Patagonia improved what was already an award-winning travel backpack. As the saying goes, when you're at the top, the only way you have to go is down… so Patagonia took a proactive approach. We heard whispers of durability issues with the Headway MLC, and the fabric would show wear and tear relatively quickly. Before any of us could complain too loudly, the company redesigned the bag using their Black Hole material—the same stuff used in their impressively durable expedition duffel bags and messenger bags. The new Patagonia MLC is still as user-friendly and versatile as ever, now with an even sleeker look and a much longer lifespan. The longevity of gear is a great way to reduce waste and keep things ethical, a top priority for Patagonia. It's a great bag for airport travel and road trips, and will likely suffice for international trips a few weeks if you're able to do laundry.
Patagonia Black Hole MLC Review
Compare prices at 2 resellers Pros: Versatile, duffel-like ease of use, just the right balance of travel features
Cons: Backpack straps not comfortable for long distances, gear sags in soft structure when not full
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Patagonia MLC has been updated from our last round of testing. The company decided to use their incredible Black Hole material from their line of duffel bags and messenger bags, and we are even more impressed by this travel backpack.
The MLC is a lot like a soft suitcase with shoulder straps. This is one fairly standard approach to travel backpacks. Hard-sided suitcases and rolling suitcases are great, but they have their limitations, especially in how you carry and transport them. The shoulder straps afford a lot of versatility, but the rest of the bag must be redesigned to rest relatively comfortably against your back.
The MLC has enough padding where the bag rests along your back, and the shoulder straps are firm and supportive. It is quite comfortable for what essentially amounts to a rectangular duffel on your back. There is no hip belt, which limits the amount of time and distance you would want to trek with this pack, but it is great for transporting through cobblestone streets and through busy airports.
The laptop compartment is well padded and rests directly against your back, which lends support and structure to the bag. This improves comfort, and cleverly uses items which you are likely to be carrying in the bag anyway to do so. It also places your dense, heavy laptop close to your center of gravity, helping to avoid any extra torquing on your shoulders (which happens when the load in a backpack is heavier further out from your body).
The MLC also has a removable, padded shoulder strap. It's a little large, awkward, and cumbersome when carried over one shoulder, but it is good to have it as an option in case you're carrying other luggage or duffels on your back, or if you just need to haul it quickly between vehicles or buildings.
The MLC is full of useful features. It is well designed for the casual business traveler, the adventurous weekend warrior, and even for the off-roaders venturing well off the beaten path. There is a main compartment enclosed with a zippered mesh divider for clothing. There is a slimmer pocket with solid fabric that we found useful for shoes and other things that we didn't want to make everything else smelly or dirty. Then there is an external zippered compartment with lots of pockets and sleeves for papers, cords, and a variety of office items. On the outside of the bag, there is a small, slender zippered compartment well suited to items you need to access quickly and easily while in transit. This is a good place for a passport so long as you're not worried about pickpockets. Last, the padded electronics sleeve is located along the back of the bag and includes a smaller padded sleeve for a tablet.
The MLC has stowable suspension, which is excellent for those times you have to check the bag (which might happen, this bag stretches the limits of some airlines' carry on baggage dimensions). You just unclip the bottom of each shoulder strap and tuck it into a sleeve in the back panel, then zip it closed. The bottom buckles are tucked into a "garage" and remain out of the way and relatively immune to conveyor belt abuse. Voila, you have a sleek and smooth soft suitcase in your hand.
And if the backpack and shoulder straps don't provide enough carrying options, there is one more sneaky zippered sleeve on the back of the bag. If you unzip it, the MLC slides perfectly over the handle of a rolling suitcase. Our testers are such Patagonia Black Hole luggage enthusiasts that we actually own several of the 120-liter duffels, one of which with wheels—and it's an impeccable match. Not only do we get endless compliments in our travels, but we also feel fast and efficient.
There is a luggage tag sewn into the side of the bag, and which slides in and out of a camouflaged sleeve. It's nice to have it included on the bag and tucked out of the way, so you don't have to attach your own and have it flap around. It also helps keep the bag looking sleek and professional—and a little less "travel-y."
The zippers can be locked, except for the laptop sleeve which has only one zipper pull. This was okay for our uses because we wouldn't leave the bag unattended with our laptop in it anyway, and while in transit, the laptop rests against your back (or thigh, if carrying like a duffel or briefcase), so we weren't overly concerned about theft.
Packing & Accessibility
The MLC's clamshell design allows this pack to open like a traditional suitcase, so it is very easy to access anything in the bag. The addition of several useful organizational pockets, for everything from shoes and socks to office supplies, helps keep things where you can find them. And the laptop sleeve makes it easy to slide your laptop or tablet in and out quickly at airport security screening.
The rectangular design of the bag is easy to manage through the airport, stuff into the overhead bin on the airplane, and chuck in the trunk of a vehicle. It is a simple, user-friendly travel backpack with a design that tends more toward suitcase than backpack.
A small detail that we liked was that the interior of the bag is a lighter color. This contrasted with most of our clothing and luggage, making it easier to find whatever we were looking for, and is preferable to the bags in this review with dark interiors that disappear our gear like in a black hole, but in a different way from the MLC Black Hole.
Due to the soft structure of the pack, if it was not packed fully, our clothing tended to bunch up or sag to the bottom. This could be prevented with the addition of compression straps inside the bag, but it is also easily managed with packing cubes. We appreciated the compression straps in the Cotopaxi Allpa, which also helped reduce the bulk of that backpack. We were often challenged by the bulging profile of the MLC, so we think compression straps inside the main compartment could help.
Patagonia products are built to last, and this bag is no exception. And rest assured if it doesn't last, it's backed by Patagonia's Ironclad Guarantee.
We don't anticipate having to take advantage of that guarantee, at least not for a long time. The Headway is a rugged, durable, and thoughtfully constructed travel backpack. The zippers are smooth and glide easily. The exterior is thick, rugged, and smooth, made of recycled polyester ripstop with highly weather-resistant TPU-film laminate and a DWR (durable water repellent) finish. In this version of the MLC, Patagonia opted to use their fantastic Black Hole material, a very appropriate and desirable update. Previously, the fabric was more like canvas, which was less durable, and quickly looked used (the fibers would easily fray and frizz), and it would also stain easily. The Black Hole looks new and professional for what seems to be the life of the product.
The New Yorker ran a profile of Yvon Chouinard, co-founder of Patagonia, in September 2016, which underlined the durability of Patagonia products. Chouinard, the article reported, is a reluctant businessman, critical of consumerism, and stuck between the economic reality of running a successful business and the harsh reality of our (related) impact on the environment. "Chouinard may walk the walk," the article said, "as far as not buying things—his own Patagonia gear tends to date back to the last century." You might say that Patagonia products are built to last until they come back into style.
The previous iteration of the MLC, without the Black Hole material, was criticized for its comparative lack of durability. Patagonia made a critical and smart error-correction for their loyal luggage followers. This version of the MLC proves to be as rugged as we could imagine.
Weight & Capacity
The MLC is under four pounds for 45 liters of capacity. This is not the lightest in the review, but it's pretty darn good for the relatively large volume of the bag. The Black Hole material 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.
The MLC stands for Maximum Legal Carry On, which is potentially a misnomer. Be sure to measure this bag at home when you've packed it full for your trip. And be sure to know your airline's carry on size restrictions. And then check the measurements at the ticket counters in the airline's provided measurement bin. The MLC is easy to stuff until it's bulging and requires a little too much oompf to get it into the sizing bin.
Patagonia is known to be on the pricier side of outdoor and travel gear, and this travel pack is no exception. This is presumably due to the ethical nature of the company and materials they use. The Black Hole material used in this backpack is Bluesign approved to ensure that products are safe for the environment, workers, and customers.
The unfortunate reality is that Patagonia gear is sometimes out of the price range of some otherwise enthusiastic consumers. Nicknames like "Patigucci" capture the sentiment. However, with Patagonia, you do get what you pay for: if the environmental ethos doesn't capture your heart, the Ironclad Guarantee will at least ensure you're expectations are met, and the knowledge that their products truly are made to last—after all, that reduces waste, and ultimately, long term strain on your pocketbook.
The MLC from Patagonia continues to be a clear award winner with the addition of the Black Hole material, making it even more competitive than the last version. This is a highly versatile, simple, durable travel backpack that conforms to a variety of travel needs. For our testers, it made a great weekend adventure backpack, a nice-enough casual business travel bag, and even a classy addition to our international expeditions (because it's burly and durable enough we weren't worried about messing it up or getting it dirty). The MLC is made to last, even more than the last version—and yes, it is priced accordingly. But as it goes with Patagonia, you do really seem to get what you pay for.
— Lyra Pierotti