A Review of Black Ember’s Citadel Minimal Backpack

It seems like my search for the perfect everyday bag is never-ending. I’m pretty particular on what I want from a bag, and over the past month I’ve been using Black Ember’s Citadel Minimal Backpack, and it’s checked quite a few boxes of things that I desire from my bag with a few extras that I was not expecting.

To be clear, the Black Ember Citadel series comes in two forms— the Modular &the Minimal. I settled in on the Minimal model as it’s to be described as the more “everyday carry” look. The Modular is quite an impressive bag for sure, with it’s various customizable panels to the front of the bag that put even a GoRuck to shame, but the Minimal is essentially the same bag internally, without the additional mod packs at the front of the device.

I was equally impressed with Chase Reeve’s review of the bag, with him being the most thorough bag reviewer I’ve seen online, I felt like I needed to get the bag for myself to see exactly what the hype was all about. Available in matte black, the Minimal Citadel that I received is utterly fantastic. Here are some specs about the bag that might be of interest in terms of sizing:

SIZE

Dimensional inches: 19.5 x 12.5 x 6.5

Dimensional millimeters: 495 x 320 x 165

Liters: 25

CRITICAL MATERIALS & HARDWARE

800-DENIER 3-LAYER MICRO-HEX PERFORMANCE TEXTILE

LASER-CUT HYPALON

AIRCRAFT-GRADE ANODIZED + LASER-ETCHED ALUMINUM HARDWARE

YKK AQUAGUARD ZIPPERS

400-DENIER SILVER COATED RIPSTOP LINING

Described as an “urban” backpack, the Citadel Minimal is virtually everything you could want from a backpack if you don’t have a lot of things to carry. In many ways it made me learn to adapt with being indeed minimalistic, but at the same time, there are ample amounts of storage in the 25-liter bag that allow for my essentials, such as my MacBook Pro, iPad Pro, my Kindle, and various cables and cords. Initially, when you receive the Black Ember bag, it’s a bit stiff and takes some getting used to.

This is due to the laser cut materials on the outside of the bag that have proven to last over time but also be durable enough to hold up under the elements. For reference when my wife and I flew out of town, we had to run to our Uber which parked a bit too far away, and not being armed with an umbrella, the Citadel Minimum held up with the torrential downpour rain thanks to the Aquagaurd zippers and the lining surrounding that, causing for no water to leak into any entry ports of my bag.

In terms of the YKK zippers, they are VERY secure as you would expect from a bag made this well. They are nice and large; you won’t have to worry about them rusting after being in the elements, and they won’t pull or get jammed. Granted, I’ve only used the bag for a month, but I tend to go into my bag pretty often through the day, whether it’s to grab my MacBook, or switch out my headphones. There’s also a very good Limited Guarantee on this bag for the original users that covers defects in the materials of the bag. Luckily though, the bag is so well made it would be a while before you found a fault in it.

I received a compliment on the bag that I thought was interesting when carrying it to work on public transportation. Standing in the center cart, someone came up to me and asked if the bag was just a standard backpack, or could it do more, like be converted into a messenger or be held from the sides.

Luckily with the Citadel series, there are optional handles ($17) that you can purchase that will allow you to not only carry the bag from one side, but if you have two straps like I do, you can carry it from both.

What’s noticeably absent from the Citadel is a water bottle slot on either side of the bag, which means that either you would have to subject yourself to using a set of short compression straps that sit on the bottom the Citadel. While this is a great idea for my personal water bottle of choice (HydroFlask), this method is probably best used for carrying things like an extra pair of gym clothes to work, or a jacket when traveling. A water bottle on its side might not be practical sitting on the bottom of your bag.

At the front of the bag, you’ll notice a single pocket which you can use to house pens, mints, and other small items. It’s not really a deep pocket by any means, and depending on how much you have packed into the front internal pocket of the bag, it will be harder to grab those items, which I’m hoping changes in the next version of the bag.

At the back of the bag, there’s a nice zippered slot that is every traveler’s dream, as you can place your wallet, passport, and keys right here, and it will sit flush against your back, with no chance that another passerby can reach in or grab anything.

The bag doesn’t come with that RFID functionality some love, but this is a great way of making sure things do not get stolen.

Also on the back of the bag is the contoured panel that not only allows you to tuck the shoulder straps into, but the company’s patented airflow channel (feels like honeycomb to the touch and looks great in practice) allows your back to stay dry while commuting. It’s crafted by two foam layers called “EVA foam”, that allows the bag to conform to you, not the other way around. When wearing it, you can tell a significant difference between the attention of detail built into this bag just in this department alone.

With the inside of the bag, there’s a lot of customization to be had here, but rest assured that your lap and tablet will be secured with the suspended laptop sleeve at the back of the bag. You can access your laptop from the clamshell opening at the front which will expose the rest of what’s in your bag, or if you wanted to reach it a bit faster without bothering all of your other items, you can use the dedicated zipper. I prefer this method when grabbing my laptop or tablet, but one glaring issue I have is that it’s a bit tight of a fit, so if your MacBook has a case on it like mine does, it could be a bit annoying trying to get it out without putting forth a bit of effort. The upside though is that the laptop compartment is so close to the EVA foam of the back of the Citadel, that if you drop it say, off a bench, you will be comfortable knowing that it will not be damaged thanks to all of the additional padding.

There’s an optional compression divider to the Citadel Models that feature two straps that could house things like water bottles or maybe a pair of clothes, but this is mainly a means to separate your electronics from the rest of the bag. For me, I tend to use this when I know I will be carrying gym toiletries in my bag and do not want them mingling with my laptop. While this won’t protect a spill, it’s helpful when I need to grab my deodorant and don’t want to have to dig through the back portion of my bag.

On the front of the bag, you’ll notice quite a few pockets including three individual pockets, one is for your keys. There are also mesh storage pockets that allow you to visibly see the items you place in them with no guesswork. What I found pretty interesting about this section of the bag that made me realize something about the rest of the bag is that the base of the Citadel has little to no padding. The dedicated laptop compartment aside, there’s no suspension of padding, so if you tend to carry your glass Tupperware home, be careful because if you drop the bag it may get damaged.

Also, one thing not to overlook about the Citadel are the customizable packs. I was lucky enough to receive the Citadel DSLR pack, which completely replaces the compression insert of the back of the bag and allows you to keep your camera and accessories secure and protected.

It can also be worn as a shoulder pack so if you need to be mobile while taking photos you can take it out of the Citadel and keep on going through your shots. At the top of the DSLR pack, there’s a zippered pocket for things like memory cards and dongle to boot which I think is much needed. You get the same YKK zippers and waterproofing as you would with the Citadel bag itself.

Next, I received the SR Buckle straps in Jet black that are there to make sure that you can one-hand carry the bag when you don’t want it on your back. The Citadel series comes with one already, but I thought it to be nice to have the option on both sides. I just wish Black Ember included this instead of making it an additional purchase.

If you have gadgets or small items you want to keep organized, you have to really check out the LRG Admin by Black Amber. Essentially a Dopp kit, its meant to work for items you don’t want getting lost in the main compartment. So all memory cards, dongles, even chapstick would go into this. There’s ample enough space, including a large mesh compartment to see what’s being stored. While it won’t fit a laptop, it will definitely fit charger bricks, and more. At the back of the LRG Admin, you’ll see it has clasps that make it a perfect fit for the Citadel Modular, but even if you don’t have that model, this is a GREAT addition to your bag. 

Finally, my favorite two accessories are the MagLock Key Ring and the Citadel Orange Compression Straps.

With the compression straps what I opted to do is add those to the base of the bag, giving the Citadel Minimal a bit more flair (refer to my using this area for my HydroFlask). With the Maglock Keyring, this is a perfect way to keep my keys intact and can be attached to the inside of my bag with no issue.

Overall the Citadel Minimal is an absolutely fantastic bag. While it can’t be my travel backpack because of the limited storage in the inside of the bag, it makes for a fantastic everyday carry with the items you wouldn’t typically cram into a bag for a 4-5 day trip, if you are a techie. Aside from this though, I am excited to see what is in store for Black Ember’s FORGE, which is a bag the company has recently announced that looks even better than the Citadel.

For more information on the Citadel series as well as the various accessories, head over to Black Ember’s site.

Source: Manufacturer supplied review unit

What I Like: Durable construction; Great everyday carry capabilities; Waterproof; YKK zippers

What Needs Improvement: Limited storage even for a 25-liter bag; Kits are optional and an additional cost


About the Author

Greg Alston
Diehard Apple fanboy, and lover of all things tech. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Greg enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, family and friends, live sporting events, good bourbon, Tetris, and pizza. In that order.