Mystery Ranch has long been a name synonymous with quality, comfort, and innovation. They’ve been doing their thing since 2000, and are owned by industry veterans Dana Gleason and Renee Sippel-Baker, formerly of Dana Design; pioneers in the load bearing industry. Mystery Ranch might be best recognized by their signature Tri-Zip packs, which they use successfully on everything from urban daypacks to military and multi-day technical packs.
The Mystery Ranch Hardscrabble is a new (2017) technical trail pack, designed with day hikes and impromptu excursions in mind. While I didn’t get a chance to hit the trails with this pack, I loaded it up as I would have, and set out for a trek around town.
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Quality and Comfort
Mystery Ranch has never been one to skimp on quality, and they tend to put it above all else, coming up with bomb-proof packs for any occasion. The Hardscrabble, made in one of MR’s Vietnam factories, is no exception. The pack is made from 420d twill rip-stop nylon and has colour-matched YKK Aquaguard zippers for all entry points. I really appreciate all of the little touches on this pack, from the clean stitching and the matching zippers to the bottle pockets and the nicely tied-off paracord zipper pulls.
The Hardscrabble comes with a permanently attached, padded belt, which is nice on this size pack (22L) but not always necessary. However, I absolutely prefer it to those afterthought belts that are just a single strip of webbing, cutting into your sides as you walk. One thing I don’t love about the belt is that I don’t think the padding comes around quite enough towards the front. More on that in the organisation section.
The back panel, belt, and straps are entirely covered with padded air-mesh, which is better than EDC-style flat nylon, but not quite as nice as an air-gapped suspension you see on some similar packs by brands like Osprey or Arc’teryx. The back panel also has a moulded HDPE frame sheet that gets the job done just fine. The straps have load-lifters, which I very much dislike on EDC style packs, but are generally necessary and welcome on technical packs, like this, that you’ll be wearing for more than an hour at a time under load. In general, this is a really well built and comfortable pack.
As with many packs this style, the micro-organisation is BYO. In total, the Hardscrabble has 6 separate compartments and pockets for hauling and organizing anything you’d really need for a day hike. That doesn’t include the two stretch-fabric water bottle pockets on either side or the lashing points on the front and bottom of the pack.
Mystery Ranch chose to forego their signature Tri-Zip in favour of a somewhat more standard top-load design and added two vertical torpedo pockets on either side of the front. I found the torpedo pockets great for stuffing things that you want might quicker access to, like a lightweight rain jacket, binoculars, or medical supplies. The top entry lid has a small accessory compartment, and while there’s no organisation inside of it, it’s a good spot for smaller items like sunglasses or snacks.
The main compartment has no internal organisation, save for a water bladder sleeve and hanger. The existence of the hanger opens up some possibilities for further organisation if panel inserts are your thing, but I found it fine as is since I’m mostly throwing larger items in the main compartment like my Jetboil or a hammock and straps. One thing I generally enjoyed seeing on this pack is that the other organisational pockets don’t take up any of the space in the main compartment. This tends to be a big issue on packs with internal organisation or if they’re trying to look too sleek. Big thumbs up for this design choice.
The waist belt has two small accessory pockets that I’ve personally found fairly useless. They run tight against the belt and aren’t really large enough to fit anything I’d want to store there, like a phone or GPS unit. They also sit a little far back for my liking. I’m a relatively small person (5’8″, 175lbs), and I have to slightly strain my arm to even reach the pockets. I can’t imagine a larger stature person having an easy time accessing them. For now, I’ve resorted to dedicating these pockets to dog treats.
The Hardscrabble has a unique look and feel to it, and while I think it’s a love-or-hate kind of look, I like it. I think this pack hits a lot of the check-boxes for anyone looking for a technical daypack. It’s weather resistant, it holds a solid 22L, it’s comfortable, and the organisation is just right. The torpedo pockets are an excellent addition to this pack, and I really enjoy how it looks and carries.
While I think this is a great pack, there’s always room for improvement. For one, the waist belt pockets I mentioned above could use a bit of an overhaul. I suggest maybe making them out of the same material the stretch pockets use, as a lot of runner’s belts do, or just increasing their size, along with moving them forward a bit.
The carry handle on the Hardscrabble seems like such an afterthought it wasn’t worth mentioning above. While it’s not getting picked up and carried as much as an urban pack might, I would have liked to have seen a little padding here or at least stiffen and shorten it up.
My other improvement points are more of a wish list than problems with the pack. I would have liked to have seen side-entry water bottle pockets, so you can grab a bottle without taking the pack off, and I would have liked some light organisation in the top accessory pocket.
While it should be obvious from the review, I do want to take a second to point out that this is not an EDC pack, and I believe if you try to use it as one, you’ll have a poor time.
I really don’t think you can go wrong with the Hardscrabble if you’re looking for a well designed technical day pack. Mountain and outdoor packs are where Mystery Ranch really shines, and it shows in almost every aspect of this pack. The Vietnam manufacturing, while not affecting quality at all, does affect the price point, bringing this pack in at $125 MSRP. Though Mystery Ranch currently has it on closeout for $95, and you can find it even cheaper elsewhere if you look. That in mind, I really hope we see Mystery Ranch revisit and restock this pack in the near future, as I think they have something pretty nice here.