The North Face's brand new Access Pack is all about getting to your gear more efficiently. It trades away two zippers for a quick-release, quick-access clip that opens up the main compartment with a single flick, making it easy to get at your stuff when you need it.
This article was originally published on March 21.
What Is It?
Trying to hurriedly stuff a backpack with everything you need before heading out the door is made difficult when you don't have a free hand to hold the thing open. So The North Face has replaced the zipper on the main compartment of its new Access Pack with a rigid pop-open panel that remains wide open as you fill it.
The Access Pack is sold in a black-on-black and a grey-on-black finish in Australia, with both priced identically at $350. One is sold as a women's variant and one a men's, but both are broadly similar: the women's pack seems to have slightly thinner shoulder straps and a higher chest strap, but frankly I think's the more attractive of the two.
There are two metal components of the Access that work together to keep your gear safe on your commute and also make it easy to... access... at the same time. The first is an internal aluminium frame that keeps the entire pack rigid at all four of the corners where it meets your upper and lower back. The second is a spring steel outer shell, which concertinas up and out of the way whenever you pull the tab on the Access's top.
That single quick-access clip replaces the set of zippers for the entire main compartment, and allows access to 6 of the Access's 10 compartments; two of the others are kangaroo pouches on the outer shell, while the other two are the padded laptop compartment. Most of the compartments are big enough to fit, say, a can of Coke -- they're around twenty centimetres long with around ten by ten centimetres of storage room.
There are a few that are smaller, of course, and a few that are shaped differently. In the phone, tablet and laptop compartments there are elasticated toggles that you can pull to lift said electronic device up and out of the bag to grab more easily -- I usually hate these and think they're unnecessary, but on the Access they're incredibly well designed, robust, and actually do the job they're meant to.
What's It Like?
Once a brand tailored to those who'd rather spend their weekends exploring the great outdoors than bingeing on Netflix, The North Face is now creating packs designed for those who only ever hike to work.
To be honest, the Access Pack takes a little bit of use to really get to grips with. It's a backpack with a learning curve. Not the access part of it -- that's super simple, simpler than tugging on a zipper. No, it's the fact that the Access has, by my count, 10 different compartments for you to choose between -- including the cavernous main space -- to store your gear.
If you don't use each compartment to its utmost, you're wasting space in the Access. Because it's a rigid pack, there's no wiggle room in stuffing one compartment over another; you have to put your biggest items in the main compartment, and then work your way backwards from laptop to sunglasses in descending order. It takes a bit of practice, but at least you always know exactly where everything is. And the laptop compartment's secondary zippered area is the perfect place to store a charger.
But once you do learn to drive it, the Access is a brilliant piece of kit. It's so well constructed, from that genuinely useful spring-loaded clip to the waterproof seal on the zippered laptop compartment to the strategic padding on the shoulder straps and backpiece. The clip is much easier to use than a zipper, and it means that when your pack is sitting next to you at your workdesk -- as mine is right now -- you can reach down with one hand, open it and get out whatever you're looking for without significant effort.
That main space is best used for the bulkiest of whatever you're carrying -- think a couple of DSLR cameras with lenses attached, or an oversized lunch box, or a six pack of beer, all of which you could throw a spare T-shirt and socks and undies in on top of. The Access is equally capable as an overnight bag as it is a commuter's pack, if you're strategic about how you pack it. Use all its many compartments to your advantage.
Being a semi-hardshell backpack like it is, the Access can't be stuffed with gear or clothing like a completely soft backpack might. You have to work within its confines, which means packing it can sometimes feel like you're playing Tetris. But there's that one extremely valuable trade-off in the fact that, once you stash something away in the Access, it's safe from harm -- from anything less than a truck running it over.
It's also worth considering that the Access is quite a heavy backpack; it's definitely heavier than some of its formless I have a Goruck GR1 as my everyday bag, and while it's not rigid like the Access, it does open further for flat packing, and it's a fair whack lighter while still using tough materials. Your mileage may vary, but as a general rule you'll have to compromise on weight if you want something strong, and the Access is definitely stronger than it is light.
And one other consideration: maybe it's because there isn't a pair of zippers on the main compartment, but I could really notice the two metal, un-wrapped zippers on the laptop compartment jangling as I walked around with this particular backpack on.. If I hold on to the Access Pack, I'll wrap them with some electrical tape or heatshrink to silence them.
Should You Buy It?
If you don't haul a phenomenal amount of luggage to work on a daily basis -- I'd say a laptop (obviously), lunch box, tablet or a couple of phones, and maybe a change of clothes or a lightweight jacket on top -- then the Access will suit your everyday carry needs perfectly. If you're looking for something that's incredibly sturdy as commuter backpacks go, but that also has a dose of convenience. If you're forever ducking into your bag -- for laptop or phone or wallet or whatever -- the Access's quick release has real utility.
Otherwise, the main appeal of the Access is the fact that it's an incredibly well constructed backpack. This is a piece of luggage that will last long after your laptop, or tablet, or pretty much whatever you choose to store in it does. If you buy one, you'll be buying something that sticks around with you for a long time -- which should make your demands of it even more important.