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Willow Design: Kerouac Backpack

© 2000 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, November/December 2000, pp. 45-46, reprint information

Life may be filled with uncertainties, but a few things are guaranteed: taxes, death, and you will drop your laptop computer. Or bang it into a doorway. Or step on the brake suddenly and watch it demonstrate the wonders of kinetic energy as it bounces around your car. Or have it disappear, since "portable" also means "easy to steal."

Willow Design did their best to make the Kerouac Backpack laptop case look like something other than a laptop case. Most laptop cases are soft-sided, briefcase-style cases (and Willow Design makes these, too, perfect for Washington bureaucrats, lobbyists and Beltway Bandits). But the Kerouac case, named after a writer known for his travel pieces, looks like a backpack. Or a briefcase. Or an over the shoulder case. Or something large enough to carry a good-size moose. But it doesn't look much like something for carrying a computer.

Kerouac Back

A rear shot of the Willow Design Kerouac laptop backpack. Note the hand-hold on the top, the handle on the side (for carrying it as a briefcase), the external strap (for carrying an umbrella or tripod) and two external pockets.

As with other Willow Design cases, the Kerouac backpack is padded with high-density foam, covered with heavy nylon, and carefully stitched together. A large number of pockets are provided, along with a large number of heavy-duty zippers and Velcro fastenings. In terms of flexibility and adaptability, the Kerouac case is akin to a Swiss Army knife: practical, adaptable, durable and indispensable.

Kerouac straps hidden

A cloth panel covers up the backstraps when the Kerouac laptop backpack is carried as a briefcase. At the bottom of the photo is the shoulder strap included with the case.

Washington Apple Pi Labs has extensive experience with another Willow Design case, the Cross Country Traveller. We were reluctant to even look at the Kerouac backpack since, unlike New York City, relatively few Washington-area residents use backpacks. Backpacks are the realm of college campuses, public schools, and the West Coast. Right?

Kerouac with iBook

The main compartment easily holds an iBook, and the safety strap keeps it from shifting position. At the bottom of the case (on the left) is a zippered, removable bag for holding small parts and tools; at the top (on the right) is a small compartment, with Velcro flap, for holding cell phones, pagers, wallets, and other items. The compartment is held in place with Velcro and, like the zippered bag at the bottom, can be removed, in the event you need to carry a small moose or something.

Maybe, though once we started looking, we found a fair number of Capitol Hill backpack packers. But, reluctant or not, we soon came to find the Kerouac a daily companion. It can hold more than almost any briefcase; at one point we were carrying around not one, not two, but three laptops in one Kerouac case. It is exceptionally flexible: you can carry it as a briefcase (though it looks a bit odd), or wear it as a backpack, or use the handle at the top to simply haul it around. We couldn't use it as a shoulder bag because of a manufacturing defect (see below).

A middle compartment on the Kerouac laptop backpack is large enough to hold a fairly hefty quantity of books -- or another laptop. While under evaluation by Washington Apple Pi Labs, the case once held -- at the same time -- an IBM Thinkpad, an Apple iBook, and an old Apple PowerBook 100. If this wasn't enough, it also held a confused assortment of Ethernet cables, telephone cables, adapters, converters, power supplies, chewing gum, Kleenex, a pager, a cell phone, a science fiction novel (paperback), a digital camera and a pair of sunglasses. This particular combination is not recommended for long distances unless you are a llama.

Having such a versatile carrying case does present a serious problem: you tend to carry more. On a recent trip to the West Coast, the Kerouac was crammed with a laptop (of course), digital camera, a power supply or two, various important papers (reservations, tickets, and such), about 25 pounds of books and magazines, a waterproof coat, and "everything you need to survive on a long plane trip that you don't mind stuffing in an overhead luggage bin." Speaking of which, while the Kerouac case is larger than most laptop cases, it will fit through the new restrictive openings in airport X-ray security scanners. And it fits far better in an overhead bin than the steamer trunks some air travelers try and cram in them.

Our Kerouac case was not perfect, however. The supplied shoulder strap wouldn't clip on the attachment rings. An E-mail to Willow Design prompted a return call in which we repeated the problem, and they theorized that the strap clips apparently hadn't been "ground down" to fit in the rings. A replacement strap was offered, but never arrived. We didn't press for the strap because, quite frankly, we didn't care: we never really missed it. But in the interests of full disclosure, we never did try carrying the case as a shoulder bag. We are also fully confident that Willow Design would have sent a shoulder strap if we reminded them. (And even if we don't: a strap, with apology, will probably arrive shortly after this review is published; Willow Design genuinely cares what their customers think.)

When worn as a backpack, the Kerouac laptop backpack shows careful attention to comfort. The adjustable shoulder straps and waist belt allow you to carry an amazing amount of weight in good comfort. A portion of the Willow Design Web site is devoted to showing customers how to "size" a backpack appropriate to a given customer's torso length.

Even if we never tried it as a shoulder bag, we did carry it throughout the Washington-Baltimore region, throughout the Northeast, and over a large expanse of the Northwest. Despite initial misgivings, we discovered we like it better than the traditional briefcase-style laptop cases. Much better.

Would we be willing to check it, complete with a precious laptop computer, as baggage on an airline? Of course not! But we'd have no hesitation in carrying a computer in this bag to the top of a mountain or two, or taking it on a lengthy ferry ride, or on an Amtrak trip to New York City, or throwing it in a car for commuting to work. And, in fact, we did all of these things, without any mishaps at all.

We highly recommend the Willow Design Kerouac case. We also highly recommend you visit the Willow Design Web site, which has a wealth of information on case colors, and an illustrated guide on how to "size" a backpack to match the length of your torso.

Kerouac Backpack
$132 (price fluctuates with exchange rate)
Available in black, charcoal, navy, teal and purple

Willow Design, Ltd.
6943 Antrim Ave.
Burnaby, British Columbia
Canada V5J 4M5


Willow Design Ltd.
800 Grant Avenue
Blaine, WA 98230