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.

The Contenders

"Claw" or "Terragrip" shoulder strap - click for close-upNaturally, 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.

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Tom Bihn "Absolute Strap" - click for close-upAlso 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.)

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Tenba Skooba "Superbungee" shoulder strap - click for close-upAn 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.)

Patagonia MLC shoulder strap - click for close-upFinally, 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?

Shoulder muscles illustrationIf 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!

Test methodology

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.

Measuring shoulder strap deflectionTo 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.

The Results

picture5

Patagonia MLC Shoulder Strap

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MLC StrapThe 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

picture3Skooba Superbungee

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Skooba SuperbungeeClick 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.

picture2Claw / Terragrip

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theclaw-92008The Claw/Terragrip grips tenaciously and is built like a brick house.  It received the top overall ranking in both grip and quality.  How could it possibly come in second?

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

picture4Tom Bihn Absolute Strap

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absolutestrap1Whether credit is due Op/Tech USA or Bihn, whoever designed the Absolute Strap got two fundamentals just right.  The key to its superiority is its generous 2¾” width and neoprene material.

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…

briggs-riley-strap…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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10 Comments on Travel Gear: Shoulder strap comparo – 4 contenders for “best bag strap”

  1. Michael W. says:

    The only thing I really care about is the “slip” factor.

    Ever since I discovered Domke anti-slip camera straps in the ’80’s and adapted them to my travel bags (the styles of the straps and bags often clashed), I’ve been looking for non-slip straps.

    The current freebies that come with LLBean and Land’s End duffels are actually pretty good in this regard. They have certainly mastered the “anti slip” factor, albeit not the “cool” factor.

    But the “claw” strap that this blog turned me on to (got mine with a Red Oxx Gator) is definitely the best – why? – because you never have to worry whether you have the “right” side facing down. The claw strap works equally well whether its “right” side up or upside down, a big plus when grabbing a bag quickly out of an overhead bin for a quick run to a connecting flight.

    Just how grippy is the “claw” strap? Well, grippy enough to not even slip when I have a daypack on and the Gator is really weighed down, and the “claw” strap has to fit over, and grip, the slippery top surface of my daypack strap. Now THAT’s the right degree of grip! (The LLBean and Lands End duffel straps fail this little test.)

    BTW imho you may be “over engineering” (not that this is a bad thing) the “which strap is best” thing.

    Because at the end of the day, imho no single shoulder strap can ever match the comfort of, or security of, dual backpack straps.

    Dual backpack straps are simply much less burden on our shoulders, and never slip off. With backpack straps one can carry some SERIOUS weight and “hike” all the way through a long terminal without “terminal” pain.

    Their only fault, in my third humble opinion, is the fact that they are attached to daypacks and backpacks and hence make the otherwise upscale traveler look like a downscale “backpacker,” although admittedly scruffy grooming and lack of deodorant are generally required to complete the resemblance.

    The pure practicality of the travel pack is the reason why my latest purchase, for an upcoming regional conference in Palm Springs which although quite close geographically requires a connecting flight, is a Patagonia MLC Dawn Patrol day pack, which is essentially their MLC (albeit with a new gimmick, a “wet” compartment) which is “backpack only” mode, i.e. doesn’t have “hidable” pack straps.

    And yes, sure, I could have used the Steves Appenzell for the same purpose, or the much larger Steves Classic Convertible in backpack mode, but you have to admit Patagonia products look pretty nice. Unlike some other bags which can look, in the words of Lonely Planet, “down market.”

    Anyway this article is still pretty good, if only to confirm that the improvements over the “claw” strap seem pretty minor indeed.

    And it’s nice to hear you give Patagonia a compliment, although I think that’s what is known in the trade as a “left handed” compliment. I take it they aren’t sending you review samples anymore! :-)

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    In my book the Claw is a distant second to the Absolute.

    The “right side up” notion has been over hyped. Almost all of these straps are equipped with swivel hardware. When you grab the strap and are bringing it toward your shoulder, you can feel which side is the “correct” side – and if necessary, flip it so the right side contacts your shoulder. It takes a split second. (There is a tactile difference between the neoprene side and the non-neoprene side on the Absolute strap, for instance.)

    The Absolute is simply way more comfortable than the Claw. It “gives” (much) more, it’s wider and the neoprene grips just fine. Have you used this strap?

    As I’ve stated here many times, I prefer backpack straps and agree they’re more comfortable. But that’s a different subject.

    [Reply]

  2. Michael W. says:

    No (sigh) I haven’t tried the Absolute and based on my past experiences of comparing notes with you*, you are usually right (grumble). However I will say this in my defense. While it is true that you can rapidly “reverse” a strap face with rotating hardware to fix it when it gets twisted around, I found myself doing that way too often. While I still have to do it with the Claw, I don’t have to get around to it right away to keep the strap from slipping off, which is a small but significant victory in terms of deplaning rapidly after a long, sleepy flight.

    BTW I just got a Patagonia Lightwire Brief Case, essentially a flight-bag sized personal or small carryon bag, it has the same strap as the MLC, and you are absolutely right, the pad on that strap is as slippery as ice.

    I think your judgment about the relative quality of these bags is correct as well. While I have never had a problem with any Patagonia products – they rightfully pride themselves on the quality of their workmanship – there is a quantitative difference in build quality between the Red Oxx products, as exemplified (in my case) by the small Gator flight bag, and the Patagonia travel bags, exemplified in this case by the Lightwire. While the stitching on both are impeccable and materials are top notch on both, the Lightwire feels and looks “flimsy” compared to the Red Oxx. The strap hardware is especially cheap looking and feeling, looks like something from a cheap camera bag instead of from a higher end maker. That doesn’t affect actual performance, but does affect look and feel.

    [Reply]

  3. Scott says:

    On the advice of many, I got an Airboss. While I had read a lot about it and was intellectually OK with the idea of not having wheels (it comes down to shoes. I’m a runner and always have more shoes than my wheeled bag would fit), I was still a little iffy on the carrying thing. The Airboss comes with the claw and it holds everything I want and stuff I don’t need to bring; but I wasn’t loving carrying it.

    I bought an Absolute strap and use it with my Airboss.

    And now, all is right with the world.

    I like the claw and will use it with my laptop bag. Not as much weight, probably won’t matter.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Scott,

    Thanks for commenting… the Absolute Strap is very, very good and I use it on whichever bag I’m traveling with. I’m trying to get my hands on the Briggs & Riley strap, but no luck so far. I hope you’ll consider subscribing; thx again.

    [Reply]

  4. Till says:

    While I have not tried the Absolute strap, I do use a similar OpTech for my heavy camera and love it.

    That said, I also love the Briggs and Riley strap. It is very well made and also flexible because it uses neoprene as well. Perhaps it has not quite as much give as the Absolute but it is still very comfortable. It also has a good anti-slip coating.

    What I think is really nice and unique about the BR strap is its shape. It has a double convex shape. That means it is not only curved inwards at the shoulder but also at the neck. This allows for the trapezoid muscle to rise properly. Where it says Supraspinatus in your nice anatomical drawing the muscle rises toward the neck. The BR strap has a cut-out at that spot and thus doesn’t cut into the muscle.I don’t have huge shoulder muscles but it makes difference even for me.

    Finally, the BR strap has two leather loops on it. I am not sure what those are for. If it were tactical gear, I’d say those are for attaching MOLLE accessories but that’s not it. In any case, these are ideal to attach your sunglasses or a carabiner that can hold your keys safely and within reach.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Till,

    Thanks for the comment. You’ve convinced me that I need to get one of the B&R straps. The description (and illustration) on their site are minimal – thanks for filling in the blanks!

    [Reply]

  5. Till says:

    Kevin, thanks to you for the fantastic review. Get one of the BR straps and let us know what you think. I am pretty sure you will not regret it. In the meantime you and your readers might be interested in perusing some of the related reviews I did.

    This one is a shoulder bag shootout including the BR 235x:
    http://www.1bag1world.com/blog.....otout.html

    And this one is a review of the BR BB107 daypack/ man’s bag:
    http://www.1bag1world.com/blog.....g-man.html

    Cheers, Till

    [Reply]

  6. J Lees says:

    Only draw back with the Absolute is that when you’re carrying a fully loaded bag it tends to bounce around, which can be something of a pain….

    [Reply]

  7. John says:

    I agree that the Absolute will “tend(s) to bounce around.” It is also not a new idea. I saw a version of a lightweight neoprene strap on a consumer product in the early 2000’s. Took the idea back to the shop and started working on a heavy-duty version for use on pro=video bags where it is still sold as model HB-15 for $50. I used it on my briefcase for years, but I found that when I was at a trade show the brief case would fill up and get heavy. As I walked, weight of the case would load and unload in a bouncing rhythm in time with my gait.
    If not sewn properly this could cause the stitching to pop, and I can see how this action might cause fatigue. Nice and soft,love the light weight and tends to mold to the slope on the shoulder. Sure does grip!
    The big problem with a strap that grips is that it grips. It’s like having someone grab onto your clothing trying to pull it off, and while it doesn’t slip off like it would without a good gripping surface, it still needs adjustment from time to time when trying to maneuver from one end of O’Hare International to the next. Watch someone wearing a suit coat and notice how it looks like someone is dragging their jacket off. Not ideal…

    [Reply]

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