I Couldn’t Find the Perfect Commuter Backpack, So I Built One.
I set out on this project to build something that I have not been able to find in the marketplace. People often say that entrepreneurship is built out of our own need for something. This project has been a reflection of and solution for my own commuting needs.
Over the past few years, as I’ve started to commute more via bike, I’ve noticed a lack of flexible commuter pannier bags. Now before you say anything, I recognize that yes, there are many pannier bags on the market.
However, what I have failed to find is a stylish around-town pack that can also function as a pannier. That is the problem I have attempted to solve with this project.
While I focused mostly on a solution for my own commuting needs, this project was also an exploration of market research, 3D component printing, textile knowledge, and sewing skills.
Prior to beginning my pack, I spent time researching the pannier industry to understand what was successful within the unique products.
A recurring theme in all of the panniers was that the bike attachment hardware was a fixed feature on all of the bags. Typically this was located on the back of each pack which eliminated the ability to utilize that pack as a backpack or even a shoulder bag. Prior to beginning this project, I’d been toying with the idea of a dual purpose pannier-backpack. However, I knew that the hardware and bike attachment component would be the trickiest element and perhaps the reason I haven’t seen similar products on the market.
In addition to the hardware mounting issue, many of the panniers I found online were heavy-duty outdoor packs. Designed to withstand the elements of bike-packing. Despite plenty of time searching online, I was hard-pressed to find a good looking dual-purpose backpack-pannier combo. This became another motivation of mine.
How can I build a pack that looks good while accomplishing the goal of also being a pannier?
I tend to have high standards so I knew I was setting myself up for a challenging project. But, like any endeavor, I began one step at a time.
I’ll admit that initially, I was quite perplexed with the mounting hardware needed for a pannier. I knew that what I was seeing on other panniers was not the direction I wanted to go. I realized that the limiting factor of panniers already in the marketplace was that the mounting hardware was attached to the bag itself instead of to the bike rack system. Having this insight I began shifting my lens and searching for flexible solutions.
One day I found myself on The Thingiverse searching for panniers and came upon a 3D model that solved my problem. The hook I discovered locked onto the bike rack and allowed a pack to be slid on to it. Once I found this hook system I decided to build my bag around it.
In addition to printing the hooks for my bikepack, I also 3D printed G-hooks and backpack strap buckles.
I found the 3D printing experience to be fascinating and am happy that I utilized that resource for my components. The hooks and buckles are a bit rough around the edges but do their jobs to satisfaction as far as I am concerned. However, I am curious to see how they hold up over time and with the addition of weight into the bag itself.
Prior to this project, I was not well versed in the language of textiles. I reached out to my network for this aspect of the project. I have a few friends in the textile industry and set up phone and Zoom sessions with them. Both had valuable information and helped me narrow in on the material, weight, and coating.
In the hopes of keeping things less complicated, I worked off of a backpack that I already own. I drew inspiration from the shape, size, and materials. This also helped inform me on how much yardage I would need of each material.
Here is a basic overview of the materials I selected for my project.
Overall I am happy with my choices of material. However, despite my love for the look of Ripstop, I wish I had chosen a different fabric. The Ripstop turned out to be super thin and slippery which made the sewing process challenging (more on this later). On the other hand, the Polyester with PVC coated fabric was quite easy to work with and the coating helps to make it water-resistant which is a key element to many outdoor packs.
I used webbing for my strapping connections, both 1" and 2". And for my padding used a 4mm sandwich spacer mesh. Both of these materials were easy to work with and have performed well thus far.
Lastly, because this is a bike bag I included reflective material. I chose to incorporate reflective tape to the inside of the shoulder straps. Based on my design the shoulder straps flip around to rest on the front of the bag when it is attached to the bike therefore the reflective element is only showing when the bag is on the bike.
I have done a few sewing projects in my day, but never anything as complicated as a full backpack. To begin I sketched out my overall concept and took measurements of the pack I was working to recreate.
Utilizing the pack I already had, I worked backward to create a pseudo pattern for my bikepack. I used the overall shape and corresponding measurements to guide my process and added my own tweaks here and there. I began by cutting out all of my pieces, a few of which required re-doing as to be expected. When cutting by hand I ran into a fair amount of ‘human-error’ elements later on in the process that I imagine could be eliminated with the use of a laser cutter in the future.
A good deal of my time was spent reverse-engineering the pack I was copying and understanding the order of operations that were used to create it. The process itself was not all that complicated for most of the pack. I worked my way through the cutting and sewing of each element before combining them at the end. More than anything the process was just time-consuming. Doublechecking all of my cuts, making sure each piece fit together and the seams lined up.
The most tricky part of the pack was the front panel where I advantageously chose to build two pockets. I elected to do two because I wanted a small pocket for keys, chapstick, etc. And a larger pocket for phone, wallet, snacks, etc. This aspect of the bag was where I gained the most skills. As previously mentioned I don’t think I did myself any favors by choosing to use Ripstop. The fabric was very thin and slippery. On top of that, I chose a white fabric which ended up being fairly see-through. Alas, lesson learned.
Since the front pockets are ‘seamless’ I had to cut directly into the front panel and build them from the inside out. I measured (many times) to align my zippers and traced out where to make my cuts. Prior to attaching the zipper to the exterior panel, I attached the interior of the pocket so that it would be ‘seamless’ on the outside.
One of the biggest challenges with this aspect of the pack was how slippery the Ripstop was. It continued to bunch as I worked it through the sewing machine and sadly since it was see-through you can see a color difference where the fabric overlaps. Additionally, it was difficult to keep lines straight and level because pinning Ripstop is highly discouraged due to visible holes left behind. All in all, this was hands down the most tricky and technical aspect of the project. I am pleased with how it came out but know that I can do better with a different fabric or more practice in the future.
After the front panel was pulled together things seemed to fall into place. I began assembling all of my pieces and sewing from the inside out. I added a few G-hooks to the front of the pack with the hopes that they could help fasten the bottom to the bike rack. Decent execution but attaching things to the bike behind the pack seemed to be tedious no matter which way I worked it.
Seeing the bag finally come together was more exciting than I anticipated, and surprisingly it looked like how I’d imagined.
Unfortunately, the overall look came out a bit lopsided. I think this is a product of the top folding panel being a smidge too big which in turn forced a crease in the side of the pack. Also, I realized that the back straps are not perfectly center which makes the whole thing look off when the straps swing around the front of the pack. This is something I cannot fix without taking the entire bag apart, so I won’t be fixing it on this iteration. Making sure all of the pieces fit together perfectly was more challenging than I expected, but for a first go-around at making a pack, I am fairly pleased.
This particular project is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now, and I am interested in taking it to perfection.
One of the biggest things that did not work was the pannier hook that I 3D printed. When the hook is closed it is virtually impossible to put the bag on the bike which means the hook needs to be open and in that case it is either swinging around or falling off the bike. I would like to redesign the hook so that it opens away from the pack and is easier to put the pack on. However, having a prototyped backpack is a huge milestone because I now have a product that I can utilize to test new iterations of the hook.
I have started using the pack on my bike and am surprised by how sturdy it feels. I would like to address the bottom of the pack and perhaps the necessity (or lack thereof) of it attaching to the bottom of the rack. I would like to do a bit more user testing before making any alterations, but I do have enough material to make modifications and/or a whole other pack moving forward.
I am walking away from this first version feeling impressed with my own abilities. I am intrigued by textiles and 3D printing and have a newfound respect for product design. Looking forward to iterating!