Category Archives: Reviews

GORUCK Radio Ruck & the Mud Dog Run

The GORUCK Radio Ruck, pre-mud

Before I get into the details of my experience doing the Mud Dog Run this past Saturday in Frederick, Maryland, I want to talk a bit about the GORUCK Radio Ruck. I was loaned bag by the fine folks at GORUCK, so I had a couple days to test it out as my every day bag, prior to running with it.

GORUCK bags consistently seek a couple design notes. First, they are very simple, with limited exterior pockets, no brand labels, and small amounts of MOLLE webbing. Second, they are made with 1000D Cordura fabric. It’s a heavy, tough fabric and though it is not waterproof, it will keep things dry inside in very wet conditions. Given that GORUCK was started by a member of the Special Forces and the bags are designed for military-grade applications, they are made to take a serious beating and survive without trouble.

The Radio Ruck is a 17L backpack – the second smallest of their backpacks. The first thing that stood out to me upon receiving it was how tough the fabric was, almost to the point of being rigid. The bags improve with use and I found it only took a few minutes for the straps to adapt to my frame. That brings me to the second thing I noticed – how wide and well-padded the straps on the Radio Ruck are. The bag doesn’t have any sternum or waist straps, so well-fitting and comfortable should straps are key. One of the most impressive features of the bag  was the laptop compartment on the back panel. It’s also well-padded and designed to take a laptop into combat. For people like me who aren’t likely to see combat, let alone combat with a laptop, in the foreseeable future, what this means is that the padding is completely adequate to have a laptop right up against your spine as you go through whatever activities it is that you do.

The interior of the bag has two organizing pockets on the front panel, with a mesh pocket on the back panel. There’s a velcro opening on the top, below the grab handle that can be used to pass the tubing for a hydration bladder out. And that’s about it. It’s 17L, so it was more than adequate to hold my gym clothes and shows, a Kindle, my MacBook Air, and charger. It’s actually about the perfect size for a day pack.

I was able to get this Radio Ruck because it was no longer needed at its intended destination for the weekend,  the Philadelphia GORUCK Challenge. While the Mud Dog Run was only 5k and the GORUCK Challenge likely covered 15-20+ miles, I felt it my obligation to put the Radio Ruck through as much torture as I could in the short race. I think I succeeded.

The Mud Dog Run is located on a farm in Frederick, Maryland. It’s sponsored by the Flying Dog Brewery, one of my favorite mid-Atlantic breweries. It’s a 5 kilometer obstacle course, featuring, not surprisingly, a lot of mud. I’d guess between 1000-1200 people did it this weekend, as each wave was capped at 300 people. I registered on the last day, so was in the last wave to go. I had the Radio Ruck with me, packed with a 2L hydration bladder, a change of clothes, a pair of sandals for after the race, and a small assortment of snacks for post-race consumption (Peanut M&Ms & Clif Shot Bloks).

I started in around the middle of the pack. Going in, I’d decided that since I’m just getting back into running and no speedster, I would go at a pace that I could maintain the whole race, but seek to go through every obstacle as fast as possible. This seemed to work pretty well, because by the time we’d crossed the first four obstacles, I’d passed a bunch of people and was cruising. I ended up finishing around the top 20% for my wave and while I didn’t break any land speed records, I felt good about my performance.

What made the Mud Dug Run fun was the obstacles. None were particularly challenging, so long as you embraced getting muddy and wet. The third obstacle was a long, boggy stretch of mud that ended in a 30-40 foot long pond. The pond floor was mud and it sloped down into the water and up out of it. I’m about 6’4″ and at its deepest, the water was around my mid-thigh. Coming out of the pond, the uphill mud was really slick and I slipped, falling flat in the water to my upper chest. It was a cool day and the water was pretty icy, so from this point forward I was wet and muddy. Just to be sure that I stayed wet, two obstacles later we encountered a giant slip ‘n’ slide, with hoses spraying down a big plastic tarp. Most people were trying to surf down it, but I figured I was already wet and did a headfirst slide down the hill. Good fun.

The GORUCK Radio Ruck, post-mud & flour

Things go more fun heading into an obstacle that required you to crawl low to the ground through deep mud. We had been warned by race officials that this obstacle, which was under a low tent, had metal bars across it and a few people had cracked their heads on these bars already. I decided the easiest way to ensure I was low and didn’t get stuck would be to take off the Radio Ruck and push it in front of me while doing a belly crawl in the obstacle. It worked and my head was safe, but the Radio Ruck was almost completely covered in mud.

I’m a bit confused on their order, but there are two others worth mentioning. One was another crawling obstacle, this one filled with white flour. In addition to crawling 20 feet through a few inches of flour, there were two women dumping bags of flour on me while I did it. Since I was one of the few competitors wearing a backpack, I heard one of them say, “Make sure to get the backpack,” while I was crawling through. It’s not shocking, but since I was already wet, the flour stuck both to me and the Radio Ruck with no problem.  The other fun obstacle was a web of criss-crossed bungee cords that we had to duck and climb through. The Radio Ruck made things a bit difficult, so after the first couple feet I took it off my back and just threw it the remainder of the distance, then charged through to get it. Naturally it had landed in a deep pocket of mud. Oh well, it’s just a small taste of what the bag would have experienced in Philly…

Over the last kilometer or so, I was just cruising. I passed a few groups of people from the previous wave and by the time I entered the penultimate obstacle, I could hear a live band playing to the crowd and smell the fire pit which I would have to jump over as my final obstacle. I finished in a sprint and felt pretty good about my time. After catching my breath, I headed over to the beer garden for a post-race pint. The Radio Ruck was completely covered in mud and flour, prompting a few people to ask me how the bag had gotten so dirty.

One last word on the bag. At $245, the GORUCK Radio Ruck is not cheap. But it’s made in the USA by American workers and should last a lifetime. And if it doesn’t last a lifetime, GORUCK’s lifetime guarantee means you can get a busted bag fixed by the company.  Compare that to a $100 pack from North Face or some other adventure company that’s made in China and will be blown out in a year of moderate use, and GORUCK strikes me as reasonably priced. When I got home on Saturday, I cleaned the Radio Ruck so I could return as close to the condition I’d received it as possible. I didn’t take the “after” shot, but I was pretty impressed by how well the bag cleaned up after all the mud it had been through. From a quality perspective, this was actually the test that I was most interested in and the Radio Ruck really shined. While I’m not certain that I would take the smaller Radio Ruck over the somewhat larger GR1, I can definitely see myself getting a GORUCK bag in the not too distant future.

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Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Day Pack

I got my Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil Day Pack last year, but have only started using it intensively in the last month of travel. It’s a small Ultra-Silbackpack made of Cordura ripstop fabric and it folds in on itself, down to about the size of a keychain attachment. It can do this because there are absolutely no rigid structures in the pack – just the shape it takes. The should straps are about an inch and a half wide, but attach to adjustable straps that are a little thinner than your standard shoelace. Not surprisingly, the Ultra-Sil is very light, weighing a mere 2.4 ounces.

When I first started using the Ultra-Sil, I wouldn’t do much more than put an extra layer and some headphones or a book in it. I really didn’t try to push its capacity at all. But on my recent trips, I’ve come to realize how much space is in the Ultra-Sil. Unfolded, the sack has a 20L volume. Just last week I used it to carry my 15″ Macbook Pro in a neoprene case, my iPad, and a Tom Bihn Snake Charmer filled with cords & electronic accessories. The Ultra-Sil held this all and had room a set of gym clothes, too.

One of the biggest challenges when traveling ultralight – be it for work or for pleasure – is having an adequate option for exploring within a location. If you want to travel with just one bag, having another bag stored in your main one is oftentimes a necessity. But bags are not small things. The Ultra-Sil allows me to have a functional day pack without giving up any real space in my main bag. Hell, I can carry it in my pocket if I wanted to.

There are some obvious downsides to using the Ultra-Sil as full-time day pack. First, it has no padding and no structure, so you will feel whatever you pack in it. I haven’t felt discomfort yet, but I’ve pretty much just done clothing or a padded laptop sleeve. I can imagine it becoming inconvenient if you were filling the pack with irregular objects. Second, the Ultra-Sil does not have any external or internal pockets. I usually like having a bottle of water with me when I’m out and about, so I do notice the lack of external pockets. I don’t know that I would use the Ultra-Sil on a long hike, but in the context of walking around a foreign city or bringing my laptop from a hotel to a meeting on a work trip, it works pretty well. That it does so without taking up any meaningful volume of space in my suitcase is a huge plus.

The only other drawback is aesthetic. Since the bag is folded up on itself and then stuffed away, when it is first unpacked the Ultra-Sil can look incredibly wrinkled. The wrinkles relax as the bag is filled, but they seem pretty dramatic at first glance. It doesn’t affect the bags efficacy to hold a lot of stuff and it’s temporary, but I thought it worth noting nonetheless.

Two pictures of a fully-loaded Ultra-Sil are below the fold:

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Fjallraven Vintage Backpack 20L

Fjallraven Vintage 20L

I’ve been using the Fjallraven Vintage 20L Backpack for the last six months or so. It’s ranged from being my mainly daily backpack for commuting two and from work – carrying things like my iPad, gym clothes and whatever else I need that time – to a business travel carry on pack with my 17 inch MacBook Pro, iPad, noise canceling headphones, and notebooks. I haven’t done any real hiking or camping with it, though I am considering it as a good longer-term travel pack.

Fjallraven Vintage 20L back

Fjallraven has been making packs in Sweden for fifty years. The Vintage Backpack is very  much in their tradition of simple, durable packs. It really screams “Old School Backpack” – from its color to three compartment design to its leather straps. What makes it really slick, though, is the back of the pack has a raised, mesh Air Vent support system that keeps the bag itself off of your back. I’ve always been annoyed by carrying a full bag on a hot day, pressing against your back and causing a big sweat stain down the center of my back. I’ve never had that problem with this bag because of the Air Vent system. But I should back up first. While I was looking into buying this bag online, I could find almost no pictures of it beyond what it looked like closed and from the front. I was pretty surprised at how modern and technologically advanced that Vintage Backpack was when it arrived in person. The Air Vent system includes metal beams which curve the back of the pack’s main compartment. The upside, as I’ve mentioned, is it keeps your back cooler. The down side is that the main compartment doesn’t have a straight back, but a curved one, which reduces the amount of space in it, as well as makes packing big, rectangular items (like a laptop) a bit trickier.

Fjallraven Vintage 20L front

While we’re on the back side of the pack, the shoulder straps are great and well padded. They can be adjusted through a strap system of metal grommets and buckles. There is also a waste strap and upper chest strap, though I haven’t had the need to use these.

The first thing that stands out with the pack is that soft, supple tan leather straps that close the main and side compartments. The leather is very high quality. The biggest issue with this system of leather straps and metal buckles for closing the bag is that they are much slower to open and close than a zipper. But beyond a little slow to open and close, they work really well.

The two side pockets are actually quite sizable. I usually am able to keep pens, a small notepad, business cards and a handkerchief in one, and a sunglasses case and umbrella in the other, without filling them. The only complaint I have with them is that they are fairly tall and the strap closures don’t cinch down to make the items really tight. The pockets can hold a lot, but for a regular use pack it isn’t ideal to have a quasi-open pocket at all times. Yes, the tops of the side pockets are still good at keeping things dry and in place even while not full, but they don’t help keep things safe and secure. If I were to use this bag on a long trip, I’d probably punch in a couple extra holes in the side straps to make the pockets seal tighter.

Fjallraven Vintage 20L main compartment

The main pouch has a two level cinch system that creates a tighter seal under the top flap. The top flap itself has a zipper pocket which is great for assorted valuables. There’s no way to easily reach into it, so it’s quite secure. I’ve used for keeping USB keys, house keys, and other wires and plugs. The only other feature in the main compartment is a vertical cinch tube on the back left of the compartment. I haven’t used it, but it would be useful for holding tent poles, a fishing poll, or a larger umbrella upright in the pack.

The last great feature is that the bottom of the bag has a tough, rubbery material. This is great for both keeping things dry if you’re setting the bag down on a wet surface and for dealing with the extra wear and tear the bottom of a pack deals with.

I’d really like to try doing a long trip out of this bag. It’s only 20L and is quite simple in its construction. Mostly, it’s just a bag. It’s not technical. It’s not heavily compartmentalized. It is simple. While it lacks some of the modern conveniences of contemporary packs, it’s stylish and comfortable. The only other knock on the bag is that it isn’t cheap. I had to order it online from the UK and it was about $130 with shipping. Despite the cost, it’s been a great bag that I use almost daily.

More pictures below the fold. Continue reading

Review: Cole Haan Air Samuel

I recently purchased a pair of Cole Haan Air Samuel Plain Oxford shoes. I’d heard good things about the use of Nike Air cushioning in a formal dress shoe. My biggest problem with dress shoes has been that the soles just aren’t forgiving for extended wear.

 

Cole Haan heels

Cole Haan, falling apart after 1 day

It turns out that these are probably the worst made shoe I’ve ever bought. Within about 10 minutes of walking, I realized there was something bunching up in the toes of each shoe, making it really uncomfortable to walk. I assumed it was my socks and when I had a chance, I checked to see how I’d twisted my toes up.  It turns out neither shoe’s insole was glued in. They were just floating around. Additionally, while the heel of the insole was about normal insole thickness, the insoles taper in thickness towards the toes, which are only slightly thicker than a handkerchief. While I only wore these shoes for one day (and am trying to get Zappos.com to take them back, despite being worn), I would have to imagine that the thinness of the insole in the toes could become uncomfortable over time.

Unfortunately the poor quality did not stop at the insole. At the end of one day of wearing them and a grand total of about 15 city blocks walked — with the rest of my day spent walking indoors on carpet and tile — the heel and toe of the soles looked like they were a year old. Whereas some shoes have wood or hardened leather for soles, Zappos described these as having a combination leather and rubber sole. If this stuff is leather, it’s the lowest quality and softest shoe sole leather I’ve ever seen. After one very easy day of use, these are look akin to spray painted hard cardboard. They have no durability and the severity of wear from one low-key day was truly appalling.

Cole Haan full

After 1 day of use, heels look a year old

 

Beyond the lack of quality and durability, these shoes actually were fairly comfortable. It’s pretty disappointing that they are so poorly made. There’s no use making a comfortable shoe that promptly falls apart.

These shoes cost $158 on Zappos.com. That’s not cheap and I expected something orders of magnitude better than what I got. I’d say the shoes I got are probably worth about $30 at a discount shoe store.

I’ll update this when I know if Zappos is going to refund me for my order or not. Their policy is no returns if something has been worn, but since this is such an obviously defective pair of shoes, I expect them to take the shoes back for a refund.

Update:

Zappos has accepted my return and fully refunded me for this purchase.