A decade ago, the Chrome Citizen messenger bag had a certain cachet among commuters. The bulletproof bag with the big, shiny seatbelt buckle was a little more rock-and-roll than the ubiquitous Timbuk2 messenger. The seatbelt release had a bottle opener. The liner was made from a truck tarp! If messenger bags were characters in The Goonies, the Chrome Citizen was Brand, not Mikey; it was Bikini Kill, not the B-52s.
The Avail represents a different direction for Chrome. While it still has a sleek, minimalist exterior, Chrome has billed the Avail as the “the most comfortable bag you’ll ever wear.”
Over the past few months, I’ve brought the Avail along while hiking, biking, and flying cross-country. I’m not entirely sure whether its shape or features add to (or detract from) the bag’s utility. Put it this way: I can see why a lot of people might like the Avail, but to me, it’s a little weird.
Hips Don’t Lie
The first thing you’ll notice about the Avail is its distinctive teardrop shape. Seen from the side, it’s narrower at the top than at the bottom. This shape forces you to pack as if you were a cyclist. Your bulkiest, heaviest items go to the bottom of the bag and sit at the base of your spine, as if the Avail were a lumbar pack in disguise.
Cyclists wear lumbar packs—also known as waist packs, hip packs, or fanny packs—because those bags are lower to their center of gravity. A hip pack frees the shoulders, keeps the weight closer to the seat of the bike, and makes it easier to maneuver the handlebars.
But this shape makes less sense for a multi-purpose or commuter bag, for two reasons. The first is that if you’re walking rather than biking, it’s more comfortable to carry weight close to the center of your back, rather than resting on your hips. Second, if the bag is bigger at the bottom, you just … lose things down there. While traveling with the Avail, I constantly had half an arm buried in it, fishing around for my sweater or bag of snacks that had dropped to the bottom.
It doesn’t help that in the heather gray color, the interior is a dark (and very classy-looking) ripstop nylon, which makes it impossible to see anything without a flashlight. While writing this review, I pulled out an old, half-eaten croissant hidden at the very bottom.
Regarding fabrics, the Avail is a beautiful bag. The tester that I received is a 780-denier nylon/poly blend that underwent hikes and bikes in the rain, and getting shoved under an airplane seat without showing a mark. The backpack also comes in a variety of colors from Chrome’s existing fabric library, in a sturdy 1000-denier, TPE-laminated white, as well as a TPU-laminated, 420D nylon. Since they all cost the same, I’d go with the sturdier, higher-denier fabric.
The zippers are tidy, hidden reverse coils, with reflective plastic pulls. However, they’re not water-resistant and they don’t have zipper garages, which means that you’re really rolling the dice if you go out with electronics in the rain.
I did like the Avail’s minimal organizational elements. It has a surprisingly small 18-liter capacity, and holds a 13-inch laptop in a suspended, padded compartment that has a lip over the top to protect it from any rain that might seep in. The bag also has a medium-sized interior zip pocket, in addition to a few pen and notebook pockets. On the exterior, the bag has a small, quick-access pocket by the handle; an elastic water bottle pocket; a small loop for a bike light, and a reflective, elastic strap that should hold a mini U-lock but did not fit my battered old Kryptonite U-lock. Sorry, boy.
Both the back panel and shoulder straps are plush, while keeping as much surface area off your body as possible. To that end, the back panel is configured in what Chrome has christened a WindGrid. Long tubes of perforated EVA-molded foam run down the length of the backpack, underneath a thin polyester mesh.
The straps are also made of two layers of perforated, EVA-molded foam. They’re covered by a knit nylon layer, which has channels woven into it to theoretically reduce the surface area on your skin. The straps also have a small sternum strap on sliding rails that clips across your chest.
At 18.5 inches tall, the Avail is slightly too long for my 5’2″ frame. But after hiking, biking, and sprinting through airports at ungodly hours of the morning, I can report that the plush EVA padding is indeed very soft and comfortable. However, I couldn’t get over one detail: The Avail is designed to carry the majority of the weight at the base of the spine, but there’s no waist strap to keep the weight close to my body. I don’t always use a waist strap, particularly when the strap isn’t load-bearing. But here, I missed it.
I couldn’t test if the Avail kept my back cool, because it’s winter right now in the Pacific Northwest. When I got sweaty, it was because I hadn’t stripped my layers off fast enough, not because my back wasn’t ventilated. Since the channels run vertically, I’m sure the Avail stands a chance of cooling you off if you’re leaning over a bike’s handlebars. But if you’re walking, its benefits are a little iffier.
That sums it up: If you’re a casual bike commuter, you’re likely to find this bag more comfortable, and useful, than anyone else. The Avail looks beautiful, and I loved how the pockets were organized. But for the price, the Avail doesn’t have very much capacity, doesn’t have Chrome’s trademark weather resistance, and distributes its weight awkwardly. if you get to work by some other means that biking in sunny weather, you should probably look elsewhere.