Gear Review: Isle Royale Mini

A good canvas bag has the classic elements of good looks, rugged construction, and generational durability... but at what cost? Check out our thoughts.

June 13, 2019 1:39 PM

Isle Royale Mini Backpack

About to climb up and over that railing, and duck under the ducts. The Isle worked with me.

Duration of Testing: 18 months (continuous, still testing as of 11/21/18)

Utility – 6

Durability – 7

Comfort – 5

Weight – 6

Cost – 4

Overall – 6/10

Bottom Line: Recommend with Caveats


Access to all 1st line items under the pack is 100%.

The Isle Royale Mini and I got off on the wrong foot. I loved the look of it, but no matter how I configured it, it just never felt right. After 6 years, I broke the strap hardware on my Saddleback Leather, and it offered a moment to take a serious look at the flaws inherent in the SBL's design. With an eye towards something lighter, but still maintaining the classic, innocuous vintage look, Frost River's pack caught my eye.

Frost River touts their equipment's tough waxed canvas. It's fairly light weight with old-school craftsmanship... but things got interesting when the time came to set it up.

First things first: The bag has no structural support. You've got to be aware that *how* you pack is as important as what you pack. Coming from the Mystery Ranch 3DAP and the SBL Tank - this was a new problem.

Previously, I could just sort of toss things in and it'd work out. The Isle Royale requires extra care when it comes to packing. Requiring a load plan is not a selling point. After a few weeks of fiddling around with all sorts of weird ideas, including using a grill as a frame and later, a small trash can as an "insert", I had come up with a load plan that balanced the weight which utilizes some modular pouches I'd been issued ages ago. The result was a fantastically balanced, roomy, stable and comfortable pack, which is a total reversal of my initial impression.

In addition to being stable, it's well organized and easy to access most of the contents. One negative aspect is that in order to get to some of my Sustainment gear, I have to remove the pouches, which requires unpacking and repacking. This is a minor issue, but certainly one that bears mentioning.

On a positive note, I can easily access all my EDC/1st Line equipment while under load.

Isle and author overlooking a vast abandon complex after moving through 7 stories and a sub-basement.


In terms of layout, the Isle Royale throws you a couple bones; two external pouches that are perfectly sized for Nalgene bottles, a map pouch in the flap, and two pseudo pockets on the side. Likewise, If you're the type who keeps an axe, it has a built-in slip between the bottle pouches.

Setting out for a ride with the pack. It rides really nicely in the saddle... but make sure you set it up right.

Isle Royale gives you plenty of compression and interior space, some very convenient water pouches, but beyond that, it's on you.

The layout is simple, utilitarian, and robust. The time tested waxed canvas is durable and looks great, and Frost River's craftsmanship is evident in the well-hewn and assembled bag. So far, the first and only 'breakage' with the Isle Royale is a tear in the leather on the left shoulder strap. This was easily fixed with some duct tape. Plus, it adds character.

Scaling a fence and pulling myself onto a CONEX under load.

Now comes the real kicker. Given that you're going to spend $360, you can find bags made from nylon, with built-in layouts. The well-organized, well-made, and requiring no special investment in time to organize. So all things considered, what the Isle Royale delivers in toughness and character, it gives up in layout and structure.


After a year and a half with the bag, it's convinced me that if you do your part, it'll deliver. The last 6 months of testing have been rigorous, to say the least with dozens of trips for urban exploration, camping and overlanding, and working protection problems on the range. Most of the time gear doesn't grow on me - it finds itself replaced.

The Isle Royale Mini, though, has a strange way of getting to know you. Like you'd expect of the people who would have worn packs like this during it's heyday, it's tough, rough around the edges, and it doesn't sugar coat what it is and isn't.

Once you get to know it, however, it let's it's good qualities shine. It's durable, and even when packed full, wears very nicely. The lack of rigidity allows it to move with your body when climbing, jumping, or running, all of which has been done in spades over the last few months. The bag certainly meets our standards for 1st line accessibility, capacity, and durability.


In the end, Frost River does an excellent job making a pack for a professional who isn't afraid to sit down and really pour over every detail of his pack. To date, I've yet to find a bag that's grown on me as much as the Isle Royale Mini has. It's become my 'go to' because of it's character and versatility, and as with all the products we test, it'll be years before we can say we've reviewed it to our standard. At present though, the IRM isa pleasure to field in all the conditions I've fielded it.

If you're not looking for a bag that places the responsibility of intelligently packing on you, there are probably better choices... but If you want a well made, classic, durable backpack that doesn't look tactical, take a look at Frost River's lineup. The Isle Royale Mini has become my "go-to", despite my initial impression.



Updated 11/21/2018

keep our content ad-free

Get all the newest articles sent to you first.


Latest articles


Driving 401: Immobilized Vehicle

The vast majority of vehicle tactics courses try and directly translate military, security contractor, or police tactics for civilian use. Here's our take.

News & Events

INFOSUM, August 27, 2019

The ISG Weekly Information Summary: An unbiased look at the happenings around the globe, and how they could impact life closer to home. August 27, 2019.


Building an ISG Rig 2: The Land Cruiser

The 80-series Land Cruiser is riding a wave of well-deserved popularity right now. If you've ever considered what it'd take to rebuild one, we've got answers.


Mythbusting: Nuclear Emergencies

Radiation is one of those threats that is universally feared, and for good reason. We spoke to nuclear Engineer Rick H. to separate the truth from the SciFi.


What's it like to Starve?

Starvation is one of the most deeply rooted enemies of humankind. Much has been said on it and how to prevent it, but what happens when you're truly starving?

Level Up

Rainwater Harvesting

Rainwater harvesting is an excellent way to provide clean or treatable water for your garden or emergencies. Barry V discusses how to harvest rainwater.

News & Events

INFOSUM, July 15, 2019

The ISG Weekly Information Summary: An unbiased look at the happenings around the globe, and how they could impact life closer to home. July 15, 2019

News & Events

INFOSUM, July 8, 2019

The ISG Weekly Information Summary: An unbiased look at the happenings around the globe, and how they could impact life closer to home. July 08, 2019

News & Events

INFOSUM, July 2, 2019

The ISG Weekly Information Summary: An unbiased look at the happenings around the globe, and how they could impact life closer to home. July 02, 2019


Building your adventure vehicle 1: So you want a rig?

Among our core skills is mobility. Part of that is having a solid vehicle. So what do you do in an age of disposable rides? Build your own, of course.


Bad Practice: Don't Maim People

In something that should be self-explanatory, we tackle the topic of why you should -under no circumstances- train specifically to maim other humans.

News & Events

INFOSUM, June 24, 2019

The ISG Weekly Information Summary: An unbiased look at the happenings around the globe, and how they could impact life closer to home. June 24, 2019.

never miss an update.

Get all the newest articles sent to you first.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.