Once upon a time in 2016,
I was getting ready for
my first trip to the United Kingdom,
and I found myself in need
of a proper daypack.
It would need to not be awful
to carry through airports,
manage a laptop, a small camera, and limited supplies
like a water bottle and small snacks,
stow a light jacket,
hold some modest souvenirs
that the kiddo would inevitably insist on,
and stand up to the springtime rains.
Bonus points would be awarded
for not looking horrible
or presenting me as a theft target.
I spent a week or so
agonizing over online research
and eventually narrowed the field
to two final and very similar contenders:
Borealis by The North Face
and Quasar by Osprey.
I ordered both from Amazon
and spent an evening
doing an in-depth comparison,
the results of which, dear reader,
are at long last yours to behold.
Buckle up--there's going to be a lot of pictures.
So that's the Quasar on the left and the Borealis on the right.
Both bags are 28 liters
and are remarkably similar
to one another.
Both bags feature a bungee cord
for external storage of things
you might want easy access to.
The Quasar's matches the rest of the bag,
for a more subtle look,
while the Borealis offers
a splash of color
(and in fact comes in a nearly ridiculous
number of available colors).
Both bags were easily capable
of corralling a light jacket
that I jammed in not very neatly
for a quick test,
giving me confidence that they
could support my layering needs.
I really didn't want to wear
a wet rain jacket indoors,
so this external,
easily accessible storage
was a huge win for me.
Both bags terminate this cord
with a little plastic hook
that you can attach to this
webbing to keep things nice and neat.
The Quasar's hook is a little larger
and seemed both more robust
and easier to work with.
I also preferred the mechanism
on the Quasar that's used
to adjust the tightness of the web.
Both bags fit a modest water bottle with ease
in the stretchy side pockets.
But we have a major point of differentiation here:
the Borealis has only one
compression strap per side,
while the Quasar has two.
On the Borealis,
the compression strap and its hardware
interfere with the top of my bottle,
while on the Quasar the bottom strap
goes over the outside of the pocket
(meaning you can over-tighten it
and make the pocket difficult),
and the top compression strap
is far out of the way.
Points here (for me at least)
go again to the Quasar.
The side pockets are also
a great place for an umbrella--another
late March London necessity.
This also gives us
another look at the placement
of those compression straps.
The Borealis has a little molle strap
sewn into three segments that you can use
to hook stuff onto the bag.
The Quasar has two mount points
featuring a sort of rubber tube.
I kind of liked the molle material better,
and it was easier to clip things on there,
but I can also see the value in how
Osprey has arranged things on the Quasar.
Both bags have an adjustable waist strap
that you can use to shift some of the
bag's weight onto your core and hips.
(Also great for feeling self-conscious
about the proportions of your belly.)
These straps need to be fairly snug
for you to really enjoy
any of their benefits;
to make this easier,
there are nice little loops
on either end that.
While these are functionally equivalent,
I thought the loops on the Borealis
were finished a little better,
and the waist strap on the Borealis
was a little wider/thicker,
and so slightly more comfortable when worn
and also slightly nicer to adjust.
The Borealis and the Quasar
both feature sternum straps
that can be raised and lowered
as well as tightened.
They're basically identical,
and both have whistles
built into the clips.
You may not think that's all that novel,
but I hadn't shopped for backpacks
since the 90s,
so I commend bag makers
for this very cool safety addition.
Good job, y'all!
There are some additional mount points
on the shoulder straps of each bag.
I found the little molle straps
on the Quasar easier to work with.
Both bags feature a small pocket
near the top that's suitable for
sunglasses and small electronics.
The pocket on the Borealis is lined
with super-duper soft material
to prevent scratching up your specs,
while the material on the Quasar
is adequate but not quite so luxurious
a home for its contents.
These pockets are essentially identical
in terms of size,
so if pampering your stuff is a goal,
the Borealis gets the points here,
but I'd be willing to bet that this pocket
on the Quasar does a little better
in wet conditions.
Each bag has two major compartments,
accessible from a panel-style zipper
that goes up and around
like an upside-down U.
The outermost of these compartments
features each maker's take on
some organization features,
while the innermost is home
to the bulk of the bag's storage.
Looking at the Borealis first,
we have a nice variety of pockets
in various pratical sizes,
some padded and some mesh,
with one zippered.
The zippered pocket includes
a little strap and clip
to attach your keys;
I appreciated being able to
conceal keys in this pocket.
The narrower of the two
padded pockets is just right
for a mobile phone,
and the wider is a lovely home
for a tablet
(like my old, old iPad 2).
There are also a couple more
molle strap mount points
to let you customize
things a bit.
Down at the bottom are spots
for pens and pencils
and mesh pockets just about right
for a little pocket notebook.
The Quasar, by contrast,
is a little more barebones.
Yes, there are some pen and pencil slots;
yes, there are a couple of miscellaneous pockets;
yes, there are a couple of stretchy mesh pockets;
yes, there is a clip for your keys.
But the clip doesn't hide away
with the elgance of the Borealis,
and nothing feels quite as well
thought out as on the Borealis.
I like that the color here
makes it easier to find things,
but the Borealis seems
better organized in practically
every other regard.
That said, the Quasar does one thing here
far, far better than the Borealis--access.
Remember those compression straps?
On the Borealis,
the compression straps
interfere with the zippers
of both compartments.
By contrast, the Quasar's straps
only impede access to the main compartment,
making access to this organized compartment
far easier than on the Borealis.
Finally, we come to the
cavernous main compartments.
Both bags have plenty of room here
for you to load them up
however you see fit.
Here, though, the Borealis
is the more spartan of the pair,
with just a single,
fairly plain laptop pocket
with no additional padding.
Even then, this slot was a disappointment,
barely capable of holding
my 13" Macbook Air
clad in a neoprene sleeve.
The Quasar shines here,
including not only a padded
but a second slim pocket
for papers or a notebook,
and a zippered mesh pocket
that's great for power cords
and video dongles.
It was a breeze
to insert or remove my Air,
neoprene sleeve and all,
and that mesh pocket is
just the right size for
my 7-inch Grid-It organizer.
The Quasar wins here,
and it wins by a lot.
I don't have photos of the next bit,
but I zipped both bags shut
and sprayed them with water
from a spray bottle,
with particular emphasis
on soaking the zippers themselves.
Both bags admitted a little water,
but the Quasar's zippers fared
noticeably better than those on the Borealis.
I was planning to get a rain cover
regardless of which bag I selected
(and I'm glad I did,
because I needed it on
a soaker of a night in London!)
so this wasn't a big deal,
but was definitely a point
in the Quasar's favor.
At this point
I was still vacillating
between the two bags,
mainly because of how both bags
were great at one compartment
but not at both.
The deciding factor turned out to be
something I can't capture in pictures:
The feel of the bag,
properly fitted and
holding a typical load,
on my body.
The Borealis has much thicker padding
for your back,
but both that padding and the straps
felt much stiffer than the Quasar.
I'm sure that the Borealis
would improve with time,
or that I'd get used to it,
but I was a little over a week out
from flying to the UK,
so that was time I didn't have.
By contrast, the Quasar felt broken in
from the moment I put it on.
The straps were just right,
and the padding didn't press
into my back in weird ways
like the Borealis did.
So the Borealis went
back to the warehouse
and the Quasar went with me
to England and Wales,
where it performed marvelously.
I was so pleased with the Quasar
that I've since picked up
similar Osprey bags
for my wife and daughter:
the Questa for Liz,
better fitted to feminine anatomy,
and the Pogo for the kiddo,
because the other child bags
lacked the waist strap.
The Pogo in particular
has been nothing short
of a miracle for the kid;
the sternum and waist straps
mean that she can carry her bag
through the airport without complaint.
As a parent, this is huge.
both of these bags are great choices,
and I am not at all surprised
by how many of each bag
I've seen at tech conferences
in the past year.
It's a lot like the
photographer's dilemma of choosing
Canon or Nikon--it's hard
to go wrong with either one,
but you should try them out
and decide for yourself.
Good luck, and happy daypacking!