This post is tailored to civilian backpack nerds and folks with the “minimalist bug”, so if you travel a fair bit, or just hate boring black-colored luggage like I do, read on.
Preface - the minimalism bug and the backpack
Back in 2011, I got bit with the minimalism bug. I started getting rid of furniture, books (which is a whole other post), college toys, etc. The wacky thing about the “minimalism bug” is that at some point after you reduce your stuff down to less, you start obsessing about how to make those few things better - Is the fabric strong? Is the color of this something I could match with anything? It easily gets to a point where you have Ebay & Amazon alerts setup for hard to find items.
One of those few things was a backpack. Before the minimalism bug, I usually travelled with a small carry-on suitcase and a stuffed backpack, but even that felt too painful. When travelling with friends there were acts of playing suitcase-tetris with rental cars, and when riding with my parents through India, I still have a painful memory of stuffing a tiny rickshaw in the night with all our luggage and dealing with a disgruntled driver as it pressed against his back. So while getting rid of things over the past two years I’ve also tried five different backpacks - since the last two I’ve owned have been the only ones worth recommending, this is what I’m going to write about.
The perfect backpack
Let’s talk about the needs for a good ‘buy it for life’ backpack:
##1. Separate laptop section
There’s a couple reasons for this. First, it sucks to have an entirely stuffed bag, then have to suddenly grab the laptop to look something up, or worse, to deal with the TSA.
Thankfully more packs seem to have this as a standard feature in recent years. That said, avoid the TSA-friendly packs. Usually they’re just made in a way that the separate section makes the pack feel less solid, and in other countries travel security will still make you take out your laptop.
Also, if you’re trying to do a single-backpack trip while that requires a second laptop, the GR1 and the Rush 12 both have areas in the main compartment to toss in the other laptop. Personally, I tend to carry a separate messenger bag just for consulting work stuff. Ideally, this would be some super-cool foldaway messenger bag, but I haven’t seen one I liked yet. Muji used to sell one that sometimes appears on ebay, and I occasionally use this one by Sea-to-Summit when a more traditional bag isn’t needed.
##2. Zippers that go all the way down.
When I first started into single backpack travel, I remember obsessing more about rolling all my clothes up, then sliding them into the backpack. Being a lazy last-minute packer, I got tired of this. Furthermore, it tends to not work when packing in collared shirts for work & weddings. This is where having a backpack with a full-on zipper comes in. With this setup, it’s much easier to just lay the backpack down, open it up all the way, and treat it like a miniature suitcase. Plus, the overall weight of stuff can be more evenly distributed, making it a bit easier on your lower back.
##3. Fabric that won’t tear on you
Before becoming a backpack nerd, I rocked a 20 dollar backpack for my first single backpack travels, and it also saw a couple India trips. While it’s amazing it survived so much, after a few years the fabric became dangerously loose. Another “folding daypack” I briefly had fell apart after a single trip due to carrying it with a small laptop.
##4. A solid look
This is more of a personal preference after dealing with more hip-looking backpacks. I think a good ‘buy it for life’ backpack tries to have a solid look, which means straps, zippers, and zipper pulls should ideally be the same color as the backpack canvas.
Usually most backpacks have one variant that meets this by being all black. But I hate black backpacks - they look like everything else, and make it harder to find wires tucked away inside.
GR1 vs. Rush 12 - Spartan Beauty vs. Features Galore
Let’s back up to why I’m even writing this comparison. I originally owned the Rush 12 and was very happy with it for the year I owned it - It holds a 13” laptop perfectly in the hydration compartment. But then I got a 15” laptop which the Rush 12 can only hold inside the pack, which breaks the separation rule. One could get the Rush 12’s big brother - the Rush 24, but they just seem way too big for daily use - coming in at ~34 liters volume versus the Rush 12’s volume of 22 liters. The GR1 sits just a tad bigger than the Rush 12 at 26 liters.
With that out of the way, Here’s the main comparison points of the two.
##Pros for the Rush 12:
Zipper pulls feel better on the Rush 12 than the GR1 The Rush 12 uses loop-style zipper pulls, which make it a bit easier to zip a stuffed bag than the black plastic zipper pull the GR1 uses.
The Rush 12 has a nice front area for organization. the Rush 12 has a front area with several pockets for small items, pencils, etc. There’s also two larger pockets with one being zippered, and the other capable of holding a bag of bathroom items or a small tablet/e-reader. If you’re really missing some organization on the GR1, I’ve heard the Tom Bihn Freudian Slip fits well in the main compartment.
The Rush 12 has an eyeglass holder As someone who wears sunglasses on occasion, I really miss this feature on the GR1.
The Rush 12 has ‘drainage holes’ and underside molle I’m writing this as a pro for the Rush 12, but in theory you can achieve the same goal on the GR1 by using the side molle with some bungee cord in a cross formation.
##Pros of the GR1:
As already noted the GR1 holds a 15-17” laptop in the hydration compartment, which was the dealmaker for me. The Rush 12 will snugly hold 13” laptop.
The GR1 is bigger, but does it by being longer heighwise and less depthwise, which means a more distributed weight of carry on your back, and less of a ‘sagging sack’ look. The bottom of the GR1 also has some reinforcement material to be a bit more solid. Finally, the length increase makes it a bit easier to organize the pack - especially when throwing in larger items like shoes and sleeping pads.
The GR1 ‘tan’ color is nicer looking for the 5.11’s ‘sandstone’ color. This point is moot if you’re more into boring black backpacks.
Dealing with the GR1’s insane price.
To be brutally honest, I’m still not a huge fan of the GR1’s price at 300ish dollars. But after using it for nearly a year for commuter use, business trips, hikes, and the sudden weekend drive, I’ll say it’s worth it because it can potentially replace your luggage, your hiking pack, and work backpack. It can probably replace a 55 liter camping pack by bungee-cording a ultralight tent/sleeping pad/etc. outside to the molle.
With that in mind they do come up on ebay every few weeks, usually for about 30-60 bucks less.
5.11 is missing a market opportunity
The 5.11 Rush 12 came out in late 2011, and at the time met my needs better than their more ‘civilan-looking-but-ugly’ Covrt series, or the way bigger Rush 24. I feel like they could easily come out with a bag with a little less molle and some more civilian colors, while retaining their organization features and thick cordura fabric.
Both packs are great, but the Goruck is better if you’re willing to deal with it’s price and want a pack that feels more solid. I only wish the GR1 had a similar front organization pocket to the Rush 12, since when the GR1 is over-stuffed, you have to first unzip the main compartment to get to the GR1’s front pocket due to things being compressed.
Aug. 2014 Update: I still use and love the GR1, and recently figured out how to use it for bicycle touring (that’s for another post). If you liked this review and want to support the site, here’s an affiliate link to buy a GR1.
- I’m working on a better way to keep a water bottle on the backpack side without ugly fabric holders or mesh nets or dangling carabiners. Follow me on twitter to get updated.
- If you’re seeking more lightweight packing stuff, check out the “Pack Light. Go Fast.” blog. Warning: It heavily leans towards the Goruck packs.
- Heck, even Rands has dived off into the backpack nerd review tangent.
- I forgot to include inside pictures of the packs, but to me they’re very similar. Both have a pouch towards the rear that can hold books/laptops/dress shirts. Both have two pouch pockets on the inner front - one large, one small towards the top. The GR1 also has some extra molle on the back upper side.