- Buyer's Guide
Mystery Ranch Prizefighter Review
If you’re not familiar with Mystery Ranch, here’s a brief overview: it’s a technical pack brand co-founded by the great Dana Gleason in 2000, an icon in the pack industry, heralded for spearheading Kletterwerks and Dana Designs. The latter being the backpack company that really set the standard for load carrying technology and comfort in the late 80s and 90s.
In 2004, Gleason and Mystery Ranch began making custom packs for the Navy SEALs and since then, Mystery Ranch has adorned the backs of military, first responders, woodland fire fighters, alpinists and hunters around the globe. This group represents a significant piece of Mystery Ranch’s customer base and is a segment of the population that not only values great kit, but depends on it in life or death situations.
So when you carry a Mystery Ranch pack, even an offering from their newer Everyday Carry line, you can do so with the confidence it was designed and manufactured by a company that understands the importance of quality and functional execution. Carryology conducted a fantastic interview with Gleason last summer and I strongly recommend checking it out.
So why this little historical preamble? Two main reasons (beyond the fact that Gleason is very clearly my carry crush). First, pedigree matters. A company’s history, leaders and business model provide important insight into its design ethos and are “sign posts” that provide important intel when making an informed purchase. Ask me to choose from two packs made of the same materials with the same capacity and similar features and ten out of ten times my money is going to the one with an established lineage. Pedigree matters.
Second, “The Prizefighter”, one of the latest pack in their EDC line, is clearly born out of this utilitarian, high quality and no frills blood line. When I was asked to put this bad boy through its paces, I jumped at the chance. The Prizefighter appears to be an evolution of their Street Fighter. Except for the lack of external water bottle pockets and an additional external pocket, the Prizefighter has a very similar look. I think it’s a great addition to the current EDC roster that is anchored by the wildly popular Urban Assault 21 (they also recently added an 18L iteration).
Who Is It For?
The Prizefighter is a viable option for anyone looking to purchase a relatively simple pack, devoid of superfluous features and made with time tested, high quality materials. At 21L it sits at the lower end of what I like to call the capacity sweet spot for EDC focused backpacks but is still perfectly suitable in terms of the space most people need on a daily basis. If you are looking for a light, comfortable pack that doesn’t break the bank and is supported by a rock solid warranty from a highly respected company, the Prizefighter is worthy of your consideration. While I don’t recommend carrying over 15 pounds, simply from a comfort perspective, it carries nice and the load lifters are a very nice touch. As a comparison, I find it carries very similarly to the Urban Assault and is actually a great alternative for someone who wants a Mystery Ranch pack without the famous 3-Zip.
Who is not for?
Anyone looking for a feature rich pack with a ton of organization and fancy new materials. You won’t find any hidden passport compartments and there is no XPAC, Dyneema or Hypalon anywhere. It is, by most standards, relatively simple. So if you are looking for bells and whistles, you need not apply. Also, while I do think this is a “crossover” pack that allows for a relatively seamless transition from work to moderate play, if you are looking to carry significant weight this may not be for you. Although, in all likelihood if you are looking to carry significant weight you are most likely needing something with a real load-bearing waist belt anyway.
There tends to be two schools of thought in terms of pack layout. Some individuals need an ultra compartmentalized pack with significant organization and dedicated areas to put every item. Others value minimal compartments allowing them to organize to their preference with the support of separate organizers or pouches. As an aside, there has never been a better time to find high quality organization pouches. I tend to fall in the middle of these two organization layout camps and I think the Prizefighter does as well. So, if you fall on the far right or far left of the organization discussion, you may find the pack has too much or too little. I, along with Goldilocks, think it’s just right.
Let’s begin with quality and material. This pack will retail for $USD125. While that isn’t cheap, it certainly isn’t on the high end of the daypack price point spectrum. I would say the quality is at the very least in line with what you would expect at this price point and even exceeds it. It’s made of 500D Cordura, which I personally love. While 1000D is bombproof, I feel any perceived increase in durability is negated by the increase in weight. A well executed 500D pack provides all the durability anyone would ever need and allows for a significantly lighter finished product. I don’t know what this pack weighs in at but it is light. Very light.
The stitching is immaculate and I found no issues or deficiencies with its construction. All compartments open and close via burly YKK zippers. While there are other nice zippers out there, YKK branded are pretty much expected for any bag at this price point. They are trusted world wide and for good reason. All the external zippers on this pack are what appears to be Urethane (URE) reverse coil which is extremely effective in keeping water out and I can attest first hand that they do in fact do a great job at this. I also like that these zippers are the same color as the pack itself (in my case they are grey). I think it looks really sleek and feel Mystery Ranch made the correct decision by not going with contrasting colors.
The zipper pulls are just de-threaded 550 paracord with a simple knot at the end. Super simple but very effective. I have never been a huge fan of complicated or over-manufactured pulls for a couple reasons. First, they tend to be loud and as you are moving from point A to point B you can often sound like a very caffeinated maraca salesman.
Second, they are difficult to fix if they break. Paracord is ubiquitous and easy to repair should you over need to. Also, if you are someone who likes to customize your kit, it’s easy enough to cut them off and not feel too guilty.
If a bag has less than stellar material and below average zipper construction, nothing else matters. It’s the core of any pack and even an amazing design with fantastic features can’t stand long term if it’s built on a weak foundation. I have zero worries here; 500D and YKK is a time tested duo that work.
As far as comfort, the Prizefighter carries really well. I prefer my packs to carry high on the back and this does. There is a non-removable HDPE frame sheet to give it some structural integrity and help with carry comfort. I have said it before and will say it again, this is a non-negotiable for me as I truly find some kind of semi-rigid frame sheet is optimal for carry comfort. There is a thin layer of nice breathable mesh on the backside of the pack and underside of the straps and I find it very comfortable.
The harness is fixed and load lifters really help to snug the pack against your back. I’ve always found that Mystery Ranch packs do this really well, even the EDC line offerings that don’t have the amazing Futura harness. This pack is no exception. At the top of the pack between the two straps is a simple nylon strap serving as a grab handle. It works fine but certainly isn’t comfortable if the pack has any weight to it at all. There is an included sternum strap which I don’t often use but am always glad to have one and feel all packs should. It attaches to the straps via daisy chains and you are able to move it up and down to ensure it fits just right. But note, this pack does not include any kind of strap management, so if that bothers you invest in some simple velcro loops, ranger bands or web dominators.
There are exactly three zippered compartments on this pack, all of which are all externally accessible which I really appreciate. Starting from closest to the back panel, you have the largest compartment. This area includes a suspended and fairly well-padded laptop pocket resting against the back that easily holds up to a 15” computer. I now carry a 13” MBP and it rides in the pocket with no problem. To the right and left of the laptop compartment are two strips of elastic webbing (two on each side) which allow the pocket to expand and contract as needed. It is also a great place to clip pens or anything else somewhat thin or cylindrical.
In front of the laptop compartment is a thin sleeve that would probably be perfect for an iPad or smaller documents. I do wish this sleeve was a bit wider to hold legal documents and manilla folders. Other than that, it is perfectly adequate. In front of what I refer to as the document sleeve is a small and simple admin area. There are four open pockets and two pen slots. There isn’t a ton to it but I actually appreciate that.
The four open pockets are laid out with two next to each other and the other two stitched on top of them. The bottom two are approximately 3” wide by 6” long and the top two are 3” wide by 3” long. I found them to be perfect for my business card holder, work badge, a couple charges and other odds and ends. There are no zippered pockets of any kind and nothing at all on the other said (front) of this large compartment. Overall, this compartment is fairly cavernous and you can fit a ton. Outside of what I listed above, I can easy fit my Yeti coffee thermos and an insulated lunch container.
On the front of the pack there are two different zippered compartments. The top is a quick grab/dump pocket that fits sunglasses perfectly. There isn’t a ton of room for anything else and there is no organization or key tether. I am a big fan of quick grab pockets but I do wish this one had a tiny bit more volume. A compartment or two would have been an added bonus. When I travel for work and go through security at the airport I like to throw my keys, AirPods, wallet and phone in that area. Having a segmented spot to ensure they don’t bounce around is always appreciated. The fact that in this case the pocket is barren isn’t a huge deal, but worth mentioning.
The bottom zippered compartment is significantly larger and has its own dedicated volume which is always nice. For some reason it does not extend to the bottom of the pack and stops about two thirds down. So it basically starts a third down from the top and ends a third up from the bottom with usable volume throughout the middle of the pack. The positive is that loose items don’t fall so far down that you are up to your shoulder fishing for them. The negative is that you are losing quite a bit of capacity and it reduces the potential uses of the pocket.
The Not So Good
There are few things I would change with the Prizefighter and most of these are related to the pocket layout and execution. First, I really wish the iPad/document sleeve was a bit wider and not completely flat. There is the space for this and I feel it would have made this feature far more usable.
Sticking with the main compartment, I love that there is significant space in front of the organization compartments but I do think they should have included at least one, and potentially two, zippered compartments against the front. This would have allowed for greater organization and prevented items that don’t fit in the admin pockets from falling to bottom.
As I referenced before I do wish the quick grab top pocket was slightly larger with some additional organization inside. Definitely a key tether also.
Probably my biggest issue is the larger pocket in the front of the pack. It is great, but it could have really been amazing they extended the bottom lower on the pack. This would have made it possible to hold a soft shell and or a water bottle/Nalgene. In my opinion, this would be a use case many wearers would take advantage of.
Outside of the pockets and organization, I only have two small issues. One, it doesn’t stand up on it’s own. Admittedly, this is not a huge deal for me, but I know it is for some people. Lastly, there is no strap management included and I absolutely deduct a point anytime a pack doesn’t include this.
The Prizefighter is a solid pack. It’s not fancy, it doesn’t have any innovative or exciting features and you won’t find any slick marketing video showing it off. It’s a simple, well-made pack that has everything you need (almost) with nothing you don’t (almost). It will likely last a lifetime and as an owner, there are few companies that warrant the level of consumer confidence that Mystery Ranch elicits. Were some pocketing decisions made that I wish weren’t? Absolutely. Do I wish the laptop compartment was executed differently? For sure. It’s not a perfect pack and there are definitely some aspects I wish were done differently but it carries really nice and in my opinion, looks great.
I tend to use (or overuse) sports analogies and to me, the Prizefighter is a middle of the batting order kind of player. It will hit for decent average, give you consistent production, is a good teammate and will never be a liability at defense. It’s a middle of the rotation starting pitcher or trustworthy middle reliever. Every team needs those kinds of players on their roster. They won’t win batting titles or hit many game winning home runs but many championship teams were carried by these aforementioned consistent role players. That’s the Prizefighter.