We’re going to be taking a look today at the Navigator 32L Travel Backpack from Nomatic to see how it stacks up as a one-size-fits-all gear-carrying option for weekday bike commuting and weekend getaways. What’s the short answer? Well, when I opened the shipping box on this backpack, my first thought was that the Navigator was the single most premium item of luggage that I’d ever set eyes on. In the course of the field testing that I’ve done on the Navigator, I haven’t changed my mind about it – this pack is awesome. Sure, there’s a couple negatives that we’ll discuss in a moment (it’s not the lightest bag and it’s not the cheapest) but these are just blown out the water by the points in its favor.
I’ve owned a lot of backpacks in my time. Many of them I’ve owned at the SAME time. This has not only created issues with closet space, but it’s also caused dilemmas (and the creation of many mental ‘pros and cons’ lists) in trying to decide which is the right one for a particular activity. This all came to a head recently when I was trying to slim down my selection and choose one pack that could do double duty for both my commuting and for shortish business or vacation trips of up to a week.
Trouble was that none of the bags I had felt right. Each of them was okayish in some respects but fell down dismally on many others.
And then Nomatic got in touch and suggested I give the Navigator a try out.
Let’s take a close look at the details.
“the Navigator is the single most premium item of luggage that I’ve ever set eyes on”
What do Nomatic say about the Navigator 32L Travel backpack
“built to maximize how and what you carry on your back”
“maximum carry on space but comfort and support to lighten the load”
“32L to 41L expansion this bag can pack up to 5 days’ worth of clothing and a 17″ laptop”
“This bag was built to last, with durable water-resistant materials this is the perfect go bag for any adventure”
What do I like about the Navigator 32L Travel backpack?
I’ve been testing out the 32L Travel Backpack and there are also other options in the Navigator range. These include the smaller 15L Backpack and the Tech Organizer, to name a couple of the standout items. You can also get a custom bundle deal, which lets you tap into some excellent savings on Nomatic products. Just pick out the main bag/luggage piece you want and then choose your favorite accessories to team up with it.
Which is best for commuting: backpack or panniers? Here’s my take on it
Before we dive into the all the good stuff about the Navigator, let’s take a quick look at one of the longest running arguments in the world of cycling: whether to choose a backpack or panniers for bike commuting (and carrying stuff on your bike in general). There are a lot of arguments for and against each of these and, as with many things in life, you’re best to take in what’s relevant to you and discard the rest (to sorta paraphrase Bruce Lee). Here’s my take on why backpacks are great for bike commuting.
Firstly, backpacks are great for when you don’t want to fit a pannier rack to your bike (it’s the road bike that you compete on at the weekend, say). Or, when you can’t easily fit a pannier rack on (tricky if your commuter bike is a full-sus with a dropper post). It has to be said that, pannier bags and pannier racks don’t look the sexiest when they’re strapped to the back of your bike and so, if you’re only hauling a small quantity of whatever, then it’s worth seeing if you can dodge a rack too.
Interestingly, backpacks can also be a great option when you have heavy gear to transport. That might seem counter-intuitive, but think about this. Let’s say you have a big ol’ laptop, 3-course packed lunch, smart work clothes, buffet of toiletries, AND a pair of office-friendly shoes…that’s quite a weight, isn’t it? But, if that’s what you need to take, then that’s what you need to take. Now, load all this into a pair of pannier bags and set off down the road to the office. Chances are you’ll have some tight turns to make (possibly at speed, because you’re running a little late), maybe you’re up out of the saddle accelerating from the lights or powering up hill (and you’ll be throwing the handlebars around to assist). Now…think about your panniers and think about the rules of physics. Throw the front of the bike around a little and the rear of the bike (with the weight on) gets thrown around a LOT. That can cause the back of the bike to fishtail on loose surfaces and potentially dump you on the road. Not good. With a good backpack though, whilst the weight is higher than with panniers, it’s kept tight to your body and so it moves with you. That helps to keep the weight central and you’ll have more control of the bike.
Backpacks work well when you have various bikes that you use as well. One day you might head to the office on a road bike to improve your PB on Strava, another you might be looking to take your mountain bike over the hills there instead. In summer, you might choose to take your beach cruiser so you can grab a quick dip in the ocean along the way in. With panniers, this would mean time and hassle to switch your rack between your bikes. Or a rack for each bike. Compare this with a backpack though and you can clearly see the benefit. One backpack will work perfectly, whichever bike you take to the office.
My final thought is that a laptop is safer in a backpack than a pannier bag. Now, I haven’t tested this one out and it’s just personal opinion but my view is that the delicate components in a laptop will be subject to much less vibration in a backpack. If you imagine that, in a pannier bag, the only vibration damping you have is provided by the air in the rear tire. On a road bike this might be under an inch of air ‘height’ in the tire. Carry a laptop in a backpack though and your entire body becomes a shock absorber. Laptops in backpacks keep bosses happy.
So, I believe that backpacks are great for bike commuting and a backpack that has the features that the Navigator has is awesome for weekend getaways. Let’s take a deep dive on those features.
The volume you need to carry everything you need
In the past I’ve tried to make do with very small packs for bike commuting and weekend trips. In my head, I’m a ruthless minimalist…but, when it actually comes round to packing, I can’t bear to leave something behind in case I’ll need it. So, for me, having a bag with 32L of space that’s expandable to 41L is perfect.
For weekday commuting, my packing list will tend to comprise the following on most days:
- Notebook/Pen/Various papers & files
- Full change of office-friendly clothes
- Office-friendly shoes
- Packed lunch
- Water bottle
- Travel coffee mug (the office coffee is terrible)
- Waterproof bag for wet cycling gear
- Bike lock
- Minor repairs / puncture fixing kit – pump, spare tube, tire levers, multitool
All of these I’d consider to be essentials and altogether this adds up to a lot of volume. I might have a little spare change from 32L, but not much. And, in spring/autumn when the weather is more uncertain, I’ll be packing extra gear with waterproof jacket, mid layer, leg & arm warmers.
I’ve found that the 32L base size of the Navigator has been perfect for commuting and has allowed me to stash all my gear INSIDE the bag. Compare this with other commuter backpacks I’ve used in the past which have been smaller and forced me to strap various items to the outside of the bag, where they have the potential to fall off or get wet/dirty.
For short vacations, the volume of the Navigator is working well for me. 32L is ideal for up to a week long trip taking everything I need and, with the clamshell opening design of the main compartment, I can easily find each item when I need it. I’ve also tried the Navigator out on longer trips (of 2 to 3 weeks) and that’s where the extra 9L of room you get from the expandable feature really comes into its own.
For even longer trips you’ll see that the Navigator can be teamed up with a piece of wheeled luggage. Take a look on the back pad and you’ll see two straps which can be used to secure the bag to your luggage by slotting the extending handle up through. It’s a very thoughtful feature which kinda sums up the whole of the bag – all the details are beautifully designed and well thought out.
If you’re looking to take your Navigator on a flight, then you’ll be pleased to find that Nomatic have carved out the maximum carry-on space for you. Claimed outer dimensions are 9”x14”x22” and (with my workshop measuring tape) I’ve confirmed these. This gives the perfect carry-on size for the major airlines flying in and around the US:
American Airlines 9x14x22”
British Airways 10x18x22”
Cathay Pacific 9x14x22”
United Airlines 9x14x22”
Virgin Atlantic 9×14.2×22”
It should be noted that this size (9”x14”x22”) is the 32L un-extended size. If you need to expand your Navigator to the full 41L then this will likely accrue additional airline fees. But hey, that’s the downside of packing the extra cute ‘n’ cuddly teddy bear that you can’t sleep in a hotel bedroom without.
The Navigator has a lot of pockets…like a heck of a lot of pockets
How many pockets does the Navigator have? Who knows? I tried counting them and got various figures ranging from 14 to 22. Is this all the pockets? Probably not and I suspect I’ll be finding hidden away storage spaces in this backpack for years to come. Big pockets, small pockets, pen pockets, RFID-safe pockets, and the spacious laptop storage pocket. All of these combine to mean that you can keep everything in its own dedicated compartment. Add in the generous openings of the sections (clamshell on the main space and a splayed opening on the second space) and you can see how easy it is to get access to the things you need instantly. No rummaging around, elbow-deep, in the bottom of a dark backpack void / single compartment trying to find a missing something.
Lots of big opening compartments is also a huge advantage of the Navigator vs a traditional top-opening backpack for either commuting or vacationing. If you’ve ever used a top-opening backpack for either you’ll know that it’s frustrating having to neatly fold up your smart workday outfit or evening clothes…before having to ram them into the teeny tiny opening at the top of a standard backpack. Creased clothes are unavoidable when you do that but are totally avoidable with a clamshell pack like this.
The hidden laptop compartment is tucked away securely next to your back underneath the inside back padding. There are actually two ways into this compartment. One is via a vertical zipper on one side of the bag and the other is by a hidden zipper inside the main compartment. I was concerned initially as to how roomy this compartment would be but, knowing the way that Nomatic design luggage, shouldn’t have been worried. My old Dell laptop has a 14” screen and a footprint of around 12.5”x8.5”. This slots into the zippered pocket with plenty of room to spare either side – even with the laptop sleeve, which isn’t required given the amount of padding. In fact, Nomatic say that the Navigator is good for laptops up to 17” (having a footprint of around 15”x9”). If you can even find a laptop that is larger than this, then it’s likely that the Navigator will stash it just fine. The zippered opening is around 16” in length and there’s plenty of cushioned room inside to cuddle your expensive tech.
Comfortable carrying straps
And there are lots to choose from. As a backpack there are shoulder straps, waist strap and chest strap. I’ve tested these out for long bike commutes (up to around an hour or 15 miles) and I’ve also tested them out on even longer days on vacation. In both cases the straps have been comfortable, breathed really well, and the weight of the pack has felt well-balanced.
Off your back and there are plenty more carry handles to choose from – on the top, both sides and the base. These make it easy to lift in and out of the car trunk, or off a speeding airport luggage carousel. There are also a couple loops on the inside back where you can slot the telescoping handle for wheeled carry-on luggage.
Luckily for you, but unluckily for me, I’ve had the opportunity to test out the waterproofing on the Navigator during commutes and weekend trips. In both sudden downpours and steady drizzle, the backpack materials have kept my gear dry. Fabrics and zippers are durable water-resistant, and kept the moisture out over long periods on the bike and schlepping around from one soggy tourist attraction to another (on a particularly memorable and damp city break).
All the materials seem to be top-notch on the backpack. The zipper pulls are easy to grasp, even with thick winter bike gloves on. There’s a cross strap outer storage for an easy-to-reach waterproof jacket or for storing your bike helmet during the workday. I love the grab handles on all four sides of the bag – because your luggage never comes out on the airport carousel quite the way you want it. And the adjustable height chest strap is useful for ladies when you want to position this either above or below your bust.
All-in-all it’s a great pack that’s been well designed and is the perfect dual-purpose backpack for commuting and short vacations.
What do I dislike about the Navigator 32L Travel backpack?
Despite all these plus points though there are a few aspects which it’s worth being aware of. Let’s take a look at these now.
It’s a big bag – but it’s the optimum size for my commutes & vacations
The outer dimensions of the backpack (9”x14”x22”) are substantial. For me, this is the perfect size for the gear I carry to and from the office, and for the 1-2 week vacations that I regularly go on. I don’t want to have a different bag for each of these and I don’t want to compromise by having a bag that’s right for one thing, but not great for the other. That being said, your requirements may be a little different to mine and you don’t require such a big bag. Maybe you leave your work shoes at the office (there’s always somewhere to stash a pair and no-one really steals shoes, do they?) Maybe your typical vacation is a couple of days instead of a couple of weeks. If either of these is the case, then I’d suggest checking out the rest of the Navigator range for the best size backpack for you (my recommendation would be the 15L Navigator backpack).
It’s not a light bag – but it’s also not a flimsy bag
On my bathroom scales, the Navigator clocks-in at around 6 lbs. What does that feel like? Well, for reference, my pair of office shoes weighs around 2 lbs. So, imagine 3 pairs of standard men’s shoes and you’ll get the idea. Sure, you’ll be able to find lots and lots of backpacks that weigh between 2-3 lbs. You can get a weight saving but you also lose all the structure and substantialness that you get with the Navigator. That structure helps to protect your office gear (particularly your laptop and other tech) and also makes sure that your vacation gear arrives at your destination in good condition and not in a scrunched-up ball. It’s a sacrifice, but for me it’s one that’s well worth making.
It’s not a cheap bag – but it’s also not a cheaply-made bag
At just under $400 the Navigator is not cheap. As with weight, you’ll be able to find a ton of backpacks that are much cheaper than this. Should you pay the money and buy the Navigator? Well, that’s your call. My own view is that cheap bags tend to be cheaply made and often not up to the standard that you need. A bag that is capable of doing double duty – protecting my laptop and office/vacation clothing – needs to be made with care out of quality materials. It’s clear that the Navigator is just such a bag and, in my view, worth every penny.
Who is the Navigator backpack great for?
If, like me, you’re looking for one pack to rule them all – from weekday commutes to weekend trips (and even longer vacations, if you can learn to pack lightly) – then the 32L Navigator might just be the perfect backpack for you. This is a travel pack that has the comfort you’d expect from a cycling daypack, with the protection that you need for your tech, married up with high quality materials and a well thought-through design.
Road bike commuters will love this, MTBers will too. If your regular office commute is on an ebike or e-scooter then that’s even better as the motor will easily offset the backpack weight.
If you’ve been searching for one backpack to pull double time as a commuter bag and vacation luggage, then your wait might well be over. I have been cycling to work for years and this is by far the best backpack I have ever used for my commute.
Get the Navigator now. Use it for your bike commutes and your weekend getaways. You won’t regret it.