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Review: The WaterField Cargo

Over the past several months I’ve been trapped in the seemingly endless search for that perfect balance between got-it-all, and the liberty got-it-all prevents in an “everyday” bag. You name it, I’ve carried it—from sleek and elegant Tumi to weighted-down MOLLE. Based on past experience, present occupation, and future aspirations I knew what I wanted in function: classic but subtle looks, comfort with convenience, and modularity without bulk. Finding a form that achieves this function proved a frustrating and exhausting challenge.


It’s no secret that I love the products coming out of WaterField Design’s studio in San Francisco—their Ultimate SleeveCase continues to keep my iPad in pristine condition. I had never given their larger bags any serious consideration for fear that their simplistic approach to on-the-go storage would blend my kit, set adrift in the huge pockets, into a jumbled pile of chaos. After a month-long trial run with their signature bag, the Cargo (small), I’m pleased to report this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Quite the opposite has happened—my bag is now more organized and easily reconfigurable than ever, and with room left over to expand my everyday kit.

Features and Organization

At the core of the Cargo’s design is it’s slightly non-rectangular shape, which gifts the bag with a seemingly magical ability to swallow up gear while simultaneously making it easier to load and unload. Access to gear is quick and easy, and most pockets feature a bright orange “Gold Diamond” lined interior to aid in locating the contents. Where appropriate, cord-pull zippers provide a smooth opening, and zippers in more vulnerable locations are spring-loaded to keep them securely shut and out of the way.

The outside of the bag features three pockets: a phone pocket at one end, a rear pocket which fits WaterField’s Cableguy (medium) perfectly, and a slip pocket on the flap. The phone pocket is sized ample enough to fit even the largest of modern phones, while still being small enough not to lose smaller phones (yes, it also fits the new iPhone 5). Alternately, it also comfortably carries a modestly-sized flashlight and multitool. The rear pocket has a velcro closure, and features a bottom-zip to allow slipping the bag over the handle of rolling carry-on luggage. The slip pocket on the flap is perfect for carrying a notepad or other slim items.

Rear Pocket with Cableguy MediumPhone Pocket with a Pelican Card CaseWaterField Cargo Flap Pocket

Releasing the slick paragliding buckle from the leather flap reveals four more pockets: two open-topped pockets, and a zippered pocket with a smaller hanging pocket inside. These front pockets are constructed with a clever natural bulge which pulls the contents outward from the main pocket, effectively minimizing the amount of pressure placed on a computer carried within the main pocket. The open-topped pockets are tall and narrow, and equally split the width of the bag. Each can easily handle an average sized paperback book, point-and-shoot camera, or other small personal electronics. The zippered pocket handles bulky accessories, cables, or chargers and spare batteries with ease. With the smaller hanging pocket, it’s also a great place for a sketchbook and a plethora of pens and pencils.

Under-flap Accessory PocketsUnder-flap Accessory Pockets

Many of the messenger bags I’ve considered share the frustrating trait of a covered main pocket hiding underneath the flap. The Cargo takes a much smarter route, providing direct access to the pocket with a long, smooth, and surprisingly quiet zipper right on top of the bag. Opening the pocket reveals the thick ballistic nylon backbone of the Cargo’s structure, a slim hanging organizer, and a cavernous amount of storage. The organizer is versatile and well thought out, featuring two notepad-sized pockets, a business card holder (made of thick leather to protect the cards), and a pen pocket. While I typically prefer individual pen slots, the pen pocket offers more flexibility and can handle the girth of highlighters, thick stylus, or even a small flashlight. The remaining space of the pocket carries up to a 13-inch notebook (or iPad and full-size keyboard) plus journals, notepads, books, gear pouches, and other accessories. A key clip on a long leash is also included.

Main Pocket Loaded Up

Comfort and Appearance

At a mere 2.2 pounds the Cargo adds very little weight to it’s contents, and is easy to carry by it’s soft, leather-padded handles. The loaded-up bag is very comfortable on the shoulder, even without the removable non-slip shoulder pad’s additional cushion. Despite the bulk contained within the bag it maintains a slim profile and elegant, yet rugged, appearance. The rich leather of the flap contrasts the durable ballistic nylon just right, and the heavy paragliding buckle adds that perfect finishing touch to a bag that is equally at home in basecamp or in a metropolitan office.

Leather-wrapped Handles

WaterField Cargo CarriedParagliding BuckleCord-pull ZipperSpring-loaded Zipper

Quality and Durability

This is a bag that will easily last a lifetime—a good thing, as the Cargo has become my all-time favorite bag. WaterField’s proprietary ballistic nylon shrugged off abuse from surfaces that quickly damaged some of my other “tactical” nylon bags, and after a month of testing, even the bottom of the bag remains blemish-free. The heavy-duty stitching and literally 1/3-inch thick reinforced material at all load-bearing points ensures the bag will handle practically any load that will fit inside.

Is There Any Room for Improvement?

It was exceptionally difficult to find any faults with the Cargo, the bag seems to have an answer for every problem I can come up with. In the end I could only find one minor issue: the lack of a water bottle pocket. It would be nice to see an expandable pocket added on the end of the bag, opposite the phone pocket, for toting a beverage.

One other consideration is just how sharp this bag looks all dressed up in black leather. It’s great around town, but may draw unwanted attention should your journeys take you to points more remote. Fortunately WaterField offers the cargo in several color and material options, including the more casual Indium and Ballistic, many of which are perfect for a field bag.

Where to Buy

Pick up the Cargo directly from WaterField Designs.

Recommended Accessories: Purchase the appropriate size for your needs as a Mambo Combo for the perfect laptop bag, or in Small with a Cableguy (medium) and an iPad Ultimate SleeveCase if you prefer to ditch the heavy laptop and go even lighter.

Mini-Review: The Cableguy (medium)

Cableguy Medium Lead

The Cableguy is intended, as it’s namesake implies, to manage cables, accessories, and smaller items carried in a larger bag like the Cargo. It features two equally sized pockets on each side with smaller divided pockets within. The materials and components are of the same durable, high quality materials as WaterField’s other bags and pouches. Aside from organizing the clutter that comes with portable electronics, the Cableguy also makes a great removable module for the non-airline-compliant portion of your kit—simply slip it out and leave it at home before heading to the airport.

Cableguy as an Emergency KitCableguy as an Emergency Kit

I’m a designer, photographer, author, and adventurist. I’m the lead creative at Layne Studio. I shoot photos for clients in the adventure, automotive, and outdoor industries. I write articles for travel and adventure publications. I make stuff in the Layne Workshop. I’m based out of Prescott, Arizona, but I prefer wanderlust over the comforts of home.