Over the last year I have had a very large shift happen in my bag/backpack setups. That shift has been moving from GORUCK as my default choice for bags, to Mystery Ranch as my default choice. All of this migration happened rather naturally with a lot of duplicates, until I felt like I reached a tipping point with the amount of bags I had, and purges began.
In order to purge, I had to decide what to keep, and why to keep it. To determine that, my criteria became: bags which are a bit easier for me and my family are the ones I keep. As it turns out those showed their faces from Mystery Ranch time and time again and not as much from GORUCK.
Changes Over Time
When I started writing a lot about bags, everything I loved was coming from Tom Bihn, and I still love their gear. However, over time (around 2013/14) I moved away from Tom Bihn gear by default and to GORUCK gear by default. You might be surprised, but my first go with the GR1 wasn’t an instant sell on the bag for me.
That has held for a long time now. But this year (2021) the next evolution of this happened with me shifting from GORUCK gear by default to Mystery Ranch by default. And, since history usually repeats itself, I first tested the Urban Assault in 2017, and wasn’t completely sold on the brand/bag. Such is life.
Ok, so I’ve sold most of my GORUCK bag collection. Let’s state that outright: no more GR2s, no more small pockets that I never used, totes, duffel bags, and no Bullet Rucks. I am left with (as my personal bags): Original GR1, Rucker 3.0, and Kit Bag. I have various small pockets from them and that is all. (Outside of clothing and such, as that’s a little different for me.) My kids each have their backpacks, but they stopped using them a while ago.
So why? There were three motivating factors that sent me down a rabbit hole of searching:
- That GR2 picture: When I took a picture of my 34L GR2 on my back in profile, I was really unhappy with how it presented itself as a massive box on my back. This stuff matters to me and so I decided to see what else there could be. I don’t want to be the guy walking around looking like he is about to trek in the wild for a month — especially when the bag is a scant 34L. That’s silly.
- That 2 Day Assault: I don’t have this particular bag anymore, as I swapped it for the 3 Day Assault, but the 2 Day Assault was so comfortable and functional while holding almost as much as the GR2 (while looking and feeling smaller) my eyes were opened. The Front then accelerated that drive towards finding a Mystery Ranch bag that had those features and comfort.
- My kids started to complain about their GORUCK bags. We would go on hikes in the forest and they hated taking those bags because they didn’t feel great to them, and while they like rotating patches, they were not actively choosing the bag when they needed a bag. They finally admitted that they just don’t find that bag very comfortable.
So I started look around and testing other things. But then another big thing hit: I started to question GORUCK a little on their decisions. Their gear started to become (and still is really) all over the place. I don’t care about USA or Vietnam made ideologically, but there have been fundamental changes in the gear with no explanations given.
The 210D on the Rucker, barely explained. The GR1 shape is slightly changing and the dimensions differing: why? I don’t know. Jedburgh boots come out, and there’s almost zero information on why you would choose those over something else. This isn’t out of the norm for some other companies, but it’s very out of the norm for GORUCK. And then logos, GORUCK once was staunchly against logos, they now seem to be putting them everywhere. Odd.
So to recap:
- Their gear is jumping around a little and feels unsettled.
- My kids feel the bag is uncomfortable.
- Aesthetics and somewhat maneuverability concerns started my search.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with GORUCK bags in any way, they are some very robust and great bags. The Original GR1s are amazing, the new ones are great, but a little “why”? The Rucker 3.0 is one of the best bags they’ve made in a long time and it very much feels like GORUCK is going through a transition that even they might not fully understand right now. I’ll wait for that transition to complete and revisit then. Until then: great bags, but worth exploring what else is out there.
Tom Bihn Thoughts
The original reason I moved on from Tom Bihn is actually along the same lines as my move with GORUCK. Here’s why they still are a little tough for me:
- They lack good middle ground organizational bags. You either get something like the Synapse/Synik which feel way to organizationally heavy handed, or you get something like the Shadow Guide which is almost too lacking in organization.
- Aesthetics: look I don’t love the way some of the older Tom Bihn bags look, however I will say that they have taken huge strides towards making their bags look much better over the last 18 months. The Paragon looks stellar. The Shadow Guides look great.
- Carrying weight: when I originally moved away from Tom Bihn, it was because my gear was heavy and the GORUCK bags felt much better with the weight. This is still the case, but Tom Bihn is iterating by adding good frame sheets and tweaking the shoulder straps to hold weight better. I don’t need to ruck with a Tom Bihn bag, but I do want my gear to feel lighter than it actually is.
At the end of the day, I have tested (and still test) a ton of Tom Bihn bags, and I can say a few things definitively about their gear:
- It’s smartly designed.
- I have yet to see them make anything which is a bad buy.
- Their small pouch gear is some of the best.
- I don’t form strong attachments to any of their items.
- If they nail the transition to built in laptop compartments, it will be huge for my love of their gear.
There’s a reason I put this brand after GORUCK, it’s the brand most people should be buying. If you see something you like the looks of from Tom Bihn, you’re probably going to end up loving it. That’s my rule of thumb. Tom Bihn also feels transitory right now, as they are moving towards a newer carry system, different/modern designs, and generally taking looks more seriously — the good news is that these are all great changes and they are very openly talking about them. Love it.
Why Mystery Ranch Now
Ok, so I wanted to share a few thoughts now on why I have embraced Mystery Ranch so fully, because it came as a bit of a surprise to me.
- Comfort: as long as the bag has a Futura (adjustable) yoke on it, then it is likely to be among the most comfortable backpacks you have worn. There really is no underselling it. But then Mystery Ranch takes this a little further by tweaking the straps to fit the use of the bag itself. The Front straps are a little softer to perfectly accommodate a hiking load, and the ASAP is a little firmer to accommodate a heavier load for military use. In a lot of ways, the non-collaboration Mystery Ranch bags, seem to be design first and foremost around comfort of actively wearing the bag. Even the fixed harness bags like the Urban Assault: if you are using it for EDC as it is designed, you will think the comfort is amazing. My entire family feels this to be true without me even pushing this in the slightest.
- Options: there is a massive amount of Mystery Ranch bags out there. It’s not easy to sort through them all, but it also means that there is likely a bag to fit your use case and your aesthetic desires nearly perfectly. There are very few brands that I can say that about, but it is very true with Mystery Ranch.
- Value: I know that some of the bags are expensive, like the ASAP, but there’s an equal amount which are awesome deals. The Urban Assault changes colors so often that you can find some brand new for $75 on sale. That’s insane for a bag that good. And that’s the key point here: these bags go on sale all over, all the time, but resell well. So there you are, an actual value on bags.
- Well Made: even for the Vietnam made bags, they are really well made. Absolutely nothing on these bags ever feels shoddy, or like you are not getting what you paid for. For as many models of bags, and as much production as the company does, I am pretty surprised by the fact that not a single bag has felt anything less than great. Even the $30 slings from them.
- Easy Decisions: deciding which bag to buy is actually easy: pic one that fits your needs, and that you like the looks of. What you are going to get will be well made and comfortable. If there are multiple options, generally spending more gets you more durable materials (but a heavier bag) and more comfort with weight, (a better harness system on it). That simple: spend more if you carry more weight, work in war zones, otherwise spend as little as possible.
The thing about Mystery Ranch, is that they just impress me. The only bags from them which have left me wanting are those that are collaboration bags, or which simply were too small to fit on my frame. Everything else has been so good, that I find them hard to sell when I realize they don’t fit a need for me.
I’ll revisit this next year, but that’s where I am today.