Backpacks

Road Tests :: Kifaru X-Ray

by , October 24, 2012

Manufactured in Colorado using 100% American-made materials, Kifaru’s bags occupy hallowed ground in the the carry world. Between obsessive design work and relentless testing, they’ve built a passionate following among outdoors and military types. We put the X-Ray, their small-ish, tactical day pack, through a proper road test.

Mel Terkla, the designer behind Kifaru’s tactical lineup, spoke to us earlier this year and had a ton of great carry insight so I was excited to take their flagship X-Ray “small” tactical bag for an extended road test. I’m not one for suspense, so I’ll let you know two things right now:

  1. Kifaru’s approach to suspension makes the bag the most comfortable backpack I’ve ever worn
  2. The folks behind Kifaru couldn’t possibly have more integrity or passion for their work

I really can’t stress enough that Mel and the rest of the staff at Kifaru are impressive. During almost every conversation I’ve had with them they’ve encouraged criticism and wondered if I’d found any drawbacks to their design choices. Most of the companies we feature care about their stuff, but in an age of retail it’s rare and refreshing to experience people who are this deeply committed to their products.

Enough with the cuddly stuff, on with the review.

Vitals

  • Make: Kifaru
  • Model: X-Ray (in the Foliage colour with a Padded Omni-Belt + Power Pull, 2 Stash-it Pockets, & an Organizer)
  • Price: $331 (bag only; the belt, pockets, & organizer sold separately)
  • Place of Manufacture: Colorado (100% Berry Amendment Compliant)
  • Specs: 1000 denier Cordura, 1800 cubic inches (29.5L), 4 lbs. 2 oz. (pack-only), interior hang loop for water bladder, access through top and front panel, accepts all MOLLE compatible pockets, ample PALS webbing allows pockets to be added to top, side and front
  • Claims to Fame: military-grade toughness with advanced technical suspension design

The X-Ray is Kifaru’s approach to a small, tactical daypack/EDC bag, but it’s an incredibly versatile bag. The $331 price tag is no small sum, but it’s tempered by the fact that the bag can be adapted to a countless number of unforeseen future carry needs. I’ll go over the two setups that fit my needs best (below), but I have no doubt that whatever carry needs I have in the future, the X-Ray can probably deal with it.

Suspension & Fit

Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

-Finley Peter Dunne

Kifaru’s approach to suspension is similar to most pack manufacturers’: transfer the weight of the pack onto your skeletal structure at the hips to take the load off your shoulder and back muscles. That being said, they achieve it in a unique, effective way. Instead of bulky waist-pads that just hold your backpack in place and don’t grip your hips evenly, they take the counter-intuitive route of using very flexible, lighter waist-belts (they call them “Omni Belts”)  that grip very well, tighten with a 2:1 “power pull” system, and don’t slip down during use. Then they add two lumbar straps to pull the load of your pack close to your back instead of letting it hang backwards off your shoulders.

The final piece of the puzzle is the back panel. There’s no air-mesh or anything, just padding and aluminum (or carbon) stays to hold the bag’s structure. The stock bend in the aluminum stays is just about perfect for me, but Mel encourages people putting custom bends in their stays if needed.

It all adds up to the single most comfortable backpack I’ve worn. I have problematic shoulders that sublux easily and are quick to ache, but I haven’t once thought about them with the X-Ray, even carrying pretty heavy loads. Once the lumbar straps and chest-strap are adjusted properly, the shoulder-straps just hover over my shoulders and provide a super secure, comfortable fit.

Activity Bag Setup

“I sure am glad I didn’t bring all that useful stuff.”

-Nobody, ever

Putting together an activity/emergency/bug-out/doing stuff bag is an interesting task. I’m not worried about a zombie apocalypse and I’m not a government conspiracy type, but I do live in Vancouver, British Columbia where there are intermittent scientific warnings about an earthquake disaster that would destroy the city; so, putting together a survival pack isn’t just an exercise in paranoia.

After a lot of experimentation, my X-Ray spends most of its time set up with the waist-belt attached, Stash-it pockets installed on the belt, and the hydration compartment empty and ready to carry a Camelbak 3L bladder whenever we’re heading out to do stuff. I keep a knife, flashlight, Leatherman, first-aid kit, pen, notepad, a lighter, hand-i-wipes, and bike multi-tool in the Stash-it pockets. (After the Mad Max gasoline wars I’ll make my way as a bicycle mechanic) This way all the sharp, TSA unapproved stuff is on the belt, which comes off in seconds for last-minute stowing in my checked luggage — no more rummaging around the bag trying to remember whether I took the knife out.

I keep a dry bag compression-strapped to the bottom of the main compartment, and it holds spare wool socks, a base layer, emergency blanket, matches, flashlight batteries, and some water purification tablets. The blast & cast crowd might get picky about my contents choices as a strict “bug-out-bag”, and I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on refining what I carry; that being said, I’m what’s known as “prey” in the wild, and won’t be needing a concealed carry setup anytime soon.


Figuring out where the sun will come up; the Sun Seeker app is a photographer’s best friend.

The X-Ray with this setup has become my activity bag, happy to come along for the ride with whatever I’m doing. Even with all those permanent contents, you can pack in in a day or two worth of clothes, a camera, toiletries, etc. and there’s still enough room to bring home weird momentos from whatever adventures you go on. Despite being fairly heavy, the pack is so comfortable that I don’t think twice about carrying all these “unnecessary” things on a daily basis. And, even though the zombies haven’t risen up yet, I’ve been thankful for my stuff whether I’m hauling binders full of notes around town, going on an impromptu camping trip, or hiking up a mountain to test a new cable-cam rig.

EDC Setup

“I just travel the world with my backpack and my cameras and a bunch of Clif bars”

-Henry Rollins

I suspect that many readers of this site are interested in the X-Ray’s every-day carry abilities, but out of the box the X-Ray lacks a lot of the organizational features you’ll find in more dedicated EDC bags. While it does have a great internal mesh zippered pouch and an external lid-pocket, it doesn’t have the (unfortunately named) “Flashlight Cave” or abundant external zip pockets of the TAD FAST Pack EDC, it doesn’t have the padded laptop compartment of a Goruck GR1, and it doesn’t have the compartmentalized organization of a Tom Bihn Brain Bag.

kifaru-x-ray-edc-15

kifaru-x-ray-edc-6

Though it might sound like the X-Ray’s lack of features makes it a non-starter for EDC, I found setting the bag up exactly how I wanted it very rewarding. I took off the waist belt and Stash-its as they interfere with cycling; I also took off all the compression straps and pulled out the aluminum stays as they’re not really functional without the load-bearing waist belt. Then I put a Tom Bihn Vertical Brian Cell laptop sleeve into the hydration compartment (I got the 13″ VBC and it fits perfectly, the bigger ones wont fit so if you’ve got a bigger laptop use a slimmer sleeve), and removed the chamber pocket for easy laptop access. Lastly, I installed Kifaru’s Organizer admin pocket on the inside of the front panel (no sense in having exposed zips if speed isn’t your #1 concern).

With this setup I carry a 13″ Macbook Pro in the hydration compartment, iPad in the front panel slash-pocket, chargers/connectors/cords/etc. in the mesh zippered pouch, pens/glasses/notebook/etc. in the Organizer, and my phone & headphones in the top pocket for easy access. The main compartment then usually gets stuffed with a book or two, a camera or two, and maybe a sweater now that the weather is getting cooler up here in the PNW. Stacking a bunch of things on top of eachother might sound like a great way to get frustrated trying to get at your stuff, but the combination of separate top and front panel access makes accessing everything in the bag quite easy.

Shortcomings?

Despite being versatile, the X-Ray won’t be for everyone. Its fairly shallow 12” depth is no-doubt designed to keep the bag’s load close to you instead of pulling backwards on your shoulders and back, but this lack of main-compartment depth may limit the amount of school-related stuff you can jam into the bag.

Similarly, the X-Ray’s lack of dedicated features is great if you’re weird & obsessive about bags (sounds familiar…), but all those accessories cost money and take time to get right. Plus, I still wish it had a way to store a water bottle when my laptop is in the hydration compartment without strapping something ugly and bulky to the outside of the bag.

Visually, I’m okay with the tech look, even for EDC, but those wanting to keep a lower profile in urban settings might find all the PALS webbing and compression straps a bit much.

On a more specific note, the Stash-it pockets on the Omni Belt would be more easily accessible while the pack is on if they zipped further down and then folded open. Tactical folks likely prefer security of their gear to city-slicker easy access, so I don’t begrudge this point a ton.

Finally, the company doesn’t have enough literature on their suspension philosophy, setup, and fit. Mel is incredibly generous with his time in helping me set up the bag—in fact, he’s equally generous with his time and has a toll-free line direct to his house available 24/7 to all his customers—, but a simple set of instructions would go a long way towards explaining their suspension philosophy to prospective buyers, and help their customers get their bags set perfectly for them.

Conclusions

Pros:

  • suspension system is perfect
  • bombproof, Made-In-America construction & materials
  • ridiculously versatile for both EDC and more active duty
  • great attention to detail and design
  • company displays a ton of integrity

Cons:

  • tactical look may be too much for some
  • shallow depth limits capacity for carrying books and other bulky loads
  • lack of stock organizational features both a blessing and a curse
  • not enough online literature for setup

Ideal if you:

  • want one bag that can do a variety of things and is relatively future-proof
  • have shoulder/back problems but still need to carry heavy stuff
  • are worried about the government taking your tinfoil hat collection

Not ideal if you:

  • are a starving student (spend less money on a deeper, squarer, sleeker bookbag like a Fjallraven Kanken)
  • don’t want people to know you’re capable of killing them 12 ways with a paperclip (spend marginally less money and buy a GR1 or similar)

The Final Word

In case you couldn’t tell, this bag comes highly recommended, provided it’s in the vein of what you’re looking for. Personally, the sheer comfort provided by the suspension system makes it my #1 go-to bag. I’ll be working on trying to fit a camera padding setup into it for backcountry photo/video shoots, and it’ll be my benchmark for backpack suspension going forward.

The Kifaru X-Ray is the best backpack I’ve ever used.

Review by Brian Park. Photos by Brian Park & Kate Masri. Read more about the X-Ray on the Kifaru website.

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  • Art

    Excellent review..
    thanks

  • narikki

    thanks for the review! just makes my life harder!

    kifaru xray vs goruck gr1 vs mystery ranch 3day assault! =(

    all have their pro and cons haha

    • http://brianpark.me Brian Park

      Yep, all of those are quality products. The X-Ray & the 3 Day Assault are quite similar; I have more time with an X-Ray so I’m biased in that direction.

      For my money (and build), the X-Ray has a better suspension system as well as bendable stays for more adjustment, while the MR has a chunkier, less flexible waist belt and a framesheet; on the other hand, the MR has quicker access through the front of the bag and a more intuitive stock storage layout (eg. water bottle compartment, etc.). The X-Ray is also slightly smaller and definitely feels a bit more compact.

      The GR1 has neither a suspension system nor front load access, so I’m always surprised to see it mentioned alongside the 3DA or X-Ray; it’s a great bag, but a very different intended use.

      • narikki

        Thanks for the reply! =D

        I think its just price range is why it gets put into the conversation. But then a kifaru xray with options is up towards 400 haha

        I am leaning towards the xray as it seems a more versatile pack. Have you experienced it through heavy rain? how does it hold up? I’d assume it would hold up pretty good but just wondering from personal experiences.

        very interested in what kifaru makes as a urban line though! =P

        • http://brianpark.me Brian Park

          Like any bag that is made out of untreated Cordura it’s not waterproof (although the 1000 denier stuff it’s made from is certainly weather-resistant, whatever that means). Very few people need truly waterproof bags, and I just bring a compressed raincover from MEC along most of the time in case it starts pouring here in Vancouver.

          • rfb

            MEC is dope, oh I miss Canada :/

  • RJ

    You can leave the chamber pocket in when using the hydration sleeve for laptops, it simply flips up onto the open pack lid in a split second, and stays put. The lid opening is one of the many subtle-yet-awesome design features. I can’t fault the x-ray for daily general use, been using mine solidly for over a year, in all manner of roles and conditions.

  • Alex

    Hi Brian,
    Im trying to decide between the Goruck GR2 and Kifaru Xray as my single bag for around 6-9 months of backpacking through the EU and south america. Im not too worried about space (i did 5 weeks in India with 5.8kg inc. bag) just general usability. Ill be carrying a Leica M system, macbook air, a few EDC items, clothing and climbing gear (no rope). At the moment im a bit worried about the Gorucks stiffness when carrying a laptop and also its lack of waist belt. Do you think this would be an issue over half a year or so? I like everything having its own place so pockets are a priority and im also a bit worried about where to put the camera for quick access while still being well protected. Ive thought about getting a hip bag for it but cannot find one i like… Do you have any suggestions?

    In essence I need a tough carryon sized bag with quick access that is comfortable. Im also wondering how much smaller the Kifaru is because wearing a bag every day id actually prefer it to be smaller.

    Regards, Alex

    • http://brianpark.me Brian Park

      Hey Alex, sounds like an awesome trip you have planned! Both are amazing bags but for your needs I’d lean heavily towards the X-Ray.

      For me, a waist-belt is key on a bag that’s going to be traveling that long, and you’re right that the X-Ray’s shaped stays will stay curved with a laptop inside. Plus, the X-Ray is smaller.

      Although the Goruck might have slightly better pocketing out of the box, the X-Ray is super easy to customize with internal pocketing, etc… As for where to put your camera, I had good luck with getting an outdoor repair shop to sew some webbing onto my favourite top loader and using malice clips to attach it to my waist belt; just be careful to not put something too bulky on there or it’ll interfere with your arms while walking.

      Hope this helps, let us know what you end up doing!

      • Alex

        Thanks so much Brian!
        I thought that perhaps the suspension system of the Kifaru would be a good idea, thanks for clarifying that. Do you have any top loaders you would recommend?

  • tal

    hello, goruck gr1 or kifuru x-ray what is your opnion guys???? thanks

    • Art

      I’d go with X-ray, for the suspension and expandability..

      Xing is out now – its a larger X-ray for those who need more storage..

  • Rob

    HI,

    Like many others… I have the X-ray and the Mystery Ranch 3DAP on my short list.

    1) I have a long torso for a person 5’11″. Is there sufficient adjustment to get weight onto my hips?

    2) Do you have a favorite laptop dry bag? (I commute by bike year-round in Portland, OR)

    Cheers!

    • http://brianpark.me Brian Park

      Hey Rob.

      1) I’m 5’7″ so I’m not the best person to ask, but I fitted it up on my 6’1″ cousin and it sat on his hips just fine; lots of adjustment.

      2) I don’t recommend using the waist-belt to transfer weight to your hips when cycling. In fact, as nice as the X-Ray is, if your primary use is year-round rainy bike commuting, I’d probably look elsewhere for a bag; it’s fairly heavy and not waterproof.

      If you are going to get it, buy a Vertical Brain Cell from Tom Bihn, and use a generic rain cover when it’s wet.

  • Dan

    I am trying to decide between this and the Mystery Ranch 3DAP. I will be mainly using it as day to overnight hiking pack with occasional EDC duties. I’m 5’6 with a 19.5in torso. Which would you recommend?

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