Three Bag Collection: Budget to Luxury

The bare minimum amount of bags you need to own is three, here’s the best three for three different budgets.

This is the second part of my ‘Three XYZ Collection: Budget to Luxury’ series of posts (read part one, here). The idea is simple: building a three items collection in a given category which should cover almost anyone, and doing it in three price brackets.

Let’s get started with bags.

Collection Coverage

When I think about a three bag collection these are the types of bags you need to cover the widest range of possible use: shoulder bag, backpack of average size, and a duffle bag that is still small enough to be used as a domestic carryon item. Each of these items should in themselves be versatile enough to pull a wider range of duties if needed, but all three in each category should work well together such that they form a cohesive collection.

  • Shoulder bag: something you can use when darting around a busy city to hold a jacket or souvenirs, but also something you could take into a job interview.
  • Backpack: I am specifying ‘of average size’ meaning something in the 23-27L size class. This is among the most common of sizes, and something which proves versatile. This bag should work for a day hike, for school, for airplane travel, for an office. Anything.
  • Duffel: It needs to work as a domestic carry on, so roughly sub-45L in size. It also needs to be durable so it can be filled with anything and everything.

If you cover those three bag types, then you can have a pretty complete collection. Let’s dive into it…

Budget (Sub-$99 each)

As always, ‘budget’ means the cheapest we can go while still not being awful. None of these are awful, but I fully admit the ’budget’ end here is being stretched because of the fact that a bag can be a rather catastrophic thing to your day/trip if it fails. So saving up to spend a little more, will go a long way. I’ve tried to keep that spend pushed down as low as possible, while focusing on quality of the good itself, over other factors like design/comfort/features:

  • Shoulder: The Mystery Ranch Indie is a sleeper hit here. It’s very light, and very versatile. It won’t carry a large laptop, but you can squeeze a 12.9” iPad Pro in there if need be. It will also work for any smaller bag needs you have, while being comfortable and having some neat/nice features. Even better, is that it is $59 new. Quite a deal given the overal quality and versatility here. Another bonus is that this bag is great to pack inside another bag when you travel helping it to work with the other bags in this grouping. The quality of the build and materials is very high, the bag looks discreet, and the price hits a sweet spot for what you get.
  • Backpack: Sticking with my theme of quality for as low cost as possible, Jansport’s Superbreak Plus is the easy pick. Pricing ranges from $40 to $50 and if you ask anyone who has owned one: they last. This model has a laptop sleeve and external water bottle pocket. It won’t be a bag that you rave about, but for dollar for performance — this is extremely hard to beat. It is also among the least offensive bags out there, so no one — not even bag nerds — are going to have an issue with this. And that price, bonkers value.
  • Duffel: The North Face Base Camp Duffel in XS. Go bigger if you are not needing to carry it on to a plane — though the dimensions of this bag can make it hard to fit in a carryon sizer, so do be aware of that. But I’ve had one of these for 20 years now, and even though it has some small holes in it, it’s still going. It’s a very robust bag for the price, and overall really solid. Spend the most on this item, simply because you want something you can check when you fly — and that you can do with this bag. If you are carrying it on, a dark color and not filling it will go a long way to allowing it on the plane. MSRP is at $99, but it doesn’t take much work to find one on sale.

So for about $200 all in, you can have a really nice three bag setup and a grouping that will last you for a very long time. Solid deal.

Mid Tier ($150-ish each)

I picked this price cap as I wanted to provide substantially more value in each item, while still not moving into a pricing bracket where people tend to quickly feel uncomfortable. At this price level you get bags with much better designs for day to day usage, even better durability, and all around more comfort when using them. It’s like the jump from basic economy seating, to premium economy seating — you’ll notice everything in comfort, but it’s no First Class.

  • Shoulder: This is a tricky category for this style bag. Most of the good bags are either more or less money than this. But there is an oddball one that I quite like which sits right on the mark: Tom Bihn’s Makers Bag at $155. Here, again, we have no laptop sleeve, but it is a very nicely proportioned bag with clean and unoffensive aesthetics which will take a laptop sleeve nicely if you need it. It is built really well — I don’t even know how old ours is, but it’s been through it all. If your budget allows it, the Absolute Strap is a fantastic upgrade here, adding $22 to the total but not at all necessary. The only downside I’ll note on this bag, is that it doesn’t seal well on the corners when the lid is closed. Less of an issue for weather getting in, and for sure an issue of small items working their way out — say when it is at your feet while flying somewhere. All in all, this is a blank canvas of a shoulder bag, with a wide variety of colors and a style that will work everywhere and a design that will also work everywhere.
  • Backpack: This was a pretty tough section for me, I was split between two bags, and then a third came out in the same theme. This is tough. I was split between Mystery Ranch’s District 24 at $169; their Urban Assault 21 at $125; and the forth coming Catalyst 26L at $179 (of which I have a review sample). All three of these backpacks are excellent. I suspect the best pick here will be the Catalyst, but I cannot put forth a bag which has not even been released, and thus not been put to the test by others. So I’ll go with the bag we have the most of in my home, the incredibly versatile Urban Assault 21. It’s a little smaller than I would like for this category, but it’s the most versatile of the options, offers an excellent price/value at $125 MSRP (often found for $69-99 retail) — it’s nearly impossible to beat. That’s why we have three in our house. And when it’s the backpack I outfit my wife and kids with — that’s about the highest honor I can bestow on a bag. So there you go, Urban Assault 21.
  • Duffel: I had a hard time finding something I liked better than the last pick, but then I remembered GORUCK’s Kit Bag 32L at $125. This is a really fantastic bag, and is such a great shape for travel and everything else. I’m a huge fan of it, and while it will feel compact, it will travel extremely well and also work well for non-duffel specific uses, like a zip-top tote. It’s a good bag, and actually a stellar value which is backed by an exceptional warranty. Not that I think you are likely to breakdown this beast of a bag. It’s also a solid value add above the Basecamp, offering a better shape and easier carry. Something which is unlikely to raise an issue getting on to a plane, or look comically large when heading to the gym. Stellar bag.

This section doubles the price of the last, if you select the more expensive options here you are in this $400 before taxes/shipping. That’s not a trivial amount of money, but this lot of gear is a grouping I feel will serve someone well very a substantially long time. And for a lot of people, these three will leave little desire for an upgrade.

Luxury (Sky’s the Limit)

Those last two lists were fun academic excercises, something that will draw in new readers — maybe you share the list to friends who ask you. I don’t know. But this list — this list is for my regulars. Those of you who have long ago let go of the notion that you will be able to hold yourself to any kind of budget when it comes to gear purchases. The only unfortunate part of this section is that I not only had to limit myself to three bags, but also because I simply have not tested every absurdly expensive bag out there. That said, this section is the section for only the gear I have tested, and tested thoroughly — no budget. Aka, this is the shit I use.

  • Shoulder: I went back and forth a bit here, but I wanted to capture the same type and style as the bags mentioned in the other lists as it is a mentally aesthetically pleasing image for me to make that cohesive. So I’ll select Filson’s Medium Field Bag at $450 (sorry my beloved Filson Tin Cloth 24hr Briefcase). This bag is splendid. It’s not perfect for carrying laptops, it might not even fit most. But it looks amazing, feels amazing, and is built like a tank. The type of bag that will last decades, has an insane warranty, and will work almost anywhere for any need. It improves upon the Maker’s Bag as the top opening is vastly more secure from small items spilling out, and it has two fantastic front pockets for things which require more security. Otter Green or Dark Tan, both are killer. When I sold mine, I missed it so much I bought one without even actually needing one right then. Take it to the office, around a city, or toss it on your should for exploring some nature — it’s one of those bags which simply works well for so many things. That price though…
  • Backpack: Look, there’s simply no other option, I am going with a GORUCK GR1 26L in a Slick configuration ($325ish) but you then need to send it to GORUCK (for additional spend), to have them add back the MOLLE/Daisy Chain on the shoulder straps ($unknown), and the spot for the Morale Patch on the front face ($25). It is true, that I don’t have that exact bag, but I have had every other GORUCK variant, so I feel extremely confident in my decision here. I’d personally stick to 1000D, but if you want to mix it up I could see doing 500D. I select this over the Heritage lineup, simply because this will be a better bag to use for more things. I don’t know if you could own a better backpack in this size class, and this is the proper size of a backpack.
  • Duffel: I bounced around on this, but I am settling on Filson’s Small rugged Twill Duffle at $475. I can’t look you in the eye here and tell you that there’s an appreciable difference in using this bag over the GORUCK Kit Bag. I can tell you that this bag is, in every way, better. If they were the same price, you’d be foolish not to select this one. It is a very good bag, and one of those odd bags (like most of Filson’s offerings) which look just as good being loaded into an Aston Martin, as they do being loaded into a 30 year old F-150 caked in mud and dung. It’s a vibe, and it’s the right one. Oh, and it’s a really good duffel bag as well, also important. I may have two. Allegedly.

I mostly use the items in the luxury category these days, but that is perhaps a side effect of testing bags for more than a decade now. I also own every bag listed here, in some form, except the Jansport (though it’s all I used in high school) — which should be a testament to how good these all are. There, unlike with knives, a considerable difference between each category. The way I think about it is that you move from bags that get the job done, to bags that you like using and feel confident using, to bags that make you feel good about being seen using them and that you enjoy getting to use. Man, maybe I’ve been testing bags too long…

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