Lately I’ve been thinking about the three bags I own. The revered Tom Bihn Smart Alec, the rugged GORUCK GR1, and the sexy Hard Graft Flat Pack. I love each in their own right, but I began to wonder which I’d choose if I could only have one. Which is the best?
I’m talking about the choice I’d make if my wife decided that I have to get rid of one before I buy another:1 We’re not talking about doomsday decisions, or Sophie’s Choice.
I suspect this choice is of interest to my fellow bag lovers, because not all of you want to spend a grand on bags to only use one at a time.
I initially figured that the Tom Bihn was the correct call, because it truly is a fantastic bag, but the more I thought about it the less sure I became. Each of these bags have clear strengths and subjective weaknesses.
While the GR1 is an outwardly tough bag, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the Smart Alec hiking. But then what of the Flat Pack? In so many situations I prefer the Flat Pack over the other backpacks.
My goal today is to recommend a bag based on the assumption that you can only own one of the three contenders, and you’re going to use that bag for everything. (I will exclude extreme use-cases, like carrying bricks through mud, and hiking).
So, which bag should you buy?
The two backpacks are both bulky but travel well. You can put a lot of stuff in the backpacks, whereas the Flat Pack won’t hold much more than an iPad, pen, and laptop. In fact in all the months of owning all three bags the Flat Pack is the least used, by a huge margin.
The only reason I use the Flat Pack less is that I worry about the consequences of carrying a smaller bag. What if I need that adapter? How about that extra pen? That backup battery? Shouldn’t I bring both iPads just in case? With the Flat Pack, I don’t pack any of these extra items because they simply don’t fit in the bag. In a single-bag world the Flat Pack is far too limited and I can’t recommend it.
That leaves us with a question I’m frequently asked: Which bag is better, Ben? The Smart Alec or the GR1?
While both are (or can be) black backpacks, they are actually very different bags (as long as you aren’t my Wife, who… never mind). The GR1 has military inspired styling and opens completely with a dedicated laptop compartment. The Smart Alec is more subtle in its styling, opens and loads only from the top and comes with a comprehensive selection of modular padding and pouches.
Having traveled with both bags and used them day-to-day I can say with complete confidence that I use the Smart Alec more often. It really feels like the Smart Alec should be the winner here, but let’s discuss my reservations with the GR1 and see if they remain valid in a more general (not-specific-to-me) sense.
My GR1 reservations:
- Styling. I love the look of the bag, but the military inspired design certainly has its “out of place” moments. I live next to a very large military base and still feel that way. I’d have a hard time wearing this bag in countries that aren’t very US friendly (are there any US-friendlies left? Well Canada, I guess…) and likewise it would feel out of place at a formal business meeting.
- I wish there was a way to cinch the bag a bit smaller when it’s empty. I love that the Smart Alec can do it, but this is a minor complaint as the GR1 seems to “wear” smaller than the Smart Alec.2
If the GR1 had a little less military style (like say the SK26, which was released after I bought my GR1) then it would be my choice hands-down.
If I had to pick only one of the bags that I currently own it would be the Smart Alec, which is a fantastic bag all around. The Smart Alec’s modular pockets make it exceedingly versatile and less likely to become obsolete when your tech-gear changes.
Why choose the SK26? Here are a few reasons (in no particular order):
- It’s exceedingly tough and I have no doubt this bag could be handed down to younger generations. GORUCK bags feel like they were made to be around for generations.
- Its design is very well suited for utilizing space — top loaders make that a bit harder.
- When I travel, my GR1 is the bag I prefer to use, and the SK26 is essentially the same bag.
- I love the GORUCK zippers.
- The shoulder straps are wider and more padded, making them much more comfortable.
- The bag feels “broken in”, whereas the Smart Alec always feels kind of new. That’s not always a bad thing, mind you.
You can’t go wrong with any of these bags, truly (even the Flat Pack), but if forced, now you know where I stand: GORUCK SK26 is the bag you should be looking at.
I don’t know how you use bags typically, so this is based on my typical usage which is:
- 90% home to office travel, via a car that I drive.
- 6% Travel where I won’t be staying at my home that night.
- 1% Day hiking.
- 3% Other shit.
If I only ever went to and from the office the Flat Pack would be a much better contender. I just wish it could also hold a bottle of water and my GX1 camera — that’s the deal killer for me.
The Smart Alec offers phenomenal protection for your laptop, but without additional padded compartments it offers no protection for iPads. The GR1/SK26 has a decent suspended pouch to hold your iPad, which I prefer.
Ok, that may be pretty close to reality in my house. ↩
Meaning that when the bag is on your back it feels like a smaller bag than the Smart Alec, even though it isn’t. ↩
If a noble reader wants to get me one, or loan me one, I’d be happy to fully weigh in on this. But as far as I know it is identical to the GR1 just lacking the MOLLE. ↩