Product Review::Mission Workshop Rambler

Cycling bags have proven to outlast and outperform a great portion of the bag market. Timbuk2’s wild success is case study as to why; they made something unique and people from all walks, rolls, and drives of life dug in. The appeal of the timbuk2 bag endures not just because the product was simply functional, but also because it stood for something. There are just enough features on a Timbuk2 to organize your tools and live your life. But you can’t do everything with a Timbuk2 and lots of peoples’ lives were too complicated or tough for the classic design of the messenger bag.

As lore has it, Chrome bags broke off and started designing bags with some extra features and extra durable materials. More importantly, the asymmetric design of the chrome bag allowed messengers and students alike to bike around all day without the bag shifting loads on your back and severely messing up your flow.

Well, it’s been a minute since then, but the principle challenge ain’t really that different… get all your stuff in a pack so you can live your life. The thing about life is that the only constant is change. Today’s consumer wants something a little different, and a similar evolution has occurred. This time, the rogue Chrome agents are calling themselves Mission Workshop. They wanted to design a pack that better fit their lives.

So, how wet is your life? Here in Seattle, it can be pretty wet. And if you live in San Francisco and surf, or change your clothes after a rain storm, one big compartment of a messenger bag can get a little damp. For weatherproof bags to keep out the rain, there are rolltop bags like the Ortlieb and SealLine. These things will last forever and keep things so dry you’ll swear the magic’s gone. You may try to sneak/force feed the pack an aphrodisiac. These are based off of the concept of a dry bag.

They’re great products and last forever.

But if your life is at all complicated, or you like to multitask, or you pack a lot of shit, one compartment can result in frustrating digs that feel like hour-long excavations… you may resent how complex your life is while you tear through your various crap to get to the thing you wanted in the first place.

Now, there are some packs that are just so full of features you can spend days looking for the right pocket. These ‘features’ can be super useful, and the right ones on the right pack are great, but it’s a fine line. (Watch that link without falling asleep and I’ll make you breakfast in bed. The fine line doesn’t even come close on that thing; they overshot by miles.) Features add weight, complexity of design, and add to manufacturing cost. Features are things you must really need in order to like, unless you’re insane and codify and catalogue every minute thing. “Oh, i need my cell phone charger. That’s in the second side compartment in the mesh partition four in and two down.” You’ll find packs that- whether meant for commuting or school or hiking- are just so busy and complex they lose that whole ‘functional’ allure of the cycling bag. The SAGlife megatron does a better job of this, but it’s also expensive and still has too many features for some. (Me.)

What Mission Workshop’s done is taken the cycling single compartment bag and expanded it. They made a backpack with two distinct compartments and an expanding gusset that reveals/serves as a third compartment. The funny thing is that the third compartment is really the true interior of the bag, but I’ll touch more on that later.

They make two sizes, the medium sized Rambler and the Vanquishingly huge Vandal.

7/2011 : now they make a third, non expanding rucksack. If you want a light bag it’s good but what I like about these bags is they expand. the small is the size of the Rambler but it doesn’t expand… so it’s lighter and a little smaller in certain dimensions, with the same volume as a cinched down Rambler.

I bought the Rambler.

It’s their smaller of two sizes, they call it “Medium.” It’s sizeable, but no where near as large as the highly marketed Vandal. It’s the same general construction as its big brother, but smaller for those who don’t haul that much or have small frames.

Speaking of frames, these packs have internal frames lining the back which are rigid enough to keep anything comfortable, but still pretty light. Another downfall of the messenger design- you can load these with anything in any way you want, and it won’t poke you in the back. Try that with a Timbuk2, or even a Chrome.

They call these packs weatherproof, and damn do they mean it. The shell is a TPU nylon that’s been Urethane coated. It’s a great fabric, and won’t ever absorb water until the fabric isn’t fabric anymore.

The colors available are green, black, silver, blue, digital camo and charcoal. This is the charcoal. Not all fabrics are TPU but they’re all pretty nice. If you want it to shed water, I’d suggest the black green and charcoal TPU fabrics- though you’re probably fine with any of them.

The back is mesh and foam so it will let some air onto your body. It’s been cold lately so I can’t speak to how well that works, but it’s very high quality of craftsmanship and it will undoubtedly be better than straight canvas or nylon. The straps are suspended and you can raise or lower the bag with adjustable buckles that feed into elastic retainers. It’s a simple design but works beautifully. The straps are padded but not overly so and they fit me great.

The closing straps are elastic, and pretty strong with oversized buckles. I think these should last a long time and they’re really awesome to use, because you don’t have to keep playing around with setting the straps every time the load changes. It just stretches, and then cinches the whole bag down. This is actually one of my favorite parts of the bag.

Did I mention that it’s waterproof? Every zipper, even the expansion gusset and third compartment zippers are water resistant bonded zippers. Here is a good place to have the ‘waterproof’ discussion. When we say waterproof, we mean water can’t get in for the intended use. Water resistant means it can get in, but won’t for a while. Technically, I would not take anything of value and put it in this pack then submerge the pack in ten meters of water… so by watch standards, this is just water resistant. If you want something to do that, get a Seal Line or other dry bag. However, if I hit this pack with a fire hose for ten minutes, it would be dry inside. That’s what I mean when I say waterproof. It’s a waterproof bag for anything but submerging. Drop it in a puddle, that’s fine. Stand in a rain storm for five hours, it’s not going to let water in. Okay? Don’t comment on my use of the word ‘waterproof.’ We’re talking cycling bag standards, not diving watches.

Moving on.

Every zipper is garaged. This particular zipper is the one that closes the front stash pocket… you can kind of see it in the first picture, but one side(not the other) has a stash pocket about big enough for an iphone and a pack of cigarettes. Or whatever other filthy disgusting items you spend your time and money on, you hipsters.

But yeah, the zippers are all garaged.

Attention to details. This bag has it.

The Sternum Strap is elastically sprung, with an adjustment limit from the right side. Very well thought out and it works wonderfully.

The gusset expansion buckles have cam lock adjustment. This means you just pull to cinch it down, but no matter where the load is pulling it won’t loosen without you pulling on the cam. What’s really awesome is the logo motif on the rubber cam… I kind of want to use my expansion compartment more just so I can look at the buckles. I’d love to see this on more of the buckles.

I mean… It’s goddamn beautiful.

One of the ‘features’ of this bag is the blinkie strap. I’m really happy that they included this, because I’m a sucker for lights. My kemmer bag(chrome copy) didn’t have one and I was missing it for a while. Also, my Timbuk2 large messenger and Medium Swig had them but they were in a weird place. I love the placement of this and it’s over a tunnel that the elastic compression buckle comes from, which is another great feature. The strap excess can be shoved back down into this tunnel if you don’t like it flapping around. Or, it’s got a reflective detail on the end if you do. Either way, the tunnel makes a great pocket for utensils, if you’re into that sort of thing.

This is actually pretty exemplary of what I like about this pack- the features are useful 24/7. They’re not like a mesh compartment or a pen organizer that will only be useful when you have x-y-or-z conditions met, they’re useful no matter what and they’re simple enough that if you’re not using them, they don’t clutter the bag.

These bags are made in Colorado, and the rolltop compartment proudly displays it.

The Rolltop compartment is the true genius of the bag. It can be rolled shut with the velcro flap, or it can be folded down as a flap over the bag. It’s just long enough to go over stuff you may want to put in the expansion compartment, and can hold more volume if you want to just stack that rolltop to the brim.

This Rambler is the smaller of the two backpacks, and it really is an attractive size. My swig was HUGE, and I’m beginning to doubt that I actually recieved the Timbuk2 Medium that I ordered because it was just super large looking on me. But the swig didn’t have all that much room, and only had an articulated front compartment, which had no separate closure and no real usable space when the main compartment was filled. This rambler has a defined space as well, but the two separate closures and cut/design of the bag ensures the both front and back can be used to the best of their utility.

If you’re considering the Rambler and the Vandal, read what I’m telling you. This whole next part will explain how these bags work, and why the difference in overall size is the only important difference. Basically, the  Vandal is a big bag. Sure, it compresses with its expansion gusset, but both bags are the same design and that design is what dictates the use and capacity.

The rolltop compartment is a sleeve that goes into the bag. I touched on this earlier but what it basically means is that it’s a defined bag within your bag- it’s waterproof and if you fill it with wet clothes, no other compartment will get wet. I haven’t filled it with ice or liquid, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t do too poorly with that either. Best of all, you can flip this whole sleeve inside out, like your jean pockets, and clean it out – outside of the bag. I had a really crappy time getting sand and dirt out of my other bags, but this rolltop compartment is a cinch to clean. The downside to this design is that it’s loose inside the bag, so there’s nothing keeping the bottom of the sleeve attached to the bottom of the pack’s inside. A velcro closure on the interior of the bag would actually help prevent the sleeve portion from buching up like a sweater sleeve that you’re taking off while holding an apple… Sometimes when the sleeve is full, it comes out of the bag with whatever you’re trying to grab from it. High-friction items such as clothes or fabric covered bulky or oddly shaped items are the main culprits, where most books and slick things slide out without difficulty.

The front zipper compartment has a waterproof zipper on the front which is then folded over as a flap so the zipper is concealed. You don’t have to use the zipper, but it’s there in case you want it. The fold is tacked into the bag, so it ‘wants’ to act as a flap. This pocket is also a full sleeve that is a bag within your bag, but like a jacket pocket, it’s tacked to the front of the bag. You cannot turn it inside out outside of the bag, even though it’s a distinct sleeve. Of course, this means if you put big fabrics in there they don’t make the sleeve bunch up when you take them out, they just get stuck if they’re too big for the pocket- and this being the smaller of the two sizes, I have run into this problem. A professional camera body with a long lens attached is slightly difficult to retrieve through the tacked fold, even if it fits nicely in the compartment. That said, it’s a deceptively large size, and holds a lot of stuff, filling back into the bag from the bottom. I didn’t think it would hold as much as it does, but it really fills the bag from the front if you put a lot in it.

What this means is that the expansion compartment isn’t its own compartment at all… it’s the negative space between the front and back pockets. The large gusset of the expansion compartment moves the whole front section farther out, especially at the top, but that gained area where the zipper unzips is basically a wedge of space that you gain. The compartment under these two zippers is the true interior of the bag, and if you turn the back sleeve out you can actually see the frame sheet and rails go behind their covering, and other internal parts of the bag. Things can get lost behind those sleeves, so this is really best used for those extra cargo loads rather than another compartment for things you use several times a day.

If you’re deciding between the Vandal and the Rambler, go expand each of them to their full size, then evaluate them try them on and ask yourself how much space you’ll use. The gusset doesn’t give you more room, it gives you access to the room that the bag has all along. The way to use each of these bags is to use them in compact form until you need the full capacity, and that’s when you open them up.

This is why I’m showing you what comfortably fits in the bag in a “Daily Carry” “What’s in your Bag?” type of spread WITH THE EXPANSION ZIPPED AND IN COMPRESSED MODE. This stuff fits in the bag in its smallest configuration. Obviously, don’t put as much stuff in the bag and it doesn’t look as big… but all the photos you’ve seen so far have been with the following stuff loaded in the fully compressed configuration:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/emosubaru/5265652438/in/photostream/ if you’re a geek, check it on flickr.

This stuff is a lot of stuff. I mean, look. It’s a patch kit and a tire. It’s my gloves, hat, and arm/leg warmers. It’s a full size full frame Nikon and a black slim devil film camera. (good eye, the SLR’s film too. aren’t you special for noticing.) It’s a laptop AND reading material. Catch my drift? In its smallest configuration, this bag carries everything I need it to carry and a lot of stuff I don’t.

Once you expand it, it nearly doubles in size. This means grocery runs, changes of clothes, and pretty much whatever. If you do that type of stuff with your bag and you don’t have panniers, the Vandal might be your dig. I have two ortlieb rolltops on a rack, so between those and this, I can grocery shop for myself and others. With some planning, the Rambler takes it all on without breaking a sweat.

The Rambler is small enough to be completely unloaded and still feel at home on my back. It won’t swish and swing when I turn on my heels, and it won’t flop and sway when I load it half full and climb out of the saddle to get up Queen Anne hill.

Now that said, this bag won’t carry a Keg on a Tandem or enough groceries to Feed a Moose, but it is definitely big enough for what I need on the day to day, and expands to get that 12 pack home or pick up two half kilos gallons from the store when I remember the grocery list but not the rack and ortlieb panniers. I’m not a messenger, I don’t need to carry the World on my Back. I ramble from place to place, and I enjoy the occasional coffee and internet surf when I get there. Throw in enough space for a picture machine and a snack and I’m a happy camper.

This backpack is big enough for me. At 5’7″ I’m no giant, but I’m not your teen sister either and it fits me well. I did outfit the straps with a Timbuk2 2-way. It was half-off and I like having my phone where I can hear it play music at stupidly low volume because the samsung reality sucks. I know it may seem odd to put T2 stuff on an MSW bag but it actually matches quite nicely.

And the real kicker about this bag is that it’s so blatantly much higher quality than chrome packs or timbuk2 bags. Its combination of materials, construction and design quality is really impressive. If you haven’t seen one in person, see it in person. My photos look good, but I can make shit look good, so you should really go see one in a store. I can’t tell you if it’s worth the extra money over a similarly-sized chrome bag, but to me there is literally no competition aside from custom made bags, and the materials used would make that route far more expensive.

The downsides: No pencil holders. Not a one. I have a pen holder in my notebook, and the front stash pocket works well too, but I grew used to it on my timbuk2 and kemmer/chromecopy.

The outside stash pocket is small. It’s big enough for a wallet or a phone but both is a stretch, even with my empty fucking wallet.

It costs $220. You gotta pay for quality and it’s worth that, but that’s a lot of money. I sold all my unused bike parts and other bags and ended up making all but 40 back.

And then I bought the lumbar strap. That was $12. For this much money they should give you the damn lumbar strap. I know not everyone would use it but it actually makes a rad fucking belt to put packs on.

There’s no designated u-lock holster. That is actually the reason I bought the lumbar strap, thinking I could fit it comfortably on there. But there’s not a one. The elastic main strap works, but sometimes I don’t want to take off my bag to lock up, and the bag’s long enough to interfere with sticking my lock down my pants.

And finally, well… it’s pretty much the best backpack I can imagine. This is a downside because there’s no excuses. If you’re carrying a heavy load, it’s not going to be any more comfortable in any other pack(Argue with me on this, you’d be wrong. The osprey suspension backs put hotspots on your back if they don’t fit perfectly or if you’re over a bike instead of hiking. This backpack is better for biking. It’s seriously super comfortable) and if you get your stuff wet, you didn’t put it in the backpack. No excuses. I suppose you could go grocery shopping and get too much stuff to fit in this bag, but with it expanded it’s really something you’d have to try to do- like, forget you don’t have a trunk or a cargo bike while you were shopping. There’s a lot of space, even in the Rambler opposed to the Vandal.

I love Mission Workshop and this review is totally biased because I love my Rambler and I want to love it. But I’m proud to say that’s the only bias. I’m not like bigtime bloggers that get free swag or marketing dollars or whatever, I am a completely independent consumer and I like everything about this bag enough to write this on it.

And sure, a jansport from walmart can still hold your stuff. But seriously, this bag is nice. I’m glad I got it.

The Rambler. Looks good and packs a punch.

I’d grade it a 97%, Five Stars, Gold Award, Highly Recommended, Dick Punch Certified, A plus award.

16 Responses to Product Review::Mission Workshop Rambler

  1. Andy Skalet says:

    Nice writeup, made me laugh too. But man, I had no idea how much crap you had in there – you may have to take over the boy scout award from Jon Hines :p

  2. Avner says:

    Well man, some great pictures of the bag but the review isn’t very indepth or informative.

  3. Dan says:

    ok. but is it waterproof.

    • charlieclay says:

      I haven’t submerged it in a lake so I don’t know. It’s weatherproof and bucketproof. You come shoot me with a garden hose and we’ll see if it’s hoseproof. bring your friend with the 5d markII

  4. Avner says:

    I’m in yer blog trollin yer posts. :P

  5. Dom Tuliop says:

    Thanks for the excellent review. Review was so good I forgot about the borderline obsene price. Nice bag maybe one day…

    • charlieclay says:

      you can sometimes find a bargain on one of two things: (r)evolutionary design, and penultimate quality. hardly ever do you get both at a discount unless you’re an insider… or trade all of your swag for store credit like i did. this bag cost me $40 and all the parts I had that weren’t attached to a bike.

      • Dom Tuliop says:

        I can’t stop researching this backpack. Seems like an awesome pack that I’ll eventually own. I don’t know why I have such a problem with the price. On a visceral level the $240 price takes me aback. But I wouldn’t flinch at spending that much on a backpacking pack and I’ll use the mission pack a lot more hours than the backpacking pack.

  6. Angel Ochoa says:

    http://www.wired.com/reviews/2010/08/pr_rambler_bag/

    you can put a u lock onto the back

    its a little easter egg for you to figure out but its definitely there on purpose

    • charlieclay says:

      Thanks angel! I did see that and I will try it out. It’s a little inconvenient compared to just throwing the lock in the bag, but it’s definitely better than u-locking precious cargo to smithereens. Got it locked up for tomorrow morning’s commute already… a no-brainer once you see it done!

  7. Todash says:

    I like the part where you wrote, “I can make shit look good” because it’s true. Those are some KILLER pictures!!! Whoa! You are to light capture what Mission Workshop is to Cargo Packs. Thanks, it was a great read, like I was reading some bestseller. Maybe it’s just because I’m so excited about the VANDAL, but still. It was great! Thanks!

    • charlieclay says:

      Thanks Todash! high praise I’m not sure is quite deserved, but these are some killer packs and MWS for sure knows what they are doing. Enjoy your vandal! I still LOVE this pack. Just took it off my back after the ride home from a friend’s birthday celebration. It’s a constant companion.

      • Todash says:

        Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. The stitching was all sloppy, everywhere, the “Made In USA” tag was stitched over onto itself, the front was lop-sided. I was very disappointed. Thankfully, their customer service took care of me, and sent me a replacement, which turned out even worse. I returned them both for a full refund, so they did right by me, except for producing a decent product :(

  8. leila@rook says:

    Awesome review. Thanks. It’s hard to find a review of this exact bag (it’s all about the Vandal).

    • charlieclay says:

      Indeed, and not without warrant. The vandal has one more zippered side access pocket and one more flapped full length compartment so if you have the frame to fit it, you can’t go wrong. I got this before the sanction so I’d do it differently were the vx series available.

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