Different activities place different demands on kit, both in terms of performance and design. For a brand with years of experience and pedigree in outdoors equipment to make inroads into the urban, technical market isn’t unheard of, but presents a set of challenges for the manufacturer.
Maintaining the strengths, quality and identity of the brand while extending to meet the needs of a new customer base must be difficult, and hitting a compromise across a range of activities whilst managing to excel across both markets could be a real nightmare. This is the issue at the heart of the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault, a 24 Litre day pack made for everyday ‘about town’ carry, with some strong outdoor DNA.
Mystery Ranch has become famous for their military packs, in particular, their 3-Day Assault Pack which was adapted from the older Sweet Pea model at the request of the US Special Forces. Before that, however, Mystery Ranch was well established with backpackers, skiers and mountaineers. Their build quality and load bearing alike are considered top-of-the-range and treated with an almost fetishistic reverence by fans. They are, quite literally, very big in Japan, and their catalogue features a number of models exclusive to their Asian market. It’s from that side of the business that the Urban Assault emerged, and my pack was sourced from Singapore in early 2016, although a new version of the Urban Assault has been launched in the US since.
My expectation, when buying this pack, was for a bag that I could use every day for a few different uses. I wanted something to carry my lunch and change of shirt to work, my laptop and rule books for an evening’s Dungeons and Dragons gameplay, or my raincoat and binoculars for a day in the woods. At 24L it’ll handle any of those plus all my ‘always in my bag’ essentials. The bag is made of 500D Cordura so it hits a nice comfortable weight without compromising durability. Same with the other materials – zips are all YKK and fitted with a water resistant coating, plastics are all ITW and tough as you could ask for. The pack has a semi-rigid frame sheet slotted right down the back panel, itself reinforced with an aluminium stay. Those who don’t like the frame will be glad to hear that it’s easily removable via another internal zip, but for me, it makes a big difference to the comfort.
The straps themselves are padded and straightforward. The simple cut makes them easy to don and doff without hassle, which is great for dotting around town, in and out of shops or cafes. This design is something of a departure from Mystery Ranch’s central line – their real legacy comes from the excellent load-bearing on their military and mountain packs, and that aspect simply doesn’t show up in the Urban Assault’s straps and frame. They’re not terrible by any standard, but if you’re regularly carrying over 10kg they’ll fall short of the comfort you’d be getting with a different pack. The included sternum strap and padded back panel will help towards comfort regardless of the load, but you simply won’t get that legendary suspension that MR fans often rave about.
Asides from the frame, a few things have carried over from other Mystery Ranch packs to the Urban Assault. Most obviously this comes from Mystery Ranch’s Tri-zip feature. The Y-shaped zip that runs from the shoulders and down the belly of the pack is one of Mystery Ranch’s signature designs, and I love it. Quick access can be made by ripping back the lid, but the whole pack can be opened up using the central zip. The design keeps the stability of a traditional top-loading rucksack and stops your pack from spilling outwards when you open it up but allows a great deal of access. Against the common clamshell, this gives marginally less access because it won’t open completely flat, but never ends up spreading over double its length for the same reason.
Externally, the pack is clean. A single row of webbing adorns the base panel, but no PALS grids or Velcro loop out of the box. I think it looks awesome – MR now makes this pack in several colourways so if you favour the blacked-out look you can get blues, bright orange, MultiCam or even a plain white Urban Assault. The simple looks mean that the pack will pass subtly in the trendiest of crowds, without attracting attention.
Internally there is a laptop sleeve, an additional sleeve to hold a notebook or tablet. Two mesh pockets hover near the top of the main compartment, making great use of space that is often wasted and keeping small items at-hand, and another large mesh compartment occupies the lid of the bag with an external zip.
Together these make up the Urban Assault’s organisational features – there is no area of slots or loops to hold pens, knives or other small items in a dedicated spot. Everything is a bit basic. To get a more detailed level of admin will need you to bring your own pouches or add-ins. There are tons on the market and with a little research, you can find exactly what will work for you. The laptop sleeve is also a bit simple, lacking much in the way of structure or protection – I’ve ended up using an additional sleeve to protect my computer whenever I’m carrying it in this pack.
Likewise, the clean exterior does mean a little compromise. Notably, the pack has no external ‘bottle’ pockets, that I know are essential for many people. Drinks then have to go inside the pack, but the Urban Assault is also lacking any kind of pass-through for a bladder hose which would be useful for day-hikes. My Asian-market model does have webbing loops on the side of the pack which is designed for Mystery Ranch’s (very rare) stick-it add-on, but the new version is missing even these, meaning that there are almost no external mounting points on the pack. With my own, and I’ve seen others do the same, I’ve also added an area of velcro loop to the lid of the pack for patches, a feature seen on MR’s military packs as well as those by other brands.
The potential, for a pack of this size, is a bag that can be used every day, for every activity, but every design has strengths and weaknesses. One approach would be to overload with features, building in everything we can think of into a complex design – another would be total simplicity, expecting the user to add their own organisation, and configure things to their needs. Here Mystery Ranch has hit a middle ground, developing a pack that works well for a wide range of uses but doesn’t, unfortunately, excel at any of them.