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A Review: Carrying half a cow, the saddleback waterbag

I recently purchased a new piece of luggage. I’m traveling a lot more than usual this year and needed something a little more versatile than my existing rolling bag.

As stated in a previous post, I’m not a big fan of rolling bags. I think our reliance on convenience has led many of us to underestimate our potential. Biking 20 miles, doing a pull up, running a 5k, or carrying a 15 lbs piece of luggage 1 mile through the airport are all attainable by any reasonably committed individual. In any case, my stubborn insistence that not everything in life should be easy led me toward a piece of carry on luggage that favored utility, durability, and style over convenience. Carry on here is used in the literal sense, in that I would “carry it”.  The piece in question ended up being a Saddleback Leather Waterbag. I spent a week trying to decide between the Waterbag and the Duffle bag, and eventually settled on the Waterbag. I felt the layout of the bag was more flexible and would enable me to stick with it as my primary travel bag in more situations. It has a high degree of expandability as well as flexibility. What follows are my impression after traveling to Orlando Florida for a 4 day business trip.

The waterbag sitting on my ottoman

Durability and Style:
The bag performed admirably. It’s rugged and durable. I don’t feel like the bag needs to be babied. If it’s dropped or drug, the resulting scuff marks only serves to make the bag look more remarkable. In most cases you can simply brush the dirt off and the bags inner beauty starts to shine through. It’s made from one single piece of leather, with only one major seam. It looks like it might require an entire cow to get this one piece of leather.

The curve in the major seam on the front of the bag serves as a nice stylistic touch. It adds a big of organic flow to the design. Saddleback has done a good job of letting the leather speak for itself. There is very little in the way of adornment on this bag. Everything other than the swoop of the stitching is functional first, and stylish due to it’s rugged form-follows-function design principals.

I went with the Dark Coffee brown color to match my messengers bag and the color is deep and rich. Since Saddleback uses leather that is dyed all the way through scratches don’t show up nearly as bad as with cheaper leather. My messengers bag has lightened up some in color over the last few years, but the weathering is showing up more where the leather is stretching some based on how I’m using it. It’s not a negative though, the resulting color shifts in the leather give the bags character, not at all like the cheaper leather bags often used as laptop cases.


The backpack configuration is great for higher mileage or heavier weight.

I appreciate the flexibility built into the size of the bag. There are two rigid inserts that come with the bag, one that is 6 inches tall, and another that is 9 inches tall. I only needed 4 changes of clothes and was able to fit all of those in the bag as well as 50 or so product brochures for the trade show I was attending. while using the 6 inch insert and with room to spare. The bag can be flipped from an “over the shoulder” configuration, to a backpack. If the load starts to get heavy, this is the best way to travel without wheels and without destroying your back.

I wrapped the center strap over the top handle and used the attached leather handle to carry the bag when it wasn’t slung over my shoulder.  This is the same way it is setup in the picture above. In this configuration the bag is fairly watertight. On my walk home during an unexpected 60mph wind storm that everything inside stayed dry. My jeans however were another story.

If water-resistance isn’t an issue changing the bag to use the 9 inch insert and leaving the top a little less tightly sealed I could easily fit 6-7 days worth of clothes in this bag, enough to travel for a week or so by myself or 3-4 days with a friend.

I didn’t have an opportunity to try it in the  backpack configuration. I almost always use my messengers bag in this configuration and once you get comfortable swinging it over your shoulder it is actually quite convenient. It’s worth noting that the included strap is a little short in the backpack configuration and might not be suitable for larger guys.

On my way through security I definitely felt rushed trying to unbuckle all three straps. In the future I will unstrap the 2 outside straps while in line. As the leather softens this will get easier as well. When the leather is stiff it can be a little tricky to get it the straps buckled. My messengers bag suffered from the same problem for the first few months.

On this most recent trip I also traveled with my messengers bag, and in the future I am going to avoid that. With a few additional pouches for my laptop and other assorted tech gadgets the waterbag would have had plenty of room and the simplicity would have been welcome.  Trying to carry both the waterbag and the messengers bag ended up being a bit of a juggling challenge. Using the messengers bag in the backpack configuration and slinging the waterbag over my shoulder was doable, but a bit tricky at times. Next time I will likely setup the waterbag as the backpack and carry the messengers bag by hand.

The main drawback of the bag is really the weight. If you are going to consider carrying this bag be prepared to build up a few calluses in the process. The bag didn’t end up feeling as heavy as I had feared. The external handle is a little firm and I’m hoping it will soften up over time. That said, I often slung it over my shoulder.


What’s next:
With the various buckles and d-rings riveted to the bag I’m excited to strap it on the back of the motorcycle for a weekend trip. Even in the rolled configuration it has more storage space than the top case I usually have on the motorcycle. I’ll probably bring a plastic bag to use in case of a downpour, but the bag is waterproof enough that it should survive the occasional squall.

This is a great bag, and so far I’m thrilled with my purchase.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Todd #

    Did you purchase the Medium or Large Water bag?

    May 14, 2012
    • Back when I ordered there was only one size. Pretty sure it lines up with the large sized bag. Perfectly sized for a 3 day trip for 2.

      May 23, 2012
  2. eric #

    Nice article. Few questions for me.

    One, how do you strap it to your motorcycle? This is something I am very interested in as well. I have a Suzuki sv650s though – a naked sportsbike, and while I think it would look fine on my bike because it’s at least half-naked, I think that the waterbag generally doesn’t look as good on a crotch rocket. This seems like a bag for a cruiser or cafe racer especially. I’m guessing that’s what you have.

    What I’m most curious about is how you decided between the waterbag, duffel, and sidepocket duffel. I really like all three. The duffel is simplest, cheapest, and easiest to access stuff (seems like). The sidepocket duffel is very handsome, but reviews say it may be a pain to get into. The waterbag is the most multi-functional and unique maybe, but it is also the most expensive. I have spent countless hours comparing and reading views and watching videos to try to decide between the sidepocket duffel and waterbag. What are you thoughts and how did you decide? Or did you just happen across one and buy it without wasting as much time as me researching?

    Also, is that a large or medium, and how did you decide? I read varying things about whether the large can pass as a carryon. I do a lot of international travel so I’m leaning towards the medium.

    Also, color. I own a large classic briefcase in chestnut and love it. It’s what got me hooked on Saddleback. Your waterbag looks like its chestnut. I am torn between getting all chestnut products so everything I have matches as a set, or getting the waterbag/one of the duffels in tobacco. The new tobacco color looks gorgeous too. How did you decide and any comments on the color?

    Also, on the waterbag, all the videos I watches seem to show that it’s easy to “fold” the bag and tie/cinch it down to look like the bag does in the above picture. However when you “roll” it like those water-tight bags they use on the Deschutes river (I grew up in Oregon and can relate to Dave’s story about being amazed by those bags while rafting as a child) it becomes a crumpled, misshapen bag with very little storage space. Can you “roll” your bag like you do on one of those water-tight bags and still have it look like it does in your awesome pic above, or does yours also turn into a potato chip bag?

    Last question, most people say its around 10 lbs empty. That seems to pose a problem for international travel where they weigh your carry-on in South America where I am currently. As in you couldn’t stuff much more in there or it would get too heavy in a jiffy. I’m fine with lugging around a heavy bag as I’m large enough to handle it, but this is tough to throw down the cash on this bag when my Tumi continental tegris-lite two-wheeled carry-on is so light and indestructible and fast. It seems like the waterbag would be so much more cumbersome.

    Anyways, long post, lost of questions! Thanks for writing the article.

    October 5, 2013
    • Hi Eric,

      1. I strap it to the motorcycle using a couple of bungee cords,nothing complicated, just being careful about strapping it down using some of the D-Rings and strapping across multiple directions.

      2. I did spend a lot of time researching. I mainly choose the waterbag because it converted into a backpack and if I was walking a couple miles I wanted to be able to more easily carry the bag. That and the flexible sizing had me convinced I would use it more often since it will shrink for a few day trip, or expand if I’m going to be gone for a week. Sometimes I will pack both my and my wifes clothes into it, leave the top open and just carry it into a hotel from the car, which is fine in many situations and avoids bringing multiple bags.

      3.Pretty sure it’s the Large, they didn’t have different sizes at the time, but it compares to the sizing of the large bag.

      4. Color is purely personal preference. I liked the chestnut and it matches my existing messengers bag. I do feel a little dorky having “matched” luggage, but I always get comments going through the airport. Usually from flight attendants and TSA agents that have seen a ton of bags.

      5. Rolling is great and works really well, however the bag isn’t waterproof. I would say it will survive great if you are out walking in the rain, but a torrential downpour or riding with it strapped to a motorcycle in the rain will definitely get things wet. If you absolutely need something 100% waterproof you’ll need to get something cheaper and technical that will only last a few years but be 100% waterproof during that time. I’ve never noticed a potato chip style issue when rolling the bag. I didn’t do anything tricky when rolling the bag above.

      6. I never check this bag, don’t trust the airlines enough. If it’s fully packed it won’t fit in an overhead, but it usually will, and if it’s mostly filled with clothes I can usually squeeze it into most airplanes.

      Final note, you don’t buy an awesome bag like this because it’s light and easy to roll around. Build up some calluses, and carry your weight.

      October 11, 2013
  3. Nice review of the waterbag, I would like to own one someday, I have a couple Saddleback Leather items, like the wallet and a small bag and love them, they are great and high quality and worth the price. PEACE! Erik

    April 21, 2015
  4. Alex #

    Great review! Just an FYI for potential buyers: This is a Medium Water Bag. You can tell because the removable handle clasps are on the OUTSIDE of the left and right straps. On the Large bag, the clasps on directly on the INSIDE of those straps. Also, Saddleback has never made the Large version backpack compatible. I hope this helps!

    February 28, 2016

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