I’ve always tried to be environmentally conscious, even when doing so has gotten in the way of convenience: I avoid Styrofoam cups like the plague; I separate my biodegradable trash from my normal trash; I try not to leave the water on when I brush my teeth—I even avoid showering from time to time to save water. (I’m just kidding about the last one.)
So you’d think I would love Ecogear’s environmentally friendly Black Rhino II backpack ($60). After all, it has all the features that an environmentalist should love, including materials that are PVC-free, non-toxic, and highly recyclable. (The company even points out that when the bag is burned, it produces only naturally occurring gases.) Unfortunately, the Black Rhino’s comfort and overall design aren’t nearly as appealing.
The Black Rhino measures 17.5 inches tall, 13 inches wide, and 8.5 inches deep and is made of 1680d ballistic nylon. By my count, it has nine external compartments and eight internal pockets. Among the these is a removable, TSA checkpoint-friendly laptop compartment, a deluxe organizer pocket, and a small, soft-lining pouch. The bag has a masculine, square shape, but I doubt any females will have a problem wearing it.
The Black Rhino’s laptop area is well designed. Its padded sleeve can hold a 17-inch MacBook Pro firmly in place, and its four internal pockets can stow power cords, mice, and external drives comfortably. The bag is also large enough to hold a wireless keyboard. The laptop sleeve is integrated into the back of the backpack—at airport-security checkpoints, you just unzip the main zipper, and the back of the pack folds down, giving TSA x-ray machines an unobstructed view of your laptop in the sleeve.
I also like the backpack’s large storage compartment, which has a rectangular shape that conforms nicely to the shape of most textbooks. I suspect it could hold about three large textbooks.
On the other hand, if, like me, you prefer a bag that’s not overflowing with pockets and pouches, you’ll find many of the Black Rhino II compartments to be superfluous. It has three areas that could fit a mobile phone, and four that are perfect for storing pens but not much else. There are also two internal pockets that seem capable of storing only magazines or documents. Finally, there’s an outside compartment that, because of its size and shape, I couldn’t find a purpose for. It’s difficult for me to imagine that the average person will need this many pockets—or be able to remember where everything is if they managed to use all of them. I’d rather the bag be a bit lighter with fewer separate compartments.
Granted, pocket preferences in a bag are subjective, and you may appreciate the Black Rhino’s abundance of compartments in ways I didn’t. But the bag’s main failing is that I found it to be uncomfortable to wear. When I packed the backpack with a laptop and a couple textbooks, then strapped it on my shoulders, after only a short while the Black Rhino’s straps started digging painfully into my shoulders. The problem wasn’t that one shoulder pad was higher than the other, or that the weight of the bag wasn’t distributed equally between my shoulders; rather, the strap padding is too stiff and awkwardly aligned.
Though I applaud the Black Rhino’s environmentally friendly construction, I can’t recommend it. The bag’s design, with its large compartments and multiple pockets, invites you to weigh it down with lots of gear, but if you do—and even if you don’t, in my testing—you can’t comfortably carry the bag around. Which leaves me still looking forward to the day when I can have a backpack that’s both earth-friendly and practical.