The Highs: Thoughtful features, lightweight, versatile carrying options

The Lows: Inadequate zipper pulls, capacity on the smallish side, a few features lack “robustness”

The Verdict: A capable bag that needs a shot of testosterone

dsc_0261Thinking about the Patagonia MLC® (Maximum Legal Carry-on) reminds me of an experience I imagine many of us had when we were adolescents.  You finally manage to get a date with that really hot girl at school – you know the type:  pretty, great features, terrific “build quality” – only to discover she can’t carry on a conversation…  or has bad breath.

I like this bag.  It’s good looking, the materials are first rate, and it represents a good compromise between functionality and convenience.  Loaded with features, it has enough capacity for 3 day business trips – some users have used it for longer trips with success – and offers maximum versatility in terms of how you can carry it.

But like my dream date, the MLC has a few serious shortcomings.  One of them turned me off immediately because it was one of the first things I touched/tried on the bag.

In that specific case the good news is that it’s easily remedied.  The folks at Patagonia may run screaming through the halls of Patagonia Global Headquarters when they see how I fixed this issue on the sample they sent me, but that’s another story.

NOTE:  The MLC was redesigned in 2009. To see a review of the updated version, click here:  Patagonia MLC Redesign (2009)

A few of the other issues I encountered can’t be fixed quite so easily…

First:  a few basics

The MLC is a soft sided suitcase/bag targeted at the “one bag” traveler who wants to carry his/her luggage on board aircraft. Consistent with Patagonia’s green philosophy, the bag’s primary surfaces are made with 1200 denier recycled polyester (internal walls are 200 denier polyester.)  The bag can be carried with a shoulder strap, conventional briefcase-style carry handles, or with backpack straps.  And as the name suggests, the its size complies with the carry-on size restrictions of all major airlines.

Basic specifications:

  • 21½” x 14½” x 8″  (per the Patagonia website – keep reading for a reality check)
  • Weight: 2 lbs. 15 oz.
  • One main compartment and one secondary compartment
  • Main compartment features a “floating” zippered mesh divider to keep laundry or shoes separate from clothing
  • Small zippered compartment near the front top of the bag – perfect for TSA 3/1/1 liquid ziploc and/or boarding passes
  • One front pocket with an elliptical opening – contains 2 zippered pockets (one is mesh,) a cell phone pocket with hook and loop closure, a couple of pen slots, a passport-sized pocket on the back of the flap with hook and loop closure, and a removable key clip
  • The back of the bag features a padded compartment which houses curved backpack straps
  • All zippers are YKK Vislon® types; other than the zipper on the eliptical opening, the zippers are waterproof types

A photo tour

A quick shot of the front of the bag. The short zipper on the top provides entry to a pocket that measures ~9″ wide by ~6″ deep – perfect for your 1 quart liquids bag; also a natural for boarding passes and the like:

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All the zippers are YKK waterproof types except that on the elliptical opening; the zipper on the main compartment is heavier duty than the others – it looks to be a #5 YKK, but Patagonia doesn’t specify. One complaint from some users is that the “briefcase”-type handles (at top of photo) are a bit flimsy looking and feeling; I agree. The handles on the $79 Rick Steves Classic are far more comfortable than those on the $175 MLC.   One thing I would call your attention to is the size of the cord/plastic pulls added to the zipper pulls; click on this image for a larger, close-up view – you’ll be able to see the waterproof cover on the middle zipper (note that you can’t see the zipper’s teeth) –

Patagonia MLC zipper detail

A requirement for any bag like this is that if fold completely flat for easy packing, and that’s the case with the MLC’s main compartment – its zipper covers 3 full sides of the bag.  In this photo I’ve bundle packed 3 dress shirts and a pair of chinos; they fit easily:

Patagonia MLC bag - folded flat

Here’s the bag with the above contents before being zipped shut; it could easily accommodate a couple of additional shirts or perhaps a sports jacket.  Also, in this photo you can easily see what I’m describing as the bag’s secondary compartment; its zipper runs across the top of the bag in front of the main compartment, and extends about 5 inches down each side.  This pocket is perfect for underwear, tee shirts or perhaps a netbook or laptop; the pocket is about 2″ deep (i.e., front to back.)  Also worth noting is that the bottoms of ALL of the pockets are not padded, as is the custom with this type of bag.  If in a state of fatigue or carelessness you drop your laptop-carrying bag on the airport floor, you and your laptop are in for a nasty shock…

Patagonia MLC being packed

The main compartment again, revealing the “floating divider.” That divider panel is secured with compression straps, allowing you to adjust its position to accommodate the size & shape of whatever you’re segregating from your clean clothing – running shoes, dress shoes, clothing to be laundered, etc.  The divider features a zippered mesh pocket; the back of that pocket is a solid panel:

Patagonia MLC with floating divider

The backpack straps are ergonomically shaped and are quite similar to those used on the Rick Steves Classic.  With the MLC loaded with ~13 lbs. of clothing & other “stuff,” they felt quite comfortable.  Note that all of the D rings and buckles on the bag are made with a polymer material:

Patagonia MLC backpack straps

A close-up of the shoulder strap pad; my limited testing proved it to be quite comfortable:

Patagonia MLC shoulder strap close-up

You may have noticed that the pad is slotted in the middle so you can place it over the briefcase-type handle on the top of the bag. Why? To avoid snagging the shoulder strap on armrests as you walk down the aisle of an aircraft:

Patagonia MLC shoulder strap pad

Here’s a shot of the elliptically shaped pocket on the front of the bag – more on this and why it’s designed in this manner a bit later:

Patagonia MLC front "elliptical" pocket

Finally, the MLC alongside the Red Oxx Air Boss. The Air Boss has 3 compartments, all of which feature 3 sided zippers (so the bag folds flat when each is fully unzipped.)  Red Oxx says the Air Boss measures 21″L x 13″W x 8″H which would make it a bit smaller than the MLC,  but in the flesh it’s clearly a larger bag (more on this in a moment.)

These bags represent different philosophies in how to approach one bag travel, and it’s interesting to see them side by side.  You can click on this image for a close-up, larger view:

Patagonia MLC versus the Red Oxx Air Boss

Two similar bags, two different philosophies…

Both the MLC and Air Boss are aimed at “one bag” business travelers, but that’s where the similarity begins and ends.  The underlying philosophy between these two bags differs tremendously – with significant implications for the traveler:

  • The Air Boss is a no compromise beast designed to enable the user to efficiently travel for up to a week with one bag, and is built to last for decades.  Red Oxx has eschewed frills in favor of function and durability.  The materials are without exception the finest – 1000 denier DuPont Cordura nylon, all the hardware is Mil-Spec chrome plated steel, all the critical seams are double stitched.  There are few “extras:” a zippered pocket in the back for boarding passes, a large zippered pocket on the front for magazines, perhaps. No pen slots, cell phone pockets, floating dividers, key ring, extra little pockets, and the like.  The thing screams straightforward functionality, quality and durability.  As a result it weighs a bit more than the MLC – close to 4 lbs., and costs $225; made in Montana
  • In the other corner, the MLC aims for a mix of functionality and creature comfort.  Its capacity is not quite that of the Air Boss – if you are an extremely light packer perhaps you could travel for a week with it, but it’d be a stretch.  This bag is best suited for 2-3 day trips with a mix of business and casual wear.  The versatility afforded by the backpack straps is welcome – it’s much easier to weave your way through a crowded concourse when your stuff is neatly on your back as opposed to hanging off your shoulder.  Personally, I love the key ring holder as I’m one of those types who checks to make sure he still has his keys about 37 times during each trip, but I’ve got a touch of OCD.  Despite the frills, the bag weighs in a bit under 3 lbs; it costs $175 and is made in Vietnam
  • As for the difference in size versus the claimed dimensions:  measuring the depth of a soft sided bag is imprecise at best, but I measured both bags as carefully as I could and came up with the following dimensions:
    • MLC: 20″ x 14″ x ~7″ (Patagonia claims 21½” x 14½” x 8″)
    • Air Boss: 21″ x 13″ x ~8″ (Red Oxx claims 21″ x 13″ x 8″)

My impressions of the Patagonia MLC

As I said much earlier, I basically like the bag.  A few observations:

  • If it matched the claimed dimensions, its capacity would be about right for ~4-5 day trips; as is, it’s more suited to ~3 day trips
  • Love the fact that Patagonia is using recycled materials in the bag’s construction!
  • I like the little pockets and key retainer in the ear shaped pocket – all are lightweight / light duty, but that’s all that’s needed for frequent flier cards, loose change, ear buds, a small magnifier, an iPod, and the like
  • If I ever carried dirty laundry in the same pocket as clean clothing, floating divider or not, it’d all get laundered or cleaned upon arrival home; I’m not sure I’d use the divider
  • The shoulder strap pad is comfy, but not nearly as grippy as the rubber Air Boss/Tom Bihn strap
  • The backpack straps are comfortable – as with the Steves bag, it’s one of the high points on the MLC. (YMMV:  some travelers feel this feature adds extra weight and reduces capacity & these are good points;  in the final analysis, it’s a matter of taste. I like the backpack straps.)   Note:  both panels – inner and outer – of the backpack storage pocket are padded.  With a ten pound load in the bag I added our Asus netbook in its neoprene sleeve to this pocket and hoisted the bag onto my back.  Although I could clearly feel the netbook on my back, between the padding in the pocket walls and that of the neoprene sleeve, it wasn’t uncomfortable.  Keep in mind:  when the backpack straps are in use, the pocket is out of necessity unzipped
  • I like the smaller pocket that I’ve identified as the 3/1/1 liquids pocket.  Even if the TSA liquid ban goes away, this’d be a handy pocket for boarding passes, a paperback book or your empty water bottle
  • Clever:  for ease of opening the “elliptical” pocket on the fly, its zipper is not a waterproof type.  The elliptical shape isn’t all style – its location and angle make it easier to reach and open the zipper. As you approach the TSA checkpoint you can quickly ditch your cell phone, watch, etc. and easily zip the pocket closed…
  • Which leads me directly to my major issuethe waterproof zippers are nice, but they come with a big pricethey are stiff and somewhat difficult to operate.  Coupled with the puny little pulls, it creates a problem:  you have to hold the bag material with your other hand as you pull on the zipper pull.  Moreover, those flimsy pulls seem cheap, inadequate and inappropriate for a $175 bag.  My solution?  I had some extra pulls I’d purchased from (ahem) another manufacturer and put them on the MLC…
Patagonia MLC with alternate zipper pulls

These pulls provide much more leverage and certainly offer an additional note of quality to what are in fact high quality zippers

  • Some of the other details of the bag – the briefcase type handles and the plastic D rings, for example, just don’t seem all that robust.  That said, for occasional use, I’m sure they’d be just fine.  For the road warrior who travels 25+ weeks a year, this is not the right bag

The current MLC is a second generation design which was introduced in 2004.  Fans of the original MLC decry this version as smaller and lower quality.  Those unfamiliar with the earlier bag are generally happy – check user reviews on the Patagonia site and at Buzzillions.com Click on the following link to visit the product listing at Patagonia.com:  Patagonia MLC bag

Coming attraction:  road testing the MLC

These are my initial thoughts about the bag.  I do like it.  But I need to see how it performs in the field, and regardless I’m a bit disappointed in some of the individual features and “build quality” (the zipper pulls, the briefcase handles, the plastic parts.)

In mid February I’m going on a 3 day / 3 night trip to Orlando, and I’ve been planning on writing a post on traveling with the absolute lightest load I can for a 3 day business trip; I’ll use the MLC for that trip.

Afterward I’ll update this post with some further thoughts and observations.  If you’ve had experience with the MLC – either this newer version or the old one, please feel free to comment.

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18 Comments on First take: Patagonia MLC bag

  1. Michael W. says:

    I don’t think you’ve found a replacement for your Air Boss.

    But you may have found a replacement for your BACKPACK as used for your business trips – ha ha.

    Maybe you should link to the article on traveling on a business trip with only a backpack. That was a great article, and included really useful tips on “minimalization.” The MLC sounds like it might be a good substitute for a backpack if you are checking into a nicer hotel.

    And maybe in your follow-up article, compare the MLC to the backpack model. It might shine in that comparison.

    When I checked out the MLC at the store (HOW do you notice SO many more details than I do?) I was struck by just how small it seemed for a “maximum legal carry-on” sized bag. You have confirmed my suspicions.

    The Monkey Fists from Red Oxx do look good on the MLC.

    Finally, I have done two day car trips using only an old Land’s End canvas “brief case” to carry my change of u.w., fresh shirt etc., so I hope your readers understand that the MLC might actually be a better choice that the AirBoss in “light” travel situations. The key is dialing into the “just right sized” bag for the occasion. At least until bags like the AirBoss have compression straps, and bags like the MLC have secret expander compartments.

    I thought you were going to say you cut off the backpack straps to convert the rear, double paneled compartment to a full-time computer slot. THAT would be a useful, bold move. I’m not sure how the P.R. people at Patagonia would appreciate getting their bag back in that condition, though!

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  2. TC says:

    The best features between the MLC and Red Oxx Air Boss are found in the Red Oxx Sky Train. As you found in the Air Boss it is an awesomely constructed bag that has the option of carrying it like a back pack.

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  3. Kevin says:

    @Michael: I think you’re right re the backpack and how the MLC would compare. The big downside to a backpack is its weird shape and the relatively small opening vs. a bundle of clothing. Certainly the MLC should do well for that sort of short trip.
    As for the backpack straps, I love your idea, but I like the backpack configuration too much to do that.

    @TC: Yup, I know. I need to get my hands on a Sky Train – I believe it has a small zippered pocket inside as well. Looks like a winner – and it still comes in right at 4 lbs. I need to talk to someone at Red Oxx about a loaner…

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  4. Paul Z says:

    As an owner of an older-design MLC, I can say I’m very happy with that bag. I’ve used it pretty much exclusively since I got it in ’05 (the current version, according to Doug Dyment, is at least the 3rd redesign in the past few years). I never use the carry handle on the long side or a shoulder strap, always the backpack straps or the handle on the small “top” side (this usually when I’m walking down the aisle on the plane).

    I’ve used my MLC on trips as long as 2 weeks (to Glacier National Park & Portland, OR, last summer) and as short as 5 days (the annual trip to Bermuda) and it’s served me well. It is kind of small, but I’ve never felt I had to leave anything home because there wasn’t room to pack it.

    Nice review! Nice site overall, as well.

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  5. Kevin says:

    Paul,

    Thanks for comments and kind words…

    BTW: I’ve searched eBay for an older design MLC, but – at least at present – there aren’t any on the site.

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  6. David says:

    Your review is excellent. I actually have an Air Boss on order; it is due to arrive Monday. I am sure the Air Boss is more durable than the MLC. But I would wager that the MLC will last a long time — even for someone who travels 25 weeks a year. I believe the MLC is strong enough and very light for its size, especially considering that it has backpack straps. The key tether is ingenious (I have one on my Patagonia Beehive backpack and love it because I can tether or untether the keys with one hand). There is a trade-off between weight and durability.

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  7. Doug Dyment says:

    Just a brief comment: both the Air Boss and the Sky Train bags weigh three pounds, not four. I know they’re listed at four on the Red Oxx site, but that includes the shoulder strap that they include with each order. The bags themselves do not weigh four pounds. You can usually find more reliable weights on my site than those provided by the manufacturers.

    For shoulder carry, I am a huge fan of the Quake strap, but the folks at Red Oxx add unnecessarily heavy snap hooks to it, making it twice the weight that it needs to be. So I prefer the version from Tom Bihn (same strap, but more practical hooks (unless you plan to use them to fight your way out of a bar).

    … Doug

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  8. Kevin says:

    Doug…

    Thanks for visiting and for a great comment! By “Quake” I assume you’re referring to the regular TerraGrip strap…? The hardware on the R.O. strap is a bit over the top – of course, that’s part of the appeal, too. …until you have to walk from Gate D61 to Gate A27 at Denver International! :-)

    Keep up the great work at OneBag.com, and thanks again for visiting.

    Kevin

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  9. Doug Dyment says:

    Correct … Quake Industries is the manufacturer of the strap. Red Oxx sells it as “The Claw” (9 oz.); Tom Bihn sells it as “TerraGrip” (4.8 oz.).

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  10. Greg says:

    I’m curious… How does this compare to something like the Western Flyer from Tom Bihn?

    http://www.tombihn.com/Merchan.....ode=TB0950

    Have you had any experience with this bag at all?

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Greg, I’m not too familiar with the Western Flyer. I will be reviewing Tom Bihn’s Aeronaut sometime within the next few weeks, however. Perhaps I’ll be able to secure a Western Flyer as well.
    In looking at the specs for the Western Flyer, I think you’re right – it appears to be quite similar to the MLC… a bit smaller than the (true) maximum legal carryon-sized bags; 2 main compartments – one of which is larger; a couple of zippered “widget” pockets; an open pocket for boarding passes and the like, and converts to a backpack. Both bags feature waterproof YKK zippers, as well. Like the MLC, I think this bag would be fine for shorter trips. It looks like a good bag and the materials, at least according to the specs, are first rate – and of course it’s made in Seattle. My only concern is that if you occasionally travel for 5-7 days at a time I’m not sure it’d have enough capacity for you.
    Thanks for stopping by – and for commenting.

    Kevin

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  11. David says:

    I got this bag today from Zappos. (I ordered it yesterday and it came today!) I really like it. It is light and well organized with lots of places to store things like PDAs and iPods etc.

    One thing I would mention: I see no point in buying a lifelong bag (although I expect the Patagonia MLC will last a long time) because what people want in a bag changes over time. People now want key clasps for going through security, a place for electronics, a place for the 3-1-1 bag. As the world keeps turning what we want will change and designs will change. Nothing wrong with that in my opinion

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  12. jack says:

    I just got done with a 14-day, 2-city trip packed full, and then back again with more purchased goods, and it fared just fine. (One day of laundry helped that a bit.) Those burdensome zippers seem to hold up well enough to do the ol’ sit-and-squash zip packing with confidence.

    Even with everything jammed in, I still managed to squeeze a stuff sack of electronics gear in the main compartment, and a 311 bag in the outside pocket. Carrying around the airport and slinging it backpack-style was plenty comfortable (I think it finally ended up being a good 14lbs.). It survived the luggage handlers of at least three airlines.

    So, from a tester: this product did extremely well in the real world.

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  13. David says:

    Thank you, Jack, for sharing your experiences. I am not surprised the MLC held up well. I think Patagonia designed the MLC well and it has a good balance of weight, organization and comfort.

    Some reviewers in my opinion focus too much on the durability of materials. Patagonia doesn’t use the most durable materials but the bag is functional, comfortable to wear as a backpack, light and holds up quite well. What more do you need?

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  14. jack says:

    I should probably mention that I had two sets of ‘business casual’ wear (long-sleeved shirts and pressed cotton—yes, cotton). The old hot shower trick works pretty well to mostly de-wrinkle items; besides the distressed look is all the rage :).

    The pocket designed for papers above the elliptical pocket was still fairly easy to get to ticketing and the like.

    [Reply]

  15. Ian Monroe says:

    I got the new MLC for my girlfriend last year, figuring it would be, you know, the same size as my older MLC. The ‘m’ stands for maximum right? Anyways as you point out its smaller.

    While my old MLC was in Nevada getting some seams fixed (for free it turned out, so Patagonia certainly still has good customer service), I went on a 10 day trip to Finland. I used her current-generation MLC. It was packed a bit, but overall fine. And normally when you travel you don’t have to go someplace that needs a winter coat. Maybe its because I’m a programmer and don’t have lots of fancy business clothes? :) The last couple of days I had to clean some shirts in the sink, but thats no big deal.

    So capacity isn’t an issue so much in my opinion.

    But why oh why does it not have the waist strap? It makes a huge difference in comfort, especially when it was totally stuffed on the way home.

    [Reply]

  16. T.H. says:

    elephant ear model here for 2 more days: http://www.ebay.com/itm/NWT-PA.....500wt_1006

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  17. TH says:

    new bag for you to check out (and review?) the Jandd Kera Lite:

    http://www.jandd.com/search_re.....;subcat=36

    [Reply]

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