Ah, the GORUCK GR1. Right before I purchased the Tom Bihn Smart Alec, I stopped and considered a purchase of the GORUCK GR1 — coveted by many. It’s a fantastic backpack that is made in the USA by a company that thinks all of their products need to stand up in war — and no I’m not joking.
My buddies took early versions of our rucks to combat and to cities the world over, and critiqued every last detail. Green Berets became judge and jury of quality.
Since the day I bought the Smart Alec I have been recommending it to everyone, but also had a feeling I needed to check out the GR1 so I could make sure I was recommending the best possible backpack out there.
A while back I purchased a GR1 to try out.
Interestingly, the GR1 and the Smart Alec are the exact same size, both 26 liter backpacks. Both are black and have shoulder straps and there the similarities end.
Remember above when I said the GR1 was made for war? That wasn’t hyperbole, that’s true — evident after touching the bag for only a moment. This is hands down the must rugged backpack I have ever owned — including all of the backpacks that I use, or have used, for hiking. This not only surprised me but made me like the bag a lot more and I hadn’t even opened the pockets.
With this durability comes a good deal of heft, as the GR1 is noticeably heavier than the Smart Alec. The GR1 weighs in at 3.2 pounds empty, whereas the Smart Alec is a feather weight 1 lb 13oz. ((A bit heavier once you put in a Brain Cell for laptop protection.)) It’s a huge difference.
A Different Philosophy
Tom Bihn creates bags where everything neatly has its spot and if there isn’t a spot built in, you can add that spot with an accessory of some sort. GORUCK is a bag with many compartments, all of which are undefined.
The laptop area on the GORUCK doubles as the water bladder area for excursions. There’s pockets all over, but no definition of what goes where — no holders or slots for business cards or pens. This sounds like a small difference, but in practice it makes for two completely different bags.
With the Smart Alec the pens are always on the same side, because that is the only side with pen slots. A water bottle is only made to go on one side. With the GORUCK you have a more traditional bag. There’s some pouches and I can stuff whatever I want in those, because every pouch is undefined.
This is both good and bad. It’s nice not to be stuck with pen pockets when you don’t need or want them. But it also sucks not to have quick and easy access to a pen when you want it.
Top Load Versus Front Load
The idea behind Tom Bihn is not only that everything has its neat little spot, but that the entire bag is operated from what I will call a standing position. The bag is made to be used while resting on the bottom of the bag. GORUCK’s bag is made to be used from a laying down perspective — meaning the part of the bag that touches your back is to be laid down on a surface when you need to open the bag.
So with GORUCK you can see every inch of the bag when you open it, in plain sight, no digging around needed (with the exception of the front pocket/pouch). With Tom Bihn, you look into a dark abyss, from the top down. There’s nothing wrong with either — but they make two very different bags to operate.
I’ve taken the Smart Alec as my overnight bag many times now, and it’s always a chore to get my clothes packed in a manner in which they won’t wrinkle without the help of packing pouches. In the GORUCK it’s dead simple to do this, because you can load it as you would a normal travel/suitcase bag.
My absolute favorite part about the GORUCK is the zippers — actually it’s the zipper pulls not the zippers themselves. On the Smart Alec I have constantly found the zippers to be firm and hard to open one handed — they ease with use, but still not as easy as I would like.
The GR1 has very bulky and beefy feeling zippers and zipper pulls. These allow for easy one handed opening and I absolutely love them.
Both bags have excellent zippers, but the GORUCK’s are far less fussy to use.
One thing I absolutely love is the Brain Cell insert for my Smart Alec — it’s the one thing that gives me supreme confidence that my gear is safe. I was nervous to see what kind of protection the GORUCK offered, and as it turns out there is some reason to be concerned.
The GR1 has a rear compartment that doubles as a hydration compartment or laptop compartment and it is beefy, but only from the back. The area that goes against your back is padded and has a plastic sheet to make the area rigid (this is removable). The padding between the compartment and the main compartment is thinner — but sufficient. My main concern is the bottom padding, where you could damage a laptop setting down the bag. The Brain Cell suspends the laptop, and in the GORUCK it’s not suspended and the padding is thinner than I would like.
The top, isn’t padded at all — so don’t drop anything on the bag.
Overall the padding is good, but not as good as the Brain Cell’s. Now this has the obvious drawbacks, but the benefit of being less bulky. I find carrying the GORUCK without a laptop to be a better experience than carrying the Smart Alec with Brain Cell in and no laptop.
Ultimately it comes down to how you intend to use the bag. If you are someone who plops their bag down with no care when there is a laptop in it — then the GORUCK may not be the best choice for laptop protection.
This is the biggest factor for me: how do these two vastly different bags compare in day-to-day use?
The GORUCK is bulkier to wear because the straps are bigger, with more padding, and don’t contour as well as the Smart Alec’s. It’s still a smallish bag, but it feels bulkier because of the strap size. I would guess that the GORUCK can carry more weight comfortably than the Smart Alec, but I haven’t come up with a good (non-back breaking) way to do this.
Packing the GORUCK is a much better experience. I can load in my laptop and iPad using just one zipper, without disturbing the main compartment. Full access to the main compartment is also a huge help when getting a bunch of things comfortably organized in the bag. With the Tom Bihn it is more of a shove-stuff-in method and the GORUCK allows for more considered packing.
Unloading the bags is a much different story. If you have a table, floor, or bed to lay the GORUCK on, it will be faster to unpack. However if you are trying to get at things in a cramped space (car, airplane, train — if you know what those are) the GORUCK is a considerably worse experience. An interior pocket, located low in the main compartment, can only be accessed by substantially unzipping the bag, which would likely cause most of your stuff to either pour out or become disheveled. With the Smart Alec’s side pockets and top interior pocket you can get at almost every small item without worrying about dislodging the larger items. And even if you fully unzip the main Smart Alec compartment you would still have to turn the bag over to dump things out.
So on a plane, the GORUCK would be a worse bag than the Smart Alec, because the Smart Alec is a bag you can carry with all zippers undone without a risk of things falling out (I’ve done this, a lot). If you tried that with the GORUCK you’d make it five feet ((Actually, probably more like 5 inches.)) before your bag was mostly empty.
The last thing I want to note is hiking. I love hiking and have been using an Osprey bag for years. The Osprey is incredibly light weight. I’ve never thought about replacing that bag because I am supremely happy with it. The Smart Alec may be used by Tom himself for day hikes but I would personally never consider it for that use. (However you can make a strong case for doing so with the new vented back design.)
The GORUCK GR1 seems like it would make an excellent day hike bag. It’s heavier than my Osprey, but so much more rugged and sturdy that the tradeoff isn’t for naught. Further, the webbed straps would be awesome to have as attachment points for other gear.
Both bags look very nice to my eye, but they (again) are both very different stylistically. The Smart Alec is more casual looking, whereas the GORUCK looks more military in nature.
Neither is bad, but they will both give off different impressions. I don’t feel as good about carrying the GORUCK into a meeting with older business people because they already think backpacks are less business-y. A military style bag is even more off-putting in a business setting.
The Smart Alec blends better in business, and likely in travel when you want a lower profile. The GORUCK just looks mean — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So, Which One?
First I couldn’t decide between pocket knives, now I can’t decide between these two bags. Both truly are excellent bags, and you can’t go wrong with either. My best advice is to pick the one that fits you better.
Outdoor types are going to like the GORUCK better, and travelers will like the Smart Alec better. Both actually cost close to the same amount when you account for bag price and the add-ins ((Snake Charmer, Brain Cell, small pouches, longer key strap.)) that you need for the Smart Alec. Either way, I wouldn’t base this decision on price — both are underpriced for what you get.
I’ve previously talked about how I use the Smart Alec as a diaper bag, and the GORUCK is a better diaper bag.
Personally I am keeping both — I like both far too much to decide. I think the Smart Alec will remain my daily work bag, but the GORUCK will likely be the bag I take almost everywhere else. I need to test the GORUCK more in travel situations, but I suspect the Smart Alec will win that contest handily.
Update (December 26, 2012): Reader Bob M. writes in with a good point about the Smart Alec’s top loading design. His point is that the top load design makes for a better commuter bag because it is “designed for holding rectilinear items”. That’s spot on and a good summary of what I was trying to say as well. The Smart Alec is excellent for books and things that are rigid and conform to the vertical load approach. Good point to keep in mind.