I'm not nice to my gear.

2016 Update: I revisited this review after a year and a half of putting the Pelican through all of the pain I’d anticipated, and then some. Read the eighteen month review here.

I’m rough on my gear. I’ve been a digital nomad for four years as of 2015, traveling in and around India, and for several years before that I was loosely based in Chicago but actually working out of, say, a tent on the beach on the Pacific coast highway using wifi powered by the motorcycle parked nearby. I tend to invest in gear that lets me pack light, lasts forever, and is reasonably portable.

I recently picked up a 13 inch Macbook Air as a portable development system. It’s light enough that I can toss it in a folio case and work out of a coffee shop, a client’s office, or a hammock on the beach for a day, but also powerful enough that I don’t feel I’m compromising when it comes to getting code written. Unfortunately, Macbooks these days are significantly daintier than they used to be six or seven years ago, and it’s pretty obvious this one’s going to need to be treated with care if I want it to last.

I was looking for the perfect backpack to go with it. Primarily, I wanted something that is:

  • Small enough to work as an airline carry-on for upcoming work trips to London, Mexico, Chicago, and San Francisco.
  • Large enough to pack for all of those climates, and to carry everything I'd need to learn muay thai in Bangkok or Phuket for a month.
  • Indestructable enough to handle rough motorcycle travel in India, ranging from short rides in heavy, dusty traffic to weekend getaways in torrential downpours during the monsoon months to three month expeditions through high altitude mountain passes.
<img src="/img/pelican-s100-backpack-review.jpg" alt="Pelican S100 backpack, in black."
Image courtesy pelicancases.com.

First things first: the S100 is a very well-constructed backpack. If this is your first step up from the el cheapo backpack you’ve been tossing your laptop in since high school, it’s a very, very big step. Waterproof zippers, wide and very comfy shoulder straps, and that insane waterproof, dustproof, nukeproof laptop case are all features you didn’t know you needed, but will find it very difficult to do without once you’ve spent a few days with the S100. If you need to write code during the apocalypse, this is your bugout bag. (Note: If you also need to take artsy photographs of the apocalypse, you should check out the S130, which includes a DSLR compartment. I chose the S100 because I wanted the extra space, and don’t see myself lugging a DSLR around in the forseeable future.)

As Carry-On Luggage

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: As echoed by reviewers everywhere, the S100 is a extremely well suited for air travel.

As expected, the backpack offered the most reassuring level of laptop protection I’ve come across. The 13 inch Macbook Air fits perfectly. I was even able to fit the Air inside while inside a leather bound Cartella case from Pad & Quill (it’s snug, with the second case).

Flights are where the S100 really shines. It fits into the overhead compartment, fits under the seat in front of you (but this will leave you with little, if any legroom), and so far Indian airline staff don’t seem to have a problem with taking it in as a carryon. I’m used to traveling light, and the main compartment will easily hold everything I’d need for a weekend or week-long trip. With uber-nomadic packing and perhaps one smaller bag, I figure I could get a month-long trip out of it as well, but at that point I’m straining the limits of what airlines allow as carry-on luggage, not this bag in particular. And I love that the Pad & Quill folio case fits inside the armored laptop section; this means it’s very possible to leave the S100 at a friend’s place or a hotel room and just wander out with the laptop to a coffee shop when it’s work time.

The Pad & Quill and the S100 are the perfect combination if your travel plans involve flights, coffee shops, and a Macbook Air.

As Motorcycle Gear

Motorcycles and backpacks are almost never a good combination. Carrying weight on your back while riding is a good recipe for backaches, and it pretty much guarantees you’re not going to be riding any 1,000 mile days. Most of us ride because we love riding, and not merely for transportation; anything that interferes with enjoying a ride tends to be immediately disqualified as motorcycle gear. Any lightweight backpack is fine if you’re commuting to an office, but who commutes or has an office these days?

I did one ride with the S100 mostly empty (about 200 miles) and another 50 mile round trip on a dusty, potholed road stuck in bumper to bumper Calcutta traffic with the backpack fully loaded (Macbook Air, tools, motorcycle headlight parts, an external hard drive, and random odds and ends). On both trips, I noticed:

  • The S100 is much easier to wear on the bike than I'd worried it would be. It doesn't "feel" as heavy as you think it will.
  • The waist belt really makes a difference when walking. Putting the weight at my hips takes (most of) my spine out of the load equation, and makes it much easier to carry this thing. I'm looking forward to trying it out on a longer walk / hike somewhere.
  • The S100's hard case is surprisingly comfortable against the back padding on a motorcycle jacket (I'm wearing a Tourmaster Flex Series 2 at the moment).
  • I sweated to death, but I sweat constantly in India, because...well, India.
  • This is very personal: On bikes like the KTM Duke with a slightly raised passenger seat, the bag sits on the seat, and the hard case means the weight doesn't hang off your shoudlers. This is awesome. I'm 5'9" and about 210. Your mileage will vary.

I’m confident that this is as close to India-proof as laptop transportation is going to get, without hindering my mobility much. While I’ll also have luggage strapped to the bike for longer expeditions, the S100 is certainly going to be doing its share of motorcycle duty.

So, Where Am I Not Taking It?

This is the part I found missing from most online reviews for the S100, and it meant that I didn’t have a complete sense of where it would fit into my travel arsenal till I’d already bought one and had a friend bring it out to Calcutta for me. Now that I’ve had it a couple of months, I find that I never reach for the S100 when:

  • I'm running out to stock up on Monster or beer.
  • I'm picking up food from a restaurant. I frequently get takeout from one of my favorite places when I know I'm in for a long coding session at home.
  • When I'm heading to the gym or pool.
  • When I'm taking a bottle or two of wine to a friend's place.

Sure, I could lug it to all of those places, but I find myself reaching for an old Dell or Lenovo backpack every time. In other words, for pretty much any errand where I’m not carrying a laptop and need a bag, I grab something lighter. The S100 is overkill for light, non-laptop travel. It’s not going to replace your entire backpack collection, unless you’re a true digital nomad and can only have one or two bags.

That said, would I buy another one? Nope, but only because I expect this one to last forever. Highly recommended. I’ll keep this review updated if that changes after I’ve put a few more miles on this particular gear combination.