Review: the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21 backpack offers a pared-down daypack for your city pursuits
Meet your assault pack’s MOLLE-less little brother.
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I am always on the hunt for a good pack. I am not sure why, but it is a borderline obsession at this point. I should have stopped years ago. You can only carry one at a time, so why do I have so many? We will likely never know, but what I do know is that anything made by Mystery Ranch always catches my attention, so when I saw the Urban Assault Pack, I knew I had to give it a shot.
Mystery Ranch has been making packs since 2000. They make a wide range of bags, typically geared towards the military or first responders, but they also make hiking packs in various capacities. They only offer a few models in the casual or everyday carry category, but it seems like they are expanding by adding several packs, totes and even some fanny pack options. I am excited to see what they offer in the future.
Mystery Ranch describes this pack as “maximized for your urban patrols” on their website — an interesting description to say the least. I am not sure about your “urban patrols,” but mine usually consist of carrying a few basic items, like a water bottle, laptop, notebook, and book while I’m on the hunt for a good cup of coffee. Seeing the simple and sleek aesthetic of this pack, combined with the internal laptop sleeve, leads me to believe this pack is built for those who typically carry a laptop computer and not much else. With a price point at $115 on Amazon — just above what you would pay for a casual North Face backpack — the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21 may actually end up as your next pack of choice.
I received this pack in the unfortunate color of “Aegean Blue.” I have no personal vendetta against this color, but since it does not meet uniform standards, I could not use this pack for work. I persevered and carried on. My wife even assured me that it was cute.
Aside from the color, the first thing I noticed was the stiffness of the bag. I was caught off guard by this. There is a frame panel that is a plastic plate (I am assuming) that is approximately ⅛-inch thick that lines the entire back of the pack. There is padding that is covered with mesh material on the outside of this plastic piece that would separate it from the wearer. This gave the bag a rigid structure that seemed out of place on a casual pack. Aside from this,
The pack has a 21-liter capacity with Mystery Ranch’s signature three-way zip closure. There is a zippered pocket in the lid that is mesh-lined and accessible with the main compartment closed, and two internal mesh-lined zippered pockets that are only accessible with the main compartment open. There is also a laptop sleeve and a slightly smaller tablet sleeve to round out the storage options.
I was impressed with the other features. The dimensions of this pack is 20 inches in height, 10 inches wide, and 8.75 inches deep. The bag has the perception of being tall and slender compared to other packs and looks like it would sit right against your entire back. I wondered if this would limit what would fit in the bag, so we’ll have to revisit this in the evaluation of this pack.
The materials, zippers and overall quality are what you would expect from Mystery Ranch. The pack is made from 500D Cordura nylon. This is lighter than 1000D Cordura nylon, but also less tear- and rip-resistant. For a daypack meant for casual use, 500D is sturdy and strong enough to meet the demands for its intended use for most people. The 500D Cordura and lack of other external attachments make for a very lightweight pack. Always a plus in my book.
How we tested the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21 backpack
I tried to use this bag in its intended use case, so I packed it with a load of ordinary items and headed downtown to explore. I wanted to see if it could hold everything I would usually carry, if everything was easy to access, and if the pocket layout made sense. I also wanted to evaluate the comfort of the bag. The items I carried were a slim laptop, an e-reader, full 40-ounce Hydro Flask water bottle, two magazines, multitool, pens, and a small notebook. We walked around, stopped for coffee, enjoyed a croissant, and took in the sights for just over two hours. We also got caught in a light drizzle. Separately, I loaded the bag with a pair of shoes and a change of clothes to see if it would be suitable to use as a gym or overnight bag.
What we like about the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21 backpack
This bag is the quality you would expect from Mystery Ranch. The 500D Cordura nylon and YKK urethane-coated zippers put this pack above many others and give it ample protection from the rain. From a material construction standpoint, I am very confident this bag will stand up well for many years to come. I also appreciate Mystery Ranch’s warranty of correcting defects without question and repairing damage from use for a fee. I have never put this to the test, but this is a huge step forward for a gear company and one that I hope other companies will mimic.
I also enjoy the pocket layout of the bag. From the outside, the bag is simple and sleek. The top pocket is easily accessible and perfect for wallet, keys, and sunglasses. The inside pockets are great for other small, less-used items and the mesh makes it easy to identify what is where. The three-zip system allows all the contents of the bag to be quickly accessible. I think this is especially helpful if you’re carrying a change of clothes, when you need to completely open the bag and see everything without spilling the contents all over the floor. That change of clothes and pair of shoes easily fits in the pack if you are making a trip to the gym.
What we don’t like about the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21 backpack
The first thing I do not like about this pack is the lack of water bottle sleeves. I almost have an aversion to packs without a bottle sleeve outside the main compartment. Because I usually carry both a laptop and a water bottle, I like the extra insurance of keeping them separate. (On two separate occasions, I have flooded my pack with the contents of my water bottle. Nothing will get your gut-wrenching more than pulling a sopping wet Macbook out of your pack!). I can most likely mitigate this problem by taking the time to load my pack with more intention, but I do not always want to do that. I just want to throw everything in, not think about it, and go. Secondary to the extra insurance against a flood, I like to have the option of getting a drink quickly without opening the main compartment.
The second gripe I have is the stiffness of the bag caused by the frame panel. I wish I could try the bag without this panel just to see what it’s like. I know it’s handy for keeping documents flat when you do not carry any other rigid things in your pack, but I much prefer keeping documents in a stiff portfolio and placing that in my pack rather than having a rigid pack. I think this made the pack slightly uncomfortable, too. Two hours with a full 40-ounce Hydro Flask bottle puts any casual pack at the extreme of what it is designed for, but I felt this pack was just not that comfortable and I definitely felt it in my shoulders during this test. I let my wife try the pack and she immediately commented on the stiffness of the pack. Overall, I think it would be fine for short, 20-minute or less commutes, but much longer and you will get some discomfort.
I like the materials, pocket layout, and design of the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21 backpack, but overall I prefer a casual bag without a full-length frame panel. I am not entirely sure why I feel this way, but compared to other less rigid packs, this one is not my favorite. I will have to keep using this pack to see if it’s a bias I have developed over years of using a frameless pack or if it’s a true dislike of this particular feature.
Frame panel aside, this is a good pack. It may not be the one for me, but I would not discourage anyone from getting it if they think the capacity and pocket layout would work for them. Keep in mind, this is a causal bag intended for short commutes for work or school. If you need something to take for hiking, this is probably not the bag for you. It’s simply not designed for that. There are plenty of other great daypacks specifically intended for hiking offered at a similar price point.
Mystery Ranch offers the Urban Assault in three different capacities: 18, 21, and 24 liters. The 24-liter pack has external sleeves for water bottles, a game-changer for me. The 24-liter pack also has additional internal organization and a dedicated zipper for the laptop sleeve so that you can access it without opening the main compartment. Overall, it seems like a more useful option, but it will cost approximately $40 more than the 21-liter. I would love to see Mystery Ranch add water bottle sleeves to the Urban Assault 21 backpack.
FAQs about the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21 backpack
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault cost?
A. The Urban Assault Pack is available on Amazon in 17 different colorways for $115. The pack is also available directly from the Mystery Ranch site for $125.
Q. Where is this pack made?
A. Unlike many Mystery Ranch bags, the Urban Assault is made in Vietnam.
Q. Which Urban Assault pack would I recommend?
A. It depends. With Mystery Ranch, the quality is apparent and you can feel good about any size (18, 21, or 24 liters) of the Urban Assault or any other bag they sell. Picking a size really depends on two things: your size and what you carry. For example, I would prefer the 24-liter for myself as I am 6-foot 3-inches and always carry a water bottle, and the 24-liter Urban Assault is the only one with an external water bottle sleeve. If you don’t regularly carry a water bottle, the 18- or 21-liter size may suit you well.
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Logan Aronhalt is a Navy aerospace physiologist currently stationed in North Carolina with the Marine Corps. A former Under Armor product testing analyst, he spends his time teaching aircrews about night vision goggles, flight clothing, and other survival gear. When he’s not working, you can find him woodworking, cooking, or obsessing over pouring the right cup of coffee.