A few months ago I replaced my Cabin Max Metz cabin-sized backpack. The Cabin Max was spacious and ideally suited to carry the maximum amount of hand luggage on a low-cost flight, but it wasn’t very comfortable to wear. I wanted a backpack that was useful for transporting my stuff by plane without checking it, but that I could also carry for hours when hiking. After some research I bought the Quechua Forclaz 40 Air hiking backpack. I’ve taken my new backpack on four trips now, each of between five days and three weeks in length, and that has given me enough experience with it to write a review.
The Forclaz Air 40 is made for comfort. The back panel is spaced about 3cm from your back by a polyester mesh with 6 foam spacing blocks. This allows air to circulate and keeps your back from getting all sweaty. I found that the spacing blocks would at times exert slightly more pressure than normal on points of my back, but this is more made up for by the improved air flow.
There is a padded hip belt which comfortably puts most of the weight on your hips rather than on your shoulders, which is important when you’re carrying a heavily loaded pack for more than an hour. The shoulder straps are also well padded and don’t chafe against your skin. I did find that the backpack seems aimed at people who are shorter than me. I’m 1.86m tall (6’2″), and unless I adjust the shoulder straps to maximum length it feels like the weight is transferred from my hips to my shoulders. It’s still confortable enough to carry the pack adjusted this way, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone taller.
The backpack is very easy to access. Technically it’s a top loader, but because there’s a two-way zipper running all the way down along the front of the pack, you can access any part of the main compartment without taking out all of your stuff. One might argue that it’s a little too easy to access the backpack, especially when walking around in crowded urban spaces. Avoid putting any valuables in the front part of the main compartment.
The main compartment is one big space with just one internal pocket directly against the back panel. This pocket was designed to hold a camelback water sack (like the Platypus), but I use it to store my laptop. Since my laptop is usually the heaviest item I’m carrying, it’s ideal to have it as close to my back as possible. Also, it makes it impossible to take out the laptop without me noticing it.
On either side of the pack you’ll find a long zippered compartment. These are ideal for items that you need readily accessible. I tend to use one for computer gear (cables, chargers, removable media, etc.) and the other for outdoor gear (my Swiss army knife, rope, headlamp, etc.). On each side you’ll also find a stretchable mesh pocket that easily fits a small water bottle. Finally there’s a handy small pocket on the hip belt, which can just hold a smartphone, a set of keys, and a folded map.
This backpack clearly wasn’t designed for the urban traveller. There is no organization for things like passports, pens, paper, and other small office items. You’ll either have to bunch them together in one of the smaller pockets, or provide your own organization sleeve to put inside the pack. Still, unless you’re packing for a day full of business meetings, the pack is sufficient to secure some office supplies.
Because of the 3 cm airspace between the back panel and the mesh, the Quechua takes up relatively much room for the amount of space inside the main compartment. Compared to a pack like the Cabin Max Metz, you’re sacrificing some packing space for greater wearing comfort.
What I absolutely love about the Forclaz is the top compartment. When empty, it rests nearly flat against the backpack, allowing it to fit within airline maximum carry-on dimensions. But when full, it gives the pack another 8 litres or so of packing space. Because of the adjustable closing strap on the front, the top compartment fits snugly in any configuration. You can also easily stow a jacket or sweater under the top compartment for easy access.
On the under-side of the top compartment you’ll find a thin zipped mesh compartment for papers. A back-facing zipper with an extra velcro-closing inner pocket creates a safe space for your valuables. Altogether you get 40 litres of packing space when the bag is fully expanded. On top of that the pack features some elastic straps that allow you to attach a sleeping mat or tent. This should be enough for a catered hiking trip or extended urban travel.
The Forclaz Air 40 comes with a rain cover to help you keep your stuff dry when walking in the rain. It’s also useful to protect your pack when checking it into the hold of a plane or bus. The rain cover is separate rather than integrated, so you can choose to leave it at home when travelling to the desert. You could easily buy a separate rain cover for any backpack, but the advantage of the one that comes with the Quechua is that it fits snugly. Also it saves you $20 or so.
This backpack is available in two colors: mint-and grey or black-and-red. I like neither. The black/red one is too conspicuous, while the mint/grey one looks a tad girly. I bought the girly one, choosing functionality over looks, but Quechua could have done a better job on this.
In Europe the Quechua is sold by Decathlon for 50-57 euros, depending on your country (about $63-70). Unfortunately they don’t ship to the US, so you’ll either have to pick it up on a trip to Europe, or buy it on Amazon at the local price of $110.
The Quechua Forclaz 40 Air is an excellent hiking backpack for shorter trips that don’t require cooking, camping, or heavy outdoor gear. It’s size is just about perfect. When compressed it’s small enough to be taken as hand luggage on board an airplane, while when fully expanded it offers plenty of space for all your packing needs. The bag could have featured some more internal organization, but even without that it’s a fine choice for the light traveller. At $110 it’s worth the price difference with cheaper backpacks like the Cabin Max Metz for the added comfort.