#12: We Need a Better Bag: an open letter to designers of backpacks

Dear Designers, Makers, and Other Handy Peoples of the World:

 

I am writing because I believe there is a type of gear that should exist, but does not. Actually, there are several of those, but there is one whose non-existence is a problem for me every single day. A product that I’m certain would be very popular, and could garner you both great love and profit:

a really great pet-carrying backpack, designed to meet the needs of both the animal being carried and the human doing the carrying.

Such a thing simply does not exist, even though there is a clear and growing demand for such a product.

 This is the carrier we've been using for the last couple years. It's okay. Aífe's quite happy in it, but it could be better for me... (photo at Limerick City Gallery on my birthday this year)

This is the carrier we've been using for the last couple years. It's okay. Aífe's quite happy in it, but it could be better for me... (photo at Limerick City Gallery on my birthday this year)

I have been exploring the world with my cat for a while now. I grew up near the Gulf of Alaska, she grew up around the San Francisco Bay. In the last three years since we left California, we’ve bounced around between Oregon, Germany, and Ireland. And we’ve gone several other places along the way. In addition to our big schleps, we try to get out and investigate a little bit locally most days. I’ve leash trained her, and bring her with me on walks, errands, hikes, train journeys, and bicycle rides. I need a carrier that I can take on all of these outings, as well as on planes and ferries.

 

I’ve tried a few carriers over the years, and can’t find any that aren’t painful for me in one way or another. I’m beyond delighted that I have a good and brave little friend that I can take places, and I want to take her everywhere possible! But I’m finding that each day I weigh my desire to take her with me against my desire not to end up in pain.

 This is my shoulder, two days after a day-long trip with my cat. It was hot out, so I stripped down to my tank top for part of the day. The skin on both shoulders was rubbed raw, and the whole shoulder/back area is still tender from carrying her lop-sided all day. 

This is my shoulder, two days after a day-long trip with my cat. It was hot out, so I stripped down to my tank top for part of the day. The skin on both shoulders was rubbed raw, and the whole shoulder/back area is still tender from carrying her lop-sided all day. 

I need a carrier that is safe for me as well as my cat. One that I can carry without the straps shredding the skin of my shoulders. One where I don’t have to carry all the weight on one side, fucking up my neck, shoulders, and back. One that she can ride in comfortably, that lets her see out and lets air in. That can hold her securely when we’re in a busy station, but that I can let her hop in and out easily when we’re in a park. One that can offer her some shelter when we get caught out in a hail storm, but that won’t cause her to smother in summer (panels that zip down with mesh underneath are always a great option). One that is within the carryon requirements for airlines, but that I could also hike with up a muddy mountain trail.

 

And I know that I’m not the only person out there who would buy such a product. People are spending money on their pets like never before. Americans alone spent nearly $63 billion on their pets last year; a number that keeps jumping up steadily by about $2 billion every single year. We're also moving around with them like never before. It is increasingly common for people to relocate across great distances for work and love, and we’re also traveling more and farther than ever in history. There is a desire to escape from our ‘normal’ lives, and take our pets with us. Take one look at Instagram, and you’ll find that this is in fact The New American Dream: living out of a __ (RV, tiny house, cabin, boat), and going on __ (hiking, sailing, skiing, road-tripping) adventures, with your pet __ (dog, cat, hedgehog, raccoon). 

 

It isn’t only Americans who would buy this product. Whilst out walking with my cat, I’ve spoken to people from many countries, and many times the conversation has turned to commiserating over how impossible it is to find a carrier that isn’t horrible.

 

There are many factors making movement with animals easier these days. The European Union is lowering barriers to inter-country travel with pets, getting rid of quarantine periods, and even letting veterinarians issue free ‘pet passports’. In the US, AmTrak is allowing pets on some of its routes for the first time ever. Many shops, hotels, and even restaurants, are doing their best to advertise themselves as ‘pet friendly’. Animal welfare groups, behaviorists, and veterinarians are issuing new and better guidance on how to train pets for more sociable lives, as well as for better emergency preparedness.

 Aífe is an excellent companion on train rides. 

Aífe is an excellent companion on train rides. 

As I said, the internet is alive with pictures of people rambling all over the world with their pets. But if you look, you’ll notice that almost every photo of an outdoor enthusiast carrying their cat or small dog shows the animal just dangling out of the human’s regular daypack, or perched on top. Because there aren’t any quality pet carriers that are at all comfortable for the long haul. They just aren’t around. There are lots of pet carriers, but, unfortunately, they are almost universally rubbish to actually carry.

 

What’s wrong with them? Well…

1. Almost all pet carriers are designed to be carried on the side. Which is fine to heave in and out of a car, but absolutely wrecks your shoulders and back after a couple of miles.

2. The they are almost always cumbersome to carry. There are hard plastic carriers, made of metal or thick plastic. They are heavy, and only ever have hard, short handles that only allow you to carry the thing at an awkward angle. There are also soft carriers, usually made of combinations of mesh, canvas, foam, plastic, etc. These have longer handles and straps, but they are usually pretty heavy as well, and the straps tend to dig painfully into the shoulder, and are usually of a length and angle that swings the animal back and forth as you walk, bashing them against your hip or thigh with every step. In spite of their substantial bulk and weight, they are often not very sturdy, and the bottoms sometimes bow and sag under the weight of the animal, which is no fun for them.

3. Part of what makes soft carriers bulky is that they tend to have big pockets all over them (like a diaper bag). These pockets hinder the animal’s vision and airflow. And even if you use the pockets, the items tend to bulge into the animal’s space inside, and just make the bag heavier and more burdensome to carry to the side anyhow.

4. It’s also quite hard to find bags that are big enough for a full-grown cat, but small enough to be allowed onto a plane (carry-on restrictions tend to be around 21”x15”x8”)

5. Very occasionally, you can find pet carriers as backpacks, but I’ve only ever seen them online. They are always from ‘brands’ you’ve never heard of, available on Amazon and eBay through strange Chinese distributors, and the reviews generally paint a picture of them being as cheap as they look in the photos. Mostly they’re designed for novelty purposes, rather than utility. Like the brand U-Pet, who make those backpacks where cats can only see out of rounded plastic bubbles, which are meant to look like astronauts’ portholes. Which makes for a funny photo, but not the best time for the cat inside (or the human hauling it, for that matter).

 

The only major gear brand that has tried to take this need seriously, so far as I have been able to find, is Timbuk2. Which makes sense, because Timbuk2 are always making cool bags, and they are based in San Francisco, a city whose concentration of innovators and pet-lovers is second to none, while car ownership is relatively low by American standards. In fact, Timbuk2 are already on their second version of the Muttmover backpack. Muttmover packs are priced at $118, and have been known to sell faster than Timbuk2 can keep them in stock on their website.

 

The problem with the Muttmover is that the layout is not great. Not for what I’m looking for. The entire back of the pack is covered in big, bulky pockets, so there is virtually no way for the animal to look around unless they hang their head out the side of the bag. The bag is designed to let them do this, which is great, but still, it means that they can barely see out at all from within the bag, and they will be hanging out sideways they entire trip, which will make for a lopsided distribution of weight. And which might be safe enough for a ‘mutt’, but sounds quite tricky with a cat. It’s a black pack as well, so I imagine this layout gets hot and stuffy for the animal inside (and overheating is a big concern with taking pets out in summer, particularly cats). The dimensions (13.8”x18.9”x6.3”) are well below carry-on limits, which is great. The pack weighs 2.6 pounds though, which isn’t terrible, but about a pound more than both my cat’s soft-sided carrier and the REI daypack that I sometimes carry her in. And believe me, when you’re carrying a wriggling beastie around all day, the weight really adds up.

 Centering the weight of her makes a HUGE difference. Notice that I've got two packs on: one for the cat, and one on my back for my other gear. Pretty cool, huh? Well, sometimes you gotta work with what you've got.

Centering the weight of her makes a HUGE difference. Notice that I've got two packs on: one for the cat, and one on my back for my other gear. Pretty cool, huh? Well, sometimes you gotta work with what you've got.

So if any of you out there are:

a) good at making things, or

b) affiliated with any companies that make great backpacks (REI, Patagonia, Timbuk2, The North Face, Osprey, Kelty, Marmot, Eagle Creek, Mountain Hardwear, Columbia, Freitag, Crumpler, Poler, Nike, etc.)

can you please help me make this dream product a reality? If we can have backpacks specially designed for carting around babies and laptops, surely we can get one for our pets. I need this pack yesterday, and I know there are lots of other humans and furry companions out there who would also benefit tremendously from its invention. I have zero seamstress skills, and my natural inclination is to try to fix all things by attacking them with scissors and duct tape. So I very much need you, clever makers of useful objects, to help me here. But I have schlepped my cat through all manner of terrain and transport, and have shed blood, sweat, tears, and vomit along the way. And backpacks are one of the only consumer goods that I have a legitimate fetish for. Which means I can help brainstorm, prototype, and road-test until the cows come home. Let’s put our noodles together, and see what happens. Please?

 I'll carrier in whatever I have to. But doesn't this curious kitty deserve a kick-ass carrier? 

I'll carrier in whatever I have to. But doesn't this curious kitty deserve a kick-ass carrier?