less is more, and more is lazy (timbuk2 especial tres v. goruck gr1)

"Less is more, and more is lazy" is basically a motto of goruck/Jason McCarthy, the founder of goruck. Another potential title for this post is "42 vs 72", but we'll get to that at the end.


I recently received a goruck GR1 and my plan is to return my Timbuk2 Especial Tres. The purpose of this post is not so much a review of either, but a comparison of a pair of top-end backpacks, and some observations about "quality".

As a confirmed bag fanatic, I've been on the hunt for the perfect bag for a long time. When I got the Especial Tres, I was convinced that I was finally done. Sadly, not true. Hopefully, now with the GR1, perhaps I'll be able to settle down, at least for a while.

The Especial Tres is an excellent bag. Really. An awesome bag in a lot of ways. It basically checked all my requirements boxes:

  • Good for bicycling
  • Usable for single-bag travel
  • Rain proof
  • Super durable

Basically, I was looking for a single bag that I could use in all conditions and meet all my needs.

What went wrong? The biggest problem is that it's just a little too big to use every day. I also have some niggles that I'll cover later, but the deal killer was that it's too big, so it ended up sitting in the closet. I bought a timbuk2 messenger for everyday carry, and that is an totally excellent bag as well. There are issues there, too, but let's focus on the backpacks for now.

So I found that my dream bag was not working out, and that I was using a different (totally excellent) bag instead, and so the quest resumed. I had been curious about the GR1 before but had ruled it out because it's ridiculously expensive. But I became obsessed. Then I realized that if I return the especial tres, and the messenger (thank you REI for the insane return policy) then I could have a GR1.


At this point, my general summary is

  • the especial tres is a totally excellent bag, perfectly executed, but with an overly complicated design
  • the goruck G1 is a near perfect design with competent execution

Timbuk2 has been making bags for many years. They know what they're doing. They know exactly what is possible and how to get it done right. It's clear that when it came to the especial the approach was "no holding back." They put in everything to make a totally awesome backpack. The fact that it's too big is not their fault, that's my fault. There are smaller bags in the especial line that I could have chosen, but there are other issues that pushed me towards the GR1. But back to execution: there are no flaws in the implementation of the design. Everything is clearly exactly where it should be, and there are no mistakes.

goruck is a new company. Their bag is a lot simpler, and I think it actually makes the bag better. There are issues, and things I would like to see changed (details below) but at this point, given a choice between the especial tres (inferior design, better execution) and the goruck GR1 (better design, inferior execution) the GR1 clearly wins.

I've bought many things highly touted as "made in the USA." Obviously the sales pitch is that "made in the USA" implies better quality than you can get anywhere else. The sad reality, today, is that "made in the USA" does not always mean better quality. In fact, most of the "made in USA" items I've purchased are clearly higher price and lower quality than comparable items from overseas.

I'm not anti-American, by any means. Why do you think I buy more expensive stuff with "made in the USA"? It's just really disappointing to find that this stuff actually does compare poorly to imported goods.

When you put the Timbuk2 bag next to the goruck and look at the details, you can see that the Timbuk2 is perfect. There is not a stitch out of place. There are no errors. The goruck is clearly amazingly designed, but, compared to Timbuk2, you can see that things are not exactly perfect. There are nice touches on the Timbuk2 that goruck does not have, but could.

Which bag is better? The GR1, I think. Which one will last longer? The GR1 for sure. What's wrong with the Timbuk2? Overly complicated design which compromises functionality.


Here they are, side by side. Especial Tres on the left, GR1 on the right. They appear to be roughly the same size, but wearing them, the Tres really feels bigger/longer. The GR1 sits higher on my back.

I got the GR1 kit, which included this carabiner.

With the carabiner installed in the molle webbing this way, it's easy to hook something onto it.

I'm not a super patriot, but I do ride a bicycle a lot. I added in the reflective reverse flag for my patch. This is a good example of how goruck sometimes fails to be perfect. You can see here that the lines are not straight on the patch. It's totally functional, and not exactly broken, but it's clearly less than perfect.

Here's the zipper for the front pocket on the GR1. It has a nice overflap to keep rain off the zipper, and goruck's easy to grab and use zipper pull. Check out the next photo from the timbuk2 to see their rubberized zippers. They went a step further to help protect from rain/water. From what I've read online, everybody says that being out in the rain with a GR1 is no problem, but you can see how timbuk2 has just gotten one thing better here.

A very well done rain-proof zipper on the front of the especial tres. You can also see here that timbuk2 has used ripstop cordura, which is a tad lighter than the cordura that goruck uses. goruck's cordura definitely gives the impression of being stronger.

Open the front flap of the especial tres to find some organization stuff. The light blue material is a less weighty nylon material. The nice thing here is that it's not a black hole. You can see what's going on because the material is not all black. This pocket is pretty convenient, but from experience I know the velcro is going to become less and less sticky. Eventually, the flap will be barely held closed at all because the velcro will be dead. I prefer the all zippers all the time strategy of goruck.

This is the entry into the pocket that is in front of the organization pocket on the tres. This is more akin to the slash pocket on the front of the GR1. But you can see that timbuk2 uses the lighter material both to save some weight and to enhance visibility.

This is a nice feature of the tres: detachable waist strap. I think this is actually a valid use of velcro, because your not constantly opening and closing it. The velcro will last here, unlike on the front org pocket.

Here's the waist strap attached.

The belt and the buckle on the waist strap are suitably beefy.

Another view into the org pocket. The velcro makes this quick to get into, but I don't like it because I know it's going to get loose.

You can see here the kind of complexity that timbuk2 can pull off. There's TPU, cordura, rain proof zipper, elastic side pockets, a strap for lights and reflective corners all coming together without anything going wrong. There's a lot of style here, a goodly amount of functionality, but it's not as elegant as GR1. It's much more of a "check out what I can do!"

Elastic side pocket on the especial tres.

Here's the bottom of the two packs. You can see that the timbuk2 is bigger on the bottom. Also, the weird shape is kind of weird. There is a reason it's shaped like this: this way the reflective corners are visible both from behind and from the side. This maximizes exposure of those reflective bits. The downside is that it makes the interior of the bag odd shaped. I might also mention that this fat bottom on the tres makes it stand up pretty well. The GR1 is not really made to stand up by itself.

The back of the especial tres is meant to accomplish a couple things: provide some space for your spine, and help reduce back sweat by providing more airflow. I can attest that it's pretty comfortable. I rode from San Francisco to Santa Cruz with this on my back and did not have any problem. It was lightly loaded, and I did sweat a lot. I expect that if I do any extended riding with the GR1 I'm going to need to remove the laptop from the back pocket so that it can curve more. I also expect that I'll have a much sweatier back than with the tres.

The both have the same sort of attachment strategy for the shoulder straps of using an intermediary webbing strap to provide flexibility. The timbuk2 has some attachment support on the straps, but not nearly as useful as the molle webbing on the GR1 straps.

More detail on the back of the especial tres.

The tres has a nifty small pocket up against your back. Again the rain proof zipper. Pocket could be used for wallet, cell phone, but not much.

Here's the sternum strap on the tres. Nice buckle, and easy to put on or take off because of the snaps.

Heres the snaps on the sternum strap. Works good.

Bottle opener on the timbuk2. Even if I kept this bag, I don't expect I would ever use this.

Here's another nice touch of the tres: a built in strap retainer. You can't see in this shot, but this can be easily detached from the second strap via a gap in the plastic. In order to get strap retention on a GR1 you have to buy an extra doodad.

One of the side pockets on the tres has this extra strap with velcro. I think this is supposed to be for your bicycle U lock, but I never quite figured out how it's supposed to work. Well, I mean it's obvious that you put the U lock behind the strap and into the side pocket, but why the extra velcro?

The tres is a rolltop bag with straps and with velcro. Here again you can see styling over functionality. Do we really need TPU here in addition to the cordura?

The grab strap on the timbuk2 is not bad. Almost OK, even. The grab strap on the GR1 is just excellent.

Yup, GR1 definitely better on this one.

The especial tres has nifty little velcro ears on the strap ends so you can roll up the end and minimize dangle. This is a nice feature.

Here's the strap anti-dangle thingie. Nice. But the thing is, do you really need so many straps on the outside of your bag? There are four straps with this on the tres. These straps just do not exist on the GR1, so no risk of dangle.

More velcro that will become nearly useless over time.

More velcro to die.

Opening up the top of the tres.

Here is one of the practical problems with this design: the pit of despair. It's a long way to the bottom. I thought this would be awesome, having the ability to expand the capacity of the bag, but in daily use, it's more of just making it harder to find things down there.

There is a side zip on one side of the bag to get into the main compartment without having to dive in through the top. Theoretically this solves the problem, but I never actually used it.

Here's another example of timbuk2 doing stuff really well. A zipper garage for the side zip. Of course on the GR1, there are only two external zippers and they're both covered end to end, so no need for a garage.

timbuk2 zipper garage.

The tres has a couple expansion zippers on the sides as well. As if it weren't quite big enough yet. There are also a couple compressions straps. You'd think these would be a good thing, but because of the position, they're pretty useless. I would have preferred to have compression nearer the bottom of the bag in order try and keep stuff more evenly spread. These basically only serve to compress the empty space at the top of the bag because everything went to the bottom.

Expansion zipper and compression straps, especial tres.

Expansion zip on the other side.

There are a couple of elastic straps on the should straps of the tres. These would be perfect for a bladder hose. The problem is that because it's a rolltop, there is no way to use a water bladder. I don't understand why these are here.

Here's some molle on the side of the GR1. The extra strap came with the kit. I put it on here as a possible attachment point for some kind of waist belt. Those little buggers are hard to get on there, BTW.

There's the carabiner again. Plenty of ways to attach reflective straps, blinky lights, or accessory pockets. I might even say that another row of molle would be a good thing. Actually, what I would like to see is more side molle, but up higher. It could be used either for compression or for attaching secondary items, like a sleeping bag.

The front slash pocket. To me, this pocket really demonstrates goruck's attention to design. On most packs this pocket would just be the space between a couple layers of fabric, with a zipper on the top. You can sort of see from this photo that this is not just the space between two pieces, but there is a extra layer of cordura in there, whose only purpose is to create this pocket. If you stick your hand down in there, you'll find the bottom of the pocket to be a fold in the pocket fabric, not just a stitched bottom. A lot of folks complain about there not being enough capacity in this pocket. To me it's clearly a "flat things" pocket. I like this pocket. To make it even better, I could see this being lined with TPU, ala a messenger bag, rather than with cordura. At the least it should be lined with a lighter color, not black.

Heres I'm indicating where the bottom of the slash pocket is. It does not go all the way to the floor of the bag. This is a good thing.

goruck likes patches on everything. :) I feel this is an appropriate use of velcro. It's not open, close, open, close all day. Patches change in frequently and there's not so much risk of the velcro dying here.

The padded laptop compartment. Here again I want to point out that the inside of this pocket got an extra layer of cordura. It's not just the back of the other compartment. You can see the stitching in here from the molle webbing on the other side, but there's more than just a single piece of fabric in there.

Here's the suspender for the water bladder in the laptop/hydration compartment. I have a field pocket on the other side, and I figured that if I do actually use the hydration bladder, I'll be putting it in this side.

The goruck solution to dangling is a separate product. It works fine, and can be moved/repurposed, but I suspect this is a case where timbuk2 did the right thing.

Here's the attachment point for the sternum strap. I've seen pix of this done incorrectly. This is the correct way to mount this.

Here's one of those web dominator things, incorrectly mounted.

I was really disappointed with the sternum strap included with the goruck GR1 kit, so I'm playing around with mounting straps I found in my bag bag.

The included sternum strap was just not satisfactory. The spring action of the clip was way too soft. It felt too squishy to me. I'm pretty sure that it would function just as well, and if I ever had a problem, I could get it covered by goruck if it failed, but I don't want to be feeling this squishy thing all the time. The strap itself is pretty tough, almost too tough even. It's a bit of a mismatch.

Here's a shot of some of the heavy duty stitching on the GR1. This thing is solid. In general the timbuk2 gives the impression of better-than-most build quality, the same as all timbuk2 products I've dealt with. The GR1 gives the impression of overt-the-top toughness.

Heavy duty. That is not coming apart.

Here's an example of where the "simple" GR1 design wins over the tres. The zipper goes all the way around. You can open the top, or a side, or the other side, or all the way open and flat. The rolltop design of the tres has benefits (rain proof, expandability) but ends up creating more day-to-day inconvenience that I'm really happy with.

Here's getting into the bottom of the bag without having to dive from the top.

Here's getting into the other side. 

Here's opening just the top to get to the internal pocket.

Open the top a little bit more and you can get to the second internal built-in pocket. For myself, I didn't think that the 3 built in pockets would provide enough organization, so I also purchased the GR1 Field Pocket, which I've mounted on the internal molle.

Opening the field pocket from the top, I can get to three additional pockets (two zippered and one with elastic top). If I start with everything closed, it can take three unzips to get to what I want (open the GR1, open the field pocket, open the final pocket), but I know where it is. One big advantage of this system is that almost all my little bits are at the top of the bag. There is no digging to find stuff because everything is within 6 inches of the top of the bag.

Here's the bag opened all the way. Some reviewers have complained that they have to lay the bag down and open it in order to get stuff. I don't buy it. From my experience, the only time i open it like this is if I'm doing a full bag emptying or packing. In use I'm mostly just opening the top. Sometime I'll open the side to get something from the bottom (like my glasses case). Basically I don't often use this "feature" but when you want it all the way open, it totally works.

Here's the two internal pockets built into the GR1. The netting pocket there is parallel to the slash pocket on the outside, but can more easily hold bulky stuff. I only put flat things into the front slash pocket. Obviously here you can see whats in the big internal pocket. The standard is to use it for cables and misc junk that you don't want getting tangled or lost in the main compartment. The top internal pocket (on the left in this photo) is the "go to" pocket for you're frequently accessed small things. For myself I keep most of my small things in the field pocket rather than in this pocket. I have my pepper grinder and flash light in it, currently.

Here's the field pocket mounted inside. I mounted it to the side so that I'd have more room on the side. The other option is to mount it in the middle, and have a bit of space on either side. I have not opted to attach a patch here.

Here's the field pocket fully open. I don't usually open it like this. I've only done it here for the photo. The middle space is usable and another "pocket" if you remember not to open it all the way. I keep my camera right there. (Currently in my hand in this photo.) I stuck a couple mini-carabiners in the two molle spaces to the right of the field pocket.

This field pocket is another example of the "more is less and less is lazy" philosophy. With this field pocket there is lots of organization options, but nobody is telling me "your pens go here. your phone goes here." How I want to organize is up to me. I even have the option to not attach this pocket, so I could use it to store stuff that I'd take with me and leave the backpack behind.

Internally mounted carabiners with some junk that I don't want to bother keeping on my keychain in my pants pocket.

I ordered the kit which came with hydration bladder and suspender. By skipping a single loop in the field pocket mounting I was able to also mount the suspender. I haven't used it yet, but I expect that I'll put the bladder in the pocket next to my back.

Build/design quality shows here. The bottom has extra layers. Every possibly exposed bit that might fray is taped. There are no loose ends anywhere.

Here's a place where I think goruck could have gone one more step. Everywhere else in the bag, there are multiple layers. On the sides and top (in contrast to the front and back and a lot of the pockets) there is just a single layer of cordura. What I'd love to see on the sides and top is TPU, or maybe even just a layer of thinner nylon fabric. In either case, having something non-black would be good.

Here you can see light through the single layer of cordura on the side and top. I haven't tested it, but This is where I fear rain will get thru.

Very well done zipper attachment and edge cover.

No loose ends. Well done.

Good and bad here. The pockets are built rather than just being places where gaps happen to exist. But then the side is just a single layer or cordura.

Here's the inside of the top internal pocket of the GR1. It's built with it's own layer of cordura, rather than just being the back of the outside of the bag. It's good. It could be better if they used a non-black so that there was more visibility in here.

This is inside the hydration/lap top pocket on the back. Again, they added layers here, which is good. There's also a bit of padding between this compartment and the main compartment of the bag. This protects the laptop from stuff in the main compartment. I never liked using a laptop sleeve, so I really like the way this is done. One of the problems I had with my timbuk2 messenger was that there was no padding anywhere to protect my laptop, which now has several dents in the back.

I don't know what this diagonal strap is for. It looks good to me. I assume there was some structural issue that this addresses, but I don't know what.

Here's a spot where the lack of experience of goruck shows compared to timbuk2. It's not as obvious in the photo as in person, but the left corner and right corner don't exactly match. The folds are not quite right. Also, towards the left you can see a couple wrinkles. That's where the seamster is fighting to get everything together properly, and almost making it. My take on this is that goruck is attempting to make a bag that is on the edge of their abilities. Timbuk2 has the experience to not attempt to do something so difficult. (There is a lot of very heavy material in this area.)

Is this a problem? No. Really, it has absolutely no affect on the usability or durability of the bag. It's just that you can see that it's not quite perfect. I expect something like this would have been failed by Q/A at timbuk2. But when you're paying American wages, and you're dealing with so much smaller volumes, it costs too much to reject something like this. I expect that as goruck gains experience, issues like this will go away. Hopefully they can maintain their "made in the USA" without having to raise prices while they improve. We'll see. I really hope they can do it. I want my forever warrantee to actually be worth something.

Time for the "how many beers" test. Three cans fit into the GR1 field pocket

Here's the bag fully packed. I might have been able to squeeze another one in. I don't know if maybe there was a more efficient layout.

I got 42 cans in there. Like I say, maybe it's possible to get one or two more in there. When I did this with the especial tres, I got a max of 72 cans in. That was with all the expansion options engaged, and I had run out of cans. The especial tres held 56 cans in "standard" mode. Clearly the tres wins the "how many beers" test, but that may not even be a good thing. Anyway, if want you want is capacity, get a GR2, not a GR1.


One of the biggest issues that drove me to the tres in the first place was the desire to have a rain proof bag. I have not yet tested the GR1 in the rain (or facsimile) but from what I've read, it does fine. The GR1 was designed for goruck events, which include full immersion. I doubt that even the tres would keep all water out during that. goruck's real answer to the problem of keeping stuff dry is to use a dry bag or pelican case inside your GR1. That is, they recognized that they could not do a 100% solution to water in their scenarios, so they do not compromise the fundamental design. I'm planning to get a rain cover for my GR1.

Another issue is that I wanted a "do everything" bag, and got something that was a little too big for every day. So I got another bag, which was awesome, but not quite enough for every day. (It was awesome for 80% of the days.)

I could totally accept that for some people, the especial tres would be the better choice. With a slightly different set of needs (like actually spending more time in the rain than I do) and expectations, the tres would win over the GR1. Also, considering the level of detail and complexity, it would be easy to see the tres costing more than the GR1. I suspect that if the tres were built in the USA, it would cost more than the GR1, and be unsellable at that price.

For me, the goruck GR1 is the winner. The especial tres is an amazingly put together, top quality bag, with a lot of capacity. The goruck suffers from imperfect execution and some places where things could be improved. But the GR1 design is fundamentally more useful, more flexible, and definitely feels like it's going to hold together longer. I think it boils down to "less is more and more is lazy" wins over "we have the experience to solve any problem". The especial tres is an impressive collection of well executed solutions to problems that the GR1 either doesn't have, or chooses to ignore for the sake of usability, or leaves open for the owner to solve. I do think that goruck could learn some things from timbuk2, but I'm glad that they took a fresh, raw approach.

One weird thing is that the GR1 wants to be abused. I want to see how much it can take. I'd like to throw it in the ocean, fill it with sand and drag it in the mud. Somehow that doesn't sound like as much fun with the especial tres.

Can't get the photos to link properly, so here's the whole flickr set: