Defy Bucktown (First Generation): Review

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Sometimes it takes an adventure to breathe new life into an old bag. I’ve had the Defy Bucktown in my closet for several months, and used it only sparingly. Primarily, I carry messenger bags or briefcases, and, when I do carry a backpack, have had good luck with the modular Mission Workshop systems like the R4 or R6. I haven’t used something as “simple” as the Bucktown, with its two-pocket layout and no-frills exterior, in quite a while.

Yet something about the Bucktown, named after a neighborhood in Chicago, seemed right for my honeymoon adventure to Mexico City (“CDMX”). Its lack of exterior, backward-facing zippers (now present on the newest generation of the bag, albeit only on the leather-less models) added some security from wandering hands in big crowds. The interior is spacious (it can readily carry my casebooks and lunch, when toted to school), but carries small, so it didn’t feel out of placing for a trek across town, or to Teotihuacán, the ancient Mesoamerican pyramid site. It also carries remarkably comfortable in a variety of climates. Owing to its altitude, Mexico City may have you starting the day in a jacket and pants at 40° F, sweating it during midday with temperatures touching 85°, and cool you off by evening with overnight lows below 40°. Backpacks can be sweaty – there aren’t a ton of ways around this – but I’ve had very good luck with the Bucktown in this regard. To its credit, the Bucktown also looks quite professional – I wouldn’t hesitate to carry it into a more formal office setting, though I haven’t yet had the chance.

Defy Mfg. Co. (or “Defy Bags”) is located in Ravenswood, Chicago, IL, and all of their stuff is made locally by a small team. I live close to their showroom and have been by a few times, and through the course of accumulating and trading packs, have tried quite a few of their offerings. They also have a resident dog, Otis; a massive Bernese Mountain Dog who, in truth, was the cause for my first visit to the shop. Otis is a certified good boy. Ad-man-turned-creative Chris Tag leads the small company; in my few run-ins with Chris, he seems like an authentic (and hard-working, if not overworked) guy, and was always willing to stop his project to answer my questions.

Across the board, the build quality (sewing, stitching, and overall construction) of Defy’s packs is top-notch. In hauling gear to work, to school, or for a week away, I’ve never doubted the ability of the pack to make it through. The layout of their bags, for the most part, is also a strongpoint. Some backs lack padded laptop compartments, which baffles me for anything that isn’t a pure (bike-oriented) messenger or minimal EDC, but fortunately on their newer offerings (Epic, Recon Mashup, Menace), it seems like padding is back in.

The only element of Defy’s lineup I’ve had trouble with in the past – though thus far not in this case, fortunately – is the tarpaulin material. At their onset, Defy Mfg. Co. made the majority of their bags out of “M35 military tarp” – an understated, black-green, plastic-y material that often looks like leather, and is recycled, so they say, from military truck coverings. The problem, not the fault of Defy, but rather a consequence of the material, is that bending and creasing the fabric to create a non-truck shape, as is required to craft a messenger bag or backpack, can cause the material to become brittle, and crack more readily than would, for example, waxed canvas. Defy acknowledges this. They even carve out their warranty to specify that normal wear-and-tear on the M35 is expected, and those who need bags to look and act as new should opt for a different material. And, again to Defy’s credit, the one time I have requested warranty-service on an M35-made pack, they’ve covered it for free. Still, on bag that by design continually folds on a certain point when held over a shoulder (check your daily carry, you’ll start to notice this), the wear can accumulate quickly. Where does this lead? The Bucktown I carried to CDMX is made of the tarpaulin material. In the week of travel, plus the handful of times I’ve used it before, I’ve noticed no issues, but I just wanted to leave a cautionary note that I much prefer Defy’s waxed canvas, with which I’ve had great luck, or ballistic nylon, both of which are equally handsome, and considerably more durable. Or, if it fits your lifestyle, and your budget, the Horween leather offerings, also sourced in Chicago, are absolutely beautiful pieces.

Tech Specs

MetricImperial
Length30.48 cm12″
Width48.26 cm19”
Height15.24 cm6”
Weight1.13 kg2.5 lbs
Capacity23 L1404 cu. in.

Quality and Comfort

Carrying the Bucktown about Mexico City was a joy, even when the act of walking was not (my wife and I took quite ill in the latter part of our trip). The bag that once housed gear for a day around town, with room for souvenirs or locally-crafted goods to spare, now housed seis botellas de agua, Anti-Flu Des, y muchas Kleenex.

But even in more usual use cases, I’ve found the Bucktown to be especially useful. As a law student, my daily carry includes large textbooks (“casebooks”), a laptop and all the requisite dongles in 2019, a lunch, water bottle, snacks, a pullover, and more. All of it carries easily, and hardly protrudes or creates an uncomfortable load. Other reviews and users I’ve chatted with took issue with the leather strap “anchors” that rest at your stomach when you’re carrying the pack and can, in theory, cause discomfort when pressed tightly. I haven’t had any issues and I’ve carried about as much as I ever will in this bag, but it may be worth testing out before purchase if you get a chance. These have been reworked on the newer version of the backpack.

Also featured here is somewhat of Defy’s other, other signature material, which is seatbelt webbing. Seatbelt webbing has become increasingly common on bags, to mixed results: it makes for nice strap and accessories (as we see on, for example, a Mission Workshop Rummy or the pen loops on a Defy Recon), but also has a tendency to pill, isn’t particularly soft, and doesn’t look overly professional. On the Bucktown, it’s done well – the seatbelt that forms the handle is firm without being overly constructed, and works well for toting the bag as needed. There’s also seatbelt lining the exterior of the water bottle pockets and shoulder straps, also bearing matte black steel D-rings.

Organization

The Bucktown can fit up to a 15″ laptop in a nicely padded sleeve, has internal pen loops, a study metal key-clip, and 4 perfectly-sized pockets. Two in the rear compartment for phones (including my far-too-massive iPhone 8+), notebooks, e-readers, or even the occasional Nintendo Switch, and two in the front compartment for slightly smaller accessories like wallets, business cards, mints, and more. All these nooks and crannies are lined with 500D Cordura.

Both external zippers are YKK, and I suspect #10, from experience. They’re large, chunky, and oh-so-smooth. Really a nice addition to a bag that is, by nature, zipper-driven. The front-most zipper (further from the body, when carried) opens the smaller of the two compartments. This pocket has dimension, but not much depth; I’ve used the loose space to carry my gear pouch (I hear packs-within-packs are all the rage these days?), my sunglasses, and a snack or two. The loose space in the rear clamshell has significantly more space, and that’s where I carry the bulk of my things, including textbooks, lunch, headphones, and more.

What’s Perfect

  • Size. The Bucktown is the perfect size for my everyday, and even non-everyday, carry. It can be used as a weekend pack, if necessary, but is certainly trim enough to take on an errand run, or blend in at the office.
  • Looks. Aesthetically, the Bucktown is also a win. The M35 tarp, which is not perfect, does provide a smooth, almost leather-like look that really makes this bag “fit” with a lot of different looks. I wouldn’t hesitate to bring it to a law firm, nor carry it around Mexico City.
  • Layout. Finally, the organization on this pack is a major plus. There are some carriers who live by the laissez faire school of thought and think an open bag with no pockets is a blank canvas. Not me. In the Bucktown, I had my Kindle, passport, laptop, iPhone, wallet, pens, and keys all securely adhered in their own pocket, readily accessible, but safe inside the bag. For me, that’s perfection.

What’s Not

  • Quick-Access. For a trip to an unfamiliar place, I was happy to sacrifice convenience for security – but for everyday use, I imagine the updated version of the Bucktown, with its quick-access pockets, is an upgrade. I end up going in and out of my packs a lot to fetch my wallet, highlighter, Student ID, or iPhone, and having some of those be just a little closer would be a nice touch.
  • Water Bottle Holders. My only other quibbles with the bag, that do not appear fixed in the newer iteration, are the side-mounted water bottle pockets. When you’re carrying a packed Bucktown, it is difficult to carry even a smaller, 16-ounce water bottle, and a 32-ounce will almost never fit. Of course, these can be carried internally, but a slight widening of the exterior compartments would bring a large benefit to the overall utility of the pack.

Wrap Up

Unlike cell phones, automobiles, or televisions, backpacks aren’t really something that, upon release of a new model, become drastically cheaper. In fact, I don’t know of anywhere readily selling the first-generation Bucktown in the United States. But, should you come across a used model on eBay, Craigslist, or The Perfect Pack, I can wholeheartedly recommend it and, having used more than a few of Defy’s packs in the recent past, I feel confident recommending the updated version as well. It’s well made, like everything from Defy’s shop, but really feels genuine and unique. It stands out by blending in, and while it doesn’t do much (hey, there aren’t too many things to do with only two pockets!), it does it really, really well.

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