Mystery Ranch Catalyst 26

This will be my most recommended backpack to friends, going forward.

Note: this item was provided by Mystery Ranch for review.

I’ve long recommended the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault to anyone asking me for a good backpack. It’s the backpack I recommend the most, because it’s versatile, comfortable, easy to use, and the price is competitive. But there’s odd things about it, and so when I heard Mystery Ranch was working on a bag based on the Urban Asssault, but updated to be more EDC friendly, I requested an early sample of the bag.

The new line is called Catalyst. It comes in 18, 22, and 26 liter variants. I have the Catalyst 26 in Shadow, and I’ve been testing it for some time now. It’s almost a straight upgrade from the Urban Assault line. So let’s dive in.

Specs & Dimensions

As mentioned, the bag is 26L, and it’s on a similar footprint to the Urban Assault 24. However, it’s designed in a more integrated fashion, so while I always loathed the looks of the Urban Assault 24, the Catalyst 26 looks quite nice. In a lot of ways, I mistake the Catalyst 26L for the 22L variant since it looks very similar.

It’s made from recycled CORDURA Nylon, something Mystery Ranch has been using a lot. It feels really nice. Perhaps the biggest addition here is the two external water bottle pockets on each side of the bag. I know there are a lot of people who wanted this with the Urban Assault — the Catalyst has it. And those two pockets aren’t baggy looking, they sit cleanly and smoothly against the bag, while still allowing full sized water bottles to ride securely in them. I’m a big fan.

In Use

When I first cracked the bag open, I was excited. It was exactly what I was hoping for: a larger Urban Assault, with a dedicated laptop sleeve and external water bottle pockets, without sacrificing looks. Boom, I had it.

What I didn’t expect was all the small little upgrades throughout the bag which make it a gem to use. The quality is tried and true Mystery Ranch quality. The Nylon feels really robust to the hand, without there being rough nylon sitting on your clothing. This particular CORDURA feels like something between a 500D and 1000D. A little thicker and rougher than 500D, but not all the way to 1000D, it’s a very nice material.

The harness is simple, subtle, and comfortable. It’s not fussy, and its something almost anyone will instantly find useable and comfortable.

Walking through the bag, you get:

  • External laptop pocket. This has a divider in it, where you can keep a decent amount of gear. I can carry my two iPad Pros and a notebook. You could mix in a MacBook too if you wanted. Access is via two zippers from the top. Simple, easy, perfect.
  • 3-Zip design is still on this bag, but I suspect the zipper has been redesigned here as it moves better than any other 3-zip I have had from Mystery Ranch. There’s no binding on the zippers as you pull the main zipper up or down. It’s really top notch.
  • The top pocket of the lid is identical to most of the Mystery Ranch bags, and is cavernous.
  • The two external water bottle pockets stretch slightly out, and mostly inward. They have a lightweight elastic at the top. If the bottle doesn’t ride low enough in the pocket, there’s not enough friction to keep it from falling out if the bag finds itself in an awkward position. A 32oz Nalgene is on the cusp here as far as securely staying in the pocket when pushing the bag flat under an airplane seat in front of you.
  • Inside the bag is a plethora of new organization options. Three zippered mesh pockets, a handful of open top pockets, and a couple of elastic loops. They are going to be hit and miss for people, but there’s little downside to ignoring them completely.

This bring us to the first miss on this bag: pen slots. There are none. There are elastic loops you can use, but none of them hold a pen very well. The top mesh pocket seems made for pens, which isn’t how I prefer to carry my pens. I wish the bag had even one slot to store a standard pen. As it is, the loops are too large, and either too deep or too shallow to securely hold a pen. I use the top mesh pocket on the back panel of the bag.

There is only a few other downsides:

  • The load lifters add clutter to the bag, without adding a ton of value. I’d prefer to see them removed all together.
  • For me the straps would be better if they were a half inch wider at the widest points on them. They aren’t uncomfortable, but I do wish they were a touch wider. That said, for people with a smaller frame, these straps are going to work really well for them. It’s always a tricky balance to make a strap which works well across many body types and shapes, and I think the balance is struck well here.
  • The sternum strap is what I’ll call the ‘lightweight’ variant, where it hooks onto a thin/small daisy chain. It’s not bad, and it is very easy to clip off, but it’s not particularly robust if this is something you rely heavily on.
  • The org inside the bag can be a little fussy to use as it goes decently low into the bag, but not all the way down. Leaving a bit of a void of space at the bottom of the bag, thus dragging something out from that section may interfere with items you have stored in the org. Not always, but sometimes.

However, let’s talk about the positives of this bag, because there are a ton, so these are just a few:

  • There’s no zipper stick as the vertical zipper moves down the center of the bag. I mentioned this above, but it’s worth mentioning again, as this is the top complaint I get about the Urban Assault from my kids.
  • The internal organization take ups zero space if you decide you don’t want to use it.
  • You’ll not notice the laptop sleeve at all, but you’ll appreciate the heck out of it.
  • It holds a ton of gear, while being a lightweight bag to carry. It holds more than I need for the office.

The thing about this bag: it could be the only backpack you need. I don’t see a downside to hiking with it. It seems perfect for travel. It is fantastic in the office. It is comfortable to wear, without being fussy to wear.

When I started using this bag, it took absolutely no time at all to get used to it. I tossed my office gear in it, and off I went. Then I put it away for more than a month, as I was waiting for the release date to come up. And when I pulled the bag back out, again it took no time to get used to the bag, and to appreciate the smart design. In use, back and forth from the office, this backpack is a gem.

One big improvement: the top handle, it is awesome. A really nice add, and something Mystery Ranch generally doesn’t have on many of its backpacks. The Catalyst also has enough depth it can somewhat sit up when it has some weight in the bag. While still not looking big, and carrying a ton.

So yeah, it’s quite good.

Compared to Urban Assault

The big question is how it compares to the Urban Assault. At first I thought the comparison was that this was an Urban Assault, but for the office. That’s true, but the Catalyst is more than that. The Catalyst has almost no downsides when compared to the Urban Assault line.

Technically, you could argue the Urban Assault has better materials with 500D. But I am not sure how much any of that matters. And even then, the top handle on the Catalyst is light years better than the Urban Assault.

The true distinction is that the Urban Assault is a stripped down bag when compared to the Catalyst. The UA is a blank canvas for the user, where the Catalyst is trying to nudge you to being organized.

If I were buying a bag to use in the outdoors/woods: Urban Assault. But for actual urban use? For the office, for travel, for school? Catalyst is the better bag.


I love this bag. It’s fantastic. It does come at a steeper price, with the MSRP on the Catalyst 26 coming in at $179. It’s not the bargain that the Urban Assault is out of the gate, but it is certainly the better bag of the two.

Highly recommended. This is now the bag I will recommend to people who don’t want to think about bags, but want something great.

Buy here, $179. (18L and 22L variants.)

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