With 2021 in the books, I wanted to do a quick run through of some of my favorite backpacks at the end of this year. So, with that in mind, here’s some quick thoughts on some of my favorites and why/what you would want these for. It’s a bit of a ‘state of backpacks’ post, with a nod to the fact that there are still a few I have yet to test. There’s a longer form variant of this in the best list with better delineation — this is the quick hit version.
- Mystery Ranch 2 Day Assault: This might be the one bag champ on this list. It compresses down well, is a great size, and the harness and tri-zip are simply fantastic. The downside is all the PALS webbing all over the bag, and the water bottle pockets on either side which annoyingly poof out too much. At $199 it’s a pretty good value for what it is, and I put it at the top here because if you pack heavy for EDC, or light for travel and need to make both work when buying one bag — this is my pick (if you can get on board with the looks). I hope they keep expanding the color options with these (the new really bright blue color looks hot).
- Tom Bihn Shadow Guide (23 or 33): If the 2 Day Assault is not your style this is what you want. It’s a fantastic bag, but I think the sizing is just slightly off for both variants. The 23 is amazing but doesn’t hold the more common sizes of laptops. The 33 packs an absurd amount of gear, but is a bit clunky for EDC. I think what’s needed is like a 26L with the same height as the 33, but the a narrower depth — this would be killer. Anyways, it’s a solid bag, and I am a big fan. It almost completely lacks organization, but somehow that makes it better. The top lid: comically large. Lots of good stuff with this one, and it flies under the radar — again this is large EDC, or light travel packer territory.
- GORUCK GR1: Of the bags on this list, I can assure you this one will last ages. I have one from 2011/2012 and it still is fantastic — no issues. It’s been rucked with, drug through sand and mud, taken all over the world, to many offices, and tossed full of tons of shit. Still going strong. If you need a bag that can handle insane weight, lasts forever, and can do a lot of things really well — yep, still the champ. The 26L is my pick, but the 21L isn’t bad either. Unlike the GORUCK GR2, this one doesn’t look crazy boxy on your back, while still carrying a ton of stuff. There are many variants of this bag out there, including some without any MOLLE.
- Filson Journeyman: I have a slight pang of regret for moving on from this bag. It didn’t work for me, but that’s less about the bag and more about me. Of all the bags on this list, it’s the best looking. It is versatile, but more than that, it feels amazing. I love everything about this — Filson knocked this out of the park. It’s currently not available for supply chain reasons, but sounds like it will be coming back. If your need is a simple office backpack which looks amazing, this is it. It works great as a daypack too, but note that it is small and seems like it reluctantly carries a laptop. I think that’s the best way to describe it.
- Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 18/21: This bag is hugely underrated and is an insane value. At $125 it’s amazing. My kids each have one, my wife has one, I have one. We all love them — I think everyone should have one. But if you want something small, something clever, but not screaming tactical — this is it. It carries everything well and really is just a default bag when you don’t really know what someone could/would/should use.
- Mystery Ranch ASAP: for me this backpack is it. It is very small, but I will tell you right now that if the size works for you, if the looks work for you — this is the most comfortable bag I own. I’ve forced it to work for my office and it’s my most used of the year. The pricing is accurate. Anything you use it for, it will excel at and make you forget that it has just as much PALs as the 2 Day Assault. It’s a beast for hiking, day hikes, and non-electronics, but if you don’t mine getting a sleeve or organizer for your tech, then this works really well for the office to.
- Mystery Ranch 3 Day Assault CL: This is what I wish the 2 Day Assault was, it is massive but I find the styling on this much better. For most people, there’s probably not a compelling reason to buy this over the 2 Day Assault given the price difference. That said, it is a really great bag and the reason I sold my 2 Day Assault, and both my GR2s. This bag is my one bag, this is my hiking bag, this is the bag I will grab if someone was like “you only get one of these for everything from now on” that’s my nightmare, but still this is the bag. It’s just good. The downside is the size, it’s even larger than the 2 Day Assault, but it seems to make you forget that well enough. The thing is, the pricing is high — it’s really hard to justify this bag over the 2 Day Assault.
- (Untested) Tom Bihn Paragon: I want to point this bag out as one that I really should have tested this year but didn’t. It looks stellar, so don’t let it drop off your radar. My suspicion is that it will work well for those who want something small, simple, and great. But, I’ve yet to test one myself.
- GORUCK Rucker 3.0: I wanted to point out this bag too because it is something special. If you carry a lot of weight and need something that works well outdoors and for travel — but tech gear isn’t your thing. This is possibly a better buy than the GR1. The straps on this are better than the OG straps that people love about the GR1s. And it’s cheaper. The thing about this, is while it can hold a laptop in the weight pocket, it doesn’t do it particularly well. But, for an outdoors and work out bag, it’s stellar. It doesn’t beat the ASAP for life, but it does for rucking with weight (because it’s easier to secure weight in the Rucker). Also, that 210D lining on the straps is magic.
- GORUCK GR2s: I’ve advocated for these bags for a long time, and they still have their place. If you are living out of a backpack, this is probably the backpack you want. It’s indestructible, you can lay it flat to live out of it, and carry as much weight in it as your shoulders will allow you to carry. The issue with this is that even when slightly empty it still looks like a huge box. When the main compartment is full, the outer one is tricky to use. I am willing to ignore most of that, but when you see it full and on your back — well it just looks too boxy for me to get on board with. I’ve yet to try the new 500D models, perhaps that will ease the boxy feeling of the bag.
Ok, stopping there, because those are the important ones out there right now.