but for me, there’s nothing I hate about this pack and a lot that I love. There are aspects of this design that are simply excellent, and I can’t wait to see what else the mind behind it will produce. For me, Remote Equipment’s first pack is a winner.
The pack provided by Remote Equipment for review is a pre-production sample of their recently launched Kickstarter.