Road Test :: Mission Workshop VX Small Rucksack
You may be wondering – didn’t Carryology review this pack before? Yes, it’s true that our very own Ando put the large Rucksack through the paces, but I thought it would be of some interest to our readers if I gave my opinion on the Small Rucksack. For my 5’8″ frame, this size makes a lot more sense, and if you are of a similar stature, it may appeal to you as well.
When the founders of messenger bag darling Chrome, decided to break off and start Mission Workshop, the world took notice. While Chrome (Timbuk2, and a few others) legitimized what was previously a cottage industry and brought a level of professionalism to the sector, it was Mission Workshop that really elevated the level of design to match. I had already considered MW bags to be the creme de la creme so when they announced their AP Series, which stands for Advanced Projects, I was intrigued. How much more deluxe could you make a bag, I wondered. It would be over a year before I found out.
I do not travel often but when I do, I am very particular about what I carry and how I do it. Last month, I went on a ten day trip to the east coast, specifically New York and Philadelphia. I try to stick to carry-on only so I had some important things to consider. The bag had to be big enough to hold my goods but small enough to fit under a seat and not feel too large or bulky when walking around a city. Speaking of a city bag, it should look classy enough to not look like I simply took a backpacking bag and adapted it to city life. I also wanted lots of compartments for modularity and options and some degree of weatherproofing would be ideal.
Truth be told, any of the MW offerings would have sufficed but I leaned toward the VX Small Rucksack because I am a sucker for words like “premium” and “limited.” When I received the bag, I was really happy about the size. While I like the freedom of having a lot of storage space, I think at times it can get out of hand. Besides, if you have a smaller bag, you are forced to make decisions like: do you really need both a tablet and a laptop? The VX Small Rucksack measures 12″ x 18″ 6″ and has a volume of 1,000 cubic inches or 16L. It weighs 2.6 lbs. To put this into perspective, the Lexdray Tokyo pack that I reviewed is 22L and noticeably larger.
Material and Build Quality
What immediately struck me about the bag was the material and build quality. Much like a pair of denim or an oxford button-down, when you pick up a bag, you get an immediate sense of how well it’s built. You just know quality when you see it and the VX Rucksack was oozing with it. The outside is 1000 denier VX Cordura and it’s lined with a PTFE waterproof membrane. I initially had mixed feelings about the material because the PTFE membrane lining reminded me a lot of the type of fabrics I was seeing in ultralight backpacking bags, popularized by small producers. Specifically, it reminded me a lot of Cuben Fiber, Dyneema, etc. I do not mean that PTFE is at all similar to these materials but from a touch and feel perspective, these “next generation” fabrics feel completely different than the nylon on your typical Jansport or Topo Designs backpack. It has a slick, “tight” feeling to it; there is less give.
The question is how does it perform? The short answer is: admirably. I was hit with some really heavy downpour and the water just beaded up and slid off the bag. None of the contents got wet. I also put the outside of the bag through some tough situations kicking it under my seat repeatedly during the flight, threw it on the ground, etc and it was fine. I was constantly taking it off and putting it on as I explored New York City. I also stretched the internals to the extreme by stuffing all the compartments tight with my EDC items. The material is very durable but at the expense of slightly less stretching or give.
Let’s face it, this is why you’re here. This is why you pay a full one hundred dollars ($100) over the standard Sanction rucksack. The VX edition adds the proprietary buckle system and the upgraded fabric. I really like the Arkiv System. I think in the carry world, there hasn’t been much buckle innovation (I do love me some Cobra’s, though), the Arkiv was refreshing. When I saw it for the first time at Interbike, I couldn’t believe how simple it was. For those unfamiliar, it’s a single piece of metal that is formed into a ring, with a small slit left open in the back. Then, MW takes a thick and moderately stiff strap and attach it to the bag, sewing it tightly down the middle. The metal loop is attached to an elastic band and this allows you to quickly stretch the buckle up and over the strap. Besides the time savings, the system also is completely silent. I would love to see MW license this out to camera bag makers like Lowepro. There’s nothing worse than the sound of velcro or a buckle operating during a piano recital or a play.
I am a sucker for compartments. While I can appreciate the clean lines of a single compartment bag, I need compartments to keep organized. Luckily, the VX Rucksack has plenty to offer. Besides the main compartment, which is just a big cavern, the front features a large compartment. This is the only one accessible without opening the straps; the rest are hidden underneath. Once you undo the Arkiv closure system, you are able to access two more compartments. One with an open slot design and the other secured by a zipper. I loved having things that I want to readily access, like my digital camera, in the front pocket, while keeping things like my portable battery pack in an inside compartment. On the inside, there is a very thin zippered compartment that runs the full height and width of the bag. It’s meant for laptops, which I think is a poor use for it. More on that later.
I actually have a few issues with this bag and most of them are in the same categories as the highlights. You’ll find them in the niggles section below. The only one, however, that I find serious enough to be deemed a lowlight, is the way the compartments are designed. Each of them go to the bottom of the bag. What this means is that the main inside compartment, the outside one, and the ones in the middle, no matter their position on the bag, share the same bottom depth.
At first glance, this isn’t an issue but once you load any of the compartments tight with stuff, you end up crushing (damaging) items in the other pockets or you simply prevent the other pockets from being used. This was especially problematic for me since I carried a lot of devices and accessories with me. When it came time to bring a sandwich and chips on the plane, I had to adopt the strategy of storing bulky items at the very top. So, I’d load up the bag, then before I closed the top flap over, I’d put in the items. Since the top of the pockets were not stuffed tight with items, there was actual usable space.
The fix for this is simple. MW should create pockets that bottom out on different levels on the bag. That way, if you stuff one pocket, it won’t affect another one (as much). I can’t blame MW entirely for this since many bags in the industry do this, but due to the design of the bag, the issue is compounded.
Back ventilation (or lack-thereof)
I can’t speak to what MW was thinking the typical user would be for this pack, but certainly they couldn’t have thought he/she would be very active. There is very little in terms of air ventilation for the back area of this pack. In fact, it’s the same sort of ventilation you’d see on a regular school backpack. I would have liked some sort of air bubble design or some way to prevent the dreaded “sweaty back” syndrome. This is a tough challenge, for sure, because the most successful of these solutions tend to make the bag look like a piece of technical gear rather than a fashionable city pack.
On the inside of the main compartment there is a very slim zippered compartment that I believe is meant for a laptop. In my opinion, it’s not a very useful design. There is almost no thickness to it so anything you put inside is a tight fit. Having the laptop pass through a set of (zipper) teeth as it enters and exits the compartment means you risk scratching your expensive Macbook Pro. It also rests directly against the backpanel of the backpack, against your back so that’s a hard surface to deal with. I would suggest using it as a document sleeve and keeping your laptop, in a sleeve, in the main compartment. Frankly, I don’t understand the purpose of the zippered pouch.
Best suited to
While a bag of the MW Rucksack’s pedigree will never pass as a “professional” bag (e.g. Filson), it is muted enough in its design that it won’t draw too many heads. I actually think that this would be a perfect commuting bag for a professional in an office environment. Also, given that most professionals carry flat items (i.e. papers, documents, pens), the effects of the compartment issue is lessened. With that said, this is, in general, a great bag for …
Those Who Carry Mostly Flat Items
If you are mostly carrying flat items such as a laptop, eReader, magazine, and documents, this is perfect for you. It will protect your contents and you won’t suffer from any of the bulging issues. It is possible to carry one large item (for example I put in my SLR camera bag in the Rucksack), but good luck putting anything on the front compartments if you do so.
Not suited to
Athletes or Active People
Do not use this as a gym bag or to carry big bulky gear. This bag is not ideal to carry your tennis racket or soccer ball. It simply won’t work. It’s a flat rectangular design with little room for expansion. Really this applies to anyone that has large bulky items that they need to carry with them.
Any niggles, annoyances
The Arkiv Closure System
My small niggle with Arkiv is it’s not perfect. I can tell by the repeated resizing of the strap, that the metal hardware is chewing away with it. While I don’t think it will ever eat it’s way through, it is damaging the strap and is necessarily ”roughing” it up. Imagine scraping a (dull) knife back and forth across your strap. I also feel like the stiff nylon portion that the buckle slides over could be stiffer. Perhaps it could be hardened with a steel or plastic plate in the middle.
Lack of waist belt
For nearly $300, I would have appreciated even a simple waist belt. MW does give you the option of buying one for $30. Obviously, since the waistbelt is optional, it’s also removable. I like how MW puts a large slot in the back which allows you to move the position of the belt. If you plan on using this on the bike, and the weight is not distributed well, you should consider wearing a belt to prevent the dreaded “corner swing.”
No strap management
This might just apply to me because I don’t like excess strap lengths but I wish the shoulder straps had some of retention system. In the pictures you’ll notice that I haven’t removed the tape from the factory. I wish there was a elastic or Velcro loop though that would keep the lengths short. It shouldn’t add much to the cost and I think all manufacturer should include one. In the meantime, I will use an ITW Nexus Web Dominator.
Similar options out there
This is a tough one. What we have is a backpack with a really unique buckle system and advanced materials. I would say what comes closest is perhaps the Tres backpack from Timbuk2. However, the Tres is much larger in both dimension and volume. I am also digging the Mixed Works bags, though we haven’t heard much from them since they were introduced.
Price and Purchase Options
You can visit the Mission Workshop HQ in San Francisco or one of the retailers around the world. However, the easiest way to get your hands on a VX Small Rucksack is to just order it direct from the website. It runs $279 and you get free FedEx shipping included. You also have the option of buying a waist-belt, which I would skip personally. Again, it’s hard to pack this with enough weight that would require the stability and offloading of weight that a belt would give.
I am very impressed with the VX Small Rucksack. It’s my first Mission Workshop product and I went big. I really like the details that the fellas at MW added to make this bag a joy to use. From the waterproof zippers, to the Arkiv system, to the elastic band on the chest strap that allows for some give. I also appreciate the size. It takes courage for a bag company to make a slim profile, small silhouette bag. This means I can easily navigate around tight corridors, down aisles of airplanes, and through turn-styles in subways without getting snagged.
For those wondering if the VX series is worth the price premium over the regular Mission Workshop bags, I would say it depends. For me, if I did this again, I wouldn’t buy the VX version. You have to understand that Mission Workshop bags are so nice already that any deluxe version of them seems superfluous. Is the $100 premium justified? Perhaps. I don’t know what the fabric and buckle upgrade costs. However, they just don’t feel like they are worth the premium price. I am glad I own the VX Small Rucksack but if someone wanted my advice, and they were not super determined to have the Arkiv closure and/or care that much about waterproofing, I’d steer them towards the Sanction for $179 instead. You also get two extra colors to choose from!