As you might recall Ben made a rather lofty claim, back in September 2013, that he would pick the GORUCK SK26 over, ‘any bag on the market’, even though he’d never used it. In Decmber Ben reviewed the SK26 for real and then decided he preferred the GR1 because he found the SK26, ‘rather boring’, to look at.
We thought that was the end of Ben’s adventure with bags. We thought the issue was settled once and for all. We thought wrong. After publishing his review, Ben packed up the SK26 and sent it to me for a second opinion.
I’m not a bag reviewer; this is the layman’s SK26 review.
As I unboxed the SK26, my designer colleague, who was observing, exclaimed, "That’s really…plain." He sounded disappointed. We sat together and stared at the SK26. Underwhelmed.
The SK26 is very plain: A slim-depth cuboid shape in all black fabric with rounded corners and two chunky vertical straps. A single fabric carry handle sits unobtrusively on top of the bag. On the front is a single horizontally-zippered "surface" pocket. The main compartment unzips around the bag from bottom corner to bottom corner, revealing the large internal space. An elasticated pocket sits flat against the back of the bag, presumably to hold a laptop in place. Against the back side of the front flap are two horizontally zippered pockets. The top pocket is a normal closed pocket, the lower pocket is covered in a mesh, making the contents visible at a glance.
First test. I threw my trusty Black Wolf 25 and its contents into the SK26, slung it onto my back and walked forty minutes home from work. It was a hot day; 86ºF at 5:30pm. I was wearing a t-shirt and after just a couple of blocks I could feel my back getting sticky from the close contact of the bag, which sits flat against your back and doesn’t allow much chance for heat to escape.
To unpack the Black Wolf backpack, I open the main compartment a little, hold the bag with one hand and fish things out. With the SK26 I was able to lie the bag flat, open the main compartment and unpack things easily. As Ben noted in his GR1 review, the ability to open the SK26 completely and unpack it easily is a huge usability improvement over top-loading bags.
Each weekday morning I throw a notebook and some pens, my iPad Air, a water canteen, a pair of shoes and a book or two into my backpack. Then I walk three miles, about thirty–five minutes, to work in a city office. The dress code is casual and the environment informal — I don’t meet with clients. In the evening I throw things back into the bag and walk home.
The more I used the SK26 over the first week the more I appreciated its ruggedness and no-nonsense design. Unlike my normal backpack, which has no internal padding, I found the SK26 could be tossed around without fear of breaking either the bag or its contents. Presumably one would be more careful when carrying a laptop, but I was able to quickly throw the bag under a desk, or set it down on a concrete footpath without worrying if my iPad would be damaged. Not only did I feel confident that the bag’s contents were protected from knocks, but the bag itself, especially its straps, seemed totally unfazed by any maltreament.
The only negative experience of the first week was my inability to open the main compartment one-handed while walking. Rummaging for headphones or a pen is a (bad) habit I’ve picked up over the years of using top-loading backpacks. With the SK26 I found this almost impossible; items actually spill out of the main compartment pretty easily if you’re not careful. In the end, I worked around this restriction by storing my headphones and frequently used items (pens etc.) in the front pocket. This restricts the number of readily accessible items due to the front pocket’s relatively small capacity.
Functionally the SK26 seems complete and well-considered. Each element of the bag seems to have been included only when it genuinely improves the usability or durability of the bag. There are no extraneous elements. Nothing to distract the eye. No "features" for their own sake. No decoration. No ornamentation. The SK26 is ‘plain’ from one perspective, but it’s also true to itself.
The down side of such ‘rational’ design is that the SK26 still hadn’t grown on me aesthetically after the first week. More troubling than simply seeming plain, the SK26 was beginning to seem unattractive to me. Something was subtly wrong. There was no pleasure to be taken from its appearance, which was causing mixed feelings. How could something be so perfectly functional? So rationally designed? So durable and suitable for its purpose, but fail utterly to evoke a sense of beauty?
I resolved to consider these questions more carefully during a trip out of town. How would the SK26 perform as a carry-on travel bag?
Over Christmas, we took a two-hour domestic flight to visit with family for five days. As a couple, we try to travel light and five days is comfortably within our ‘hand-luggage only’ duration, even with Christmas presents in tow.
Between us, we packed a hand-luggage sized, wheeled, upright case. She carried a small handbag and I took the SK26.
Into the SK26 I packed toiletries in a plastic baggy to satisfy airport security, two pairs of shoes, headphones, charging cables and accessories, a paperback, my iPad and Origami case, plus a Bluetooth keyboard and a few of the flatter presents.
At airport security, the open-flat main compartment came into its own again. I simply dropped the SK26 flat on the metal bench, unzipped the main compartment, threw the toiletries and iPad into a plastic tray and scooted everything along the conveyor and into the X-Ray machine. The whole process took less than ten seconds and I wandered through the metal detector looking smug, which was probably why I was treated to a random explosives swab.
Thanks to the previous week’s use, I was ready for the inevitable boarding scrum. I placed my paperback and reading glasses into the SK26’s front pocket allowing me to one-hand them out of the bag as we got to our seat.
Inside the cabin, the SK26 performed admirably as we jostled for overhead compartment space along with dozens of people who had clearly flouted the carry-on allowances and were happily toting giant gifts, food, drinks and bags of all shapes and sizes. Thanks to the SK26’s slim profile, I was able to stash it between a giant gaudy purse and a box of Krispy Kremes (seriously), even when the stewardess had given up on available space.
On arrival at our destination, I removed the SK26 from the overhead bin and saw that it had taken a beating in the preceding rush to grab things from the overhead bin. I took a moment to check the contents and was happy to find that only the bag’s outer fabric showed signs of contact with other objects. The iPad was doing just fine, nestled between the solid back panel and internal pocket. I wouldn’t advise putting fragile china or glassware into the SK26 and then throwing it into a festive airborne luggage fight, but I was pleased with the basic strength of the outer walls to offer some protection.
Comparing the SK26 to a small daypack is a little unfair, so instead I decided to compare it to another backpack I have experience with, the Samsonite Pro DLX. Samsonite no longer sell this pack, but in the current range the Pro DLX 3 looks almost identical. In 2006–2007 I travelled a lot for work. I lugged a 15" HP laptop (with a spinning hard disk and internal DVD-R/W drive) between London, UK and Zurich, Switzerland every week for six months. The Samsonite performed admirably, protecting my laptop, its enormous power adapter and all my business papers. Every week I jumped on and off flights, wandered round in airports and cities, rode public transport and turned up at meetings with ‘C’-level executives. The Samsonite handled most situations well. It wasn’t the prettiest backpack, but it was a good deal better suited to a business situation than most laptop backpacks of the same era and certainly easier on the eye than the SK26.
While the Samsonite may have the edge when it comes to looks, the SK26 beats it hands down for durability and usability. The Samsonite didn’t feel cheap, but after a year of use the stitching on its straps were starting to come loose and the front-pocket’s zipper had given up entirely, resulting in the pocket being completely useless in a travel situation. The SK26 feels like it could handle serious daily use for years.
Let’s talk about the look of this bag, as it seems to be a sticking point. At first I thought it plain, then I found it not attractive. Now I believe it to be aesthetically honest but not sublime. True to itself but not beautiful.
Is this lack of beauty a problem for the SK26? How do competing bags that are less honest in their design succeed aesthetically in the minds of consumers?
Before one starts wearing the SK26, it is reasonable to call it plain, it has no ornamentation to speak of, no color or pattern in its fabric. At this point one may dismiss the SK26 for its plainness, after all there are any number of lively looking competitors selling similar bags for similar costs but with much more eye-catching designs.
Unlike the SK26, which eschews all ornamentation, the decoration on most other bags is purely aesthetic and while it may satisfy the eye for a while, eventually the brain will know if the bag is lacking in features or ability.
But as soon as one wears the SK26 and looks at oneself in the mirror it becomes clear that the bag is worse than plain, it is not attractive. How could this be?
I checked the press shots on the Goruck website to see if it only flatters people built like a U.S. Marine, but it seems to look unattractive on everybody. Check out the guy wearing a business suit, the SK26 looks entirely out of place in this context. It could be a combination of the bag’s height, rectangular shape and single flat color. The height (17") seems to diminish the height of the wearer, making them appear shorter, which is undesirable. I stand at 6’1" and still feel that the bag’s size makes us look proportionally mismatched.
Because the SK26 does not taper in any direction (depth-wise, top to bottom, would be most obvious), it looks like a solid brick stuck to the back of the wearer.
The GORUCK website provides a clue to the SK26’s aesthetic neglect. The GORUCK philosophy is one of designing bags ‘for Special Forces soldiers to use and abuse in war’. GORUCK founder Jason MacCarthy claims that his ‘Special Forces brothers trust [GORUCK gear] with their lives’, so naturally, ‘quality is a matter of life or death’ to him.
The most frustrating aspect of GORUCK’s stance on rugged toughness above all is that they ‘aim to bridge the gap between military and civilian‘, and they don’t make cilivians look good. Perhaps if the bags also underwent trial by designers in a civilian challenge involving skinny jeans, plaid shirts and fixies they would turn out as beautiful as they are tough.
Using the SK26 day-to-day for the past month has been a pleasure. Functionally, it’s pretty much flawless and incredibly durable but then I walk past a shop window and remember that it’s aesthetically neglected.
If you’re planning on crawling through muddy water, under barbed wire and then climbing over a wall while carrying your 17" MacBook Pro and wearing a business suit, then I can’t think of a better bag than the SK26. If you’re carrying a laptop to your job in the city, don’t use the SK26, as it will speak poorly of your taste.