Half a year or so ago, reviewing the Red Oxx Air Boss, I wrote this about its “Claw” shoulder strap:
Heavy duty, rubberized “claw” strap will NOT slip off your shoulder, “gives” a bit for comfort, is double sided so there’s no fumbling around, trying to find the “correct” side.
Over the ensuing months I’ve had some misgivings about that statement. Does the claw strap truly “give” or flex a bit under load, or was that a faulty perception on my part? Does it really matter that there’s no “right” or “wrong” side on the claw? Should I have mentioned its narrow width – and how that affects comfort?
All of this lead me to other, more basic questions: what makes a strap truly comfortable? Are the leading shoulder straps in the market all about the same, or is one clearly superior to the rest?
This issue has grown in importance as airlines began charging for checked baggage and more people have begun carrying on bags. Overhead compartments are often overloaded…
…and many of us have made the switch from bulky, cumbersome wheelies to simply carrying one lightweight bag slung over our shoulders.
With these questions & issues in mind, I decided to take a close look at 4 quality shoulder straps with an eye toward determining which represents the best in terms of comfort and quality.
Naturally, the Red Oxx “Claw” is an obvious contender. Manufactured by Quake Industries and sold as the Claw by Red Oxx and the Terragrip by Tom Bihn, this strap is very robust, grips tenaciously (hence the claw moniker) and is the strap recommended by Doug Dyment of OneBag.com This strap weighs 238g (8.4 oz) in the Red Oxx iteration (heavier duty hardware) and sells for $20 from both Red Oxx & Tom Bihn. Made in Montana.
Also made in Montana is the Absolute Strap from Tom Bihn. Manufactured for Bihn by Op/Tech USA, (Op/Tech’s version is called “S.O.S.” (Saves On Shoulders)) this strap features a 2½” wide section of neoprene which is both grippy and flexible. The Bihn version features Bihn’s heavy duty double-plated hardware. Weight: 209g / 7.4 oz. $30 from Tom Bihn (Note: shoulder straps are optional on Tom Bihn bags.)
An unusual strap with a unique suspension system caught my attention several months ago. Skooba makes a line of camera and travel bags and their signature “Superbungee” strap utilizes – well, naturally – a section of bungee cord in order to provide shock absorption. The underside of the strap features a number of air-filled cells to provide additional comfort; the surface of those cells is covered with a “friction laminate” to keep the strap from slipping off your shoulder. 263g / 9.3 oz; made in China. $25 (some colors are currently on sale for $15.)
Finally, a somewhat unusual choice: the Patagonia MLC shoulder strap. Regular readers know my love/hate relationship with the MLC. If you’re new here, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: very nice bag, smaller than advertised. The strap on the MLC is a high point, however. A minimalist affair, two web straps are linked by a fairly wide, flexible center section; the whole shebang weighs a mere 110 grams, or 3.9 oz. Why unusual? Patagonia only offers it with the MLC – not as a separate accessory. My assumption is that clever Practical Hacks readers could score one if they really wanted it.
A brief anatomy lesson or why does anyone care about a shoulder strap?
If you’ve ever humped it through a long concourse with a 15 to 20 pound bag slung over your shoulder only to discover that its shoulder strap is too narrow and firm, you know just how tiring and painful an experience that can be. A shoulder strap rests on the muscles and tendons between your shoulder and spine – specifically the supraspinatus.
A narrow, inflexible shoulder strap will repeatedly jab into these soft tissues as you walk, restricting blood flow and causing pain and fatigue. The difference this can make in your journey is profound: instead of arriving at your destination reasonably energetic and feeling fine, a poorly designed shoulder strap can quickly transform even the most upbeat travelers into tired and irritable zombies. Air travel today is tough enough without making it worse with the wrong equipment!
The test itself was relatively simple. I first weighed and measured the straps. All were adjusted to the same length and were snapped onto the Air Boss with a 15 lb. load in its center compartment. (The bag itself weighs close to 4 lbs.)
I then hoisted the bag onto my right shoulder and switched from strap to strap many, many times. I did this while wearing a polo shirt and also while wearing an Adidas 100% polyester wind shirt (look up “slippery” in your Merriam-Webster and you’ll see a picture of this shirt). With each strap, I bounced up and down to gauge comfort and to see if the strap would slip off my shoulder. This is important, as constantly having to readjust the strap’s position on your shoulder is annoying at best and tiring at worst. Finally, I scored each strap on a scale of 1-10 on 4 characteristics: comfort, grip, quality of materials, and flex.
To help with this last point, I jury rigged a simple test apparatus. I loaded each strap with a 2 kilo/4.4 lb. weight, measured the distance to the floor from the rod (actually a heavy duty screwdriver) supporting the weight, and then repeated with 20 lb. (A note: it may appear in this photo that the weights are touching the bottom shelf of the workbench; they’re not. I was careful to avoid this.)
A general comment before we get to the results: there are significant differences between these straps. In certain cases a big deficit in one characteristic trumped qualities which normally would make a shoulder strap quite acceptable. More on this in a moment…
I should note that I’ve traveled with 3 of these straps in the past, one of them extensively. Also: I use a Red Oxx Metro briefcase daily, and it’s equipped with a Claw strap. Finally, I have no connection with any of the companies mentioned here and my only interest in this comparison test was to identify the best of this collection of shoulder straps. As it turns out, that was fairly easy.
Patagonia MLC Shoulder Strap
The MLC Strap is an extremely comfortable strap with a fatal flaw. The strap’s center section is 3¼” wide and is constructed of a foam layer enclosed in a stretchy material (Patagonia provides no specs on their website). This strap feels good due in part to its width.
As you can see from this photo, there’s a “right side up” (web strap stitched to the top of the center section) but I personally don’t feel this is a big deal at all: it only takes a moment to identify and if necessary, flip it so the correct side is up. When switching to the heavier load, the strap deflected 1¼”, matching the eventual winner – in other words, it has a good deal of “give,” making the load seem lighter.
Also of note is the fact that at 3.9 oz. this is by far the lightest strap tested here. As mentioned above, it’s a bit of a minimalist affair and that extends to its polymer hardware, which despite its light weight seems quite durable.
So what’s the deal killer? This thing is as slippery as a witness at a Senate subcommittee hearing. It slips off your shoulder easily and as such comes in a distant fourth. Too bad – it’s a nice strap otherwise.
Country of origin not noted at the Patagonia site, but likely overseas (the MLC is made in Viet Nam) Patagonia MLC
Click on this photo and you’ll see how the Superbungee works. It’s a clever design – the two web straps aren’t permanently connected to the center section; they simply slide beneath locating tabs and connect to one another via the section of bungee.
And in fact, this suspension system works. Switching from the light (5 lb.) load to the 20 lb. load resulted in an additional 1″ of deflection. When I flexed up and down, I could see the bungee stretching.
In terms of comfort, however, I ranked the Skooba 3rd out of the 4. Although it’s the 2nd widest of the straps at 3-1/8″ and has a contoured design – both of which generally make for a comfortable strap, the air cells on the back of the strap in my opinion detract from comfort; a simple solid foam material might be better. The quality of the materials is high but I question how durable the bungee cord joint will be. Pulling it out of its sheath, the two ends of the bungee appeared to be joined by a light gauge twisted piece of wire and some clear tape… ?
One other note: the hardware on the Superbungee is not compatible with D rings thicker than 3/16″ in diameter. It works with the Air Boss, but is not compatible with the Metro. (Why the Metro, a briefcase, has heavier gauge D rings than the Air Boss is a mystery.) If you are ordering an aftermarket strap via the internet, this is the sort of thing you ought to check.
This strap was the heavyweight in the group by virtue of the extra materials used in its construction – 9.3 oz or 263 grams. Made in China, $25 (see note above). Skooba.
One word: comfort. Well, two words, actually: comfort and flex. In my numerical rankings, the Claw/Terragrip came in dead last in these categories. Only its high marks in the other two categories saved it from complete humiliation.
What’s the problem? It’s narrow and it doesn’t flex all that much, a bad combination. Its 2-1/4″ width was the narrowest of the group, and when I switched to the 20 lb. load, it only stretched an additional ¼ inch. What do these two factors add up to? Your shoulder muscles end up absorbing the impact as you walk, run and hobble through the airport.
I know this will be viewed as heresy to some, so I just walked around the house with the loaded Air Boss and switched back and forth between the Claw/Terragrip and our winner. The difference is quite significant.
$20; made in Montana. Claw Strap
The width makes it inherently more comfortable than narrower straps, and the neoprene offers dual benefits: excellent “grip” plus exceptional “give.” When I switched from the 4.4 lb. weight to the 20 lb. weight, it stretched an additional 1¼” (vs. a mere ¼” for the Claw/Terragrip). I’ve used this strap with the Aeronaut and Western Flyer, and have now switched out the Claw on my Metro briefcase to an Absolute Strap.
The Claw grips like mad – it’s virtually impossible to have it shift or slip off your shoulder – but the Absolute Strap is simply much more comfortable while still offering very good grip. You’d have to work hard to have it move on your shoulder.
Coupled with Bihn spec’d hardware, the Absolute Strap is of uniformly high quality and durability. Weight: 209 g / 7.4 oz.
$30 from Tom Bihn; made in Montana
Also of note…
…but not reviewed here as I’ve not used it: the Briggs & Riley Flexible Shoulder Strap. Similar to the Absolute Strap but with a contoured design (including a slight contour where it meets your collar) it sells for $25 from Briggs & Riley. It looks like a solid contender.
If you’ve had experience with the Briggs & Riley strap or would like to comment on those reviewed here, please join the discussion by commenting!
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