Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mystery Ranch Goodness

I haven't been too attentive to this or my other blog for a while.  Nothing wrong, just busy at work and otherwise lazy.  Plus writer's block and a general lack of good ideas and/or inspiration.  I've got several good topics racked and stacked for future posts, but I need to wait until the end of the month and the 2013 Blade Show before I can get them fully developed.

So today we'll take a side trip to have a look at what has fast become my favorite backpack, the Mystery Ranch 3 Day Assault Pack.

In a past post on this blog I've covered my lifetime search for the perfect day pack.   At the time I heaped praise on the USGI MOLLE II Assault Pack.  My opinion hasn't changed - it is still one of the best day packs ever developed.  However, a hobby/obsession wouldn't be a hobby/obsession if the search didn't continue, and I'm always on the lookout for something newer and better.

About a year ago I started noticing a growing discussion about packs made by a small manufacturer out of Bozeman, Montana named Mystery Ranch.  Owners of their packs heaped high praise on them.  Now, that's not at all unusual in today's internet driven fanboy mentality world.  You can find plenty of fawning posts on the web for the Yugo but that doesn't mean it was a great car, or even a fair car (in fact, it was a pretty damned lousy car).  The same goes for backpacks.  Lots of lousy gear gets great reviews simply because someone bought it, is afraid to admit their mistake, has an internet connection and is craving some attention.

However, things were a bit different with the Mystery Ranch products.  A lot of the comments were coming from folks who had no prior interest in Mystery Ranch products but were issued them as part of their work.  In particular, military members engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Forest Service firefighters working the fire lines in remote locations where their packs carried all their fire fighting, survival and subsistence gear.  The reports were generally glowing, and many focused on the quality of the design, overall carry comfort and tough-as-nails construction. 

I had never heard of Mystery Ranch before and did a little digging on the company.  It turns out that Mystery Ranch is owned by Dana Gleason, one of the top backpack designers in the industry.  Gleason got his start in the business back in the 1970s repairing what others made.  This gave him an excellent perspective on what works and doesn't work from a design, materials and construction standpoint.  He doesn't repeat the mistakes of others.  Gleason has started, then sold, several backpack production companies but about 12 years ago he settled in Bozeman and started his current venture, Mystery Ranch. 

The company builds a wide range of backpack products, most of them incorporating new and unique designs in load carrying technology.  Of particular interest is their Futura adjustable suspension system that allows the backpack fit to be custom tailored to the individual.  To be fair, adjustable shoulder harnesses are nothing new in the backpack world.  Gleason just took the concept in his own direction and came up with what is, in my opinion, one of the most comfortable suspension systems on the market today.

My interest is in small - medium capacity day packs, something to throw on the back for a few hours at the most.  It only needs to carry a first aid kit, some water and snacks, camera, GPS, maybe some fishing gear.  In slightly more extreme circumstances I may have to toss in a survival kit, rain jacket, extra socks, gloves and a vest.  Nothing too big or complicated.  My days of hauling huge, heavy loads are long over.  The smallest pack in their line is also one of their most popular, perhaps the most popular given the number of packs produced.  It's the 3 Day Assault Pack, and it's Mystery Ranch's sales leader simply because it's been adopted by a number of militaries around the world.  The US military uses it in a limited role, it is popular with military contractors working in the Middle East and the Australian Army has selected it as the standard assault pack for its ground forces.  It didn't get selected because it was a cool looking backpack (which it is), it got selected because it had been tested in combat, modified and improved based on lessons learned and the final result is a bag that scores high on carry comfort, functionality, adaptability and ruggedness.  Of course this means I had to have one!

Mystery Ranch 3 Day Assault Pack just back from a hike

When I ordered my pack from Mystery Ranch I was told it would be a two week wait before they could ship; they were out of stock on the bag and waiting for more to be produced.  That two week wait extended to almost five weeks as the company struggled to catch up with it's production backlog on the pack.  The 3 Day Assault Pack is extremely popular and demand is high.  In fact, Mystery Ranch had to set up a production facility in the Philippines to handle orders from its Asian customers.  My guess is that's where the bags being produced for the Australian Army are being made.  Rest assured though that if you are a US-based customer your bag will be made in Bozeman, Montana using US-produced materials.

Many of Mystery Ranch's designs utilize what they call the tri-zip feature.  The bag is held together by three zippers.  One long vertical zipper that encloses the main bag and two shorter horizontal zippers that form the lid.  I've written before that I'm no big fan of zippers on backpacks.  I've seen far too many of them fail.  While researching this bag I was surprised to find an interview Dana Gleason did a few years back where he addresses this very issue.  Turns out he's no big fan of zippers himself, but he designed his tri-zip bags to meet a specific requirement for fast, easy access to the contents and he was careful in his choice of zippers and how they were incorporated into the design.  Dana states that the design has been very successful and they've had very few zipper related failures, so he's now sold on the idea of using zippers on high stress areas of the packs he produces.

In this shot you can see the three zippers that form the bag -
one long vertical zipper for the main compartment and two
horizontal zippers that form the lid
I'm not sure I'm 100% sold on the zipper concept yet, but it sure does make getting to the contents of the bag easy.

The 3 Day Assault Pack zipped all the way open.
Mystery Ranch aficionados call this 'filleting the bag'. 
But what really sets the 3 Day Assault Pack apart from its competition is the suspension system.  Called the Futura System, it is an infinitely adjustable shoulder harness system that can be custom tailored to the user's torso length.   When you order a Mystery Ranch pack you select a suspension system based on your height.  Once you get the bag you custom tune the fit following directions provided by Mystery Ranch.  It's really a two person operation, but in the end you'll have a shoulder harness system precisely tailored to your torso length.  This pack, when fully loaded, is one of the most comfortable - if not the most comfortable - packs I've had on my back.  The bag profile is narrow and the suspension system holds it close to the back.  It is very steady, with little or no side-to-side sway to cause balance problems.

The Futura suspension system with waist belt
One of the last things to mention is the quality of construction.  I've spent over 35 years inspecting soft goods for quality of construction, materials and design.  This pack is, without a doubt, the best civilian market backpack I've ever inspected.  Everything is first rate - from the design to the materials to construction standards.  Here's just one small example.  The 3 Day Assault Pack (along with many other Mystery Ranch packs) has a reinforced double bottom.  But it's not just two layers of material stitched to the sides of the bag.  The inner bottom panel is cut  1/2" smaller all around than the exterior panel.  This means that most of the load weight is supported by the smaller inner panel, reducing stress on the outer panel and reducing the amount of abrasion damage it suffers.  Simple but ingenious.

The attention to detail is amazing.  All seams are expertly stitched and properly reinforced.  You can not find a single hanging thread on any part of this bag, a sure sign of very tight production standards and quality control.

This bag approaches bespoke quality.  While not cheap, it is worth every penny.

Finally, as a sign of pride in their product Mystery Ranch stitches a quality control tag into each bag, and everyone who had a hand in producing it initials off as it moves through the production process.  The Mystery Ranch crew is clearly not shy about letting you know who had a hand in creating your pack.

Stay sharp!