Mystery Ranch Catalyst 22 Review
Though the Mystery Ranch Catalyst 22’s 3-ZIP closure feels stiffer than similarly-equipped bags, its simple interior layout keeps gear access hassle-free.
- Wide 3-ZIP access pairs well with the simple internal layout
- CORDURA® re/cor nylon fabric is durable and eco-friendly
- Plenty of subtle attachment points for additional accessories
- Ripping the 3-ZIP open feels stiffer than we’re used to
- Hard to find an optimal fit despite many adjustable straps
- Wish inflexible bottle pockets had accompanying loops for additional security
2.17 lb (1 kg)
YKK Zippers, CORDURA® Nylon, Duraflex Hardware
Laptop Compartment Size
Mystery Ranch’s signature 3-ZIP design offers the benefit of a quick and easy way to open a backpack. A quick rip of the fabric and the three zippers undo seamlessly, simultaneously offering a wide view of the interior. This is great for those who like to travel with plenty of bulky gear, as tightly packing them into a roll-top or horseshoe-style main compartment would only let you access the topmost ones.
That said, we’ve tested plenty of Mystery Ranch’s other 3-ZIP-equipped backpacks, such as the Coulee 30, Scree 32, and Urban Assault 21, but the iteration on the Catalyst 22 feels noticeably stiffer. Furthermore, even though we liked the harness system’s adjustability, we couldn’t quite get the fit as comfortable as we would’ve liked. That’s two signature features—3-ZIP and a comfortable harness system—that are not quite polished on the Catalyst 22. Still, the basics of durable build quality, wide accessibility, and a balanced organization make it a worthwhile daypack to consider.
The Catalyst 22 starts off strong with its main fabric: 500-denier CORDURA® re/cor nylon. It’s a recycled fabric made from pre-consumer fibers (otherwise leftover materials from manufacturing processes), which makes it less resource-intensive while emitting fewer greenhouse gasses compared to N66, one of the more common types of nylon. This environmental friendliness may already be enough to sway some toward the Catalyst 22’s favor, but it gets better.
The feel of the fabric is much more robust than the Mineral Gray colorway’s fine texture would suggest. Yes, this 500-denier fabric is not quite as beefy as 1680-denier ballistic nylon, for example, but it’s not flimsy either. On a more subjective note, we really dig the Mineral Gray colorway’s style. It’s the right mix of lowkey and eye-catching if you’re not a fan of either the Black or Paprika colorway, respectively.
Arguably, the star of the show is the trio of water-resistant YKK AquaGuard zippers at the front. They’re part of the 3-ZIP design arranged in a Y-shape to facilitate easy opening. It’s a fairly clever solution that benefits from the established reliability of YKK since it encourages “ripping” the main compartment open. Simply pull the top flap apart from the left and right bottom ones to open, bypassing the need to pull on any zipper. As you can imagine, this takes some time to get used to, especially if you’re typically careful with zippers, so having fasteners from YKK is reassuring.
One of the more subtle features of the Catalyst 22 is the pull tabs at the end of the zipper tracks. These are primarily for gripping when you’re unzipping the compartments, acting as anchors or counters so that the track doesn’t just collapse as soon as you start pulling. You can also use these to hang additional accessories. We use the bottom one at the front to hang a carabiner or a bike light when we’re using one.
There are two water bottle pockets, with one on each side. Unfortunately, these are plain fabric pockets without stretchiness or built-in elastics for better grip. Consequently, slick bottles like an insulated 21-ounce Hydro Flask bottle can slip out fairly easily if the Catalyst gets tilted on its back. You can remedy this by securing your bottle’s handle (if it has one) onto the top pocket’s loop with a carabiner. Your mileage may vary, though, as the loop can be relatively far depending on the height of your bottle.
The harness system on a Mystery Ranch backpack is something we always look forward to because they’re usually very comfortable to wear. On paper, the Catalyst 22’s harness system ticks all the right boxes and then some. Well-padded shoulder straps to cushion the weight? Check. Mesh for breathability? Yep, check that. A fairly rigid back panel? It’s there, too. Load lifters? Err, unusual for a daypack, but we won’t say no.
Really, the only initial reservations we had were fairly minor. The sternum strap is mounted on loops, for example. To be clear, it still functions as you would expect of any sternum strap. However, loop-mounted sternum straps just don’t offer the same granular adjustment as sliding sternum straps do. To be fair, though, each of the three loops is wide enough to allow the sternum strap to wiggle up or down.
While we’re at it, we also wish there were strap keepers, particularly for the sternum strap. The straps on the Catalyst 22 are fairly thin, making them floppy, which makes the sternum strap’s slack distracting since it’s in front of you.
Lastly, there’s a grab handle at the top situated between the two shoulder straps. It’s nothing fancy, just a simple nylon handle that’s been folded over and stitched for thickness, emulating padding. This will do for quickly grabbing the bag out of an airline overhead bin or under the seat.
In terms of fit, we can’t help but feel like the Catalyst 22 is a victim of Mystery Ranch’s own success. See, we’ve generally found the harness systems on their backpacks very comfortable and easily adjustable, and we can usually optimize the fit on them very easily. We usually like daypacks to ride high and closer to the back, but after two weeks of testing, we couldn’t quite find the right combo of strap adjustments to make this happen with the Catalyst 22.
Mind you, it’s still a comfortable daypack to carry around, just a bit saggy. We can definitely notice it pull back a little more, even once we’ve changed our gear arrangement and amount. It’s not as pronounced as we’ve seen on the District 24, but it reminds us of that. Again, it’s still quite comfortable for a daypack in general, just subpar within Mystery Ranch’s own lineup.
Inside The Backpack
The Catalyst only has one secondary pocket (if you don’t count the water bottle pockets), and it’s at the top. Fortunately, it’s quite roomy, with more than enough room for a smartphone, wallet, and keys. For those of you wondering, yes, there is a key leash inside with a plastic clip, so you’ll only have to tug on this when you’re at your front door. However, the top pocket can cut into the main compartment’s space, affecting your packing strategy inside.
As intimidating as the 3-ZIP design appears, it’s intended to be versatile and easy to use. Mystery Ranch does include a small guide that demonstrates this, but really, it’s as simple as pulling the top flap up and pulling down between the lower left and right flaps. That said, even though this is easy to do on other 3-ZIP-equipped Mystery Ranch backpacks, it takes noticeably more effort with the Catalyst 22. It feels more like ripping apart thick gift wrap than peeling away a banana’s skin, if that makes sense.
We’re almost sure this is due to the Catalyst 22 being smaller than other backpacks with 3-ZIP. However, the Urban Assault 21 has exactly the same capacity, so it may be stiff zippers or the updated fabric’s structure causing it. If you don’t want to rip apart the 3-ZIP, that’s okay. You can also operate each zipper independently. Slide open the middle for a duffle-style opening, or undo the two top ones for top-loader-style packing.
Before we get into the main compartment and all its details, it’s worth noting that the Catalyst 22 isn’t a 22-liter bag as its name would suggest. Mystery Ranch’s own website specs it at 21 liters, so we’re not quite sure why they went with 22 in the name. Are we nitpicking? Quite possibly, but small details like these can be important when deciding between near-spec bags.
Having the Catalyst 22’s main compartment fully opened with all three flaps peeled back is a welcoming sight for packing. Even the bulkiest of packing cubes (so long as it’s no bigger than the space itself) can slot in neatly without too much maneuvering. There’s a substantial bucket space towards the bottom to catch smaller gear. However, the overall openness of the 3-ZIP design generally optimizes the main compartment more for bulky gear rather than small ones.
That said, though the organization inside is more on the minimalist side, it’s still balanced and thoughtful when it comes to accessibility. Take the rear 16-inch laptop sleeve and document slip pocket, for example. Whereas other brands may saturate the back with pen slots, passport-sized pockets, and even loops, Mystery Ranch keeps it simple with just those two pockets. Having more pockets back there would be nice, but they wouldn’t be accessible once you pack the Catalyst 22 with bulky packing cubes and pouches.
It’s not all doom and gloom for smaller organization, though. There are zippered mesh pockets on each of the side flaps. We use them to store everyday carry items like lip balm, TOM BIHN Ghost Pouches, an Apple AirTag, and some snacks. These pockets are at the sides where packing cubes in the middle can’t block them. Interestingly, the top pocket from before is also made of mesh, so you can see what’s inside, even from the main compartment. Overall, everything inside just feels thoughtfully considered without taking away the 3-ZIP design’s uniqueness.
- One team member feels 22L is a bit small for the Tri-Zip design
- Zips are beefy, and slightly hard to open
- Loving the Mineral Gray colorway
- Overall simple organization
- Wonder how the non-stretchy water bottle pockets will fare—usually we like when these stretch and grip
- Colorway was awesome to use overall
- The “Rip Zip” takes quite a bit of force to operate – seemingly a little more than other MR packs of similar design – maybe this is due to the smaller opening on the top?
- Wish the bottle pockets had some stretch to them