At the end of my last post on bags I concluded:
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.
Given the choice of any bag on the market I would choose the Goruck SK26 (I might even choose the sand color).
I confidently made that statement, without ever trying the SK26 from Goruck, because I own the nearly identical GR1 (reviewed here). Still, it feels uncomfortable to recommend something I don’t own, or haven’t tried. But there are only so many $200-plus backpacks that one man can buy before he must start selling assets. ((And sleeping on the couch.))
Luckily, for me (and you), an incredibly generous reader decided that it didn’t sit well with him either, so he bought me an SK26 — no strings-attached. ((As far as I know this reader has nothing to do with Goruck at all, and confirmed to me that he uses Incase products at the moment.))
I received the SK26 shortly after writing the aforementioned review and have been testing it for almost six weeks straight (it would be longer but I needed to switch between bags a bit to confirm some of my conclusions).
In short: I was wrong.
The SK26 is not the best all-around bag. The Smart Alec is.
However, I’m not planning to use either the SK26, or the Smart Alec. I’m going with the GR1.
The problem here is that I was right (stick with me). The SK26 is, as advertised, the GR1 without military styling. What I failed to notice is that the GR1 without its military styling doesn’t actually have much style at all.
And that’s the problem with the SK26: It’s rather boring.
The best way to describe the look of the SK26 is to compare it to one of those free SWAG bags that get handed out conferences — a bag you use to stuff full of shitty conference sponsor brochures and not cry about leaving behind.
Keep in mind that the SK26’s plainness is exactly the point. But It’s too boring for my taste.
I don’t need my bag screaming for attention but I also don’t want it looking like a cheap-o conference bag when I walk into a meeting to discuss the purchase of a multi-million dollar piece of real estate. And so, after weeks of using the SK26, I have decided that it’s just not the bag for me and also not a bag I would recommend to most others. ((I qualify that because there are very niche uses where this bag would be good. Military applications for sure. Outside of that, avid fans of the GR1 would love the bag if traveling to international destinations that are not in love with the U.S. military — E.g. any other nation.))
Basis for Picking the Smart Alec
I stand by my statement: If you have to choose just one backpack, for almost all uses, the Smart Alec from Tom Bihn is the best choice.
- The Smart Alec does not look militaristic, which is better for travel — especially international travel. Many countries don’t care for the U.S. military and you may be seen as rather insensitive. Remember, it’s not just the Molle webbing on the Goruck; the stitching on the 2″x3″ velcro spot looks like a U.S. flag.
- The Smart Alec offers superior laptop protection via the Brain Cell.
- The Smart Alec is modular in design, allowing the bag to adapt to your changing device needs. While this will cost you, it won’t cost you as much as buying an entirely new bag if you switch from a 13 to 15 inch laptop. The GR1/SK26 can accommodate many sizes of laptops but they are not specifically designed for any one size.
- The Smart Alec is lighter when empty, which can be very important for travelers.
Those four reasons helped the Smart Alec take the top spot. It’s important to keep those in mind as we discuss the reason I’m moving on from the Smart Alec.
Not For Me
I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this subject, and since I would have thought about it anyways, I am going to share my reasons for switching away from the excellent Smart Alec to the equally great Goruck GR1.
For me the Smart Alec falls short because I prefer to choose not to load my bag from the top. While I quite miss the handy side pockets on the Smart Alec, I miss them a lot less than I do the top-load nature of the pack. The Goruck bags are designed to fully unzip and lay flat when open. That’s amazingly helpful for packing in a lot of gear — and I can indeed fit much more, less wrinkled, into my Goruck than I can my Smart Alec. ((They are identically sized, at 26 liters.))
I have to take into consideration my use case scenarios and not the general scenarios that we just talked about. I don’t travel internationally much (except to Canada, but that can’t really be considered international travel) so the military inspired design of the GR1 is of very little concern to me. I also like to day-hike, which I specifically left out of my last post about the best all around bag, because it’s here that the Smart Alec trips up.
For me the Goruck will be better for traveling in the U.S. because it’s easier to pack and unpack. The Goruck will be better to hike with because it has Molle webbing for lashing stuff to. The Goruck also feels robustly constructed, which makes me feel safer taking it out on the trail. ((I have little doubt that for most people both the Goruck and Smart Alec will last a lifetime.))
One important thing to note about traveling with the Smart Alec is that, unlike the Goruck, you must unpack the bag everywhere you go. The Goruck can zip all the way open and act like a traditional suitcase, from which I can cherry pick the items I need. The Smart Alec isn’t like that — you need to unpack it to get anything out of it, well I do at least, and that becomes very tiresome on short trips.
There will certainly be times when the SK26 will prove useful, but at the end of the day I just don’t want my backpack to look as boring as the SK26.
There is one other key difference between the GR1 and SK26 that I did not expect: The straps on the GR1 are better because of the Molle webbing, which takes out some of the rigidity. The SK26 doesn’t have that, so the straps feel far more rigid.
The SK26 is really best suited (for non-military users) as an international travel pack for diehard Goruck lovers. Outside of that I really can’t think of a good reason to get the SK26.
When I wrote the last post about bags my goal was to convince myself that I only needed one bag and to get rid of the rest. Just before writing this article I started to purge. I sold my revision 2 Smart Alec and its companion Brain Cells. I tried to sell the Smart Alec revision 1 and the Flat Pack, but neither have attracted a buyer.
Right now I still have two bags that I could use on a daily basis. So if you want a Flat Pack, or a Smart Alec revision 1 please email me — they are all in excellent condition.
Given the ever changing backpack market I suspect to find something “better” than the GR1 in six months or less. Until then I don’t see any reason to hang on to other bags that I have already decided are not the best for me.
This ‘research’ is expensive.