Swedish brand USWE — pronounced ‘oos-way’, which if you were wondering translates to kick-ass in English — has been quietly producing its range of unique trail packs for the motocross, running and cycling markets for years now.
USWE’s bags stand out among the already crowded trail pack market due to the use of the brand’s funky and patented four-point suspension chest harness.
The system looks a little like a five-point seatbelt, with four elastic straps meeting at a large articulated circular buckle just above your sternum. It is designed to stop the pack from moving on your back while riding.
Keen to try out this unique system, I’ve been living with the USWE Airbone 15 for a few months now, taking it on a wide range of rides, from short after-work outings to longer days in the saddle.
I was also invited by USWE and UK distributor Madison, along with a group of other journalists, to Rhayader in mid-Wales to try out the pack and meet the co-founder of the brand, Karl-Johan Engdahl.
Guided by Phil and Polly of MTB Wales, we spent a thoroughly drookit day traversing the high, rolling terrain around the Elan Valley. Also joining us on the ride was USWE sponsored athlete and downhill racing legend Steve Peat.
The trails here are characterised by very open, high-speed and bumpy descents — the ideal sort of terrain to test a bag that claims to be exceptionally stable.
While it was undoubtedly helpful to be able to ask Steve for his thoughts on the bag, having a very, very fast 6ft 3” carrot to chase down the hill certainly pushed me harder than I would usually push, thoroughly testing the stability of both myself and the Airborne 15 in the process.
Unique holding power
Unlike most rucksacks, which take little to no thought to fit, using USWE’s bags is a little bit more fiddling to set up before you hit the trails.
However, once dialled in, the Airborne 15 is the most comfortable and secure pack I’ve ever used.
As I mentioned before, the circular button buckle that attaches the straps together is articulated. I found that this helped to stop any resistance when moving my arms and allowed the already stretchy harness straps to move more freely when my body language on the bike got particularly rude.
The large button is also very easy to fasten and release, even with bulky gloves on.
Once this buckle is fastened, the four harness straps are independently cinched down, with everything being held in place by reassuringly long strips of Velcro.
USWE recommends that you tighten these straps until they feel snug against your chest and the pack feels snug against your back. USWE then recommends that you make any adjustments when actually riding.
Wearing the bag feels a little odd at first because it sits very high on your back and the harness feels quite restrictive, but as soon as I was sat on the bike and adjusted the straps to suit, I barely noticed it.
One unexpected benefit of this high positioning is that the bag doesn’t dig into your coccyx when sat upright on the bike — something I’ve previously suffered from with taller trail packs.
No waist strap? No problem
Coming from a mountaineering background and with a dad who’s pretty opinionated about all things portage — we’re both of the opinion that the Scottish Mountain Gear brand Cuillin is the pinnacle of simple rucksack design — I was pretty skeptical about some of the design choices USWE has made with its packs.
In particular, I found the lack of a waist strap quite alarming. As well as providing support for heavy loads, a waist strap plays an essential role in stabilising a heavier pack.
Despite this omission, I found the Airborne 15 stayed stable throughout the day and remained true to the brand's memorably odd slogan — No More Dancing Monkey. So, with no dancing monkeys jumping around on my back, I felt more able to focus on riding.
As well as resisting up and down movement, I found that the four-way harness also stopped the bag from swinging around from side to side, which is something I’ve experienced with most other trail packs.
Generally, I tested the bag with the 1.5l hydration pack full, a spare tube, tools, a camera, a warm layer and of course, a selection of healthy, well balanced and nourishing trail-side snacks.
With this relatively heavy load — heavy for light trail riding at least — I found the pack remained stable, with no unnecessary strain on my shoulders or back.
The lack of lumbar support means that the system isn’t particularly well suited to carrying very heavy loads, but as USWE’s largest pack has a 15l capacity, you’re unlikely to be lugging the kitchen sink to the trails with one of these bags.
The backplate of the Airbone 9 also isn’t the thickest I’ve seen either, so packing sensibly to avoid lumps and bumps is quite critical.
I’m usually more of a fan of cavernous, single compartment backpacks — I used a truly minimalist Alpkit Gourdon 25 as my trail pack for years — because even if you struggle to find something in a big sack you know that it can only be in one place, unlike a bag full of compartments.
However, I began to appreciate the ability to separate out stuff using the sensibly-large pocket on the outside of the bag.
The weather resistant phone pouch is also particularly handy, although it’s not waterproof
The straps that attach the outer compartment to the bag also double up for helmet carrying duties, but as I’m not quite enduro enough to ride with a full-face helmet, I haven’t had a chance to try out this feature.
I have however taken to stuffing excess gear between the two main sections of the bag — such as a rain jacket, which I might need to access quickly.
The USWE Airborne 9 isn’t rated as waterproof because neither the bag's zips or seams are sealed. However, the bag is constructed from a lightweight, ripstop nylon that is treated with a water-repellent silicone coating that has, thus far, resisted any influx of water.
A separate rain cover can be used if you want to be absolutely sure your stuff will stay dry.
Shape-Shift hydration pack
The pack also includes its own Shape-Shift hydration pack, which in itself is quite unique.
The bladder has a baffle that splits it down its length. This stops water from sloshing around from side to side inside the pack.
The hydration pack opens up fully and uses a funky sliding rail to seal it (think of a very hardy zip-lock sandwich bag).
While this looks a little alarming at first, I’m a huge fan of this design because it allows you to really, really give the bladder a proper good scrub should things begin to smell a bit foosty.
The hose for the bladder is routed over your right-hand shoulder and held in place by a clip located next to the main buckle. This clip is positioned quite far down your chest, so I found I needed to unclip the hose to take a drink. Annoying, but not a deal breaker.
A truly innovative pack
I really like the USWE Airborne 15. It’s barely noticeable when riding and it’s not until you’ve used one that you realise quite how much a regular trail pack moves about while riding.
Also, when you consider that it is every bit as good at carrying stuff as other trail packs, the Airborne 15 really begins to stand out.
So, if you’re looking for a truly stable and comfortable rucksack that’s roughly the same price as the competition, the USWE Airborne should be high on your list.