Patagonia Black Hole MLC Review
Cons: Soft body sags when not stuffed, harness system not fit for long adventures
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Our Analysis and Test Results
Patagonia listened to their user's requests and updated the MLC with their patented Black Hole material to improve durability. This material was made for their line of expedition duffel bags, messenger bags, and backpacks, and we couldn't be happier with their decision to extend its use to this bag as well.
The clamshell design of the Black Hole MLC is essentially a soft suitcase with convertible straps, which equates to a lot of versatility. Hard and rolling suitcases are great, but are not without their limitations. The soft body of this pack allows for it to be comfortably worn as a backpack, which would be a little difficult to do with a roller or a hard shell.
The ample padding on the back panel of the MLC is quite comfortable. The harness system lacks a hip belt, but the shoulder straps are firm, hold their shape, and are breathable, which makes them perfect for rushing through the airport or walking around for shorter distances. After spending some time with this pack, we realized that, due to the soft body, the addition of a hip belt would only make it more clunky rather than add support. In the end, we agree with Patagonia's decision to leave it out of the design.
While the bag itself is quite floppy, there are ways to pack it that will offer a little more support. The laptop sleeve is sufficiently padded and strategically placed on the back panel of the bag, closest to the carriers back. Placing your dense, heavy laptop close to your center of gravity helps to avoid any extra torquing on your shoulders. This happens when the heavier portion of your load is high up or far away from your body. If traveling with a laptop, large sketchbook, tablet, or any other thin flat firm item, placing it in this designated sleeve lends support and structure to the bag, which in turn makes wearing it on your back that much more comfortable.
The MLC also offers the option to wear the pack over one shoulder, briefcase-style. Simply tuck away the backpack straps into their designated zipper pocket, remove the single strap and clip it to the retractable clips on the top of the bag. If packed with heavy items, this style of carry can be awkward and cumbersome as it is large for one shoulder. While we would choose to carry the pack on our back rather than over our shoulder a majority of the time, we greatly appreciate the option for both.
The MLC is a simple-featured bag designed for casual business travelers, adventurous weekend warriors, and even car camping aficionados. There is nothing crazy unique about this pack except that its execution is riddled with intention. Not one strap falls out of place, every unused clip can be tucked away neatly, and every pocket has a purpose. The bag opens up like a clamshell. Once open, you'll see one large compartment enclosed with a zippered mesh divider for clothing. This area is quite large and does not offer compression straps, so we recommend using packing cubes, sold separately, if you are planning a longer trip and need to use this compartment to its fullest potential. The other side, while shallower, offers a little more organization. There are two smaller mesh zipper pockets for items like underwear or socks. Behind the two smaller pockets is one larger pocket which spans across the entirety of the bag, not unlike the main compartment, just much, much slimmer. We found that this was a good spot to store anything you might want to keep separate from the lump sum of clothes in the larger area, like dress shirts or maybe your dirty clothing.
Moving onto the outer pockets… On the front side of the bag, there is an external zippered compartment that offers even more organization. There are various mesh and fabric compartments for a small planner or notebooks, electronics, and pens. On the outside of that compartment is one more smaller zipper pocket. This pocket is meant for anything you might need to easily access on the go. However, security is minimal in this outermost pocket so it is important to be aware of your surroundings if you choose to store your phone, keys, wallet, or anything valuable in there. Lastly, the padded electronics sleeve is located along the back of the bag and includes a smaller padded sleeve for a tablet. Placing your flat electronics here will actually offer a little more structure to the bag making it more comfortable to wear as a backpack.
If you want to switch from a backpack to a shoulder bag or need to protect your straps from pesky conveyor belts, simply unclip your shoulder straps, slip them into the back panel compartment, and zip those puppies up! The stowable harness system is extremely efficient and easy to use, which is greatly appreciated considering this bag stretched the limits of some airlines' carry-on bag dimensions. The bottom buckles are tucked into a "garage" and remain out of the way and immune to conveyor belt abuse. Voila, you have a sleek and smooth soft suitcase in your hand.
Not only can you carry this pack on your pack, shoulder, or briefcase style with the top handle, it was also designed to be secured to the handle of a rolling suitcase. There is a sneaky zipper on the back panel of the bag. Simply unzip it, and the MLC will slide perfectly over the handle of your rolling suitcase. Our testers are such Patagonia Black Hole luggage enthusiasts that we actually own several of the wheeled duffels — and it's an impeccable match. Not only do we feel classy with our sweet matching luggage, but efficiency is at an all-time high too!
A few more honorable mentions in the features department are the lockable zippers, daisy chain, luggage tag, and multiple handles. All the zippers, besides the small easy access pocket and laptop sleeve, are lockable. The laptop sleeve is placed in the back panel, which makes it very hard to steal while wearing. The daisy chain is a simple yet useful addition. Since the bag does not have a designated spot for a water bottle, we found ourselves simply attaching it to the chain with a carabiner. The sewn-in luggage tag slides easily in and out of a camouflaged sleeve. We appreciate the inconspicuousness of this but also think it might have been better to make this feature a little more obvious. In the case of a lost bag, we wouldn't want to make it any more difficult to get back to its rightful owner. Lastly, there are multiple handles making it easy to maneuver, even when all its straps are tucked away.
Packing & Accessibility
The Black Hole MLC opens up like a clamshell or a traditional suitcase, allowing for easy access to anything in the bag. There are several pockets in the main compartment to help keep clothes, shoes, and toiletries nicely organized, however the addition of packing cubes (sold separately) would offer a little more organization to the larger compartment. The flap-like compartment on the outside offers even more small compartments for easy access to items like headphones or snacks, which you might need on the go. The laptop sleeve on the back panel makes it easy to remove your devices quickly at airport screening.
We appreciate the simple rectangular shape of this bag. This makes it easy to manage through the airport, stuff into the overhead bin on the airplane, and chuck in the trunk of a vehicle. The MLC proved to be a user-friendly suitcase-style backpack.
Something we really appreciate about this bag is its use of lighter colors on the interior and mesh dividers. Since some of the compartments are larger, the light-colored mesh offers almost full visibility into each compartment. This way, even if we aren't using packing cubes, we are able to find what we were looking for quickly and efficiently. Due to the lack of structure this pack offers, we found that everything sags to the bottom if not stuffed to the brim. This could be easily prevented with the addition of a few compression straps inside the main compartment. That being said, you can easily combat the sag with a few handy packing cubes.
Between the hefty YKK zippers and Patagonia's Black Hole Fabric, this bag was built to last. And rest assured if it doesn't, it's backed by Patagonia's Ironclad Guarantee.
While we don't anticipate having to take advantage of that guarantee, at least not for a long time, we truly appreciate having it. The Black Hole MLC is a rugged, durable, and thoughtfully constructed travel backpack. The YKK zippers and Black Hole fabric offer durability like no other. The zippers are smooth and glide easily, vulnerable straps tuck away neatly, and the weatherproof material has proven itself able to endure the harshest of treatment.
The previous iteration of the MLC, without the Black Hole material, was criticized for its comparative lack of durability. Patagonia listened to its loyal luggage followers and made a critical and strategic error-correction by redesigning it with more durable materials. This version of the MLC proves to be as rugged as we could imagine.
Volume to Weight Ratio
The MLC has a carrying capacity of 45L and weighs under four pounds. While this is not the lightest bag in our review, we are still impressed with this weight to capacity ratio. Generally speaking, the more durable a material is, the more it weighs, so durable yet light material is tough to find or quite pricey. The Black Hole fabric is super tough for the weight and lasts through a tremendous amount of abuse. We know this material from Patagonia's line of duffel bags — as expedition climbers, we have long favored the Black Hole duffels for their rugged weatherproofness and long term durability. These bags are worth the investment.
MLC stands for Maximum Legal Carry On, which we think is a bit misleading. The soft structure of this bag allows for it to be stuffed very full, making it quite large and potentially uneven. The bulginess may hinder your ability to fit it into the measurement bin with ease and therefore cause issues if overhead bin space is limited. Again, packing cubes can help you avoid being asked to check your bag, but be sure to whip out the measuring tape and know your airline's carry on size restrictions if you want to be properly prepared.
We all know that Patagonia products are often on the pricier side of the spectrum, so it's no surprise that the MLC is one of the more expensive packs in our test suite. When we purchase Patagonia products, we are not only receiving stellar gear, but we are supporting a truly ethical company. The Black Hole material used in this backpack is Bluesign approved to ensure that products are safe for the environment, workers, and customers.
While we would love to have all the best gear, sometimes spending the extra cash just simply isn't in the cards. Nicknames like "Patagucci" capture this sentiment. That being said, we truly believe that you are getting what you pay for in this case. If the durable, lightweight materials don't last long enough, than Patagonia's Ironclad Guarantee will. The environmental ethos of Patagonia ensures that their products are made to last — after all, that reduces waste, and ultimately, long term strain on your wallet.
The Patagonia Black Hole MLC continues to be a clear award winner. While it does not win our Editors' Choice, it does win a Top Pick Award for Overpackers. Its durable yet soft exterior offers some give, so all you overpackers can really stuff it to the brim, especially with the addition of packing cubes. It is perfect for weekend adventures, casual business trips, and can even act as a classy addition to our international expeditions. The MLC is made to last, and while purchasing this bag is a commitment, with Patagonia, you do really seem to get what you pay for.
— Hayley Thomas