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Backpacks For Weary Backs

As CE devices continue to shrink while adding computing power, the logical assumption is that carrying your gear around should be getting easier. Nothing could be further from the truth for this reporter. Smaller hardware just gives me license to carry more devices.

On any given day I’m lugging back and forth to work my (admittedly outdated and heavy) laptop, an iPad Mini, my 160GB iPod, smartphone, DSLR,  digital voice recorder, vintage Flip video camera, assorted chargers and card readers, batteries, and a few magazines or a book (yes, the paper variety, sue me).

Unfortunately, my 46-year-old back strains under all that weight and two hours of commuting to New York each day, and the occasional sciatica flare-up is inevitable. When my doctor told me I should switch to a backpack instead of a briefcase I reached out to my friends in the industry and spent about six months on a quest to find a more commuting-friendly solution. Well, after testing six models from six companies the verdict is in. I settled on two different models I love, for different reasons.

The Airbac Air Tech was designed specifically to lessen back strain. The full-size (some might say giant) backpack uses a patented, built-in air cushion to both protect gear inside as well as alleviate back stress. A lumbar air bladder is inflated to spread the weight of the bag’s load more evenly across the back, with the majority of the weight distributed to the core muscles of the hips and waist, resting on the top of the wearer’s gluteal muscles. In addition, the cushion absorbs shock from each step.

I put the Airbac through the ultimate test, a trip to International CES in January, loaded to the gills with gear. It’s not unusual to walk five miles a day at the show, and the Airbac made each step a little easier. In fact, I felt like the Airbac had a positive effect on my posture, pulling my shoulders back as I walked without adding strain to my lower back. The Airbac’s air pocket also seemed to gradually adjust to the shape of my back over time, to the point where it got more comfortable as the week went on. I returned home from the show back-pain free, even after the red-eye.

Other features I liked: the extra-cushioned straps, a top handle and plenty of outside pockets, including a dedicated smartphone pocket.

One thing I missed: It’s not Checkpoint Friendly.

Biggest drawback: The bag packs some serious bulk, and especially on days when I’m traveling lighter, perhaps sans DSLR and laptop, it can be a beast on a crowded subway. While you can deflate the air cushion pretty easily and then pump it back up, it’s not something I’m likely to do every other day, which led me to the Hercules Laptop Backpack K7 from ECBC. 

The Hercules is described as a medium-size bag for laptops up to 17 inches, but there is nothing medium about it. It packs almost as much storage space as the Airbac but with a leaner footprint.

It boasts six front pockets, including a fleece-line smartphone pocket, a compartmentalized accessories pocket and a very convenient “front ticket” pocket. Pockets on either side are sized for beverage bottles or a folding umbrella. I love the layout.

While the air-mesh straps are less cushioned than the Airbac’s, the Hercules can claim comfortable cushioned upper back and lumbar pads, and the foldout TSA-compliant FastPass compartment holds a laptop and a tablet on opposite sides, a nice touch.

The Hercules features some premium touches such as a Kodra exterior with a water-repellant coating, water-resistant YKK zippers, an adjustable sternum strap and a 210-denier Double Diamond RipStop lining.

Loaded down with a large load of gear, the Hercules stays nice and rigid along the back, but doesn’t come close to the comfort of the fully loaded Airbac.

In the end, I have settled into a routine. On normal heavy gear days, or for an overnight or weekend trip, I carry the Airbac, with storage room to spare. When leanness counts, like when I’m also rolling a suitcase or lucky enough not to have to bring my laptop home for a stretch, or on especially foul weather days, I switch to the Hercules. I am likely to stick with both as long as they last.

The Airbac Air Tech retails for $89.99 and comes in seven colors. It is available from Adorama, and Sears, among others.

ECBC’s Hercules K7 has a suggested retail of $139 and is available in five colors. Last week it rolled out to

Airbac Air Tech:

ECBC’s Hercules K7: