Review: Mystery Ranch Coulee 50 Backpack

Mystery Ranch Coulee 50
$249, 50L/2,930 c.i., 3 lbs. 12 oz./1.7kg (men’s S/M with XS/S belt)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-L

The race to lighten gear often results in compromises, and with backpacks those tradeoffs can impact access, durability, and comfort—the last usually in the form of strict load-weight limits. Carrying the Coulee 50 backpacking a section of the Arizona Trail along the Gila River and in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon in the first week of April and on the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park and the Nigel, Cataract, and Cline Passes Route in the White Goat Wilderness in the Canadian Rockies in early August, I developed a serious crush on this pack for its comfort and a smart design that makes every interaction with it easier and faster.

Three of the trips involved backpacking to a two-night base camp and dayhiking from it and the Skyline was a three-day, 27.3-mile/44k traverse. I carried the Coulee 50 with up to about 30 pounds/13.6 kilograms inside on three of the hikes and up to about 35 pounds/16 kilograms in the White Goat Wilderness, including a bear canister. (All of them gorgeous hikes, by the way. Watch for upcoming stories about them at this blog.)

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The Mystery Ranch Coulee 50 backpack.
The Mystery Ranch Coulee 50 backpack.

Let’s get the big question out of the way first: weight. At 3 lbs. 12 oz./1701 grams (for the men’s S/M with an XS/S belt), the Coulee 50 is definitely not among the lightest 50-liter packs—but for good reasons. Those include the supportive wire frame and framesheet and the very comfortable, well-padded harness—the pre-curved, flexible waist belt, shoulder straps, and ample lumbar and back padding—that made 30 pounds/13.6 kilos almost unnoticeable on my back and remained comfortable with 35 pounds/16 kilograms.

There are 50-liter and larger packs under three pounds/1360 grams that clearly reach their comfort ceiling at around 30, maybe 35 pounds/15.9 kilograms for some users—which many backpackers try not to exceed but, let’s face it, do exceed. If you’re a backpacker who sometimes overloads a pack uncomfortably for the first day or two of a trip, the Coulee 50 literally has your back.

The harness adjusts to fit torsos within a five-inch/12.7 centimeter length range per size and comes in four men’s and women’s sizes—that’s huge and guarantees a custom fit for just about every human torso. Pull out the removable, plastic yoke adjuster inside the back panel and use it to break the hook-and-loop bond to slide the yoke panel up or down until the seam between the shoulder strap and the yoke body aligns with the top of your shoulder blades. Then return the yoke adjuster to its pocket because it functions as the pack’s upper frame—no superfluous grams in this design.

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The Mystery Ranch Coulee 50 backpack.
The Mystery Ranch Coulee 50 backpack.

The Redirect waist belt adjusts easily by pulling each strap forward to tighten. It’s also removable: Each arm readily slides out (no burly hook-and-loop patches to wrestle) if you want to shed 10 ounces/283 grams (the combined weight of both sides of the belt)—although that would greatly compromise carrying comfort and stability.

The pack seems spacious for 50 liters: I fit three days of food, my clothes and share of team gear, and a few extras like a camp chair and sandals or camp shoes, with room to spare, on all of these trips, plus a Bear Vault BV 500 bear canister inserted upright in the White Goat Wilderness. This 50-liter pack can handle a five-day or longer trip, assuming light, compact gear and efficient packing.

I think that has much to do with the way the Y-shaped, three-zipper access opens up the main compartment from the top and front, completely revealing the pack’s interior, allowing you to not only access it very easily but also load it efficiently, using every cubic inch of space. Plus, the pack’s wide mouth and body swallow larger, oddly shaped, hard gear like a pot and certain stoves without rendering much space unfillable. Note: It’s still not large or wide enough to load a large bear canister sideways, but that’s true of any midsize pack.

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The three-zipper design proved incredibly convenient every day on the trail, enabling me to quickly access virtually anything anywhere inside it, which can require pulling out other stuff in many backpacks—even an item “buried” inside. Example: Upon reaching camp, I could pull out the tent rainfly from the bottom of the pack without having to remove anything else. It also eliminates the extra steps inherent to a lid with two buckles and a main compartment cinch closure. While a zipper access to the main compartment and/or a sleeping bag compartment zipper are more common in larger backpacking packs, those are rare in a 50-liter pack. (I’m a fan of the three-zipper design since reviewing MR’s Coulee 25, which has been updated to different capacity sizes; see below.) The zippers are treated to repel water but not waterproof.

The Mystery Ranch Coulee 50 backpack.
The Mystery Ranch Coulee 50 backpack in the White Goat Wilderness, Canadian Rockies.

Besides the ready access to the main compartment, the eight external pockets exceed what you’d find in many midsize or even large packs. Those include:

  • Two deep front stuff pockets with some stretch, vertically aligned on either side of the center zipper, each with space for a jacket or a lightweight rainfly.
  • Two side stretch-woven pockets that each hold a liter bottle.
  • Two zippered lid pockets, one small and the other spacious.
  • And two zippered waist belt pockets large enough for a smartphone or at least four energy bars.

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Dual side compression straps with convenient, quick-release buckles integrate with the front pockets and have good length for attaching objects to the pack’s sides and the bottom compression straps with quick-release buckles easily secured a foam pad. Loops inside the main compartment can be used to attach Mystery Ranch Zoid Bags or other accessories. The sleeping bag compartment has a U-shaped zipper that runs smoothly.

The Coulee packs are also made to handle hard use, with 100 percent recycled, tough, 210-denier nylon Robic and a double-layer bottom.

The series includes the Coulee 20 ($179), Coulee 30 ($189), and Coulee 40 ($239).

Mystery Ranch Coulee 50


The Verdict

The Mystery Ranch Coulee 50 illustrates an important rule about gear shopping: Sometimes it’s worth looking at the story behind the weight. With the Coulee 50 and its smaller models, you get uncompromised comfort and a unique design that puts convenience first—a pretty fair tradeoff for basically another pound/450 grams of ballast.



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See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The Best Ultralight Backpacks,” my “5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” and all of my reviews of backpacks, backpacking gear, ultralight backpacks, and ultralight backpacking gear at The Big Outside.

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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all gear reviews at The Big Outside.

—Michael Lanza


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