Review : Waterfield Designs Rough Rider messenger bag

Rough Rider features leather style, durability

MacNN Rating:


Product Manufacturer: Waterfield Designs

Price: $335

The Good

  • Quality/materials
    - Durability
    - Aesthetic

The Bad

  • Strap comfort
    - Number of compartments
    - No internal padding
Messenger bags are not a one-size-fits-all type of market. From consumers looking for something that is picked from a shelf at random where materials don't matter, to constant travelers that keep their office with them every day -- the variation between the needs of the buyer can be quite large at times. But what if a discerning shopper is looking for a high-quality bag that will take sustained abuse without suddenly falling apart, wants a bag to keep looking good day after day, and is willing to pay for quality? Waterfield Designs, a company out of San Francisco, California which specializes in handcrafted bags, looks to fill that need with a new bag named the Rough Rider.

Quality and craftsmanship are immediately evident when holding the Rough Rider. The leather is thick, often featuring two layers stitched together to make everything at least an eighth of an inch thick in all places. Every edge is finished beautifully without traces of glue or other unsightly flaws sticking out to ruin the look of the bag. The Rough Rider is a mid-tone brown, with one of six accent colors to choose from for the pockets at the front of the bag. The design brings to mind memories of saddlebags, or a messenger bag a Pony Express rider might have carried in the 1860s. Currently, the bag is available in a 13-inch laptop size, but a 15-inch version is set to be released May 15.

Every single stitch appears to have been done with care, not showing the slightest flaw or error in the process of piecing together the bag. One shouldn't have to worry about the quality of the stitch either, as the bag is put together with a 1940s sewing machine that can stitch through pennies and wood, according to Waterfield. The details are as important as the design, because each of them was done by a human hand, and not run through a machine to do all of the work. As a nice touch, there is a stitched sleeve that houses a piece of acrylic, which forces the bag to keep its shape instead of depending on the objects inside.

The Rough Rider is constructed out of a high-quality, naturally tanned and distressed leather. Waterfield sources premium leather when it makes these small-batch bags, but it isn't labelled specifically what the source is. On the inside, the bag is unlined -- leaving the rough side of the leather exposed as well as some of the stitching. The thick leather means that the Rough Rider will take a beating and keep going from various drops, punctures, and things ripping into it.

Five pockets or compartments make up the storage capacity of the bag. The main compartment will barely hold a 15-inch MacBook Pro, or the 13-inch model with only some slight bulging in the sides of the bag. Two waxed lined canvas pockets sit at the front of the main compartment to keep any odds and ends that may not need to be retrieved right away. Two softer, scratch-free pockets are on the front of the bag are ideal for storing electronics such as a tablet or smartphone. The inside lining feels softer than fleece and offers some padding as well. Each of the four pockets are about 6.5 inches in length and around seven inches in length.

Like another messenger bag that we were able to review recently, the Rough Rider went to a comic book convention during the course of the review. The bag was used extensively on the show floor to carry around various items such as stacks of comic books, a camera and a laptop during various trips around the exhibit hall. While the bag could certainly handle the bumping around and varied load that comes with convention going, there was one noticeable issue with its extended use -- it wasn't very comfortable.

If there is a chief complaint about the Rough Rider, that's it: a slight discomfort when wearing it around for hours at a time. To a degree, this should be expected with all shoulder-slung bags; but for a messenger bag, one expects some decent padding, or a thick padded sleeve along the strap. While there is no direct padding on the nylon strap, the bag does feature a removable sleeve that does offer some padding on the shoulder contact side.

However, the sleeve isn't as thick or long enough for our tastes. Leather included, the snap-on sleeve only offers approximately 0.375 inches of padding, and comes in at just under seven inches long. An extra inch on the length would have helped relieve some rubbing on the shoulder as well. The discomfort could also be due in part to the extra width and thickness of the nylon strap, which is more in both areas than many competing bags offer. It could also have to do with the general weight of the bag.

Comfortable or not, the strap stays in place, thanks to the grip surface on the sleeve. The strap is also sewn into the bag, leaving it without hinges or odd clamps to deal with. There is even a bit of strapping that offers a smoother piece of black leather on the inside, to allow the strap to move around based on the weight load. The sizing loop is also constructed from a thick metal and is enameled, meaning it will slide without much work but will stand up to abuse.

The Waterfield Rough Rider is a heavy bag, even though it doesn't seem like it should be. At 2.9 pounds, it is not all that hefty on its own, but as it is loaded up the bag's weight becomes more noticeable. The bag takes a significant load easily, handling an additional 15 to 20 pounds of electronics, books and comic stacks when tested. It conforms to the body well, even with this weight, not allowing itself to bend out of shape or bang on a hip. The weight actually helps it stay in one spot instead of swinging around wildly, even when empty.

It would have been nice if the Rough Rider had a few extra small compartments, and specifically a divider in the main compartment for a padded laptop section. As it stands, there is nothing more than the leather to protect what one has put in the bag. We would have preferred that there was at least some high-density foam on the bottom of the bag, to protect electronics from shock if the bag was dropped.

As regards the weather, the bag will offers great protection. Light-to-moderate rains in Seattle were no match for the Rough Rider, as the leather was able to keep everything dry inside without having much soak in. Two snap positions mean the flap on the bag can make a tight connection over the bag to keep the elements out.

The Waterfield Rough Rider is a king among bags, specifically because of the workmanship and the quality that goes into it. It is a bag that pays off as an investment in durability, one that grows with the passage of time. It is a bonus that any sort of abuse the bag takes will only add to the character of its looks. At $335 for the 13-inch bag, however, it is certainly a large initial investment -- but the upfront cost is nothing compared to the money spent down the line replacing several lesser bags.