Côte&Ciel’s $375 Isar Rucksack in Coated Canvas and Black Leather casts a very distinctive shadow on the wall. You’ll want it for its iconic silhouette, but you’ll stay for the incredible utility baked into every nook and cranny.
It’s easy to find expensive bags with an interesting shape, but they too often feel like they’re only designed to look good on a shelf. They have beautiful decorative zippers and buckles, but they tend to lose their distinctive shape the moment you start to pack them up. The Isar is one of the rare designs that holds true to that whispered promise on the shelf. Even after purchase, the bag will look the same once it’s filled up and strapped to your back.
This is what Côte& Ciel specializes in.
I love how the Isar plays with the folds in fabric to create form. Rolltop bags have made a big comeback in the past few years and I think the Isar is a variant on that design. Instead of rolling fabric to create a seal, the Isar’s duffle compartment folds to one side, creating the awesome “shark fin” silhouette the bag is known for. The external compression strap keeps the fold in place, but also allows the compartment to expand when I need to really pack the bag full.
It sounds complex, but the Isar breaks down into to two main compartments:
- A front “duffle bag” compartment.
- A zippered laptop compartment.
The duffle compartment is great at holding unusually shaped objects that would warp most other bags. Because it opens with a single vertical zipper, you can lay the Isar down on a table and pack it much like you would a duffle bag. A pair of internal compression straps help to tie down clothing or equipment so the contents don’t shift during travel.
But this duffle compartment isn’t just for large items — Côte&Ciel built some nuance into the space, too. There are two internal zippered pouches stitched to the inside. These pockets are great for quickly accessing small items like lens caps, micro-fiber cloths, or little snacks. The one near the top of the compartment is especially useful for carrying cash during travel, because it’s basically invisible unless you know exactly where to look.
The Isar’s laptop compartment is completely separate from the duffle compartment and opens up with two zippers, like many standard backpacks. There’s an internal padded sleeve that fits up to a 15–inch MacBook Pro, so it’s large enough for me to keep my 13–inch Retina MacBook Pro and iPad Air 2. There are two mesh pockets just outside the padded pocket for Field Notes notebooks, pens, and charging cables. Finally, there’s a small zippered pouch at the top of the compartment, which is perfect for quick-access items.
There’s also one more zippered pocket on the Isar, located near the bottom of the left shoulder strap. It’s so well hidden it’s actually tough to capture in pictures. I love this pocket for holding my Leatherman Charge, but it also doubles as a fantastic and secure passport pocket for travelling.
The Isar comes in a variety of different designs. The dual compartment design stays relatively similar across the line, but the placement of the laptop compartment can vary, as can the materials of the bag. I bought this Coated Canvas version for two reasons:
- The laptop compartment is located in the middle of the bag, instead of behind the straps (which required bending the straps out of the way to access the laptop).
- The canvas is highly water resistant, as are the bag’s zippers.
What this means is that the Coated Canvas version of the Isar is one of the most accessible and durable versions of the bag. There are eco yarn variants that are lighter, or cowhide leather versions that lend a more premium look to the bag, but I like the subdued shade of black of the Coated Canvas most. It’s just a little bit tactical, but it doesn’t look too utilitarian either.
It’s also worth noting that the Isar usually comes in two sizes: medium or large. Unless you’re over 6’1 and really want to maximize your carrying capacity, I’d suggest you stick with a medium. I’ve now owned two sizes of this bag, and the medium is the size that feels just small enough to fit on my lap on public transport.
In day-to-day EDC (everyday carry), it’s easy to load everything I need into the Isar’s laptop compartment. This normally includes:
- iPad Air 2
- Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard
- Canvas gear pouch for chargers + cables
- 3200mAh battery
- Leatherman Charge
- Field Notes and pens
- Sony A6000 with Sony 35mm f/1.8 lens and lens hood
It’s quite a lot of stuff to fit into one half of the bag, but the layout of the laptop compartment is such that I maintain easy access to everything. I can walk around with this load all day long without ever needing to use the duffle compartment.
This is how I like to use the bag most of the time because it keeps the profile as slim as possible. The Isar isn’t a small bag by any means, but as long as I keep most contents in the laptop compartment, I never have to worry about knocking things over in tight spaces.
On days when I want to work from a cafe, or head out for a full day of walking while on vacation, the Isar makes for a really fantastic urban daypack. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for hikes through the forest — you’re better off with a more specialized backpack for that — but the Isar in coated canvas can handle most anything else.
The weather-resistant coating means I don’t have to worry about short walks in the rain; I’ve seen water bead up and slide right off the canvas. There is a limit to the Isar’s ability to repel water (it’s water resistant and not waterproof), but this isn’t a bag you’ll need to baby if you’re caught without an umbrella.
The Isar is also my favourite daypack because of the expandability afforded by the duffle compartment. I don’t just carry a bag to haul my gear around — it’s also a bit of a security blanket for me. The extra carrying capacity in the duffle compartment ensures that I’m ready for whatever the day may bring.
If I want to shed my coat, I can easily stuff it right into my bag, even though it already has all of my regular gear in it. If my girlfriend and I head to a bookstore, I can easily carry hardcovers and notebooks home without shifting any of my stuff around first. The Isar helps me head out the door with all of my stuff and lets me come back with whatever I want.
I didn’t care much about holding any camera gear before March of this year, but then I picked up my Sony A6000 and everything changed. All my bags suddenly needed to carry and support my little mirrorless camera at any given time. Luckily, the Isar complements my photography setup wonderfully.
The top zippered pocket in the laptop compartment perfectly houses my A6000 with its 35mm lens. The kit fits right in, even with the lens hood attached. I don’t think this pocket was designed for this use case, but it fits it very well. The camera is suspended above all of the other heavy gear in my bag, so it’s very well protected. Its position also makes it easy to grab for quick shots, without digging through any other stuff. I just unzip the top of the bag, grab the A6000, and fire away.
This setup should work beautifully for most APS-C cameras and Micro 4/3 shooters. DSLR and full-frame mirrorless users can store their cameras in the duffle compartment instead. It’s actually a little easier to access a camera that way because you can reach right into the Isar while hanging it off your left shoulder, but I haven’t figured out a way to keep the camera suspended within that compartment. Without suspending the camera or adding some sort of padding to the bottom of the bag, I’d be worried about the repeated impact of placing my bag on the ground and jostling the camera.
I stayed away from backpacks for the longest time because I found a lot of designs quite boring. There’s a lot of play going on in the messenger bag space, but too often backpacks are just the same basic shape with materials and buttons swapped out. The Isar’s laptop compartment isn’t entirely unique, but its marriage to the folding compartment along the back certainly is. The intelligent placement of the zippered pockets and compression straps also belies a real knack for structuring a bag — the folks at Côte&Ciel really know what they’re doing.
There’s no question that the Isar is a fantastic backpack — the difficult part is deciding which version of the bag is best for you.