$100 vs. $500 Backpacks

Published 2021-07-06

By: Hope Gately

Stay tuned until the end of the article for an accompanying video from our friends at BackpackingTV.

In for the Long Haul: Make the Commitment

All adventurers start somewhere. For me, backpacking started over ten years ago in Rocky Mountain National Park of Colorado with an off-brand pack that cost $95.99 and had one harnessed shoulder strap similar to a work messenger bag. A very unfortunate choice on my part. Needless to say, after one day, my chest and shoulders were bruised, and I was ready to throw the pack in a river. After three days, one of the zipper tracks had frayed and I had ripped a hole in the bottom scrambling over a scree field.

Following this hard lesson, I was ready to commit not only to avid backpacking but also to top-of-the-line gear. Enter MYSTERY RANCH.


After backpacking in Colorado, Montana, Appalachia, and Oregon, there is one thing I know to be true: The key difference between the $100 range backpack and the $300-$500 range is durability. For the casual semi-dayhiker, a cheaper pack might cut it, but if your plans include creek crossings, scree scrambles, or all-day pursuits, you’re going to want to invest in gear that won’t fail.

Take my women’s specific Glacier by MYSTERY RANCH, for example. Over the course of three years, I’ve carried it through hundreds of miles of trail, drugged it across logs, rocks and even submerged it in snowmelt river water. And it has not even begun to show signs of wear, whereas my $99.95 bag would be nothing more than shards of unusable fabric waste by now.

The two features that have kept my bag in top shape are the 500 denier Lite Plus CORDURA® fabric, an ATY nylon fabric that’s pretty bombproof against any abuse from the elements. Additionally, the Glacier’s YKK® zippers with fully taped seams don’t snag or fray, which is a common source of failure for other bags (even higher-end bags).

A Perfect Frame and Fit

Avid backpackers know the importance of a load-bearing frame and a customized fit. Low-end off-brand backpacking packs rarely offer adjustable yokes or robust frames. Think of it like this; if you have plans to carry 30-40 lbs over rugged terrain, you’re either going to invest in a pack that carries the weight, or you’ll be giving your money to a chiropractor.

At $400, the Terraplane offers the Astral Frame, which is designed to support large loads and transfer weight to the hip and belt region. You’ve probably heard the phrase “lift with your legs,” and that’s precisely what the Astral Frame allows you to do; it keeps the weight off your upper and lower back and onto your legs. In addition, the Terraplane’s Futura Yoke is adjustable. Everyone has slightly different torsos, and a one-size-fits-all backpack is a great way to get back problems. The Futura Yoke allows you to customize your fit to your body, keeping the Terraplane and its load off of your back.

Exterior Pockets, Bladder Compatible, Convenient Zippers, and other Bells & Whistles

When I first got into backpacking, I wanted to go cheap and thought that features like exterior pockets, tool carry attachments, hydration reservoirs, and side zips were unnecessary. Now, I won’t live without these accouterments. Both the MYSTERY RANCH Terraplane and Glacier offer attachments for ice axes and trekking poles, are hydration reservoir compatible, and offer not only side zip access (so you don’t have to dig top to bottom) but also a Speedzip™ compartment allowing for easy access to your sleeping bag, which is generally carried at the base of the pack. Finally, both the Terraplane and Glacier offer a detachable day pack which means you can backpack in and then convert it into a smaller daypack for peak bagging and exploration. You can also simply remove the top section and utilize the larger body of the pack.

A Company that Walks the Walk

More and more, consumers want to know they are investing their hard-earned money in gear that gives back. As a consummate outdoorswoman, I refuse to invest in off-brand companies that make disposable gear meant to end up in a landfill. Environmental impact and a company’s commitment to conservation are deeply rooted values that stay at the forefront of my mind when I’m researching my next pack. That said, MYSTERY RANCH doesn’t just make gear but they also support causes and adventurers who endeavor to protect our public lands for decades to come. With their Outdoor Industry Climate Action Corps, non-profit support, and their Ambassador program, you can feel good about your MR investment.

The Investment Goes Both Ways

Plenty of off-brand companies are happy to sell you their gear for cheap with no customer support afterward. That’s not how MYSTERY RANCH rolls. For example, after traipsing all over the wilderness near the Continental Divide in Colorado, I lost one of my adjustable chest straps (technical name). Once I returned to civilization, I emailed MR, and they promptly sent me a replacement free of charge. MYSTERY RANCH also offers their Guarantee Warranty which allows customers to send in their packs for any warranty-related issues. When you invest in their gear, MYSTERY RANCH is committed to investing in you and your adventures. Bottom line.

What Dana Gleason, Product Designer at MYSTERY RANCH, has to Say:

I could sing the praises of MYSTERY RANCH’s quality packs all day but let’s hear from Dana Gleason, MYSTERY RANCH Product Designer, for a more well-rounded view of these elite packs.

How do you utilize your Glacier/Terraplane packs?

I use these packs for multi-day trips, 3-5 days in the backcountry, where I’m typically bringing fun-loving extras, not going lightweight. The Glacier and Terraplane can accommodate camp chairs and all other accouterments of the glamping lifestyle because of their carrying capabilities and the storage options are endless.

What do you feel are the main technical components of the two bags?

The most amazing components are the lumbar and framing system.

The lumbar system is designed to lock onto your hips by pulling the waist straps which are composed of plastics and foams that interact with your body. These systems were developed over 25 years of testing and feedback. We refined the design continuously and, over the years, we worked out the kinks and pitfalls. Now, the lumbar and framing system in our Glacier and Terraplane is the same system we use for our hunting packs that can hold 150 pounds.

What is the main technical component of a backpacking pack that most likely cannot be found in a low-end, off-brand model?

A cheaper bag is going to copy the technology out there but with cheaper materials. For example, an off-brand pack will use the cheapest aluminum stays and make them thick but, MYSTERY RANCH packs utilize carbon stays and materials that are far more durable.

What are your favorite features of the Glacier or Terraplane?

I love the sleeping bag compartment that we call a Speed Zip. It’s designed to be no hassle. Many off-brand packs utilize zipping systems that are not smooth when something bulkier, like a sleeping bag, is in it (the whole push, push, zip, zip situation). On a lesser pack, the zippers are going to fray or bust from pressure. Our packs are designed to take the tension and strain off the zipper, and it goes zip, and it’s done.

Can you tell us a little bit about the customer service MYSTERY RANCH provides and the values MR embodies?

A couple of points on this are continuously repeated and discussed at THE RANCH: It doesn’t matter how good a warranty is, and we have an excellent warranty when you’re 10 miles in the wilderness. The fact of the matter is that we design our packs to be so fail-proof that our warranty is almost obsolete. Our packs simply do not fail. We build packs for people who really want or need to use and abuse them. Our customers are super demanding on their bags. That said, if our customers send their bags in for repair, we’re here for them. We’ll get their pack fixed so they can get back to their adventures or jobs.

My father really nails this with his salty, real-world language. When I ask him why we have to go through such lengths to make sure our packs are the best out there, he’ll say, “Because it f****** matters and the “why”.”

The critical thing about MYSTERY RANCH packs is they are a tool, a vehicle, to get you out there. You should be able to ignore the pack because it just gets the job done.