In an age where most everything is made offshore, there are a few brands that stand apart from the herd. These are the select few who want to make the best carry goods and accessories possible. And they want to make them right here in the USA.
Their philosophy is to make the best made in the USA backpacks and bags they can possibly make, in their own facilities, using American labor, with high quality fabrics and materials.
They don’t want their bags made in some offshore factory, half way around the world, where they have little control over work conditions. They don’t want it sub-contracted to some generic factory in Los Angeles either, where ‘Made in USA’ can still mean shoddy work.
They want to control the process from start to finish.
Some of these brands started off as one-man shows working out of their garage, but today they specialize in hand-crafting their goods using a team of master craftswomen and craftsmen. They are also doing their part to reinvigorate local economies, and then some.
Not all backpacks are made alike. We all know this. We’ve all owned bags that have met their much too early demise due to shoddy construction and materials: broken zippers, straps breaking at the first sign of stressful load, holes after just one trip.
The makers featured here choose to make products that can live on to be passed down from one owner to the next.
Most of these bags are not cheap. They’re not Walmart, but we’re also not talking about luxury brands here. They fall into the category of ‘you get what you pay for’. They are more expensive, not because they are fancier, but because they are better.
These bags are more expensive vs mass-produced, assembly-line junk. But for American labor, with high quality materials and workmanship that they stand behind, you can’t find better value. Building products slowly with high-quality fabrics and hardware already costs a lot of money.
Doing that here, with American labor, costs even more. But the result is that these makers can stand by their products.
For some manufacturers listed here, the person who makes your bag literally signs their name on the tag. Once you hold a quality product, something that you know you can pass on to your kids and grand kids with the proper care, you just know. Worth. Every. Penny.
Born in ‘The City of Broad Shoulders’ (Chicago, IL.) Defy Manufacturing Company makes hand-crafted, “over-engineered” bags and accessories. The founder, Chris Tag, is a former art director who founded Defy Bags in 2008 after giving his advertising job the middle finger.
Defy is one of our favorite manufacturers. Their stuff is indestructible, and will last many lifetimes. While they describe their stuff as ‘over-engineered’, we still find most of their bags to have the minimal urban aesthetic that we like around here. There are no unnecessary details here, no big branding, no useless features. Defy Bags are rugged, yet beautiful.
Boardroom to airport: The Defy Epic 48-Hour Briefcase
We’ve got quite a few favorites out of the Defy line-up. First up is the Epic 48 Hour Briefcase. It’s hard to find a bag that can do triple duty as a work bag and as a weekender slash carry-on travel bag. This is one of the few that really gets it right and nails all the details.
At 12 Liters, this bag is slightly larger than your typical office bag, but not too big that people will think you’re lugging all your work home. It’s 17″ wide, 11″ tall and 4″ deep, with 2 large external zippered pockets (these pockets add 1.5″ to the depth).
The Epic 48 Hour briefcase is big enough to double as a travel bag or even as an overnight bag if you’re a light packer, but it’s still small enough to fit under the seat in front of you as your personal item, in addition to a larger carry-on.
Defy have also seen it fit to add a few features that make this bag a great travel bag. It’s got a luggage pass-through slip (i.e. trolley sleeve), two open external slip pockets (in addition to the large zippered outer dump pockets) – these are great for your boarding pass and your phone, or even a Kindle – and a generous grab handle. Incidentally, this is one reason why we love Defy Bags, just look at those briefcase handles. Other brands will just give you basic and crappy nylon handles. Here you get Horween Austin calf leather to grab on to.
This briefcase is a beauty. You can get what everyone else is carrying, or you can walk into a meeting with an EPIC Briefcase. Tumi Alpha 2 briefcases are a dime a dozen. Your boss and his boss probably carry one. You can be a nice little sheep, and get the same thing, or you can make a statement and be your own man with a Defy briefcase. Your choice.
XL: Defy Verbockel Rolltop Backpack
Our other favorite from Defy’s extensive carry line-up is the Verbockel Rolltop backpack. This pack is a classic in the Defy lineup, and is honestly one of the best rolltops we’ve ever seen. The pack is typically available in either heavy duty black or grey Martexin waxed canvas and a “rougue-camo” version in 1000D Cordura.
They also make a 1000D Cordura version in black, but sadly, it seems to be exclusive to Japanese stockists and is not normally available on the Defy website.
But seriously, this is one bad-ass rolltop backpack. Being a rolltop, it’s expandable from a nice everyday carry (EDC) friendly 27 Liters to a whopping grocery hauling 40 Liters. It’s got generously sized side pockets, and the most recent version also added something which really brought this bag next level: an external zippered pocket!
One of the biggest problems with the previous version of the Verbockel was quick access. Since it was a rolltop, you either had to use the open side pockets or unroll to access the main compartment. This actually only takes a few seconds, but it just feels longer. The latest version now features an external zippered ‘dump’ pocket on the bottom face of the bag. This is an extremely useful pocket, allowing you to just dump the stuff you need quick access to – your phone, wallet, subway card etc.. And it takes an already great bag up another notch.
You can check out Defy Manufacturing Co. at defybags.com ; Don’t forget to sign up to their newsletter, to get updated on their Freaky Friday promotions. These are 1-day only promos that happen every Friday. You get anything from sales, one-off items, clearance pricing on last pieces, or special pre-orders on upcoming products.
The Brown Buffalo
Founded in 2005 by Douglas Davidson, The Brown Buffalo is based in California and is a design and consulting firm that specializes in high quality carry goods and accessories. They have a very urban aesthetic and an EDC-friendly and travel-friendly style.
Douglas Davidson has a ton of experience in the industry, from product design to product development and everything in between. He has worked with The North Face, Nike, Adidas, Quicksilver and Vans. He also worked with Burton Snowboards for over a decade.
Minimalist EDC: The Brown Buffalo Conceal Backpack
One of our favorites from The Brown Buffalo is their Conceal backpack. Here at Urban Carry, we’re huge fans of minimalist, yet multi-functional packs. And the Conceal backpack certainly fits the bill.
Check out our article on the best minimalist urban backpacks.
When looking for urban EDC or travel backpacks, we generally prefer slimmer bags. The Conceal pack is only 5.5 inches deep, which is perfect. Even if stuffed full, you won’t get the annoying ninja-turtle look. It’s 19L (18.5″ tall x 11.5″ wide x5.5″ deep) – the perfect size for an everyday carry backpack.
The slim profile will help you to be more mobile in crowded places, or during an urban commute (no more bumping into strangers in the subway) or as an everyday pack when traveling (e.g. you can easily weave in and out of the crowd in Times Square).
At the time of posting this, the pack is available in a few fabrics, with varying pricing – Stormproof 500D, DWR-coated 1000D multi-cam Cordura and DWR-coated 525 Ballistic Nylon Cordura. The Brown Buffalo really gone out of their way to pick high quality, abrasion-resistant and weather-proof fabrics. They didn’t cheap out on the zippers either, you get YKK AquaGuard zippers here.
Internal organization is pretty good too. There’s a laptop pocket for up to a 15″ device, a dedicated water bottle pocket, a key clip and a zippered mesh pocket. That’s enough organization to keep your essentials from pooling in the bottom of the pack, but not too much that they take up valuable space if you don’t need them. Perfect.
The Conceal pack is perfect for everyday carry in an urban commute or as a travel daypack. Weather resistant materials? Check. A minimal yet functional design? Check. An aesthetic that doesn’t look generic but doesn’t scream “steal me” either? Check.
Bag Making Workshops
Aside from making awesome packs, The Brown Buffalo also occasionally does bag-making workshops. Facilitated by Douglas himself, these classes require no prior bag-making experience and are available in 1-day, 3-day or 5-day workshops. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to make the perfect backpack, theses classes are the perfect chance to pick up the basics and personally learn from someone with valuable industry experience and someone whose actually gone out and started their own bag brand.
You can check out The Brown Buffalo at TheBrownBuffalo.com
Red Oxx Bags
Veteran-owned Red Oxx Manufacturing started out making gym and fitness accessories, but now they’ve carved out a niche and have developed a fanatical following by creating some of the toughest travel bags around. Some of their bags, such as the Red Oxx Airboss are beloved by one bag travelers.
Red Oxx was founded in 1986 by Jim Markel Sr, who chose the big skies of Billings, Montana to retire to after 20 years in the military. These days, the company is handled by Jim Markel Junior and Perry Jones, both of whom are also veterans. Jim is CEO, and Perry is President.
Military-spec for the civilian population is something that’s gaining ground with a lot of makers these days (See GoRuck and Triple Aught Design below), but Red Oxx goes one step further. Where other bags keep the molle and PALS webbings and an otherwise tactical look, Red Oxx is about as far from tactical as you can get. “Tactical strength without looking like you’re going to war” is how Jim Jr. has described the Red Oxx look.
It’s a unique look for sure. Most bags are available in bright colors, but even their black bags feature a distinctive red logo. It’s not a look that’s for everyone, but it also results in very distinctive looking bags. Even if you know nothing about the company, just by looking at a Red Oxx bag, you can just tell it’s one tough and unique bag. Red Oxx also stands by their bags, with their famous ‘No Bull’ lifetime warranty.
Multi-use classics: The Red Oxx Aviator Kit Bags
Our favorite line of bags from Red Oxx is actually one of their most simple designs – the Red Oxx Aviator line of kit bags. The Aviator line is available in four of sizes – extra small, small, medium and large. Compared to all other Red Oxx bags, the Aviator Duffle Kit Bags are relatively bare bones, but that’s what we love about them. There is no lining or padding, no pockets, no bells and whistles.
But they are built tough. 1000D Cordura nylon and big beefy #10 YKK Vislon weather resistant zippers with a break over design which allows the bag to lay completely flat. This lay flat ability is not something you see in most duffel bags, and it’s a game changer. It makes packing and unpacking so much easier. Because you have visibility of the entire compartment, you are able to pack efficiently with little wasted space.
Here’s Jim with a quick intro of the Small Aviator Kit Bag:
The Aviator line also received a much requested upgrade recently – they now feature D-rings to allow for the attachment of a shoulder strap if desired. To keep the price down, the bags don’t come with a shoulder strap, but you can purchase Red Oxx’s own Claw Shoulder strap or the Long Hauler shoulder strap. But almost any strap will work, as long as you can attach via the D-rings. You can also grab the Op/Tech USA S.O.S. curve strap, which is almost the exact same strap as the Red Oxx Long Hauler strap. Personally, I prefer the Op/Tech strap since its got black swivel hooks vs the silver ones on the Red Oxx straps.
The Extra Small Aviator Kit Bag (22 Liters) and the Small Aviator Kit Bag (36 Liters) are both carry-on compliant with most airlines. The Medium Aviator Kit Bag (68 Liters) and Large Aviator Kit Bag (101 Liters) can easily swallow all your gear, and then some.
Despite their hauling capacity, all Aviator bags can also be packed or folded flat for storage, or as a secondary bag inside other bags. When folded flat, the smaller sizes take up less space than a sweater or outer layer. This pack-flat feature can be useful in a variety of ways. You could keep an Extra Small or Small Aviator Kit Bag inside your other luggage, to serve as an overfill bag. That is, you can use it as an emergency carry-on, or as an emergency check-in bag if your carry-on goes over the weight limits.
Alternatively, you can use either the Medium or Large Aviator Kit Bags as a sort of protective case for your carry-on backpack if you are ever forced to check it in.
This can happen occasionally in regional flights in South East Asia or Europe where 7kg carry-on limits may be strictly enforced. If you’re forced to check a regular backpack that’s not designed to be checked, just put your entire bag in the Large kit bag, it’s going to serve as a protective sleeve for your backpack and you won’t need to worry too much about your pack.
There’s a lot of marketing hype in the carry-industry, but when Red Oxx says they overbuild their bags to military spec, it’s an understatement. The only way to build a bag that can stand the test of time is to build each one by hand, and that’s exactly what they do.
You can check them out at RedOxx.com.
Started in 2013 by firefighter Jake Starr, the Recycled Firefighter is exactly what its name says. Jake and his team make EDC accessories (their best-selling product is a slim wallet called The Sergeant) from decommissioned fire-hoses and other discarded firefighter gear. They also make some fantastic minimalist backpacks and duffel bags at relatively affordable prices. In fact, they are one of the lower priced options in our list.
Based in Louisville, Kentucky, The Recycled Firefighter started out with Jake sewing a few hammocks and selling them to friends for a bit of cash.
While on duty at the fire station, he noticed that someone had thrown out some old firehouses. Jake then took these home and got to work making some iPad cases. Jake says most of these early attempts were terrible, and it wasn’t until 200 products and prototypes later that he hit it big with The Sergeant wallet, which is a unique, low-profile wallet that is extremely popular with the everyday-carry (EDC) community.
The Battalion Packs: 12-Hour Backpack and 24-Hour Backpack
Our favorite pack from The Recycled Firefighter has got to be their Battalion 12 Hour Backpack. The Battalion line actually consists of 2 backpacks, a larger 24-hour Battalion Backpack (22 Liters) and the 12 Hour Backpack (12 Liters, shown above). We find the 12-hour pack to be more interesting since it occupies a fairly unique niche: there’s not a lot of small, simple EDC backpacks with great build quality and with long-lasting materials.
The Battalion packs are pretty spartan, with a main compartment, and an outside compartment and not much else. (The larger 24 Hour Battalion has a separate padded laptop sleeve, with a vertical zipper access).
There’s no fancy admin panels here, no security pockets or load adjusters, there isn’t even a sternum strap included (although you can buy one separately, if needed). This is as simple as it gets, and that is one of its biggest features. Despite being a small pack, the decision to go with simple, undivided compartments means its ready for anything, and makes the bag almost as spacious as larger backpacks.
But even when lacking in features, the exceptional build quality and well thought out design really shines here. For one, both Battalion packs have a lay flat design. This is an absolutely killer feature that can make or break a pack for some. Having a lay flat design means faster packing and unpacking and more efficient use of space. Being able to easily see the entire main compartment allows you to maximize space, a key thing especially in a small pack.
The pack also features a high-visibility bright orange interior fabric. If you’ve ever wasted time trying to dig through a black hole of a backpack looking for your charger or your camera battery, you’ll appreciate having a brightly colored inner lining.
You don’t have to be a firefighter or a LEO to find the appeal of these packs.
As I said earlier, it’s rare to get a small EDC pack with this level of overkill build quality and materials. I mean, the zippers alone are YKK #10 zips. Yes, you read right, #10 YKK zippers on such a small bag. They could have easily chosen a smaller, cheaper zipper, but they chose to go with YKK #10’s. That’s just not something you’ll see in a bag made in some hidden sweatshop in Asia. All stress points are double stitched, triple stitched or bar-tacked. Despite its diminutive size, this is a pack that can take a lot of abuse for years and years.
Named for the city in Minnesota where it was born in 1882, Duluth Pack is the oldest canvas and leather bag making company in the United States. Don’t confuse them with the Duluth Trading Company, not the same company. Started by Camille Poirier, a French-Canadian immigrant who made his way out west, they initially created bags and tools for lumberjacks, miners, railroad engineers and other pioneers of the Midwest.
Over 130 years later, they still make their packs in the same place where it all began, using almost the same technique, and the same materials. Stop and think about that for a moment.
In past years, Duluth Packs have been synonymous with canoe camping, but today, their packs are widely used outside the outdoors industry. Despite the entry of competitors like Frost River (see below), Duluth Packs have always been the kings in this space and it’s easy to see why. You don’t need to be the outdoors type to be enamored with packs made by top notch craftsmanship that can be passed down as an heirloom.
Duluth Pack have also gained a following among city-dwelling urbanites looking for high quality hand-crafted heritage packs made with traditional materials.
Ultra-slim: The Duluth Scout Pack
One of our favorite packs from Duluth is the best-selling Duluth Scout Pack. This is a a flat, “envelope-style” pack made with the same thick and heavy 15oz canvas and leather that goes into their famed canoe packs. Measuring 17″ high and 14″ wide, this is an ultra-slim pack that carries like a small pack.
The pack is slim but not uselessly so, think of it like an envelope, you can still stuff it full, but there isn’t a real measurable depth. If all you’ve got in there is a laptop and other small items, it will be ultra-slim, but it has no problems accommodating a jacket or a couple of books, for example. Think of it like a large envelope, it’s deceptively small if not stuffed full, but can still carry a good amount, if needed.
The interesting thing here is that it’s not a small backpack in the same way that a Fjallraven Kanken backpack is small.
This is mainly because the Scout Pack is almost the same height as most regular packs, so it won’t look like you’re carrying a child’s pack. It makes for a great daypack, but you don’t need to go trekking in the North Country to put it to good use, it is equally at home in the city, especially if you’re a fan of traditional or heritage bags. It is also available in a variety of colors.
It’s a unique size for a backpack and it’s a great alternative to your typical small backpack. Most small backpacks are small because they give up length and width, often resulting in a pack that looks like a child’s school bag. Looks aside, those kind of packs are ok if you just want to carry your lunch and a writing pad, but not so great if you want to carry a laptop because of the decreased length (height).
The Scout Pack fixes that and comes into its own during those times when you want to carry a laptop and a few EDC things, but you can’t fit them into a small shoulder bag or purse (or manpurse).
The design borrows heavily from the original Duluth pack that was first patented in December 1882. It’s a scaled down and simplified version of the original Duluth pack and their canoe packs.
The Scout features a large main compartment, with a single internal pocket with zipper, perfect for those smaller items that you don’t want to lose in the bottom of the bag. The bag closes with a large flap that is secured via leather straps on roller buckles. On the back, the 2-inch cotton webbing backpack straps are attached at the top via hand-pounded copper rivets on a reinforced leather back plate. On the bottom, the strap adjustment is via a leather strap that is also connected to a roller buckle, in the same way as the front flap straps.
Build quality is top-notch. These bags are made by hand, using almost the same techniques and materials that they have used for the past 100 years. It’s one of those packs that look way better in person than in online pictures. Once you touch it, smell it, wear it, there is just something about the combination of canvas and leather that brings up dependability and quality that can only be found in hand-crafted goods.
The Duluth Pack Rolltop Scout
Duluth also makes a roll-top version of the Scout pack, which trades the traditional flap for an adjustable rolltop closure. The rolltop Scout pack is 16 inches high at the tightest roll, and 22 inches high at it’s maximum rolled (closed position) allowing you to expand and contract the pack depending on your load. The pack can also be fully unrolled (i.e. not closed) to a very tall 29 inches high if you need to carry long items.
Unlike the regular Scout pack, the roll-top Scout doesn’t have the envelope-style design. It has some actual depth to it, but it is still a very slim 4 inches deep. This makes the pack slightly bigger than the regular Scout pack, but it’s also more versatile. Even at its smallest (tightest roll), it can accommodate more stuff than the regular Scout pack, and of course, you can unroll it for more space.
Because of the rolltop design, there isn’t really a great place to put the internal pocket, so Duluth added an external zippered pocket on the rolltop version. Since it usually takes a few seconds to roll and unroll the rolltop, having an external pocket vs an internal one is much more useful in terms of ease of access.
In terms of looks, I personally prefer the rolltop version over the regular Scout pack. I can’t explain it, but it’s one of those packs that just makes you want to go and travel or set out on some crazy adventure.
If you want the rolltop design, but you still want quick access to the main compartment, you can step up to the Duluth Deluxe Roll-Top Scout pack.
The Deluxe version takes the Rolltop Scout and adds an extremely useful side-zip access into the main compartment, which addresses the biggest problem of rolltop backpacks: quick access. This is also a fairly rare design, there aren’t a lot of rolltop backpacks with zipper access into the main compartment.
Just like all Duluth bags, these bags are hand-crafted and personally signed by the craftsman or craftswoman who creates your bag. Make no mistake about it, these are high quality items with a high price tag. But if you’re a firm believer that one gets what one pays for, price is likely not your first consideration.
Sure, you can get a ‘heritage-inspired’ backpack like the Herschel Little America for a lot less, or you can get the real thing.
Named after one of the toughest loops in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness, Frost River is also based in Duluth, Minnesota, (just like Duluth Packs, above) and makes carry-goods and other soft goods using similar traditional techniques, and high quality, locally-sourced materials.
Frost River was started in 2001 by Steve Emerson, former chief designer at Duluth Packs for over 20 years. Steve was forced to shut down Frost River during the recession in 2008, until the company was purchased by Christian Benson, a marketing executive from the Twin Cities and his business partner, Jared Rinerson, who relaunched the company in 2009.
Frost River continues to make and design packs and other gear similar to those used by loggers, trappers and adventurers in the wilderness 100 years ago.
Frost River and Duluth Pack share a similar traditional and heritage aesthetic, but like Duluth Pack, the appeal of Frost River goods extends beyond back-country aficionados. Frost River have found a great balance with a rugged, yet polished and understated look. Since they make their bags with beautiful waxed canvas and quality leather, Frost River bags easily blend-in in an urban environment. Some of their bags actually work well with a suit.
Carry-on Classic: The Frost River Flight Bag
One of the more interesting bags in their extensive line-up is the Frost River Flight Bag. This travel bag, available in four sizes – mini (35L), carry-on (45L), medium (57L) and large (70L), is simplicity at its finest.
We’re most interested in the mini, since we think it’s the perfect size for a travel bag. Get the carry-on size if you tend to pack a bit more stuff, but be aware that this is already pushing the carry-on limits. If you’re unsure what size to get, we recommend the mini.
For most people, we won’t recommend the medium or the large for airplane travel, as they’re really too big and will get unwieldy if full. The video below shows the medium to be able to fit in a carry-on sizer, if not fully packed. But be warned, when reasonably packed (not even fully packed) it will easily exceed carry-on dimensions.
The Medium is best used half-full, with the extra space best used for checking-in or for land travel. If you need the space of the large Flight bag, you may as well consider checking-in some rolling luggage, in my opinion.
The biggest feature of the Flight Bag can also be its biggest negative – it’s a relatively simple bag. In fact, there are no pockets in the bag. I don’t mean that it doesn’t have an admin pocket, I mean it has no pockets at all, zero, nada.
This is great because it helps cut back on the weight of the bag (the mini is only 1.3kg, the carry-on is 1.45kg), but not so great if you don’t like stuffing your boarding pass or passport in your jacket pockets.
But with a bit of planning, and the mandatory use of packing cubes and organizers, the Flight Bag is a great carry-on. And it’s beautiful too. Martexin waxed canvas (sourced from Fairfield textiles), with leather handles and accents (the leather is sourced from the SB Foot Tannery in Red Wing, MN) and with solid brass hardware. The default shoulder strap is a 2″ cotton webbing, but you can upgrade to a leather strap. This is a bag that will last a lifetime, and it will patina beautifully, too.
If you really, really, really want a Flight Bag with external pockets, or if you want one in black, you can also check out the Curtis Flight Bag, but it’s only available in Carry-On and Medium sizes.
3-way Bag: The Frost River Voyageur Backpack
The other pack that really caught our eye is the Frost River Voyageur backpack. Available in two sizes, the 19L backpack brief and the larger 34L backpack luggage, the Voyageur is a 3-way travel backpack. It’s a 3-way because its got stowable backpack straps, briefcase handles for horizontal carry, and a shoulder strap for when you want to schlep on one shoulder.
Unlike the Flight Bag, it’s also got pockets! There is a large zippered outer pocket that runs the length of the bag (it is horizontal in briefcase and shoulder carry mode, vertical in backpack mode). Inside the pocket is an admin organizer panel
As long as your airline isn’t too strict with weight, the 19L Voyageur backpack can actually pair with the Frost River Mini as a personal item + carry-on combo.
They share the same aesthetic, and they are both made with high quality waxed canvas. There is less leather on the Voyageur though, unlike the Flight bag the handles are not leather and the corners are not reinforced with leather. The only leather on the Voyageur are the six lash tabs on each side of the bag and the small snap for the briefcase handles. Although it’s a bit of a bummer, I think this was done to try and keep the weight down.
Since the Voyageur isn’t as simple as the Flight bag, with more pockets, that means there is more canvas on the Voyageur, and if you add in more leather, it will all add up.
Another advantage the Voyageur has over the Flight Bag is the lay-flat clamshell design, this is great for quick and efficient packing since the entire compartment is visible at to you.
There is a large zippered and padded laptop pocket inside the main compartment. Similar to the outside pocket, the zipper of this laptop compartment is oriented horizontally in briefcase and shoulder carry mode. There is no other internal organization in the main compartment, but there is a pair of XP snap grids (brass snaps) where you can secure some accessory pouches (All sizes will fit).
You can check them out at Frostriver.com
The curiously named Killspencer was started in 2009 by Spencer Nikosey, just after finishing Industrial Design at the Art Center College of Design.
Based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, Spencer and his team make a range of carry products, from duffel bags to backpacks and tote bags, as well as EDC accessories like phone cases, wallets, camera straps, baseball caps to more interesting stuff like an indoor mini basketball kit ($1380) and a leather dog collar with cobra buckles ($95).
The Classic: Killspencer Weekender
Killspencer is perhaps best known for their Weekender Duffel Bags (now at version 3.0) which they make in a variety of materials – variants include black or grey full grain leather, fire retardant nylon or Korean War-era cotton canvas.
Also standard is a large, water resistant RiRi zipper. These are pricey bags, but you are actually paying for high quality materials and workmanship, not some brand name with cookie-cutter materials.
Airport Upgrade: The Killspencer Utility Weekender
They’ve also recently come out with a new weekender – the Utility Weekender – which we personally think is a great step-up from their regular ‘Weekender’ line. It’s the same size as the regular Weekender, and it features the same bull-hide leather carry handles and side handle, the same adjustable and removable leather/nylon shoulder strap and the same ‘open-top’ construction of the regular Weekender – think of the extra-wide opening of a Doctor’s bag, without the metal frames.
Where the Utility Weekender differs is the addition of a large zippered exterior pocket, with 3 slip pockets for organization.
This extra pocket elevates the Utility Weekender above the regular Weekender line, in my opinion. Having a much larger quick access pocket that’s suitable for more than a wallet or passport, makes the Utility Weekender more carry-on friendly than its older brother which has a smaller external zip pocket.
Being able to slip boarding passes, or a tablet, or Kindle, into a secure, yet easy to open pocket vs going into the main compartment will reduce a lot of the annoying friction you have to deal with while running through an airport.
The Killspencer Special Ops Backpack
Another killer bag in the Killspencer lineup is the Special Ops Backpack. Now also in its third iteration, the Special Ops Backpack 3.0 is available in a a variety of materials – currently, you can get it in black, charcoal grey or olive drab in either water repellent duck canvas or premium full grain leather with waterproof and fire-retardant nylon lining.
Wired Magazine reviewed the Special Ops Backpack version 1.0 back in 2011, and called it one of the most solid, well-built bags they’ve handled, while highlighting the workmanship – declaring it “nothing but hand-crafted perfection“.
Carryology also took an older version of the Special Ops Backpack for a spin back in 2013, and found it to be a great pack for commuting, while occupying a unique niche.
Rick Cogley has a lot of great photos of the bag in this Flickr set.
Killspencer is probably the most upmarket and premium maker on this list, but also one of the most unique. At first glance, a lot of their goods look very simple and basic, but once you start looking beyond the basic silhouette, there’s a lot of detail that goes into all of the design features: the premium materials, the way the bags are designed to open and close, the pockets on the inside are well thought out and don’t go overboard, not a dozen pockets but just enough to make your travel experience or EDC life easy.
In keeping with their premium, hand-crafted design, Killspencer also offers monogramming on almost all their bags.
Based in Wenatchee, Washington, Vermilyea Pelle (pronounced vur-MIL-yuh pel-le) was started by Dustin Spencer in 2008.
They specialize in handcrafted, bench-made goods using premium heritage materials. Right now, they make a variety of bags (briefcases, day bags, duffel bags) and various accessories, such as wallets, belts and dopp kits in small batches, with high quality raw materials sourced from the best suppliers around the world.
The bag that really caught our eye is Vermilyea Pelle’s briefcase.
This briefcase is produced in various make-ups with different materials. One could perhaps be forgiven if you were to mistake this for a Filson bag at first glance. While comparisons to the other Washington-based company are unavoidable, this is perhaps a disservice to Virmelyea Pelle.
These are not mass-produced bags. That’s not a dig at Filson, they do make some quality bags (click here for our review of the Filson zippered tote), but Filson briefcases are relatively ubiquitous. Spend a lay-over at a major hub like Hong Kong International or Charles de Gaulle and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see at least half a dozen Filson 256’s and 257’s. Vermilyea Pelle’s bags on the other hand are hand-made in small batches at their shop in North Central Washington.
Briefcases are a dime a dozen, but not all briefcases are created equal. Despite being a relatively smaller shop, Dustin and his team occasional release versions of the briefcase in various configurations (e.g. waxed canvas, twill, Japanese selvedge, paired with chromexcel leather, horween leather, etc..) There are also full leather versions, bison leather, Horween vegetable tanned leather etc..
If you want something unique and far-removed from the Tumi and Kenneth Cole crowd, you just might find something you’ll like with Vermilyea Pelle.
Whatever the configuration, it’s really a beautiful bag. Whether you get one in a more subdued black selvedge, with black leather, or the more popular ranger tan with brown chromexcel leather, it just looks stunning. This is a true heirloom piece.
You can check them out at vermilyeapelle.com
Probably the most popular brand on this list for readers of our site – GoRuck was officially born in February 2008. It was started by Jason McCarthy, a former Special Forces Communications Sergeant (18 Echo MOS), while he was crashing in a buddy’s couch in New York City.
The idea for GoRuck first began in West Africa, while McCarthy was visiting his spouse who was posted by the State Department in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. McCarthy first started making emergency ‘go-bags’ for his wife to keep in the truck, for those ‘just-in-case’ moments that would inevitably crop up in Africa. Other diplomats then asked for help with their own go-bags and the seed for what would become GoRuck was planted.
The basic idea for the first GoRuck backpack was for a bag that was tough enough to survive in Baghdad but versatile enough for use in NYC, without looking like you were about to be deployed.
McCarthy started with napkin sketches of what would become the first GoRuck GR1, and with zero experience in design and manufacturing, he first tried googling and watching Youtube videos related to creating backpacks. In desperation, he ended up placing an ad on Craigslist for a “backpack designer”, and the rest is history.
The GoRuck line has grown to almost a dozen rucksacks, plus a few other bags, such as gym bags and an excellent line of Kit Bags, modeled after Army Aviator Kit Bags. Aside from continuing to bring the joys of Rucking to the masses, GoRuck has also ventured into a Made in the USA apparel line.
One of the best everyday carry backpacks: The GR1
Our favorite pack from GoRuck is still the one that started it all. The GoRuck GR1.
The original GR1 was a 26L pack, but a smaller 21L version is now available which is 2 inches shorter in height (this smaller pack was previously called the GR0). GoRuck recommends the 26L for people over 6 feet tall, or for anyone who needs the space. But when in doubt, they recommend the 21L, and we concur.
Regardless of which size you pick, you’re essentially getting the same bombproof backpack. Lifehacker called the GR1 the best everyday backpack, and it’s hard to disagree. It is nothing short of excellent.
Taking 4 hours to build by hand in the USA, made with 1000D Cordura and YKK zippers (plus what is probably our favorite zipper pulls of all time) and featuring expandability and modularity via the molle webbing on the inside and outside of the pack, some of the beefiest and well-padded shoulder straps we’ve ever seen and a completely lay-flat (clamshell) design – the GR1 has all the features one could need, with none of the fluff or unnecessary details and features that other bag makers feel the need to add in order to try and justify higher prices.
We like GoRuck’s approach here, yes it’s expensive, but it’s not more feature-rich, just better.
GoRuck packs are built to last, and they back that up with a Scars lifetime warranty. Whether you want a pack for rucking, or a (significantly) better-than-Jansport pack for EDC and travel, the GR1 is one of the best available.
There’s a reason why the GR1 is one of the most recommended backpacks in the BIFL (Buy it For Life) sub-reddit. This thing will likely outlive you.
One great feature we love about the GR1’s is their minimal depth, i.e. the distance from your back to the front face of the pack. The 21L GR1 is a mere 5.5″ deep, while the 26L is 6.5″ deep. It might not sound like a huge difference from the typical 8″ depth of most packs, but in real world use, this is significant. Even when fully stuffed, they carry small and allows you to be extra mobile in crowded environments.
Anyone who has ever carried a huge backpack inside a crowded NYC subway or a crowded wet market in South East Asia, will tell you that ‘ninja-turtle’ backpacks are just not a great idea. Combine this with the overall ‘grey-man‘ aesthetic of the bag, and you’ve got a pack that can do well in any continent on Earth, in any situation.
GoRuck Field Pockets: Modularity and expansion
GoRuck also makes different sizes of Field Pockets for their various rucksacks. These padded pouches are great for adding some organization to your packs, but can also be attached to the outside molle webbing to act as an external pocket or as additional storage.
Any molle or PALS compatible pouch will likely work, but the GoRuck pouches are some of the best we’ve seen. Like the rucks, they’re also made in the USA, with 1000D Cordura and are also guaranteed with their Scars warranty. We’ve used them for everything – as a camera cube, as a dopp kit, as a general electronics and wire organizer, as a lunch box, as a medical kit. They are extremely versatile.
Based in Brooklyn, New York City, SSCY was founded by, Seldon S.C. Yuan. Although it’s probably the smallest brand on this list, the thing we love most about SSCY is that Seldon isn’t just looking to make more of the same.
Maybe it’s his arts background – he is a multi-artist, aside from being a soft goods designer, he is also a published writer and a visual artist whose work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography, among others – because SSCY has managed to come out with a couple of innovative and functional products that are both stylish and perfect for urban carry.
The sling + messenger bag
Our favorite bag from SSCY is also their most interesting: The Bandolier bag.
Part messenger bag, part sling bag, the Bandolier is a unique two compartment bag that’s perfect for a quick bike ride or for EDC.
The bag features two pouches (13(11) x 7.5 x 2″ – top length (bottom length) x height x depth) that are mounted via hook and loop (velcro) on a 2″ wide strap. You access each compartment by swinging them around to the front, no need to take the bag off. It’s like having two small sling packs on a single strap. Just brilliant!
Each pouch features a diagonal pleat, allowing you to expand carry capacity if needed. The pouches can also be folded in half, as seen below, for a more compact bag. On the outside are a pair of 1-inch buckled straps that are able to carry items up to 12-inches wide, including skateboards.
Instant classic: a 3-way backpack/tote bag
SSCY also makes a convertible tote/backpack in different designs. These 2-way convertible bags, made of naturally water-repellent duck cotton canvas (it is then DWR treated for even better water repellency) and YKK zippers marry the convenience of a tote with the practicalities of a backpack.
The Tack is their largest bag, measuring 21 x 16 x 6″, perfect for a grocery run or as a beach or weekend bag. The Tack Sling is a smaller, slimmer version that continues the unique innovation found in their Bandolier bag.
The Tack Sling is similar to the Tack bag, but instead of one main compartment, it features two separate compartments, each measuring 20 x 12 x 2.5″.
This unique design, paired with 2 compression straps on each side, allows the use of the middle “compartment” for carrying over-sized and odd-shaped items, see the second photo below. Genius!
A lot of bags that try to do many things end up failing because often times, the features feel forced, or they are just not well thought out. The Tack Sling is one of the few multi-purpose bags that get it right.
There is also a much smaller version of their Tack, called The Tack Day, but as of posting, this bag is currently NOT Made in the USA, with SSCY stating that they are unable to produce this bag locally at this time.
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