- Buyer's Guide
The Evolution of the GWA Citadel
GWA (Gear Whores Anonymous) is a small Southern California-based operation whose flagship product is the Citadel backpack. This EDC-focused 24L pack is now on its third iteration, each of which has been refined based on extensive testing and user feedback. Though the brand is small, the fanaticism surrounding this pack is incredibly strong within the carry community. Given that they are all produced in small batches and typically released via drops, when folks miss out you’ll find them very quickly changing hands if/when they come up for sale on the secondary market.
I found this behavior interesting as one could observe it happening time and again within our Carryology Classified group. So I wanted to investigate the line and find out what got folks so excited about the Citadel. I was able to get my hands on all three generations of the pack, as well as a couple of special editions from a partnership with Superior Defense. I set out to discover what has changed throughout the development of the pack and if I found any particular variants that stood out as “the best”.
If you were to line them all up with one another, then you’ll begin to see the ways the pack has changed over time and how the designer has refined his product. These changes are subtle, as the overall silhouette is still the same as the original design. Don’t take that to mean that you shouldn’t go after an earlier version if that’s what interests you, as each one has its perks and drawbacks.
So with that, let’s dig in and find out what excites people about the GWA Citadel.
Measurement: 19″H x 11″W x 7.25″D (48cm x 28cm x 18cm)
Capacity: 24L (1464cu. in.)
Weight: 2.2 lbs (0.99 kg)
Zippers: YKK #8 RC
Material: 1000D CORDURA® Exterior / 420D Pack Cloth Interior
The GWA Citadel originally launched after 7 years of design iterations and prototyping. And it was built around the premise of utilizing all-American materials and labor in creating their perfect EDC pack. As mentioned in the intro, the Citadel clocks in at 24L capacity, which is a great size for daily carry and even travel as you can pack a surprising amount of stuff into the main compartment and maximize the available space. The overall footprint is similar to bags such as the GORUCK GR1 26L, Evergoods CPL 28, and The Brown Buffalo ConcealPack EDC and despite the differences in capacity, the Citadel can carry just about the equivalent amount as any of the previously mentioned packs.
From the very start, the GWA Citadel has utilized 1000D CORDURA® for the primary exterior material. This is something I personally love, but this is up to your individual tastes. Though I will say that it doesn’t feel as abrasive as the 1000D variant we see utilized by GORUCK. In addition to CORDURA®, the exterior also features a panel of Tweave Durastretch® material for the lower organization pocket and the exterior water bottle pocket.
The Citadel is designed around a full clamshell opening and features super-smooth YKK #8 zippers throughout. The pulls were made from gutted paracord and nice, chunky pull tabs. (Note: This bag was modified by its original owner to GORUCK-style zipper pulls). You’ll also find a set of compression buckles on the exterior to help compress the bag when you don’t need to utilize all of the provided space. You can also leave the buckles clipped when opening the bag to treat it like a top-loader if desired. The external quick-access pockets have similar organization slots on both the upper and lower. But it’s worth noting that they don’t really have their own dimension. So whatever you put in there will push into the interior pocketing (and vice versa). In the original GWA Citadel, the upper pocket featured three equally-sized organization slots. This was altered during one of the second-generation production runs.
The back panel design utilizes raised padded mesh sections to introduce some airflow and help distribute the load and keep things comfortable. I found the padding to be sufficient overall, though if the bag was packed to capacity, I did notice the lumbar pad seemed extra pronounced on my back. Your mileage may vary in this situation. You’re also going to find that the shoulder straps are lined with this same Tweave material found on the exterior, which keeps them nice and grippy. They are nicely contoured and feature a non-removable 1″ sternum strap. (Note: This bag was modified by its original owner to feature a Fidlock slider buckle). The back panel also features a quick grab handle on either side (which is not padded) to make it easier when taking the pack off or if you need to carry it from the side.
The water bottle pocket found on the exterior can house larger bottles like a 32oz Nalgene without issue. The original generation features an asymmetrical design with a single bottle pocket and MOLLE attachment points on the opposite side. Additionally, the pull tab on the pocket was originally sewn to the exterior. This is a small detail to call out to be sure, but it’s worth noting when you’re looking at these packs. From the second generation onwards, the exterior now features two bottle pockets made from that same Tweave material. It’s one of many subtle design changes over the timeline of the GWA Citadel.
This rear-accessible laptop compartment (which is lined with a bright red high-visibility interior) is fairly spacious and easily fits my 15″ Macbook Pro. But I do wish that the sleeve was suspended to help protect your laptop when setting the bag down. Thankfully it is well padded on the bottom so at least there’s some protection for your tech. There is additional space in this compartment but it’s just open. You can fit an additional laptop or tablet in this area but I found that it made the pack a bit uncomfortable to wear for any real length of time.
Once you’re inside the pack, you’ll find that GWA used a 420D pack cloth liner, which acts as something of a protective barrier for your gear. But it’s also used to create two internal drop pockets on the front flap, both of which are zippered, and the lower one is pleated to accommodate bulkier items. Additionally, you’ll find that the rear wall is lined with two large strips of Velcro that allow you to customize the interior organization of the pack.
Both GWA and Superior Defense have offered Velcro-backed pouches in varying sizes and colorways to allow you to mix and match as you see fit. Naturally, ANY Velcro-backed item will attach just fine. So if you have a pouch, or an admin panel, or even just some patches, you can set up the interior however you like. This type of flexibility is appealing but it does require investment into additional pouches and accessories to get the most out of it. Fortunately, if you decide to skip that altogether, the bag isn’t crippled and you’re still able to have a fully functional pack.
As we take a look at the second generation GWA Citadel, we’ll see that the overall design has not radically changed. The materials haven’t changed, the dimensions haven’t really changed either, so what’s new? The first immediately visible update is that now the water bottle pocket has a twin on the opposite side of the bag, replacing the MOLLE webbing that was featured there previously. The pocket itself was also slightly redesigned in that the pull tab is now sewn on the inside and the shape has been slightly contoured to make it easier for the user to grab a water bottle while the bag is on their back.
The dimensions have ever so slightly changed, in that the main compartment is now ¼” deeper, which you’d be hard-pressed to tell without seeing them side by side. I didn’t personally find that this dramatically altered the way in which I packed the bag out. The quick-access pocket on the exterior was updated to have an extra divider sewn in to accommodate pens or other slim items a bit better. This design update also carried through to the third generation. Interestingly enough, the Citadel variant shown here from Superior Defense features the original organization layout.
Though it was not included with the pack, when the second generation was released, there was also an optional removable framesheet offered that was designed to fit within the laptop compartment. This sheet also fits the first generation as those compartments are otherwise identical. The only other appreciable change to call out on the second generation is that the straps featured a slight update in that the sternum strap was switched to a ¾” style and is now removable should you so choose. All in all, the second generation was a minor refinement with some quality of life improvements over the original design.
Lastly, this is also the point at which we began to see collaboration models released in limited colorways, such as this DCU camouflage variant produced with Superior Defense. The pack is largely identical to the “standard” second generation Citadel save for the different admin pocket organization I previously mentioned and the sear-your-eyes blaze orange liner on the laptop compartment. It’s bright, but I like it.
Short Bus Variant:
Prior to the launch of the third generation, GWA and Superior Defense teamed up once again to produce a unique variant of the Citadel called the Short Bus, which featured a number of changes over the standard run. Though it shares much of the same DNA, there are some important changes to note which we will see carry over into the third generation GWA Citadel. To start, the overall dimensions of the pack are slightly tighter. It’s about one inch shorter than the standard Citadel, and appreciably less deep as the external laptop compartment has been removed in favor of an internal sleeve. The bag itself still features a full clamshell design with the same super-smooth #8 YKK RC zips. Though they have now added heat shrink tubing to the zipper pulls to make them a bit more sturdy.
The water bottle pockets on the exterior have also been removed, which also contributes to the Short Bus’s slimmer appearance. Additionally on the exterior, another notable callout here is that it does not feature the same Tweave material on the lower front pocket but rather it has CORDURA® across the entire face of the pack; access remains the same, but without that stretch, you’ll want to keep to slimmer pouches or items in that front pocket. The biggest change we’re going to see here though is the all-new shoulder straps. These feature a wider padding area and an edgeless design for improved comfort overall. The underside of the strap is lined with the same pack cloth material you’ll find lining the pockets; this is softer on your clothing than straight 1000D CORDURA® to be sure.
I mentioned a moment ago that the Short Bus omits the external laptop compartment. This is entirely a personal preference, but I find a pack to be more versatile without an external laptop compartment as I don’t always need to carry one with me. But as long as the compartment doesn’t throw off the balance of the pack if it’s not in use, then it’s no trouble. The interior sleeve easily accommodates my same 15″ Macbook Pro and doesn’t eat into the space of the pack when not in use. There is an HDPE framesheet sewn into the back panel which is non-removable. I found it to be sufficient for a pack of this size overall. The interior is otherwise almost identical between the variants, except for the upper panel pocket. This features see-through mesh instead of the pack cloth material featured throughout all of the other variants.
The standard Citadel features a pack cloth liner throughout all the generations. But the Short Bus is a standout here in that it is unlined. Rather, it exposes the PU coating of the CORDURA® material on the inside. Again this is purely subjective, but as someone who’s used GORUCK packs for many years, I suppose I’ve grown accustomed to this unlined interior and I tend to prefer it. Overall, the Short Bus winds up being a nice compact daypack with some refinements over the standard Citadel that informed the direction of the future generation of this pack.
As we look to the most current iteration which was launched in 2020, we can see a culmination of all the feedback that GWA has received over the years. Subtle refinements and tweaks to improve the overall user experience of the bag without completely redesigning the bag with every generation. Arguably, the most notable change between the packs comes with the redesigned shoulder straps. GWA experimented with this design update in the Short Bus and has moved to the same wider, more padded, edgeless design which overall was a good move, but with one major caveat.
The straps are still lined with Tweave material, found on previous generations, for comfort and stability on your shoulder. But the wider padding area aids with the overall comfort of the pack, provided you wear it in the right position. The caveat that I mentioned a moment ago is that they are still mounted in the same position as the previous generations, which means they are set very narrowly. Depending on how high up your back you wear the Citadel you may find that the straps being so close together wind up pinching your neck and shoulders a bit. Granted, I possess very broad shoulders. But I’ve heard from Citadel owners with more normal builds that they’ve experienced the same issue. As with anything of a subjective nature, your mileage may vary in this situation.
Unfortunately, I tend to wear my backpacks pretty high up my back, and I found that to be rather uncomfortable under load with the Citadel. But once you let the straps out a bit and wear the bag a little lower on your back, the problem all but disappears. So ultimately, the new straps are in some ways more comfortable and I do prefer them. But it does slightly change how you wear and use the pack.
Another design update we see pulled from the Short Bus variant is moving to a permanent framesheet sewn into the interior. It’s no longer removable. But I found that it makes the bag more comfortable overall, so this was a good move in my personal opinion. A small tweak that might be easy to miss is the new accessory loops sewn to the top of the main compartment. This is a useful place to anchor your keys or perhaps an organization pouch of your choosing. But they stay totally out of your way if you choose not to use them.
So, we’ve looked at how the bag has changed through its iterative design process. Where does that place the current generation? Fortunately, the good parts haven’t really changed, and the areas that have benefited from user feedback have been updated overall successfully. The main compartment is still highly usable and customizable based on your needs. The laptop compartment is still spacious and easily accessible. Though I do wish the compartment was suspended to protect your laptop. The bottle pockets are stretchy enough to accommodate fairly large bottles. And they’re canted just enough to make it easier to grab a bottle while the bag is still on your back. The YKK #8 zippers used throughout the bag are, in my opinion, some of the smoothest I have used on any pack and it’s these little details that start to paint the whole picture of the GWA Citadel.
This is a good daily-carry backpack.
The Citadel’s freshman entry brought a very good, albeit imperfect, daily-carry-sized backpack to market which has been finessed over two subsequent generations to refine the design based on real-world feedback. And that’s probably what I like most about it. As a whole, it is not a complicated bag, and that’s a good thing.
The design is fairly straightforward but nothing really gets in your way when you use it day to day. It’s well constructed from quality materials, made in small batches, and completely manufactured in the United States (if that’s a deciding factor for you). And while the $290+ asking price isn’t cheap, when you start to factor in everything that goes into producing these bags, I do understand why it is priced that way. Would I like to see this be $200 or less? Sure I would. But if that were to introduce compromises in the design, then, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be worth the cost reduction.
In the end, I set out to take a look at all of the generations so far to try and understand all of the excitement around the GWA Citadel. In the several weeks I’ve been using the bags I have come to appreciate their design overall and at least now have a better idea of what our community seems to like about them. If you’re attempting to buy one of these on the secondary market, any of the generations would be perfectly usable. But in my opinion, after having hands-on time with all three I would choose the latest as its refinements offer no real drawbacks and only improve the usability of the bag.
That being said, having an opportunity to also get to see the very limited collab versions helped me see that while I like the updated features of the Gen 3 Citadel, the Superior Defense Short Bus was ultimately my favorite variant. It was the most minimal while still maintaining all of the most useful features of the Citadel.