Road Tests :: KILLSPENCER Special Ops Backpack

by , February 8, 2013

We frequently drool over KILLSPENCER. But for all the gorgeous blog pics and various mentions on websites in the “cool hip stuff” genre, there aren’t many reviews available. Rick Cogley ran a quick review on KILLSPENCER’s Special Ops Backpack and Wired named it “warzone ready” and gave it a 8/10 rating. Recently a raving 10/10 review ar showed up.

After having played with these bags lots, talked to Spencer Nikosey last year, and even watched KILLSPENCER take out carry award for Carry Accessory in our first Carryology awards, we’ve now finally got around to road testing one of their products – the much talked about Special Ops Backpack. Mr Zing couldn’t take it no more and had to buy the thing. Will the Special Ops Backpack pass his thorough commuting and “special ops” tests? Read on!

Ordering and unpacking

At first, it didn’t seem like the bag would be able to be sent to the Netherlands, so I e-mailed and was helped promptly by Danielle Nikosey, KILLSPENCER’s marketing manager. After some weeks of customs delays (no surprise if something is called “special ops”) the unpacking party began!

This is where KILLSPENCER’s brilliant marketing comes in. The bag is wrapped nicely in paper with an embossed card on top, signed by (all?) four of KILLSPENCER’s employees. With the bag comes a wall mount that KILLSPENCER supplies for all its bags. Admittedly, other luxury brands might top even this unpacking experience, like Bedouin Foundry.


The Special Ops Backpack is a relatively small backpack in volume (my guess is <16 liters). It measures 17.75″ by 12″ by 4.5″, as mentioned on the website. There’s a laptop compartment which can hold up to a 15″ MacBook, a main compartment and a front pocket. The main compartment has a slip for documents or an iPad, and three zippered compartments, of which two are mesh. The front pocket has a vertical zipper and can hold a wallet. It’s available in Black and Army green. On the side there’s 4000-lb test military-spec webbing.

The pack is made of waxed canvas and fire-retardant waterproof nylon and comes with Riri zippers, metal hardware and a bullhide handle. The bag is designed and made by hand in KILLSPENCER’s Los Angeles workshop.

So what is the Special Ops Backpack anyway?

Is it a luxury backpack, an outdoor backpack, a military inspired backpack, a cycling backpack, a work backpack or a hybrid? In my opinion it’s a combination of a luxury backpack and a work backpack that can hold its ground in bad weather. The build quality and materials are super high, but it doesn’t have the features some outdoor or military backpacks have (rain shields, air systems, MOLLE). Comparing it just on features would be like comparing a high-end amplifier with just a volume knob to a low-end amplifier with an equalizer and a USB port. You can judge the high-end amp for its features but not for its quality.

I own a Goruck GR1, a Tumi sports bag, Samsonite’s Pro-DLX Spinner and various other bags so I think I’m entitled to say something about quality bags (and non-quality bags as well).


I’m a pocket geek with bags. Brands advertising a “simple one-compartment bag” don’t appeal to me at all…

I need my pockets, but then the pockets need to be well built and well positioned (Goruck does an awesome job at that). Bad pocketing makes a bag look awkward when full and one pocket will get in the way of another, which diminishes the possibility of grabbing something quickly. Also, bad pockets will get ripped within weeks of using them and bad zippers will self-destruct, so that’s probably why “simple one-compartment bags” can sometimes be a safe choice. KILLSPENCER does a really good job at this.

The pockets in the main compartments especially, are great and just about the right size. The front pocket is a bit small and the vertical zipper isn’t really my thing. I own a 13″ MacBook and the laptop compartment is steady and logically placed (it’ll fit a 15″ MacBook too).

Wired mentions the weight and the thin straps as lowlights. I’d agree with them on the weight but that’s the tradeoff of the materials used. The straps however are ok. The bag sits well on your back and because of the small volume, unless you’re going to carry bricks, the straps will do (See below for some sizing pics). I walked some hours with the bag and the straps are comfortable enough.

And: I really LOVE the bullhide handle. The Special Ops is the first (and only) backpack I know of with a decent handle. And please, decent doesn’t mean a shiny plastic handle, supported by wire. That might not mean much to you, but the handle makes it a sort of office bag hybrid, so you don’t have to throw the bag over your shoulder all the time.

Its gorgeous

You’ll have to decide for yourself! As for me, the “used” look of the waxed canvas doesn’t quite cut it. Second, “it’s just a black bag” and doesn’t sport fancy colors and accents like many other brands. But then again it does carry KILLSPENCER’s trademark military look, which makes it quite distinctive.


The design of the bag makes the back rather stiff. When walking that’s not a problem, but when cycling the bag will not curve with your back. In addition to that, the material on the back of the bag is sweaty, especially compared with outdoor backpacks, which are of course built for handling sweat, but also compared with “regular” backpacks.

The bag is on the heavy side due to the materials used and it’s a tad small. What I need for work fits into the pack, but to squeeze in some groceries while going home would be a challenge. Because of its weight and its size, it’s not so much a “grab and go” bag. On the other side, being small is what luckily forces me to bring less stuff…

What’s great about the Special Ops Backpack in the beginning is that you can place it on the ground vertically and it will not fall over. After some use the bottom becomes more “amorphous” and the bag won’t stand up on its own anymore.

Best suited to

It’s a great bag for commuting to work because it looks the part, it’s relatively comfortable and it protects your belongings. Of course having any KILLSPENCER item will make you look cooler by default.

As long as there’s no heavy sweating and carrying larger loads involved, it’ll do great in special ops. One or two screwdrivers, a gun and some small explosives will fit just fine, blowing up an entire airport will need more space (just riffing on the special ops theme here, guys… :).

Not suited to

However, special ops such as walking up a mountain or going on a cycling holiday are not supported as it’s too much of a work/luxury bag. For special ops like buying groceries the bag is just too small.

Any niggles/annoyances

The zippers are a bit stiff although it does get a bit better over time.

Similar options out there

In my opinion KILLSPENCER has found a great niche with the Special Ops Backpack. Although its weekender will be compared to any luxury weekender, I have a hard time comparing the Special Ops Backpack to other backpacks.

Military backpacks like Goruck’s Radio Ruck or Echo might have the same size and features but have a different target group in looks and utility. Work backpacks by Samsonite or Tumi have this distinct “work” look to them (the Arc’teryx Blade would be a better option). Heritage backpacks such as Herschel are definitely lower in quality, although there might be some great heritage brands.

Price & where to buy it


Overall conclusion

So, is it worth $340? That depends on your needs and wants. It has quality materials and components. It doesn’t have all kinds of nifty features. It makes you look as cool as a polar bear. My guess is it hasn’t been tested in extreme circumstances like the GR1. But what you get is one piece of quality, handmade gear that brings you joy every time you use it…coming from a bag geek, that is. But there’s no comparison between a $30 Eastpak and a $340 KILLSPENCER. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Eastpak, but it’s a different ballgame.

What I’d like KILLSPENCER to do is experiment with a bit more lightweight and “modern” materials, make the back of the pack more sweatproof, the bottom of the pack even more stable, redo the front pocket, make it a bit slimmer in width and throw in some Bedouin Foundry style accents and colors. But then again, it just might start looking like every other bag…

Finally: some sizing pics. I’m 6,1 feet / 1.85 meters and 175 pounds/80 kilograms.

  • Adam

    Whoa. That looks like the ultimate pack for mounting an all-out tactical assault on the nearest coffeeshop to poach wi-fi on a Macbook Air while looking for a job as a menswear blogger.

    Special Ops indeed!

  • James

    Yeah been using the backpack (green tarp version) for about half a year now. Perfect really for an office work environment but not so much for real adventure. As mentioned, the capacity and shape makes it a relatively small backpack in terms of hold. Another issue that I had was how the metal strap holders dig into your arm pits if you’re a bigger guy or have a thick chest/shoulder – not comfortable with both straps on. Lastly, the zippers keep getting caught on the lining inside / threads.

    The quality otherwise of the bag is great, and perfect for use in the office – there’s no doubt that quality components were used all-around, but sometimes quality materials don’t tell the whole story. I have no regrets buying the backpack and would recommend it to people if they are aware of the bag’s shortcomings and limitations.

  • Kevin

    I’ve been using the Killspencer briefcase for several months and love it. I purchased it along with a Defy Recon and promptly returned the Recon after receiving the briefcase. The bag definitely has some minuses but the build quality is outstanding. Hopefully some day Carryology will get a chance to review the Killspencer briefcase.

    • Adrian

      What made you return the Defy bag? Was it just the comparison between the two bags?

      • Kevin

        Two reasons:

        1. The Killspencer briefcase holds its shape better. When empty the Killspencer still looks like a briefcase. When the Defy recon is empty it looks like a blob. This is important not only for aesthetics. In my experience bags that don’t have a distinct shape when empty are more prone to bulging. Because the bag does not have a distinct shape it will take on the shape of the items inside. Unless you are a careful packer, the items in the bag will tend to shift until they form a distinct bulge or basketball shape. This bulge unbalances the bag which makes it more difficult to carry and use. The only way I saw to prevent this from happening with the Recon would be to always pack a laptop (an iPad proved to be too small) in the bag to force it into a specific shape. I don’t always carry a laptop so this was a non-starter for me. The Killspencer because of its cut and heavier materials is much less prone to the basketball on its wearer regardless of the contents or presence/absence of a laptop.

        2. The reclaimed tires on the Defy worried me. Previously I owned a bag that was made almost entirely out of reclaimed tire material. While I liked that bag I learned the hard way that reclaimed vulcanized rubber has two undesirable characteristics. First, it smells like vulcanized rubber especially when wet. Second, it rubs off onto clothing. While I knew going in that the Defy bag used reclaimed rubber I did not pay enough attention to where it was used and how much. While It did not detect any odor from the rubber on initial inspection my bad experience with my previous rubber bag biased me against the Recon almost immediately. Had the rubber been used in areas that were less likely to come into contact with water and clothing I would not have been as reluctant to use the bag. To be clear I have no idea if the rubber used on my recon would have exhibited either of these two characteristics as I did not have it long enough to find out. My dislike of the reclaimed rubber is based entirely on my previous experience with a bag from a different manufacturer. Overall I was very impressed with the build quality of the Recon and the layout.

  • Doug

    Great review Mr. Zing. I appreciate the product pictures and the sizing photos. This helps so much more than the glossy staged Killspencer website pictures.
    I agree with Kevin. I have the Killspencer Briefcase and am very happy with it. Extraordinary build quality It displaces my Timbuk2. It was a toss-up between the Special Ops and the Briefcase . I think the tag as a luxury bag/office bag it spot on. I wouldn’t load this up for a GR1 challenge or grocery shop like a MW Vandal but for negotiating the subway to work, in the office, happy hour coffee shop/pub, it has a subtle rugged style to it that works. It reminds me somewhat of the Incase backpacks, construction and materials aside. The Special Ops is still on my personal radar yet given the price and its specific use, I somehow need to push it from my WANT column to my NEED column.

  • David

    Great review Mr. Zing. Just curious, would you consider the GR1 a bag with many compartments rather than a “one compartment” bag?

    • Mr Zing

      Gosh, I guess that’s one the reasons for the GR1′s awesomeness. The main compartment is big and very accessible as opposed to some rolltop dark holes.
      If you’re not using the pockets, they’re not in your way and you can fully use the main compartment, but they’re still there.
      I own a Burton backpack with lots of pockets, but the pockets take up a lot of space at the cost of the main compartment whether you use them or not.

      Old Steve used to say: “When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop….

      But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem—and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works. That’s what we wanted to do with Mac.”

  • Madeline

    yeah, I’m with you on vertical zippers- it looks great on this bag, but outside of aesthetics there’s no reason to position it that way, I find them kind of inconvenient. The details look great though- that quilted leather around the carry handle mmmmmm

  • jeff

    I just sold mine. Nice pack, with smart array of pockets and luxury materials. But from a practical standpoint, i had to do too much shoehorning to fit stuff in there in an intelligent way.

    moving to tom bihn’s offerings. excellent materials, still professional looking for office use, but ultimately a lot more versatile and a bit less costly.

  • jeff

    oh, and two more things:
    1-beware the zippers on this backpack. with even the lightest use the paint will start to come off on the pulls and attachments quite easily. if you want the bag to remain in pristine-looking condition for a while, this is a small issue.

    2-killspencer has good customer service. but i really also need to point out that defy has the best cust. service i’ve seen so far with a bag. (i have the first class messenger).

    ok, a third thing: for really useful pocketing in a carry option, the best i’ve had so far is timbuk2 with its command messenger. so many useful pockets and sleeves, plus the brick pocket on the bottom of the bag and the napoleon one…..really well thought out. but i’ll give it to this spec ops pack: the pocketing is intelligent and lets you make the most of a small space.

  • MustacheandMohawk

    Very nice review! Its amazing the reply this bag has had so far. I love this bags the aesthetics and materials have won me over. I love Killspencer and would like to own one these bags! However I’m upset they discontinued the cycling style messenger bag!

  • David Bloom

    Nice looking bag. My comments would be on construction 1) the front vertical pocket would make up better if the main front panel were in two parts versus the applique construction (better for production and cleaner look and 2) the back panel would be better in 3D mesh (more breathable and comfortable).

Carryology delivered

Your inbox. every two weeks. Only the best stuff, we promise.