Sign up for our newsletter


Manhattan Portage Empire Lite messenger bag review

21 Mar 2017

Massive bag, massive price, masses to like… though one potential flaw

One of the key questions about a rucksack is ‘how long is it going to last?’ As regards the Empire, I could tell you, but you might have to come back in a year… or three.

Sadly time doesn’t really permit us to test most products longer than a few months, so I can’t speak to this particular bag’s longevity except to say that (a) a work colleague has a similar Manhattan Portage rucksack that looks almost new but is three years old, and (b) the Empire had better last because it costs nearly two hundred quid, making it nearly as expensive per square foot as property in Manhattan.*

Fitting it all in

Quite apart from rucksack being a sack in which to carry rucks, rucken means ‘back’ in German and sack means ‘bag’. And while we might prefer the term ‘backpack’ these days, the Empire – at a cavernous 35.5 litres with roll-top entry – is definitely best described as a sack. But in a good way.

Made from heavy-duty Cordura fabric, which is pretty much the standard choice for bags in this price bracket, the Empire is a mighty beast. Everything about it, from the stitching to the hi-vis stripes to the plush straps and back support speaks no-nonsense, super sturdy quality.

I’ve stuffed it with boxes, laptop and riding kit and it’s not once complained, or been out-stuffed.

Somehow there always seems room for more, whether that’s just wallet and keys in the side zipper pocket, mini-pump, tube and tyre levers in the front three open pockets, or a whole winter jacket rolled up and rammed into the very top of the bag, utilising the last bit of storage space courtesy of the generous roll-top flap and long clip-style buckles.

Inside the main compartment is a laptop sleeve, which though not padded is suspended above the bottom of the rucksack such that if you drop it the laptop edge won’t hit the floor.

Next to this is with another generous sized zipper pocket, and external on either side is a zipper pocket plus another open pocket that will accommodate a water bottle – although it is tough to get a bottle in if the main compartment is full.

To some people that won’t sound like enough natty little storage solutions, but to others, like me, the Empire represents something of simple beauty where intuitive storage and easy retrieval of items is concerned.

No fumbling in pockets inside pockets inside pockets to find that super-specific propelling pencil holder or that specially adapted box for your sunglasses. Which you are probably already wearing.


For all its Sherpa-style carrying abilities the Empire does have a drawback. The actual straps are incredibly comfortable and nicely padded, but I found I had to wear the bag quite high (ie straps quite short) to get the best out of the Empire, and that meant my vision was partially obscured at some angles when looking over my shoulder when riding.

Clever folding of the roll-top when closing the bag sorted that a satisfactory degree, but still, for a rucksack designed to be used when cycling this seemed like an oversight.

However, provided this is the size of bag you’re after (and there is an identikit smaller one, 24.6 litres, £180), then this visibility issue was the only thing I found to criticise in the Empire.

Elsewise it’s a Tardis of a thing, perfect for anyone regularly commuting or going to races with everything but the kitchen sink.

*Property in Manhattan is estimated to be around £1,300 per square foot, compared to London’s Chelsea and Kensington borough price at £1,052, or just £104 per square foot in Kilmarnock… and the riding in Scotland is better too.


Read more about: