Mystery Ranch Backpacks: From Special Ops to Backcountry Skiing (Ep.97)


  • Starting on the production floor (2:00)
  • Durability & designing for the military (5:55)
  • Resisting lightweight pack design (8:52)
  • Durability & Weight: what’s the future look like? (10:20)
  • “Supportive” vs. “Light” (11:50)
  • Why designing for hunters is so difficult (13:45)
  • Working with Special Ops (14:40)
  • Urban Assault Daypacks (24:12)
  • Saddle Peak Pack for resort skiing (29:25)
  • Durability & Sustainability (40:22)

Mystery Ranch has a long history of working with and making packs for the US military, fire departments, and law enforcement. They also make everything from backpacks for everyday use, to packs for backcountry skiing, and the company has quite a unique culture. So I sat down with product designer, Alex Rich, to discuss what it’s like to design packs for US special forces; how their military designs trickle down to outdoor packs (and vice versa); how their design ethos reflects their sustainability culture; and more.

Alex Rich joins Sam Shaheen on Gear:30 podcast to talk about Mystery Ranch Packs
The sewing floor. (photo by David Biesel)
Alex Rich joins Sam Shaheen on Gear:30 podcast to talk about Mystery Ranch Packs
Photo by Ben Herndon.

10 comments on “Mystery Ranch Backpacks: From Special Ops to Backcountry Skiing (Ep.97)”

  1. I glanced at Mystery Ranch’s site tonight after seeing this, and was surprised to see a product names previously associated with Dana Designs. I had no idea that Mystery Ranch was Dana Gleason’s new company.

    As someone whose first “serious” pack was an OG Terraplane, and who ski-toured with a Bomb Pack (both bought before the K2 sale), I’m glad to see that design DNA has carried on. They always made amazing stuff.

  2. Great interview! Having served in USAF Pararescue, we collaborated directly with Dana on military-specific uses. They were great exchanges of creativity and problem solving. No problem was too small to address. I continue to cherish a half dozen bomber MR packs that I was issued.
    Of particular interest in this interview is the translation of highly specific functional design to broader spectrum use. Without a doubt, MR is a brand to look to regardless of your mission intentions. Fantastic Montana product!

    • Dana Designs made very well-respected packs for broader use (expeditions, backpacking, skiing, mountaineering, etc). He (and they) already knew how to serve those markets. I wonder if MR may have initially been restricted to “niche” markets by whatever agreement he made with K2 as part of the sale?

  3. Damn you Covid. Another interesting piece I’m gonna miss because driving time has been reduced and thus podcast time.

  4. Definitely need Mystery Ranch to get in the airbag pack game!
    The airbags are getting better, but the packs can use a lot of improvement!

    • Airbag packs are mostly about the airbag system, and MR does not have the existing engineering team to design and manufacture a competitive airbag system. It is no surprise that airbags are made by large companies that make not only fabric goods, but also metal hardware and electronics. The only way MR will make an airbag would be to license an existing system from BCA, ABS, Black Diamond or Scott, which would constrain the design a lot and add to the already substantial cost. And I don’t see the airbag pack market being deep enough to recoup the development costs. But I am ready to be convinced.

      • Scott and Black Diamond both license the Alpride E1 system for some of their packs, which has a pretty straightforward interface to the pack. IIRC at least one of the gas systems is also licensed to other packmakers, though I don’t remember the details.

        There really wouldn’t be much of a technical barrier to somebody like MR getting into that market. I suspect the bigger issue would be name recognition in the avalanche safety market.

      • I…I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Mystery Ranch made an airbag pack. The Blackjack around 2011. The ski patrol I worked on in Colorado bought like 20 of them for anyone working avalanche safety. They were considerably heavier than other options and a pain to refill but built like tanks and I carried 50 lbs of explosives in it plus safety gear with no problem. I stopped patroling in 2015 but bought one (for like 1k) and I’m looking at one on my wall right now as I’m trying to make an inventory of expensive items for my home insurance and went down a rabbit hole looking for why they stopped making them. Me being on this page tells you how well that’s going. I’m assuming something with legislation around airbags or just deciding it wasn’t worth competing with less expensive options with wider appeal.

  5. Sam- I’m disappointed in this and a lot of your other interviews. You bring in industry people and allow them to rant in deep baritone for an hour trying to say as little as possible. MYSTERY RANCH podcast didn’t address a lot of the interesting questions, for example why they stopped using Cobra buckles on their high end packs, what was the story with the Stick-it pockets, which was a high demand simple accessory that MR refused to produce causing prices on eBay to spike to $300. Thats a pretty arrogant treatment of their customers. I hoped that you could have pressed them about why they could not use modern lighter fabrics that are just as bomber and more waterproof as their Cordura (Arc’teryx packs come to mind), etc. Im not a MR hater by any means, I own an old SweetPea, which has been around the world, down the mountains, etc. with me, and a newer 3DAP, but now I use them mostly for travel ( Y zipper is genius when you are trying to fit in large pieces, like ski boots, boxes, frames, whatever, and I like how they stow the hipbelt) . Arc’teryx packs get my outdoors use now.

    On another note: please spare us your and Luke’s TV criticism. People who listen to your podcast are people who either like gear or are preparing to spend some serious money on gear. If you guys have nothing else to talk about for 20 minutes, make a shorter podcast. Thanks!

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