Tropicfeel shell first impression: Can the £1.6million Kickstarter backpack live up to the hype?

First I have to apologise for not posting last week. Northern Ireland has rarely got some sun and the general nice weather called for a break in work haha. Anyway, speaking of a break, I have been planning for a few trips this coming month. So this backpack that I ordered on Kickstarter back in November 2020 arrived quite on time. 

Shell, was a backpack kickstart project by the company, Tropicfeel. Tropicfeel have had a few successful Kickstarter projects and this time they took on the challenge to design a travel backpack that can do it all. Claiming “A backpack for a lifetime, designed to meet modern-day travellers’ needs, from your daily journey to work to long-distance hikes across the country.” While the backpack itself seems to be versatile enough with it able to be expanded into different sizes, it’s their new “wardrobe system” that drew me in. I have always been on the lookout for a perfect backpack, can this be one?

Kickstarter experience

Before I even start on the backpack itself, I have something to say about the whole experience. The product aside, what Tropicfeel should have learned from this project is to handle expectations. The decision to change backpack materials and design after the project was fully funded without allowing backers input and delays for more than 3 months with suboptimal communication are the two main points for criticism.

It is not uncommon for a project to evolve with feedback from backers, however, Tropicfeel decision to change metal buckles to plastic and laptop compartment closure system to Velcro is very debatable. They claim the metal buckle is prone to scratches therefore chose the plastic, and laptop compartment closure system change due to early failure from misuse. I mean metal to plastic sounds like a downgrade, and Velcro has a limited lifespan with or without “misuse” which counts as “normal wear and tear” therefore not included in their lifetime warranty. Even if they have a good reason, the way they have done it only makes backer feels they are trying to squeeze every penny out by sacrificing quality.

Delays are also very common and happen to most Kickstart projects. But Tropicfeel could have put in for effort to keep progress transparent. UK delivery was severely delayed due to customs paperwork error (ah well shit happens) and “last-minute” decision of opening UK warehouse because of Brexit… Last-minute – I mean Brexit isn’t exactly news.

Tropicfeel has done a lot right, they just need to fine-tune their customer service by keeping communication more transparent, and they will have an even brighter future.

First look 

As a backpack of a “lifetime”, I decided to stick with the boring, inoffensive all-black colourway. The last thing you want is to choose a “fashionable” colour that ends up going out of fashion in a few years and become an eyesore. 

The materials feel nice to touch and premium as you would expect for a backpack in this price range. Weatherproof material means no need for a rain cover for rainy days.

Accessories 

In my opinion, the accessories stole the spotlight from the backpack a little bit. 

Wardrobe system

The wardrobe system is essentially the IKEA RASSLA storage unit with some clever twist. It has some flexible dividers to compartmentalise the “wardrobe”. The compression strap on the side help saves you up to 20% more space in the bag. And the adjustable loop at the top allows you to hang it anywhere you like. I like this idea better than the compression packing cubes on the market because you can just hang it up to have access to all your clothes with one glace without having to permanently sacrifice surface space to achieve the same easy access with multiple packing cubes. Easy to set up, easy to pack away as well.

Camera cube

I don’t have a lot of camera gear but they still need protection from my other belongings. The camera cube comes with adjustable dividers for easy customisation and a shoulder strap that can quickly convert the camera cube insert into a small, stand-alone camera bag. Very handy for when arriving at the destination and just want to grab your camera and go without having to bring the whole bag with you.

Fidlock toiletry and tech pouch

Since I already have my trusty Bellroy tech pouch, I didn’t bother getting an extra tech pouch but opted for the toiletry pouch. The magnetic Fidlock mechanism attaches it to the front of the bag very easily. Also, who doesn’t love a good magnet snap?

My thought so far

I haven’t been able to use the backpack extensive enough to give a review yet with work and lockdown. But here are a few first impressions from some quick test drive short trip:

Love:

  1. Hidden pockets. Apart from the top pocket for quick access to small gadgets. There are additional 2 extra hidden pockets that can use to store more important and personal things like your wallet and passport.
  2. Weatherproofing from the get-go. Rain covers always annoy me because it is so fiddly and make getting things from the bag just that much more faff.
  3. The bottom expandable kangaroo pouch is also a very nice feature, giving you about 6L extra volume. Finally, a separate shoe compartment that doesn’t eat into your precious bag space.
  4. Hidden hip belt. There are no dangling straps everywhere when you are not using them.
  5. Good padding on the carrying strap. The strap foam is thick and dense provide a good weight distribution across your shoulder.

Not so sure:

  1. The laptop compartment is not raised. Nowadays, backpacks around this premium price point with laptop compartment usually have it lift off from the bottom a tiny bit. The idea is to protect the laptop from accidentally hitting the floor when putting the bag down.
  2. Kangaroo pouch elastic strap is not adjustable. There are two elastic loops on the outside of the Kangaroo pouch for extra carrying capacity. On their website, they advertise to put in sleeping bags, tripods and yoga mats etc. But in reality, the strap is not adjustable and it is quite loose. I can’t secure my carbon fibre travel tripod there without it sliding side to side. So realistically, you can put an extra windbreaker there and that’s about it.
  3. The hidden pocket on top of the Fidlock point is quite difficult to get to if the bag is fully packed. It gets tight that you can only use it for something flat and I do not recommend putting your sunglasses there…
  4. The wardrobe is quite heavy itself. 650g without any cloth on my electronic scale. Also, it takes a certain technique to compress it or else with a small pressure imbalance, you will get clothes herniating out from one side.
  5. With my 13” MacBook Pro in the laptop compartment and my e-reader tablet in the zip pocket in front of it, the bag feels just a bit too “shallow” to fit the wardrobe comfortably and you need a bit of a push to close the zip.
  6. No side compression strap. To keep the design minimal, they decided to leave out the compression strap on the outside of the bag. I feel to make this bag from a 40L full-size travel bag down to a day to day backpack, a side compression strap can help make the profile a bit slimmer. Also, it can help hold a tripod more securely in the side pocket.

Verdict

Tropicfeel has taken on the challenge to design a travel backpack that can do everything. Despite a few hiccups in production and delivery, it is finally here. There are a few things that I am very impressed with and a few things that have my reserve. I will get to test drive it properly in the coming month and form some proper thought.  

Barefoot is the new cushion: Why I ditched the big chunky shoes

Travelling around Europe was on my To-do list when I first come to the UK about 10 years ago. However, with study always taking priority (I have Chinese parents, surprise!) and the lack of funds, I have only been to 2 European cities before finishing university. So when I finally got a job and saved up some money, I started planning a getaway for a breather. Not wanting to pay that extra to check in my luggage, I wanted to pack light, I needed to pack light. That’s when I first come across barefoot shoes.

“High tech shoes, low tech feet” – Ido Portal

Devolution

With millions of years of natural selection, human’s feet have evolved with one undivided focus – to walk and run. With 26 bones and more than 100 muscles, our foot and ankle are engineered to propel us forward and act as part of the complex but efficient shock absorption system. However, once we have satisfied with our survival needs, societies decided daintier feet are more desirable. So the East had the Chinese foot-binding practice while the West have high heels and pointed leather shoes, we are all sacrificing our survival advantage in the name of “beauty”. Then we over-engineer our shoes to have more cushioning without realising we already have the best tailor-made shock absorption system for our body.

What are barefoot shoes?

Unlike other trainers or formal shoes, barefoot shoes embrace your feet in their most natural form. The wide toe box, zero drops and the incredibly flexible and indeed extremely thin sole are designed to provide protection against sharp stones or debris without compromising ground feel. All these encourage your feet to do exactly what they were designed to do. 

Benefits

1.    Compact

That was the main reason I was drawn to barefoot shoes in the first place. I need something that I can throw in my bag without taking up much space. Compared to traditional trainers, barefoot shoes have extremely flexible sole thanks to their thinness. They can be rolled up small or pack flat into any small corner of your bag.

2.    Improve posture

Zero drops meaning the front of your shoe is at the same level at the heel. With heel elevation, the human body naturally trying to compensate for the tilt by anteriorly tilting your pelvis and arching your back. Incorrect posture in a long run gives you a stupid amount of aches and pains, most commonly chronic back pain, knee and hip pain. With zero drops, your body doesn’t need to work as hard to keep you upright, less incentive to hold yourself in an awkward position. Subsequently, allowing an even load across all joints to avoid excessive wear and tear at one particular point.

3.    Balance and joint stability 

The thin sole allows “ground feel” and exercises the foot muscles. Our feet have a huge amount of nerve endings not unlike our hands. The ability to connect with the ground, give us stronger joint proprioception (sense of self-movement and position) and greater control of our own body. While on uneven ground, our feet will have to work harder to morph into different shapes to allow us to remain upright, it strengthens those small muscles in our feet and provides much better stability, hence the longevity of our joints. This argument is like you don’t wear gloves while performing intricate and complex tasks with your hands because of the loss of “touch” and dexterity, we shouldn’t deprive our feet the same if we expect them to constantly doing minute adjustments for balance.

4.    Hallux Valgus

Hallux – Big toe. Valgus – Pointing away from the midline. Hallux Valgus is a bunion, I just like to sound clever once in a while. It is a deformity of the big toe bending and cramping towards the 2nd toe. One of the causes is wearing tight-fitting shoes, essentially squeezing the toe into an unnatural position. The joint can then get inflamed and sore. Having a wide toe box, can help with relieving some of the pressure and reduce the risk of it getting irritated.

Downsides

1.    Takes time to get used to

For a long time, our feet have gotten used to wearing these tight-fitting, big cushioning shoes. Just like anything, you lose it if you don’t use it. It will take some time to build up those small muscles in the foot again. In my experience, your feet get tired and sore quickly at the start, but as you build up, you will find yourself able to sustain being on your feet for longer and easier than before.

2.    Less choice

Barefoot shoes are gaining a bit of traction in recent years as people become more aware of the theory behind the benefits they offer. There are indeed more companies popping up these days with more fashionable choices. But in a large scheme of things, there are still only a small pool to choose from and the “duck-feet” like wide toe box is not exactly commonly associated with the word “classy”.

Verdict

Initially, I just wanted a pair of shoes that can fit into my backpack without taking up too much space without thinking too much about it. People claim barefoot shoes provide plenty of health benefits such as better posture, better joints and less chronic pain. Although I wouldn’t bet all my money on them as the magic solution for your shitty backs or dodgy knees, I certainly enjoy the freedom, the flexibility and the minimalistic design these shoes have. Anecdotally, I do notice some improvement in my balance and sustain longer on my feet albeit that could solely be placebo/bias. Many barefoot shoes come with a trial period with a money-back guarantee, you have little to lose to try one on. 😉