For years, I have carried a small lightweight day pack with me on every personal trip I have taken. The bag served me well as a place to carry my camera, rain jacket, books (or Kindle), snacks, and other travel odds and ends – all while being small and discrete. That bag was a Black Diamond BBEE. For the past few months, I have been searching for a replacement for the venerable BBEE with little luck. In the end, I decided to order a selection of top-rated bags and do a side-by-side comparison to finally pick a replacement. Please see the disclaimer on affiliate links and reviews.
|Original Black Diamond BBEE||12L||360g|
|2013 Black Diamond BBEE||11L||360g|
|GORUCK GR Echo||16L||900g|
|GORUCK Radio Ruck||24L||1080g|
|Tom Bihn Synapse 19||19L||695g|
I decided to give the new version of the Black Diamond BBEE a chance because of how well the previous one worked for me. I also picked up the Osprey Daylite because of its cheap price point and relative similarity to the BBEE. The GORUCK bags and Tom Bihn bag both have an almost cult-like online following, so I figured they must be worth checking out despite their cost. I have looked at others over the course of the past year, but none were compelling enough to make the cut for my final decision.
My Current Bag: Black Diamond BBEE
I’m very attached to this bag – not only for sentimental reasons, having traveled around the world several times with me – but also because of how well it has worked in almost every situation it has faced. It is small and discrete, while managing to hold most of what I need on a trip. It has survived hikes through fairly thick jungles, sliding around on rocky beaches, gallons of sweat, and countless times being stuffed under an airplane seat. It is discolored, smelly, and scratched – but hasn’t failed yet. There are really only two reasons I’m replacing it: I’m often over-packing it during a trip when I’m asked to carry an extra rain jacket or sweater, and it isn’t as well suited to carrying camera gear as I once thought it was.
2013 Black Diamond BBEE
As is often the case with an old curmudgeon such as myself, change is often tough. I had high hopes for a newer version of the bag I’ve grown accustomed to, but ultimately two things kept me from picking this bag. First, I don’t like giant logos on my gear – and the new generation of this bag had, by far, the largest logos of the set. Secondly, according to the specifications, this bag is actually smaller than the older generation, so it isn’t solving my problem of needing a bit more room. The build quality of the bag seemed decent at this price point, and many of the features I liked about the original BBEE are still present in this generation. The hydration bladder pocket (or, more often in my use, the Kindle pocket) is still present, as are the sternum strap (now with integrated whistle), and interior zippered pocket. The interior zippered pocket seems to be narrower and deeper than before, which actually exacerbates a problem I had with the original; after a week or two of travel, the pocket would fill up with odds and ends, making it difficult to dig out what I needed.
GORUCK Radio Ruck
Getting over the sticker shock of this brand was tough, but every review swore it was well worth it. My first experience with the GORUCK brand came in the form of this bag’s big brother, the GR1 owned by a colleague. I was always impressed by the way it looked even in a professional work setting, and it did seem to be tough as nails. Additionally, the bag was the perfect counterpoint to the newer BBEE above, with no external logos or branding whatsoever. To complement the minimalist branding strategy, the bag is stripped of all unnecessary straps, loops, pockets, and hardware. Aside from the considerable weight, it was in many ways much of what I love about the original BBEE. The bag’s ultimate downfall was its size. Many reviewers write the bag off as too small, especially for an adult male. In my case the bag was too large for my purposes. I don’t need a bag that can carry a weekend’s worth of clothes or camping gear. Instead, I want a bag that is low profile so that I’m not bumping into people on a crowded sidewalk, or knocking things over in a narrow market. I’ll comment more about specific features below when I discuss the GORUCK ECHO.
This bag grew on me after my initial impression fell a little flat. In many ways it is similar to the minimalist and ultralight BBEE, which means it also includes some of the same negatives. The price on the bag was very reasonable, much in line with the BBEE and some similar packs from REI that I previously considered. The bag has what seems like a well ventilated back panel, a hydration pocket inside, a sternum strap with whistle, and a single zippered pocket outside of the main compartment. The two exterior mesh water bottle pockets cost the bag a few points because mesh pockets always end up getting snagged on things, and I rarely use them. Like the newer BBEE, the Osprey suffers from a bit of over-branding and additionally has a few too many straps, buckles, and dangling parts. I was also a little concerned about having the smaller zippered pocket accessible from the outside since I tend to store keys, passports, and other similar things in it when traveling. Despite its few shortcomings, this bag was probably my second choice.
Tom Bihn Synapse 19
No bag has more of a cult following than the Tom Bihn Synapse models, and for good reason. The company is very responsive to customer requests, very active in their community forums, and seems to do a good job spreading review bags around the web to seed their marketing efforts. I am familiar with the company because I use one of their bags for business travel, and and am very happy with it. One of the things I like about my luggage from them is how well organized it is. The Synapse carries on with that legacy with well thought-out pockets and compartments. You can read about all of the various pockets, as well as the wide array of accessories for their bags on their product page. Ultimately, I could have been very happy with this bag except that the 19L model somehow felt tiny on me – to a point where it even looked a bit silly. I could have upgraded to the Synapse 25, but I felt that it would have suffered from the same issue as the Radio Ruck, in that it would stick out from my back a little too far to be low profile. The bag is very well constructed, and perhaps in the future I’ll pick up the Synapse 25 as a secondary bag for non travel duties.
GORUCK GR Echo
Everything I stated above about the Radio Ruck applies to the Echo – with the exception of the size, it is essentially the exact same bag. Those accolades are why I ended up choosing this bag to replace the original BBEE.
The rear pocket for a small laptop (my Retina Macbook Pro barely fits) or tablet makes it possible to convert to business use if necessary. The interior sleeve is ideal for a few maps or magazines that you don’t want to get wrinkled during travel. The front zippered slash pocket is great for stowing boarding passes and passports while in the airport, and other small thin items at other times. The interior zippered pockets (one solid, one mesh) are perfectly sized for power adapters, a few cables, keys, and a passport. The interior MOLLE allows for attaching a RR Field pocket to add a little interior organization (ideal for camera accessories, memory cards, batteries, etc).
Most surprisingly for me were the main compartment zippers that allow the bag to open up flat. Initially, I was afraid that it would be a negative feature that would cause the contents of my bag to go spilling out when I tried to get something out while standing. Instead, I found that it was not only easier to load the bag effectively, but to retrieve items from various parts of the bag. The slim profile of the bag was ideal, and because of the RR Field pocket and interior zippered pockets, the contents of the bag didn’t tend to all collect at the bottom of the bag like with my BBEE.
The thin straps on my original BBEE were never uncomfortable, and allowed me to easily use my Capture® Camera Clip (CCC) on the straps to hold my camera out of the way on my shoulder. The biggest concern I have about the GORUCK bags is the thick straps that don’t easily work with the CCC system. I was able to get the original CCC into one of the MOLLE loops on the strap, but it was an extremely tight fit. I took it off for the time being because I was worried it would stress the MOLLE too much and cause damage before I decided to keep the bag. The new CCCv2 was just funded on Kickstarter, and I ordered one because it appears to be a bit thinner than the original, so I’m hopeful this will fit better. If not, there’s mention of some longer clamping bolts which should make it easier to get the CCCv2 around the entire strap, rather than just through the MOLLE loop. This is a critical component of my travel setup, so I’m going to keep trying to get this just right.
A Canon 5d MK II camera body, 24-105mm lens, rain jacket, camera accessories, and Kindle all fit with no problem. The bag can also fit a 70-200mm lens if you must push it, but it begins to bulge a bit at that point. The camera body is just about the maximum height of anything you can fit in the bag without it beginning to bulge or interfere with getting things in and out of the front slash pocket. A mid-2012 Retina Macbook Pro barely fits in the rear laptop/hydration pocket, but it is serviceable if you need to do so on occasion. A better place for the laptop would be inside the sleeve, but the RR Field pocket makes that an almost impossible fit.
More photos of the bag, including some of my typical travel load are below.