Road Tests :: KILLSPENCER Special Ops Backpack
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 Realgeeks.com 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.
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.
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
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.