Review: SERT Penumbra Backpack

I have been using the SERT PENUMBRA Backpack nearly every day for almost a year. I have traveled with it, commuted with it, and used as a general EDC pack. I have put some solid miles on this bag and now it’s time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys as it were).

SERT Penumbra Tag


The PENUMBRA is designed to be an efficient travel bag for the frequent traveler and frequent traveling is something that Helm Ashiblie, the founder of SERT, knows more than a little something about. He is a Premier 1K flyer with United Airlines which means he flies A LOT. The PENUMBRA is what he wanted in a backpack.

The bag is constructed with a 1000D nylon outer shell and lighter nylon material inside. The shoulder straps are firmly padded and have plenty of structure. The back panel has raised padded areas and a thin HDPE stiffener. It also features a top grab handle, adjustable sternum strap, and side compression straps.

The PENUMBRA does not lack volume or organization options! It has 4 zippered compartments – a large laptop sleeve, a large main compartment with loop Velcro lining, an admin compartment with many organization features and that is quite large compared to most admin compartments, a smaller organization compartment, and 2 small side pockets. All of those pockets add up to about 32 liters of capacity.

SERT Penumbra

Observations from Use

I have been using this bag for nearly a year. It travels to work with me every day. It has also been used on a handful of trips. In spite of all those miles, it still looks basically new. The quality and durability of every SERT product I have tried has been excellent. The stitching is always straight and even. The cloth edges are always secured with binding tape. They use absolutely massive bar tacks at critical points throughout. This bag should last a long, long time.

As I said above, this was designed to be a travel bag, especially for moving through airports. I don’t fly that much but many of the features that make a good travel bag also makes for a good EDC bag.

The organization in this bag is great for 2 reasons: there is plenty of it and there is plenty of capacity in spite of it. Many backpacks that are overloaded with compartments and organization suffer a lack of capacity. I would much rather have a bag with a few large compartments than 40 small ones that you can can’t even fit a change of clothes into. The PENUMBRA strikes a great balance here. The large compartment is large enough to pack a weekend’s worth of clothes or a large insulated lunch bag for work and there are still plenty of other options for keeping smaller gear organized.

The laptap compartment is well designed. It is slim, well padded, easy to access via its top zipper, and it will fit up to a 17” laptop. SERT proved that they know something about laptop sleeves by designing it so it doesn’t go all the way to the bottom of the pack. Cheap bags with poorly designed laptop sleeves let your laptop rest on the bottom of the bag with little protection. The PENUMBRA gets it right.

SERT Penumbra Lockable Zipper

The main compartment is very large and can hold a lot of gear. It has loop material sewn to the back wall which will work with a variety of hook backed accessories. It is closed via a top access, double zipper with small rain flap. The zippers for this compartment are lockable. The compression straps are mostly designed to compress only this compartment and they do a good job of that.

SERT Penumbra Admin Pocket

The admin compartment is a wonder to behold. The back wall features an organizer with a zippered slash pocket, numerous business card sized sleeves, pen sleeves, larger sleeves for notebooks, a padded phone sleeve, and more. The front of the compartment has two large, zippered mesh pockets. The compartment itself is actually large enough to hold a lot of bulkier items that won’t fit in the organization features. To give you an idea of how large the admin compartment is, you can fit a pair of men’s shoes in it even with items packed into the organization features.

SERT Penumbra Front Pocket

The front stash pocket is sized more like what you expect from an admin pocket. It is slightly bellowed thanks to its three panel construction and features 2 zippered mesh pockets on the back wall.

The 2 zippered side pockets were designed to catch smaller items that you have to remove from your person at a TSA checkpoint – wallets, belts, keys, and other random pocket stuff. They have a sort of triangular shape that works well with the look of the bag but makes them a bit less useful to me. I would rather have a place to carry a water bottle or something like that. They aren’t really tall enough to secure a water bottle and when they are opened, they can hold a bottle but not securely. This is probably one of the only missed notes I can find on the PENUMBRA and I am probably nitpicking since these pockets were never really designed with water bottles in mind. I currently use one of the compartments to carry a small IFAK and keep the other empty to catch random stuff when I need it.

SERT Penumbra Side

Most of the compartments are top access but the half height (or more) zippers allow good access. The zipper on the admin compartment is long enough to allow you to fold the front of the compartment down to view the entire organization panel.

The pack is as comfortable to wear as any pack you’ll find without a load bearing hip belt. This is due in large part to the well-padded back panel with stiffener and firmly padded, well-shaped shoulder straps. The stiffener is key in a pack that you will be wearing for any length of time. It keeps the laptop or other gear from creating hotspots on your back and helps it bear weight better.

The bottom of the pack is also padded with firm, closed-cell foam. This provides some water resistance and protection for the contents.

Wrap Up

Before I received my PENUMBRA, I favored a bag with loop lining so I can configure as necessary. The PENUMBRA is so successful at balancing organization and cargo capacity that I don’t really use my loop lined bags much anymore. This is a great bag for EDC and travel. It’s built like a tactical pack but designed to blend in. I expect that I will be using this bag for a long, long time.

Check out the SERT Penumbra.

SERT Penumbra Back


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