Tactical backpacks offer the everyday adventurer a very attractive alternative to standard hiking or trekking backpacks. Not only are these packs rugged, heavy-duty workhorses, they offer a far more convenient design that makes them wonders of versatility and suitable for a wide variety of backcountry pursuits — fishing, hunting, hiking, kayaking, geocaching, landscape photography — and also the usage in more “civilized” environments.
A quick Amazon search will reveal that there are literally tens of thousands of tactical backpacks on the market, each with their own benefits and drawbacks and a multitude of specs, features, and design features that either increase or decrease their suitability for each would-be user. As such, choosing the best one for your needs isn’t easy. In fact, just creating a shortlist can turn into a bit of a marathon.
When that time comes, however, any list is sure to be incomplete without at least one item from the wonderfully badass-backpack-maker brand Mystery Ranch, a little-known company with big ambitions and range of high-performing, incredibly well-made packs that put most of their EDC competitors to shame.
In this article, we’re going to be taking a casting an eye over the Mystery Ranch Gunfighter to see just how it compares to these competitors in the field of Everyday-Carry tactical backpacks. We’ll start off with a look at all the various specs, features, and other factors that go into the makeup of a great tactical backpack before then getting down to a review of the Gunfighter itself.
There are a number of benefits to be had by choosing a tactical or military-style backpack over a standard hiking backpack. The most obvious of these are a compartmentalized design, MOLLE compatibility, versatility, and — in most cases — an upgrade in both ruggedness and durability.
Maybe the most important of these “special features” is the sophisticated organizational options that are comprised in a tactical pack’s wealth of interior compartments and pockets, and exterior storage options in the form of further pockets, gear loops, and MOLLE webbing. While regular hiking packs usually feature a single, large central storage compartment, tactical packs split their overall capacity between a number of “zones”, pockets, or compartments that allow you to organize your kit a lot more effectively, thus saving you a lot of rummaging around for gear items you need to access quickly.
The most relevant factors that go into the making of great tactical backpack include the following:
The storage capacity you need from your backpack will vary depending on the season and what you plan on using it for. As a rough guide, however, a pack with anything between 15 and 30 liters should be big enough to carry all the gear you need for a day trip year-round. If you’re planning on an overnighter, however, we’d recommend choosing a pack with a minimum of 25 liters of storage and close to the 40 marks if you’re carrying camping gear to boot.
When deciding what capacity of pack you need, bear in mind all those external storage possibilities mentioned above — some tactical packs offer enough to let you carry almost as much on the outside of the pack as you do inside, meaning the interior can be kept for clothes and other items you want to keep clean and dry.
Many cheaper models of tactical pack scrimp on the quality of their materials and other finer details like double stitching and robust, durable zippers and clips in order to keep costs down. If you plan on having your pack for a long time, however, or foresee putting it through a little bit of rough treatment while out on hikes or other outdoor pursuits, we’d highly recommend opting for a pack with tough Cordura, ripstop fabrics between 300 and 500 deniers, a reinforced bottom/base, YKK zippers, and double-stitching.
While most trekking or hiking backpacks either use waterproof fabrics in their construction or are treated with a durable water-repellent (DWR) finish to help them fend off the elements, many tactical pacts forego waterproofing in an effort to concentrate their weight and performance on other features. While this potential issue can be remedied with the purchase of a cheap backpack rain cover, if you’re spending a large whack of $ on your pack then waterproofing is one feature you have a right to expect — if any pack you’re considering doesn’t have it, ask exactly what you’re paying for before making the purchase.
None of the other features mentioned above and below count for very much if a pack doesn’t score high in the comfort stakes.
The factors that contribute most to a pack’s comfort are ample cushioning on the shoulder straps, the back panel, and the hipbelt, solid breathability and ventilation, and frame or torso length. The absence of any one of these factors alone is unlikely to be a dealbreaker or cause too much discomfort on short hikes with light loads. If more than one is missing or you’re likely to be carrying heavier loads over longer distances, however, then your pack could easily become an instrument of torture that will have you back online or in the store searching for something more suitable.
When buying, therefore, take care to read user reviews and look for adequate cushioning in the key areas where the pack is in contact with the body — the base of the back, the hipbelt, and the shoulders. With regard to ventilation, look for a suspended mesh and/or molded foam back panel that creates air-flow channels between your clothing and the frame of the pack, otherwise, you’ll be in for a fairly sticky stroll.
One of the key advantages in choosing a tactical backpack over a “civvy” or hiking backpack lies in the formatting of the pack’s storage capacity. While standard hiking packs tend to consolidate the vast majority of available volume in a large central well or compartment, tactical packs usually divide their overall capacity into a number of smaller compartments, sleeves, and pockets. This not only allows you to keep different items of your gear separate — wet and dry, sharp and rip-prone, breakable and non-breakable etc — but also increases efficiency by allowing you to improve organization and, as such, locate things quickly and/or without having to remove the rest of the contents of your pack.
While most potential backpack buyers aren’t expecting to win any awards for fashion, the appearance of your pack is another point worth considering. Some tactical packs use canvas and leather inserts to offer a more classy, old-school look; some more neutral models wouldn’t look out of place in the average corporate office; others look like they’ve just returned from or are preparing for a military tour. While your own personal tastes will naturally prove to be the deciding factor, it’s worth considering where and when you’d like to use the backpack. If you want one bag to take everywhere, then a more neutral-colored pack is more likely to do the job and save you scaring the living daylights out of your colleagues at work or neighbors. If you see yourself doing more in the way of hiking, fishing, hunting, war games, or paintball, then going down the camouflage route might be a better bet (and, of course, make you look distinctly more badass!).
As with any gear item, when buying a tactical or EDC backpack you want to know you are getting adequate bang for your buck. In addition to gauging a pack’s overall quality and functionality, the best way to gauge a pack’s value for money is to do a little digging on the competition and then ask a few questions:
Now that we know what to look for in a top-performing tactical pack, let’s get down to business with a closer look at the Mystery Ranch Gunfighter.
At 22 liters, the Gunfighter falls distinctly into the “daypack” category of tactical backpacks. While most of this capacity is used up on the large central well, the interior of the pack also boasts a laptop sleeve, hydration bladder sleeve, and numerous smaller compartments and zippered pockets, thereby offering you plenty of storage options for kit of all shapes and sizes. Given the pack’s lofty price tag, we would have liked an extra few liters of capacity, but this slight failing is offset by other endearing features mentioned below.
Where the Gunfighter — and, indeed, any Mystery Ranch pack — wins points over the vast majority of its competitors is in the materials used and the quality of build. From the moment you get the Gunfighter in your paws, you know you’ve got them on something that’s built to last and far superior to the vast majority of cheaper models aimed at the same slice of the market.
The 500D Cordura is an upgrade on the materials used in most other tactical daypacks and definitely inspires confidence.
The water-resistant PU and Teflon finish used in the Gunfighter is capable of dealing with the occasional light rain shower. Given the pack’s price, however, we would have liked a more reliable DWR finish and maybe even a waterproof membrane of some sort to give us more peace of mind on those iffy days when we’re not sure if this pack will cut it or we need to return to our gear cupboard for something a little more “bombproof”. As mentioned above, this problem can be circumvented by picking up a cheap rain cover or applying a DWR treatment yourself but paying this kind of price you expect these minor hassles to be taken care of for you at the production point.
Despite the lack of any padding on the hipbelt, the Gunfighter is a very comfortable pack owing to the use of plenty of cushioning in the back panel and on the shoulders. Given that the max capacity of the pack is 22 liters, unless you’re filling it with lead then the shortage of padding around the hips shouldn’t be an issue!
The Gunfighter offers a fairly standard array of storage pockets and divided “zones” on the interior, boasting a laptop sleeve, three zippered pockets, and admin pocket, and a further duo of sleeved compartments against the frame. Although the admin pocket isn’t as nuanced as many others we’ve seen (no pen slots, for example), one feature we really appreciated is the configuration of the laptop sleeve, which is reasonably well padded and stops around two inches below the base of the pack, meaning that when you set the pack down the chances of damaging your laptop are significantly reduced.
The Gunfighter’s military olive-type coloring allows it to bridge the gap — or sit on the fence — between an out-and-out camo pack and a more neutral EDC pack that’s suitable for work and more formal environments. Both of the latter options are also available.
When any gear item is made with as much care, attention to detail, and quality as the Gunfighter, there’s always a chance that its price tag is going to cause a bit of a gulp on the first inspection. The only issue we have with this pack with regard to value for money is that the gulp was a little too large for what we were getting in return. To fully justify the cost, we would have liked a few more frills (external mesh pockets and more reliable water resistance or a built-in rain cover, for example) and an added liter or two of storage. That said, if you happen to be flush and want a pack that’s sure to last you a very long time, the Gunfighter still deserves a place on your shortlist of potential future EDC packs.
In a niche of the EDC market that is glutted with hundreds of examples of cheaply made, low quality, or otherwise uninspiring products, the Mystery Ranch Gunfighter stands as something of an anomaly. This pack ticks pretty much every box there is to tick in style and boasts a quality of build that should leave other tactical backpack manufacturers blushing in embarrassment.
There’s no getting around the fact that this is an expensive product, but what you get in return for your outlay is a pack that’s tough, reliable, and built to last a lifetime. In terms of features, the Gunfighter has a lot of hits and just a few misses. Given the price, we would have appreciated a few mesh pockets and little more cushioning around the hipbelt, but these failings are more than adequately compensated for by the pack’s almost peerless durability, intuitive and user-friendly design, efficient compartmentalization, and general lack of the standout dealbreakers that we tend to come across in so many tactical packs.
In short, if you’ve got money to burn, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better-made, more functional, and harder-wearing EDC backpack than the Gunfighter.
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.