Review of Black Diamond Distance 15 and Osprey Daylite Packs (for run commuting)

The Black Diamond Distance 8 and 15 packs recently came out. My first impression of the Distance 15 is that it could be a strong contender to de-throne the Osprey Daylite as a favorite run commuting pack. My first impression of the 8L was that it was obviously too small to hold a laptop and other stuff I need. I’m sending it back unopened.

About the Black Diamond Distance 8, I’ll briefly say this: It costs about the same as the Distance 15, it weighs about the same as the Distance 15, but it carries only about half as much. The Distance 15 comfortably handles with small or mostly empty loads. The Distance 8 is more of a single-use product while the Distance 15 while find users around town as well as on the trails.

I’ve been using the Osprey Daylite pack for almost 5 years for run commuting with a small laptop. It’s been totally great and is an amazing deal at about $50.

I’ve been running more frequently recently and bought a second pack to give the Daylite more of a chance to make it through the laundry cycle. Having all my gear smell great after running to the office is a priority!

I often considered just getting a second Daylite, but stayed on the hunt for another backpack that would have basically the same feature set, but add one feature I wanted: pockets up front.

Easy access to the storage isn’t that important for the relatively short runs to work, but my perfect pack would be able to serve double duty as a “race vest”. Now popular in trail marathons and ultra-distance events, race vests move water storage up into soft flasks in the front pockets, rather than using hydration bladder on the back. Water party up front, still all-business cargo storage in the back. Many race vests don’t offer enough storage in the back for run commuting, but my perfect pack would.

Now let’s move to highlighting some details about the Distance 15 that you won’t find in the brief product descriptions about it on the internet.

Carrying a laptop

I’ve tested the Distance 15 with carrying either a Dell XPS 13 and a Google Pixelbook in the hydration sleeve. Both fit. It’s cozy. Don’t expect a husky 15” to fit. I measure the interior back of the size Large at roughly 14” tall, 8.5” across, tapering down to about 7”. The mesh fabric of the hydration sleeve is stretchy, so you can exceed these dimensions a bit.

Distance 15 with XPS 13 laptop

Carrying a wallet and keys

Officially there is a wallet-and-key pocket in the interior. You can see it above, because I generously turned the pack inside out to photograph the delicate bits for you.

For run commuting, there’s no need to fill the front pockets with snacks and drinks and it’s way it’s way more convenient to keep wallet and keys up there. Check this out: there’s a hidden safety whistle in one of the front pockets. It’s on a loop that perfect for hooking keys to:

I endorse Yubikey for more secure authentication.

I put a minimal Corkor wallet right in the same pocket. This way I’m prepared for the dystopian future of needing to stop and pay to use privatized toilet in the future. Just kidding. Hopefully not. Having my wallet and keys up front reduces wallet-and-key anxiety. After a hurried launch in the morning or a tired exit in the evening I may find I haven’t been mindful about stuffing all my gear in pack. Did I pack the wallet? Did I pack the keys? With those babies are up front nestled in my bosom I can just give them a quick pat to know that they are safely on board without breaking stride.

Carrying bananas and machetes

I’ll get fat snacking on nuts on my desk, but bananas are a pretty perfect snack. The trick is to carry the bananas in a way that’s supportive, without too much bounce.

In the Daylite, bananas nestle nicely in the side back. Remember to point to the stems away from your arms to avoid scratches. Just saying. If you have your banana spoon an apple in there, that works pretty well too.

I’ve confirmed the Distance 15 stores bananas fine in front, although I feel a little bit forward point bananas at people like that. The lacey see-through mesh doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

Apples are fine as a bottom-pocket fruit.

When you are carrying your apples and bananas up front and exposed like this, you might be worried about apple and banana theft.

So on your behalf, I’ve tested carrying three large machetes in the pack for apple-and-banana self defense.

The Distance 15 has special sleeves for trekking poles, but no respectable run commuter treks 3 miles to work with poles. We don’t want people to think we are weird!  These pole sleeves are also the perfect place to store and quickly deploy machetes.

Here I demonstrate how to startle a would-be banana thief with efficient machete deployment:

You’re welcome. And no, you can’t store bananas in the trekking pole slots. The slots are two narrow. The banana might fit, but you’ll never be able to reach your the bottom and get it.

Update: I was wrong. You can totally store bananas in the trekking pole sleeves on days you don’t run with machetes.

Carrying hard bottles and other brands of soft flasks

I should have saved the saved the machetes for last, because the review can only get less interesting from here. Nevertheless, I persist.

Black Diamond would like to see you another $40 worth of Black Diamond soft flasks to go with the pack, but I didn’t bite. I did check to see if some bottles I already have at home fit in the front pocket, and they do.

Here you see a 1 liter Smartwater bottle in one photo and a 27 oz Gregory bottle in another photo. These are both fit snug. So snug that I don’t expect you could fit much of anything in the second mesh pocket on the same side up front. That’s the breaks.

Update: actually trying to run a hard bottle up front was a bust. Super sloshy. Maybe it works for hiking. Now I see why they sell soft flasks for this!

If you want to try a different brand of soft flask, the packaging lists the dimensions  as 105mm x 170mm.

You don’t need to carry water for typical run commuting distances of 3 to 5 miles, but if you take your bananas on a long trail run, you’ll want water to go with them.

Bouncing, sweating and chafing

The incumbent Daylite rides pretty perfectly. I’ve run a 6:15 mile with it and used it for a trail marathon as well. Bounce is minimal and chafing hasn’t been a problem. Yes, there’s back sweat when running the pack. It’s not magical.

But look at the backside of the Distance 15. Check out all that airflow potential. Could it be magical?

Distance 15 on the left, Daylite on the right.

No, the Distance 15 is not magical.  First, the Distance 15 rides a couple inches higher. I know this because I wore the Daylite so much is wore a hole in the midback of a favorite shirt. As long as I keep wearing the Daylite over the hole, I’m good. But the Distance 15 clearly exposes the hole below it. No bueno.

Also, the Daylite has a waist belt, securing the pack at the bottom. The Distance 15 has a second chest strap.

So far I’ve done just about six runs with the Distance 15, and it seems to have a bit more bounce than the Daylite, especially with a heavier load. The Distance 15 has plenty of elastic to snug-in the fit, but I think this is a fundamental design issue with a higher center of gravity.

It also relates to what I’m about to tell you next.

The amazing-looking back panel on the Distance 15 isn’t amazing, it’s flawed. Last night I was jogging home with full load with the Distance 15 and one of the ribs of the back was starting to chafe across my shoulder blade as it moved up and down. I was able to adjust the fit some on go to minimize the movement, but it was still annoying. The open back design ends up concentrating the weight across these ribs. While the Daylite design would slide up and down your back, the Distance 15 is more like a rake.

You may be thinking “No probs for me, I’ll cut my own artisanal foam shape to jam in there!”. Nope. The Daylite foam pad is removable for washing or to use it as a sit pad. The Distance 15 pad is permanently sewn into the pack. I repeat, the Distance 15 back pad is not a user-serviceable part. But hey, if you want to cut the pack open, change the pad and sew it closed again, let me know how that goes.

Hopefully this will improve as the pack gets broken in, but Black Diamond definitely gets a demerit for imprisoning the back pad.

Stuff Off!

Last night I stuffed this “15 liter” pack to the gills. I even filled up the “bonus neck” with stuff. Here’s how the pack looked maxed out.

Since the pack was marketed as holding 15 liters compared to Daylite’s 13 liters, I was curious how this load compared. So like so many other run commuters on a Friday night, I carefully removed all my stuff from one backpack and put it another one. You see above the Daylite stuffed with the same load, with a 1 liter Smartwater bottle for scale.

Turns out they hold basically the same amount of stuff– And Yes this includes filling up the pocket storage on both as well.

Durability

If you are still reading this, thank you for your durability. You are an endurance reader.

Black Diamond touts the “stronger than steel” shell of the Distance 15. OK, but the rest of the pack includes eight elastic straps or cords, generous amounts of peek-a-boo thin mesh and a wispy nylon top.

By contrast, about every other corresponding piece of the Daylite is made of a more heavy-duty material. The Daylite only uses elastic in the side-pocket mesh. Despite this, the Daylite manages to weigh about the same (16 oz vs 14 oz) and costs less than half as much.

I estimate I’ve run about 4,000 miles with the Daylite over close to 5 years and it has no major wear problems. Time will tell how the Distance 15 holds up.

Waterproofness

I dutifully put my Distance 15 under the faucet the first I day got it and turned on the water. The water ran right off the back material and didn’t even leave it wet. A+.

Unfortunately the pack wouldn’t fare as well when upright. The fancy back material doesn’t even attempt to fully cover the top of the pack. There will always be this nylon exposed. Maybe it has a DWR coating on it. When cinched close, it tends to form a bowl shape… with a hole at the bottom heading into the pack. Also, there is an intentional hole the top of the pack a potential hydration hose to go through.

The Daylite avoid puncturing the roof the pack by putting the hydration sleeve on the the outside of the pack.

This may sound like a dire state of waterproofing, but it’s not. When I carry anything I don’t want to get wet in the Daylite I put it in a waterproof dry bag inside the pack. I’ll do the same with the Distance 15. I’ll expect they’ll both keep out incidental rain but not a deluge.

For the record, the Daylite comes with a waterproof coating on the inside of the pack. Like about every waterproof coating, it wears off over time.

Update: I ran to work with the Distance 15 in a steady rain. In a brand-new state, a few drops of water came in through the top and there was a damp spot inside the pack on the bottom.

To digress just a bit, I love the Sea to Summit Lightweight 8L Dry Bags for waterproofing inside these packs. I often use one on dry days to protect my laptop from my lunch. I do not recommend Sea to Summit’s “Ultra-Sil” line. I got a hole in one of those puppies almost immediately as it bounced and chafed against my lunch container. Sea to Summit’s lightweight line lasted multiple years before developing tiny holes and only weighs a bit more. Usually one is sufficient. Not everything needs to be waterproofed.

Aside: The Perfect Size for a Run Commuting Pack

If the pack is too small, your work clothes won’t fit, you’ll be late to the office and be fired. If the pack is too large, you’ll pack that extra smoothie bowl you don’t need. You’ll end up getting cranky and injured, throw the pack in a dumpster and give up run commuting. So it’s really important to get the right size pack. In nearly five years of run commuting, the ~13 liter size of the Daylite has been perfect. When full, it still runs comfortably. If you live in New York and need to pack Peter Parker’s winter parka, maybe you’ll want a bigger pack. But ~13 liters is a sweet spot for getting the job done and enjoying the run.

If you don’t run every day, you can bring bigger loads to the office with extra food and clothing on your non-running days.

Alternatives & Conclusion

As you can guess by now, the Distance 15 is not as perfect as I’d hoped. I think it could work well for long trail adventures with light loads while also being adequate for run commuting. Will it replace the Daylite as my preferred daily run commuting pack? Hard to say.

If neither of these packs are perfect, is there one I missed? Does my perfect run commuting pack exist?

Given my love for the Daylite’s fit and function, I had checked out the Duro 15 when it came out. It rides lower like a backpack with a waist belt instead of a second chest strap. I think I would like that. I wrote it off because it weighe a honking 1.7 lbs. It’s currently on sale at 50% for $70. It’s a good deal if you don’t mind the weight. I mean, for that weight you can buy a 36 liter pack that includes pockets up front and a waist belt to boot– the Gossamer Gear Kumo.

Somehow I managed to miss the release of the Osprey Duro 15 with 2.5L Reservoir. You might forgive me thinking it was a black version of the prior Duro 15. This newer iteration of the Duro 15 weighs in at 1.1 lbs. Much better– and only a fraction more than the Daylite. It has the fit and design details I love, while adding six pockets easily accessible up front.

If you want to be daring and choose “None of the above”, try that the Duro 15 and let me know how it goes!

I post my run commutes on Strava, like yesterday’s 7 mile run commute to get a 5k, where I placed fourth then took a more scenic route home.


First look at the Kona Electric Ute

[NOTE: I originally posted this article on June 15, 2010.  In mid-August, Kona officially added the Electric Ute to its 2011 catalog (here).  I’ve re-edited the article to incorporate new information and correct a few mistaken assumptions on my part.  I compare the Ute to the latest version of the Yuba elMundo and the upcoming Trek Transport+ here.]

One of our local bike shops (Alki Bike and Board) received its first Kona Electric Ute on Saturday.  The owner knew that I was keenly interested in taking this bike for a test drive, and he immediately notified me of its arrival.  I got to the shop while they were putting the final touches on the bike assembly.

The Kona Electric Ute will have a chapter in the history of cargo biking, because it is one of the first cargo bikes from a well-known manufacturer that includes an electric motor as an integrated option.  Most of the electric-assisted cargo bikes currently on the road are after-market builds, which makes them more complicated and expensive for the average consumer.  With a retail price of $2599, the Ute is considerably less expensive than my Rans Hammer Truck / BionX motor combination.  The question is, did Kona skimp on anything to hit that price target?  Does it still feel like a quality ride?  Could I use this bike to do the same chores I do on my bike?

First impressions

The Ute is a good-looking bike, with golden paint (but not too flashy) and a nice, thick wooden cargo deck mounted on top of the long, thin battery.  It’s not an Xtracycle, and it hardly looks like a long-tail bike.  It’s not just nicely-proportioned; the weight is well distributed between the front and rear (by contrast, my bike is quite tail-heavy if you try to pick it up).  The Ute is also quite light for an electric cargo bike.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a scale to get an accurate measurement, but I estimate it weighs about 45 pounds.

Kona Electric Ute

Cargo deck

Despite the Ute’s pleasing proportions, the cargo deck is quite long.  It provided ample room to seat both my children during our test ride.  However, it’s several inches narrower than mine, and the kids complained that it wasn’t as comfortable to ride on.

The owner of the shop was surprised that the Ute came with a triple chain ring on the cranking end, including a large top gear that should take you up to 30 mph if you feel the need for speed.  A handsome seat, dual kickstand, front and rear fenders, and a handlebar-mounted warning bell are other nice touches that enhance a general impression of a bike that hasn’t been nickled-and-dimed to hit a price target.  The bike comes with one pannier bag (not shown here).  A second will cost $80.  Of course, you’ll still need to buy lights, but it’s possible you could hit the road with this bike for under $3000.  That’s a few hundred more than the Yuba elMundo, but that’s a very different bike.

On the question of quality, my first concern was the brakes: a rim brake on the front and disc brake on the back.  It appears the front rim brake is necessary to make room for the hub motor.  It’s not obvious how you could install a disc brake without changing the motor as well.

How critical is a front disc brake?  That depends on your situation.  If you intend to carry big loads down steep hills, the rim brake will be an issue.  The rim on the Ute looks pretty durable, but it’s hard to know how it would wear under heavy use.  In my opinion, Kona wasn’t trying to build the ultimate hill-hauling machine with the Ute.  If that’s what you’re looking for, there are other bikes to consider.

Motor

Hub motor and rim brake

The Ute’s 250-watt front hub motor looked tiny compared to the 350-watt BionX motor I use.  Could a motor this small really help with big loads and big hills?  I took it on a  ride around the neighborhood to find out.

On flat terrain, the motor behaves much like mine.  With these motors assisting your legs, it’s not always clear what gear you should use.  Many times you can shift into a higher gear than normal, and the motor makes up the difference in effort.  You don’t even have to down-shift when coming to a stop, because the motor will help you start again.

But there were some differences too.  Unlike the unusually quiet BionX, the Kona motor always lets you know it’s there.  It emits a sound that I can best describe as a moistened finger rubbing across glass — sort of a cat-like mewling.  It’s not an unpleasant electric whine, but it’s a noise you probably wouldn’t miss if you turned the motor off and pedaled along without it.

Like my bike, the Kona motor is activated by pedaling, not by a handlebar throttle.  There’s always some debate about whether a throttle or pedal activation is better.  Since I’m used to pedal activation, I’ll admit being partial to it.  Kona says they use a “Dutch design TMM torque sensor” to determine how hard you’re pedaling and how much additional assistance to kick in with the motor.  During my ride it worked pretty smoothly, but wasn’t quite as responsive as the BionX system.  In some cases, the motor continued to pull for several seconds after I had stopped pedaling.  When you apply the brakes, the motor stops immediately, but I’m not sure how it knows to do that.

Another difference is motor vibration.  With the motor directly under the handlebars, I felt small vibrations from this motor more distinctly than I do from mine.  Is this a showstopper?  Not at all.  But does it diminish the illusion of bionic legs propelling me smoothly and quietly down the road?  Well, yeah.

To test the bike’s hill-climbing abilities, I found a pretty steep section of road — several hundred yards at maybe 15% grade.  My first attempt was successful, and the motor provided welcome help on the steep incline.  I had to pedal a little harder than my bike, but in hindsight I realize I had the motor set on the middle assistance level.  Changing to the highest assistance level might have provided more help.  However, a fist-sized hub motor isn’t going to perform miracles.  I decided to repeat the experiment so my wife could take some video of it.  On my second ascent, the motor suddenly shut off about half-way up the hill.  This was disconcerting — I’ve never experienced anything like that with the BionX motor.  Thinking I had done something wrong, I made another attempt in a lower gear, but this time the motor was comatose during the entire effort.

Now I was worried that I had damaged something.  Fortunately, the motor came back to life on the flat roads back to the bike shop.  I am now pretty sure that the controller was purposely shutting down the motor to prevent damage from overheating.  Unfortunately, there is no indicator on the Ute’s display that the motor is in an overheated state.  Because of that, you’ll worry if it ever  happens to you (which it may not).  After a little cooling break, everything should return to normal.

Battery / controller

Battery

I’m pretty excited about the Ute’s battery.  It is nicely integrated in the bike, and it’s big enough to provide ample range.  The battery can be removed and taken to your office for charging, or it can be charged on the bike.

Although I didn’t have time to test it, the combination of a big battery and a small-ish motor should theoretically give the Ute good range on a single battery charge.  The rider can adjust the assistance level by quick taps of the power switch behind the handlebar display.  Obviously, range will increase with a lighter level of assistance.

The system uses a separate controller box mounted on the main stem above the crank, but it’s smaller and more refined than the Stoke Monkey controller.  The handlebar display shows battery status, speed, mileage, and assistance level.

The bike

Handlebar display

Due to the battery cut-out issue, I didn’t have the opportunity to haul a load up a hill.  For my purposes, that would have been the most interesting (and most strenuous) part of my test drive.  In lieu of that, I put both kids on the cargo deck (about 140 pounds total) and rode some laps around the parking lot.  The bike handled this test well — no squeaks, no noticeable flexing, and no balance issues with the heavy load and high center of gravity.

Of course, cruising on this bike is the easy part.  Starting and stopping was a slight challenge for me, because I’m accustomed to the low step-down of my Hammer Truck.  With the Ute, I have to jump off the seat, tip the bike slightly (not a good idea with kids on the deck), or reach a tip-toe down.  Despite a few wobbly moments, I felt pretty stable with the kids on the back.

But I probably wouldn’t make a habit of transporting more than one child on this bike.  I carry both kids down our hill on my Hammer Truck, but I keep it slow — around 10 mph.  Even with regenerative braking engaged, the brakes can get pretty hot.  Attempting that trip with the Ute’s brakes would cause too much anxiety.

Conclusions

The end

Although it has been helpful for me to structure this review using comparisons to my own bike, it’s not entirely fair given the Ute’s significantly lower price.  I am personally excited by the Ute’s value and the potential to expand the cargo biking market.

Video review

If you want to see some clips of the bike in action, check out the video version of my review: