Top 5: Best Specialist 2020
Our Best Specialist category celebrates the pieces that hone in on expertly fulfilling a particular carry need. So it’s no surprise that our top 5 finalists are highly diverse in their designs and intended use cases. Each finalist has earned their spot by delivering a dialed-in performance that’s fit for purpose. Let’s take a closer look at each one…
It was around 5 years ago that Yeti dropped a bit of a bomb on the outdoor scene with the release of their leak-proof, super-insulated soft cooler range. It was a huge level-up for soft coolers that spurred their popularity to skyrocket, which in turn led to a number of brands racing to catch up to Yeti. Pelican is one brand that’s emerged as a strong contender in the cooler world. Their elite range from a couple of years ago definitely brought them up to speed and now with the Dayventure Sling Cooler, Pelican has taken its industry-leading build quality and pushed the level of portability.
It’s the shape of the Dayventure sling that sets it apart. Unlike the landscape tote proportions of most traditional coolers, slinging this cooler comfortably secures the load against your body hands-free, which makes it practical to wear whilst out and about. It’d be perfect for riding, hiking or even getting around a music festival. What’s more, due to the long and narrow form the contents naturally pack together tightly, meaning drinks have limited room to tip or shake while you’re on the go. At first glance, I wasn’t sure how practical the shape of the main compartment was for loading, but I was pleasantly surprised. The sling neatly holds 12 cans stacked in 4’s or 4 wine bottles plus a bit of headroom for an ice block. Pelican also sells a block that’s shaped to fit into the base which looks neat.
While the shape is the fun part, the build quality also ticks all the fundamental boxes for a soft cooler. Most importantly it does a great job of cooling. The 20mm foam insulation gives easily over a day of ice retention and maybe up to two, which is on par with the best on the market. Plus the welded construction and YKK zip are both completely leak-proof. All the fabrics feel tough and it’s got some chunky molded end panels for added scuff protection. I particularly like the styling of the sling. All the molded elements such as the handle and base have a nice futuristic rugged vibe, which makes sense given that the long chamfered shape of the sling feels like it’s meant for a space mission. The attention also carries over into the colorways, both the gray and coyote are toughened up with contrasting black components then softened with fun internal colors.
Given the quality of the Dayventure sling what’s maybe most surprising is the cost. Of all the bags in contention for Best Specialist, this is the most competitive on price relative to its category. The Dayventure Sling manages to bring style and quality at a price that makes it a pretty irresistible purchase for your next summer adventure.
Wins in value
Top-tier build and construction
Rugged and good looking
After a few years without releasing any new packs, this year the iconic motorcycle luggage brand Kriega dropped the TRAIL18 along with two other new packs in a range that took the brand to a new level of organization. For a long time, Kriega has been well known for their super technical harnesses, but for the most part, they’ve kept their packs pretty simple. Not so with the TRAIL18. It’s a highly detailed pack that’s been specifically designed for a day out trail riding.
Firstly, you can’t talk about a Kriega backpack without mentioning the harness. I won’t go into detail about it, but for anyone who isn’t familiar with the Kriega Quadloc harness, the design shifts the load of the pack through its large sternum connection and multiple adjustment points to make it incredibly comfortable to ride with. The TRAIL18 is fitted with the Quadloc Lite, it’s a stripped-back version to suit smaller packs. Another Kriega trait that needs to be mentioned is the tough as nails materials. In this case the body is made from 420D Cordura which is combined with YKK zips, dozens of bar-tacks, ripstop internals and the iconic Hypalon front net. Even with everyday use I’d put money on this pack outliving its 10-year guarantee.
While comfort and durability are Kriega mainstays, it’s the level of intuitive, considered organization that this pack provides that’s new for the brand. Starting from the back, the zip section closest to your back carries the heavy fundamentals, things like your tool kit and hydration bladder that you’ll want with you on every ride, but can afford to get wet. Then inside the zip there’s a nifty internal roll-top pocket perfect for stashing your phone and wallet. Up front is a larger roll-top area with a waterproof liner. By being roll-top it’s not just waterproof but it also expands or compresses depending on how much other gear you want to take. That’s all wrapped by the Hypalon net which is perfect for moments like when you need to stash your gloves while you stop for a drink. The net also looks on point for this type of pack. It’s a bag that feels intuitive to pack, and with organization that caters for all the scenarios a rider is going to encounter.
Like all Kriega packs the TRAIL18 is a top-shelf item, it’s one of the top-end mid-sized trail packs on the market. While the build quality, comfort and level of detail all warrant the price, there is also added value in the pack’s versatility. As well as being a specialist trail companion it’s easy to see this pack becoming an all-weather everyday commuter. Sure, versatility isn’t in the spirit of being a specialist, it’s just a testament to how well laid out this pack is.
Ultra rugged build
RINO Ready is the newcomer of the specialist contenders. In just over a year the brand has managed to quickly establish itself as a leader in the survival equipment scene via a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. RINO’s flagship product, the Companion, is a fully equipped bug-out bag designed to keep you and a friend alive for 72 hours. When I say fully equipped, I mean the bag comes pre-packed with over 60 survival essentials including N95 masks, a knife and even food and water. The pack launched early 2019, becoming the most successful survival pack in crowdfunding history.
It’s clear that the Companion is a great option for anyone like me who’s new to the idea of survival and looking for a one-stop-shop solution. Considering the effort required to research and source each individual item, having all the legwork done for me makes a lot of sense. But even for those who like getting into the details of building their own kit, the RINO does have a major edge over any DIY alternative. Because the bag has been tailored around its contents, RINO has been able to perfectly organize and label everything inside, making it incredibly simple to navigate the pack. On top of looking great, the clean layout makes finding what you need so clear that even a child could retrieve essentials from the pack with simple instructions. It’s a great example that good form follows good function. In the middle of an emergency you definitely don’t want to be rummaging around 20 different pockets to find what you need.
There are currently a handful of other fully equipped bug-out packs on the market. What makes RINO stand out is the way in which the bag, the pouches and the gear come together as a cohesive unit. To begin with, the pack has been designed from the ground up with a nice level of consideration. For example, the super boxy shape and stow-away harness is exactly what you want when you’re tucking this thing under your car seat. Then when you do need to haul the pack, the harness has been well thought out. It’s easily comfortable and stable enough for a decent hike. You can tell that a lot of care has been put into the materials and detailing, even down to the quilting pattern on the back panel. This is where you Velcro in the eight pouches, which all Tetris together to feel satisfyingly neat and tidy. RINO has even gone to the trouble of customizing almost every single one of the kit’s survival items. Altogether the Companion is a very comprehensive offering for a debut product.
Comparing the Companion against the other specialist contenders, it’s by far the most specialist. Bug-out bags fill a very specific role, one that some might see as a fringe concept. What stands out most about the Companion is how RINO have evolved this niche into a pack that’s accessible to everyone. By providing an all-in-one kit, it makes “prepping” quick and easy. Then through clean and clear design the pack feels approachable and easy to use. It’s the small details like the survival guide printed on the bandana that help make this pack a product that’s accessible to everyone.
Clean and clear design
All-in-one survival solution
The Tower 47 is a new crag pack from Mystery Ranch that’s part of the brand’s first wave of climbing-focused gear. For a flagship range into a new category, Mystery Ranch couldn’t have hoped for a better response. After launching at Summer OR 2019 the range has had the climbing world talking but the Tower has been particularly well received. Earlier this year it was given the Editors’ Choice nod from Climbing Magazine who even went as far as to call it “the best crag pack ever”. So what’s everyone so excited about?
One of the fascinating things about the success of the Tower 47 is that it’s not due to any particular new technology or design elements. Looking across the pack’s key elements, they are all features we’ve seen before on other Mystery Ranch products. The Futura Alpine yoke and support frame design are both mainstays for the brand, as is the 1000D Cordura. Where Mystery Ranch has hit the nail squarely on the head is responding to climbers’ needs and understanding their priorities. Take weight for example. Mystery Ranch hasn’t used a material that balances weight and durability, they have gone “bomb-proof” 1000D. So while it’s heavier than some crag packs, the Tower 47 will stand up to being dragged around on rock and ice without getting shredded. To compensate for the added weight Mystery Ranch beefed up the framing and the harness, which makes the pack well suited to long approaches. So in that one decision to forget about the weight they’ve created a pack that’s more comfortable, has a longer range and will last longer.
Access and organization are two other areas where the Tower 47 is simple yet effective. The two openings provide for a wide range of versatility. There’s a long duffel-style zip that allows the pack to unfurl like a huge toiletries pouch, complete with zipped mesh pockets, perfect for easy packing or splaying gear out at the crag. The pack is well structured so that gear is cupped, and doesn’t end up all over the place. Up top there’s a zipped lid that’s for quick grabs, but also allows the bag to be hauled. Add a few well placed hanging loops, quick stash pockets and some compression straps, and that’s pretty much it. If you can ignore the sophistication of the harness and the framing, the Tower 47 is a good lesson in keeping things simple.
While the Tower 47 doesn’t have any revolutionary new innovation to dazzle us, what is impressive is how well Mystery Ranch have been able to connect with climbers so quickly. It’s a smart combination of tried and tested features and empathetic design that’s winning over a lot of new fans.
Signature bomber build
Clean and insight-led design
When I first got a glimpse of the RoundTrip Bike Duffel from Thule I was surprised. A highly organized cycling go-bag is something I’d never seen or even thought of before. In hindsight I shouldn’t have been, the idea makes complete sense for Thule, a brand who already makes some of the best gear for carrying your bike. Why not make traveling with your bike even smoother? It’s also not the first-ever bike-focused duffel bag on the market. Brands like OGIO and Dakine have duffels with helmet and shoe compartments. For some reason even after taking both of these points into consideration, there’s still something novel about the concept of this bag that feels the most original of all the specialist contenders for 2020.
The key feature that differentiates the RoundTrip Duffel is without a doubt the internal divider system. It’s a fabric honeycomb structure that can be expanded or compressed as needed to create over 20 pigeon holes inside the main compartment. By neatening up the central area, the divider also provides the structure for all other bike essentials to be organized around. There are two large zones for your helmet and shoes, as well as a nice wet area for post-ride gear. It’s all pretty straightforward stuff, elevated by the foundation of the divider system. It transforms the standard black-hole chaos of a duffel bag into cycling OCD heaven. Instead of rummaging, the way this bag allows you to arrange and select gear feels more like using a camera bag. There’s even a padded and brushed divider specifically for your glasses.
As with all Thule products, the RoundTrip Duffel has a clean, technical finish. Along with the Pelican cooler, it’s one of the sleekest specialist bags. I particularly like the patterning, with its wrap-around binding, darted seams and the discreet shoulder strap attachment points. All of which feel smooth and nicely resolved. The attention to detail extends to the colorways which include color-matched zips and hardware. They’ve even gone to the effort of using two-tone zip tape, to match both the lining and the outer fabrics. It’s a piece of kit that would feel at home with any bike enthusiast, stylish enough for roadies and rugged enough for the mountain folk.
What I like most about the RoundTrip is how with a few small additions, Thule have completely changed the experience of using a duffel. They’ve flipped what’s normally known as a relaxed style into a performance system. And seeing as most cyclists I know love to have things neat and organized, I think Thule are onto a winner with the RoundTrip.
Killer access and organization
Voting for Best Specialist ends September 15th