In the ten or so years that I have been into gear and the seven years that I have been writing this site there is no brand that has intrigued me yet eluded my review list more than Mystery Ranch. Their cutting edge designs, amazingly fresh take on standard items (the 3-Zip is AMAZING!), and their ultrahigh quality always intrigued me. These are the hardest of hardcore products. If brands were judged by their customers, no gear is more badass than Mystery Ranch. They were hyper technical, incredibly narrowly tailored gear that looked amazing, but something I could never actually use to its limit. I mean really, how many humans have the balls to be smokejumpers (because you know, firefighting and parachuting aren't dangerous enough on their own, right...)? My weekend warrior shtick didn't justify a Mystery Ranch pack.
That doesn't mean I didn't want one, but the Maxped PFII works quite well for me, and the MR stuff started at nearly four times the price. Still, impractical and expensive have never been much of an impediment to me reviewing an item.
But then MR did something crazy--they released more general audience packs. This is akin to Ferrari releasing a $40,000 car. This much design ingenuity and build quality firepower is rarely available to the masses. And yet, here it is. Of course MR couldn't release general audience packs in the numbers necessary for the retail push they are engaging right now, so these packs aren't made in Montana with the rest of the MR family of gear. All of these general audience packs are made in facilities carefully vetted by MR in the Phillipines and Vietnam. Another boutique pack maker, BO Gear, did something similar with their first mass produced bag, the Subbie, which is also made in Vietnam.
When I saw that the MR general audience packs were available from my old buddies over at Huckberry, I was thrilled. There could not be a better match--Huckberry's ability to highlight new and intriguing stuff and MR's packs that are, well, always intriguing. I contacted Huckberry and they kindly provided a review sample of the pack that seems to be most suited for widespread use--the Urban Assault. So, it is with giddiness probably inappropriate for a 39 year old man that I bring you this, my first (but certainly not last) review of a Mystery Ranch pack. Buckle up and holding on...this is going to be an awesome ride.
Here is the product page. The Urban Assault costs $139.95. Here is a written review comparing the Urban Assault with other MR packs. I could not find a video review. Here is a link to Huckberry (login required, what...not signed up? The newsletter story of the Greatest Teenage Criminal of all time is worth the price of admission, which is zero, alone), where you can find the Urban Assault.
Here is my review sample:
Twitter Review Summary: Buy it for the 3-Zip, keep it for the strap system.
Let's just cut to the chase: the 3-Zip is the best thing to happen to packs since shoulder straps were added. In all honesty I did not realize just how good the 3-Zip is, but now, having seen it up close and used it in person, I can tell you that it is incredible.
It is so exceedingly rare to encounter a design so basic and so simple, yet such a massive improvement over everything else like it that it is hard for me to really evaluate the rest of the pack.
Fit and finish: 2
Even with overseas production, the fit and finish here is still top shelf. There was nary a stray thread, snag in the material, or messy seam. Even inside the pack everything was clean and tidy. The 3-Zip was especially nice. I was worried that there would be some messy parts where the three zippers meet, transitions that couldn't really synch up, but even there everything was nice. The mesh on the backpad and the shoulder straps was clean and neat as well. The entire pack gave off a very professional appearance. I carried this thing at a lawyer conference, on the mountains in Acadia, and on a number of other smaller adventures and I never felt like the pack didn't fit the location. Its finish makes the pack seem less military and more utility, which is the point. In a non-camo color, the pack looks like it could come from the Apple Store (check the white), its that clean.
MR knows how to make a pack carry well. Their high end line of packs have some of the most customization options on the market, with inserts, harnesses, padded straps, and more. They can be built to accommodate people of virtually any size and adapted to nearly any situation.
The Urban Assault is no where near that adjustable, but what you do get is fully padded, nicely breathable, and quite comfortable. I never felt like the Urban Assault was bearing down on me, nor did I get any unusually bad cases of sweaty back, which is pretty good considering: a) I am Italian; and b) I tested the Urban Assault in the summer time.
Everything was snug but still cushioned. It moved well on the body and never chaffed. In all, this is how a pack should work and all of the decisions resulted in good Goldilocks choices. I can only imagine how amazing a high MR pack would carry if this is there "genericized" set up.
Everything here is quite good. I have become convinced that the uber heavy deniers aren't all that necessary or helpful. The choice to run 500 denier Cordura is perfectly reasonable and the idea that this is not durable enough eschews real world use. I lugged this thing all over Maine, through a World War II prison, and through the urban landscape in Boston while testing it and everything held up just fine. The mesh seems nice and unlikely to snag, as it is pretty tight to the padding, so a win there as well. It may not repel bullets or be useful as a material for building bunkers like some of the uber-tough high denier fabrics out there, but it is more than enough for 99% of people in 99% of use cases.
Only one small thing that I wish MR had included is a water resistant bottom. Having had one on my Maxped PFII, I can tell you that its a great feature. Instead of absorbing water when you set your pack down, possibly drawing liquids near precious electronics inside, the rubber surface keeps everything high and dry. Its not such a big deal here because all of the pockets for electronics are internal and lifted on the bottom of the pack, but still, it is an easy inclusion.
Ah the beauty of the 3-Zip. On the move, you just pop open the top and you can dig down into the pack without fear that you will accidentally spill everything everywhere. But if you have a moment and need to splay the Urban Assault open you can do that too. And all of this is quick. Just before a hike, my youngest son was dying for his hoodie, and so I dutifully opened the top, reached down, and couldn't find it. Then I found a flat rock, busted the pack wide open, found it, and zipped everything back up in seconds. The 3-Zip is a thing of beauty and accessibility is one of the big reasons why.
Ease of Packing: 2
I was stunned how much the Urban Assault could carry. On Labor Day my Dad, myself, and my two sons went to Georges Island, one of Boston's enchanted harbor islands. We took a ton of stuff, as one is want to do when traveling with kids. On the way there, the harbor was scarved in fog and brisk winds. It was in the mid to low 40s. On the way out, the sun had burned away the mist and the wind died down. The temps had risen to about the mid 70s. So we all stuck our jackets in the Urban Assault. Problem was, it was already pretty full. But I laid it on a picnic table, unzipped it fully, laid all four jackets on it, and zipped it up. I was sure, 100% sure, it wouldn't work. I was convinced. But it kept zipping and zipping and zipping until it was finally closed. I was stunned. The capacity and ease of packing, thanks to the 3-Zip, could not be greater. This is the "biggest" 20L or so pack I have ever used, as every single cubic inch can be used.
There is one notable omission, one that my significant other, who takes more interest in pack reviews than anything else I write about, thinks is a fatal flaw--there is no pocket for either a hydration bladder (which I think is gross and an okay omission on a day pack) or water bottles. It would be OK, not great, but OK if there was one but not the other. Having neither seems like a silly oversight.
That said, all of the other pockets are flawlessly executed, especially the wonderful top pocket, which, out of necessity given the 3-Zip's lay out, is in the perfect spot for easy access. That means, at least to me, even without the water-related storage, the pack gets a 1. But here is the other thing: once packed, the Urban Assault has a center "core" of things with two big cavities on either side, just below the internal side pockets. It makes for a perfect, cozy little spot for a water bottle:
I am not sure if this is intentional or simply a happy little accident created by a cool design. Either way, the Urban Assault will hold two bottles this way, keep them near the center line of the pack, and make sure they don't get banged up. I'd still prefer the PFII's bottle holders, as they make the bottle much more easily accessible, but either way, the Urban Assault can hold bottles.
In the end, I can see folks thinking this is a fatal flaw. But tucking in the bottles as shown above does actually work pretty well. The pack CAN work in this regard, and so I feel compelled to both reject the idea that this is a fatal flaw or, less harshly, give the pack a score of 0. It is a very notable omission, hence all of the writing dedicated to exploring the problem, but the workaround is pretty decent.
When your defining feature is a zipper, you better do it right, and fortunately MR's 3-Zip, even here on a more budget friendly pack, is amazing. It has a rubberized coating, that, when zipped, basically seals the pack up. The entire track, in all directions, is ultra smooth. One cool thing about the top part of the 3-Zip is there is just enough room to get your finger underneath the lip of the zipper and pull it open without using the zipper pulls. This gives you quick access to the inside of the pack and is something that MR intended to have happen. In short, they have really thought through this 3-Zip set up. The buckles and snaps are all standard fare for packs in this price range which is shorthand for very good.
Straps and belts: 2
If the 3-Zip is the horsepower numbers, the straps and belts here are the low end torque. One of the two will get all of the attention, but the other is just as important in making the pack great. MR has long had the most complex and versatile strap/belt/rigging system on the market and their high end packs have almost infinite customization. So I was sure that this is where they cut corners to get costs down. And, make no mistake, this is a cheaper and simpler set up. But it is not bad. In fact it is excellent. When you are descending from Everest, you can coming down a few hundred feet and still be on the tallest mountain the world.
The straps are solid, correctly curved and contoured, and have ample (but not gushy) padding. The sternum strap is excellent and stays put. The grab handle, while thin and a bit cheap to the touch, is positioned correctly and helps carry the pack nicely. All of the straps allow for quick, one-handed adjustment. Overall, there is nothing to complain about. It is clear that MR used its wealth of knowledge gained from its high end designs to carefully and correctly pare things down to this point.
This is a minimal looking pack. The 3-Zip, by necessity, limits the pockets and compartments you can have on the Urban Assault. The pack lacks compression straps and MOLLE. These are things, when coming from the PFII that I dearly miss. You can still loaded up the shoulder straps with gear--this is where I like to carry my fixed blade when on a hike. But beyond that there is nothing really. This isn't as bad as some minimal packs I have seen, but coming from MR this is a bit of a disappointment. Some compression straps on the side, where the water bottle holders aren't, would have been very welcomed, especially with the two tabs at the top. You could lash a fixed blade handle there and then use the compression straps to hold it against the pack and prevent it from swaying.
Overall Score: 18 out of 20
The score is a bit deceptive. This is a pack that I would easily count as one of the best on the market. I loved this pack. But its flaws were flaws that I simply couldn't NOT deduct a point for and so the score is what it is. But don't take that as an 18. Think of it as an 18! The 3-Zip is simply and without question, the best pack zipper system ever devised. It CRUSHES everything else, everything. My next pack will have a 3-Zip, as will probably every pack I own from now until death. Its just too good. And it is a tremendous competitive advantage over every other pack.
It also bears repeating just how good this pack is on the back. I took it on three very representative trips: a conference in a big city, a day trip to a park, and hiking in Acadia. In all three scenarios I was struck by just how comfortable this pack was on my back. MR's calling card might be the 3-Zip, but their insights regarding the straps and carry of a pack are second to none. This set up is the Becker handle of the pack and bag world--simple but supremely good.
My one easy addition--water bottle holders on the sides, would busy the look of the pack but add a ton of functionality. They also happen to work well with the 3-Zip. In the end, this pack is so close to being the undisputed champion of the all-important daypack category.
If this review persuaded you that you need an Urban Assault, go check out Huckberry. I have no affiliate link, but they have always been awesome folks and good to me and the site.
The Tom Bihn Synapse and the Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon II have real competition has my favorite general use/day hike pack. One of these three packs is probably the best out there for most people. They are all awesome in their own way. In the end, I'd probably opt for the Synapse if I were an urban dweller and the PFII if I weren't, but this pack could do both settings well, so man...this is a tough decision. Shoot out? Yes, shoot out.
Oh and this pack is slightly better than the previously reviewed Topo Designs Day Pack. Slightly.