Recon: Mystery Ranch ASAP
Mystery Ranch are known for making some of the best packs out there. I’ve heard people rave about how good they are and I wanted to see if they lived up to their reputation or whether it was all just hype…
One of the first things that strikes you about this pack is the zip running right down the front. The Mystery Ranch Tri-Zip system, that appears in a number of their packs, is a defining feature. I’ve heard of a few users who dislike this zip layout and was interested to try it out for myself.
The design gives you several options for opening the pack depending on what you are accessing. By pushing your hand in where the zips meet, you can ‘tear’ the lid upwards and back to access the main compartment from the top. You can also use either the left or right hand zips to access the two internal side pockets individually, without disrupting the rest of the pack. You can also unzip the central, vertical zip to access the middle and bottom of the main compartment.
I found having these options to be a great benefit for accessing any items stowed inside. It does impact your packing, as you must consider where everything sits in relation to the zips. I found it useful to be able to store something at the bottom of the pack (like a lunch box) and still be able to access it without disrupting the rest of my gear.
The zips are waterproof which is a bonus as zips can be the weakest link in a packs resistance to water. They are black though, so whatever colour you order (except black) you have to be happy with the zips standing out. I personally love this look.
I tested the waterproof zippers out on a long hike in some steady rain (of which we have plenty in the UK!). They successfully kept my stuff dry for 3 to 4 hours, before the rain got much heavier and soaked through other areas of the pack. The pack performed better than expected, as often my gear get wet much sooner through leaky zips.
The zipper pulls are a bit wiry for my liking. Compared to the softness of paracord, they feel rough. Perhaps they are easier to get a purchase on in the wet or mud, but they feel like a ‘quick fix’ solution, contrary to the rest of the design. I’d definitely consider replacing them.
The solid external YKK zips are (I believe) size 10, which is basically as thick and chunky as you’d want to go on a pack. They are perfect for this model as it is built to work in the toughest environments.
But the highlighting feature of the zips, by far, are the tabs. There are 1 inch loops made of thin webbing at the end of each external zip that can be held to aid easy closing. At first I thought they were pointless, but I use them all the time and will miss them on any other pack I own. A problem with a lot of zips is that you need to grab the surrounding material to zip them up easily. Mystery Ranch have cleverly come up with a well executed solution to this.
The slim body is deceivingly accommodating. Its slight hourglass shape means that attaching pouches does not make the pack look bulky and also allows weight to be positioned close to the centre of your back.
The horseshoe opening lid adds a great amount of storage that is accessible when the pack is stood upright. This is perfect for a first aid kit, blister kit or anything you’d want in a pinch. When using the ASAP for EDC my wallet, headphones, USB and backup torch are stored in here. There’s even an internal zip pocket in the top of the lid for added security. The zipper pull for this smaller pocket is long enough to get caught up in the main lid zip so I’ll probably replace this one first.
These pockets are made of mesh which expands slightly as you need it too. There is a generous amount of space in the lid; it could even accommodate a small spare mid-layer.
On top of the lid is a generous area of loop for attaching morale patches. I like how it’s positioned on top, while still visible from behind, is less in others faces than other packs. I personally love the Prometheus Design Werx range of patches as their designs are on point. Just below this is the largest Mystery Ranch logo on the pack. It is embroidered on in a subtly different colour thread and doesn’t stand out too much.
The pack is clearly designed to be used well. I found that if anything slightly heavy was stored in the lid, and the pack was only 50% full, then the lid hangs down over the top of the Tri-Zip opening. This was a little frustrating at first, until I realised it was essentially down to my poor choice of pack for the situation, or poor packing. With less weight in the lid this isn’t an issue.
I found another limitation which I feel is worth highlighting. When you go to open the main compartment, and the lid is still open, anything in the large part of the lid sometimes spills out on the floor. The same thing happens in reverse when you have the main compartment open and then trying to access the lid. The obvious solution is to zip each area back up before moving on, but it just feels ever so slightly cumbersome. Having the lid zip facing outwards might change that, but this would be less secure and it’s easy enough to adapt to the way it is. There is some capacity below the level of the zip which does help hold some items in too.
The main storage area is spacious and while at first look it seems a bit bare, there are some great functional features.
The frame sheet, that forms a central column, gives a constant structure to pack. In the middle of this column there are three rows of PALS webbing. This is great for attaching internal pouches or securing other items. I’ve found that having a good sized pouch here, like the Dunamis Gear Cargo Hanger pouches or an OP1, allows the capacity to be divided and your gear can be arrange above or below.
An extra bonus is that directly behind the PALS is a slip area which has hook on one side. I’ve not researched what this part is designed for, but you could use it to fix something that has a strip of loop. This could be used for concealing a SERE/E&E kit or maybe a secret stash of cash. I’ve slipped some cable ties in here before now, but I’ll look for other ways to utilise this.
There’s no distinct laptop or document storage area but that’s not really the intended use and if you’ve got a solid laptop case already (check out our review of the Colfax Design Works laptop cases) there’s plenty of width to accommodate it.
There are two sleeves inside the left and right flaps of the tri-zip. They are designed for storing water bladders and have attachment loops at the top. There’s a loop at the top of the middle panel too, so you could technically carry up to 9 litres of water if you wanted.
What’s really great about these sleeves is also what I hear the most complaints about. Being designed for water bladders means they have quite a ‘loose’ opening to allow these heavy items to be easily accessed. However, when adding anything to the main compartment, especially from the top opening, there is a tendency for things to get caught on these flaps.
Based on the feedback I’ve read, I fully expected to loath these sleeves and seek a way to modify them. Surprisingly, after the initial, “Ooo, they’re baggy” I got used to it and have actually found they are great for organisation. Due to their depth, small gear will sit securely(ish) at the bottom. I’ve used it to keep my water bottle separate and to store an outer layer. It works great as quick internal storage, without the hassle of zips or Velcro.
After using one of these pockets with my 2L Camelbak reservoir I can see the true beauty of them. What’s great is that by storing your bladder on an outside panel, rather than down the centre back, the gear inside can be configured however you like. Often organising gear for a long hike can be like balancing items on a domed water bed, with all the awkward fixtures on the bladder to navigate. The ASAP keeps the bladder tucked neatly out of the way as you pack. A water bladder has a variable weight as you use it so it’s not always the heaviest item. This arrangement allows anything consistently heavy to be stored up and against your back where you’d want it. It also means the bladder isn’t in danger of warming up against your back, unless it’s a scorching hot day and the sun warms it.
At the top of the main compartment, right up against the back panel, there is another zip for the tube of your water bladder. I initially thought this would be a great little access point, however the Tri-Zip is so quick to operate, I’ve not found the need to use it often in that way.
It does work perfectly for its intended use. The zip opening is generous allowing you to pass a hydration tube through with ease. When the zip is closed up again there is minimal gap as the size of the zips teeth are very similar to a tube.
The handle is large, but doesn’t stick out as it is hidden slightly behind the lid. It’s not padded at all but effectively does the job you want it too.
The PALS webbing on the outside is plentiful but not to an unnecessary level. A lot of really great quality packs have spaces in the bar-tacked (reinforced vertical stitching) webbing that are an inch or less, depending on the shape of the panel they’re stitched to. While there’s no major issue with this, the design of the ASAP really stands out as a cut above the rest. The body of the pack has been proportioned with the PALS stitching internal in mind. Each space along the webbing is an identical width, ensuring zero wasted materials or weight.
On our family holiday this summer a large number of steep steps to the beach meant lots of awkward stuff to carry. The PALS on my ASAP allowed me to add more and more items to my load. The Dunamis Gear Center Zip Cargo Hanger pouch also worked great as a beavers tail type attachment, and while being a securely attachment, it could unhook quickly when accessing the main compartment (Thanks to my sister-in-law Megan Thornett for the photo).
I discovered two hidden drainage holes underneath the bottom strip of webbing which would work great if the pack were to be submerged. There’s also a single row on the bottom that is really handy.
The fitting of the ASAP, and most Mystery Ranch packs, is a bit of a journey. They’ve devised a Futura Frame that requires your height, waist and torso length to determine which size frame you’ll need.
The pack comes with a leaflet detailing how to fit your pack correctly and there are instructional videos on their website. I tried to adjust the pack myself initially, which was tricky and just about possible, but I’d recommend asking a buddy to help.
The Frame Sheet is easily removed from its sheath and is used to break the Velcro seal keeping the yoke in place. The yoke can then be adjusted for your specific height and the Frame Sheet replaced. It’s pretty straight forward, but if you want to see it in action check out the easy to follow the Mystery Ranch video (see second tab labelled ‘Fit’).
At first I got it wrong. It felt uncomfortable, the straps dug in to the point where I couldn’t wait to get it off and I’d barely loaded it. I did find that the more weight I added the more comfortable it became, but I wasn’t happy. I took the frame apart to take these photos and decided to have another go.
Second time around I nailed it and transformed my experience with the pack. After some minor strap adjustment at the beginning of my most recent hike (14 miles of rolling English hills), I quickly forgot I was carrying a load at all. When carrying a pack for any length of time, I often get to the stage where I think, “I just need a break from this load”. That thought didn’t cross my mind the whole time, which definitely impressed me.
After frame adjustments, the waist belt is your next port of call. On the ASAP the waist belt is basic, but effective. For the small size of pack you wouldn’t want anything more as it would mean extra weight. The straps are fitted with Velcro keepers which neatly organise any excess.
A cracking feature of the pack is the elastic hemmed storage sleeves on each side for the waist belt when it’s not in use. I love the thought that’s gone into these and I even found a secondary use for them…
Adjusting the shoulder straps is next and I found I had an excessive amount of extra strap after fitting. But the clever storage area for the waist belt is in the perfect position to stow this away.
The shoulder straps are part of a single piece that creates a super comfortable yoke. The padding is generous and soaks in bony shoulders and muscular chests alike. The width also tapers off nicely as it reaches under your arm to the nylon straps, reducing the potential for friction.
At the top of each shoulder is an elastic strip running horizontally, which is designed to keep your hydration tube in place. These work well and there’s even a moveable Velcro wrap to act as another guide for the tubing.
There are plastic plates inside the material of the straps, underneath the elastic hydration tube keepers. These were partially the reason for my discomfort when the pack wasn’t properly fitted. But, after asking MR, I found out that they were designed to distribute the weight on the shoulders and a avoid any hot spots developing on your shoulders. When the pack is correctly set up these definitely don’t dig in like I experienced at first and, more importantly, they do their job in adding even more comfort.
The penultimate adjustment to make is with the sternum strap. This has a solid design that doesn’t use elastic to create any flex like other brands do. Elastic on sternum straps do have a tendency to go limp after being put under lots of pressure, so this could be a blessing for some. The buckle is easily operated on the move and one-handed which is convenient. There was quite a bit of excess webbing here for me, but this makes it accommodating for a wide range of sizes. I’d like to see a Velcro or elastic wrap to keep any excess from dangling down, but I guess this something I could add myself. The height of the strap is adjusted by sliding it up or down the webbing and, despite being securely attached, this strap can be removed altogether if necessary.
The final stage of adjustment is the top compression straps. These clinch the pack into your torso, pulling the weight up into the centre of your back and creating a super snug fit. This webbing then continues to run down the length of the straps and is bar-tacked sparingly to allow for other attachments. The loose ends of these straps end up falling over your shoulders if you’re not careful, but once they have been used to lift the pack, they can be tucked behind the yoke system out of the way.
There is square section that sticks out at the bottom of the back panel that looks like it might be uncomfortable. It actually provides the perfect amount of padding to your waist and lower back, making any load a pleasure to bear. The slim nature of this whole section and the firm frame underneath the padding means even if the pack is fully loaded, any awkward lumps and bumps are kept away from your body.
The mesh used allows your skin to breathe when it’s in use, but it also allows sand and dirt to latch on. While being soft, the padding is also pretty dense and any foreign items can usually be brushed off with no issue. If the pack is exposed to driving rain for a long period (or if you sit it on the wet ground for a lunch break), water does understandably soak in to these areas. It is wet to touch but absorbent enough to lift the moisture away, avoiding the chance of it leaking back onto you.
Tactical pack manufacturers seem to be divided into two camps, those that include logos externally and those that don’t. Mystery Ranch packs proudly bear their name front and centre of most of their packs and at first I thought this would be a bit lame. However it’s actually sparked more conversations about my pack than I’ve ever experienced before. Despite being in a prominent position, the logo has been embroidered with subdued stitching (which is different to some of their other ranges). It’s there, but doesn’t scream for attention. There’s also a small logo patch stitched onto the bottom of one of the shoulder straps which seems a bit unnecessary to me, but it doesn’t notice much so I just let it be.
Owner Dana Gleason’s credentials are seriously impressive. Reading the account of Dana and co-owner Renee Sippel-Baker’s history, it’s clear where the exception design and production quality originates. For that reason I’ve attempted to be as critical as possible (trust me it was hard), but above any of my comments this is a cracking pack. Make no mistake, you can buy from Mystery Ranch with confidence.
The ASAP is an outstanding pack. It’s become a firm favourite of mine and I can’t wait to use it even more. Some people may feel their prices are too high, but with everything that has gone into making this pack and the ever important Made In USA stamp, I think it’s a pretty fair price. I’m looking forward to reporting back when I’ve given it some more months of abuse. One thing is for sure, I’m getting many years out of this pack, and then I’ll pass it proudly onto my son, for him to do the same.