Defining Ultralight: Backpacks

This is part two in the Defining Ultralight Series. You can read the previous post HERE.

Starting from ground up…

The backpack to me is the foundation and the backbone of a hunting gear system. It holds almost everything other piece of gear, as well as enables the ability for incredible things. As a backcountry hunter, I essentially live and die by my backpack. If there is place that money is well spent on gear, a pack is without a question in my top 2-3.

As important as a pack is, it also will most likely be one of the largest differences from traditional backpacking gear and will often be the heaviest single item in a gear list. Hunting packs are a different breed from backpacking equivalents as they need to carry extremely heavy loads at times, swallow huge volumes of meat for transport, all the while be incredibly durable while maintaining a low overall weight. When you step back and think about it, a 5lb pack that can handle 150+ lbs on the regular is quite a feat in itself. The companies building quality hunting packs now are incredibly advanced, and often don’t get enough credit for their innovation and design in my opinion.

I don’t want this to be a brand supporting or bashing post, but in many regards its hard not to at least talk about some specifics in terms of options. So I will mention now what I feel like are at the top of the market, and what I have and haven’t used personally. Hopefully this will give you a better understanding of what I can and can not speak to directly. I have bought, owned and used Kifaru, Stone Glacier and Mystery Ranch packs. I have spent a good deal of time hunting and packing meat with each of those three brands, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of those three to anyone. You will probably notice, if you are familiar with hunting packs, that EXO Mountina Gear isn’t on the list. I think they make a great pack, I just haven’t worn one as of now, and don’t feel the need to currently. A lot of guys who use and abuse backpacks wear and love EXO, I just haven’t gotten around to buying one.

I have also owned, used, and sold several other cheaper options on the hunting market before getting into the bigger packs. Some of them are ok, some are poor, but none of them were great. For the most part, you get what you pay for here. It also seems like every year new packs come on to the market, and at some point, there may be another major competitor in the future, much like Stone Glacier and EXO have become in the recent past. As for now though, I don’t believe anyone else is really on par with these 4 companies.

Before I get into how I see the differences between these companies’ packs though, I think the discussion of what to look for in a backpack is worth diving into for a bit. Without first being educated about what you need/ want, the choices in hunting backpacks can be a little overwhelming.

Pack Considerations

Modularity

Essentially all the packs I mentioned above are modular in some sort or fashion. The main purpose for this is two-fold in my opinion. The first is the obvious ability to separate the frame from the bag, and then replace it with a different bag. This allows for the use of different gear set for various hunts, seasons, etc. This is a really nice feature, and it allows for multiple pack configurations for a lower price than if someone had to buy the frame and suspension every time they wanted a different bag.

The second reason in my eyes is to pack meat. Whether you remove the bag and pack meat with just the frame or separate the bag from the frame and utilize the space between the two for meat packing is up to you. Either way though, this separation solves a large amount of the problem when it comes to large, awkward loads of meat combined with gear. The load shelf concept is a little bit of my baby, although I can not take credit for it. I helped float the idea around youtube before load shelfs existed though, on a mystery ranch pack that I reworked with some hardware. There were a few other guys using their packs the same way at the same time, and within just a couple years, almost every major hunting pack company had a load shelf design implemented somewhere in their product line. So in short, to me this modularity is very important to me.

Fit

Beyond modularity I need a pack that can hold heavy weight and do so with enough stiffness and comfort to carry loads for long durations. Elk pack outs when I hunt solo will be two to four days in duration typically, and a pack that can hold up to 80-120 lbs repeatedly while not causing extra physical discomfort is important. I don’t mean to say that one of these pack will magically make the weight go away. 100lbs being drug uphill is still 100lbs being drug uphill. Its hard wither way. What a good pack will do though is distribute the weight onto your body efficiently and keep and pressure points and fatigue to a minimum. Avoiding any extra pain under these loads is possible with a properly fitted pack.

Fit is the entire key in this comfort department. Assuming the frame is stiff enough, which all the good ones are, fit is everything. Fitting a pack is as much skill as it is a product feature. Making sure that your torso length is correct so that pack rides at the right height is critical. From there it is important to learn how to put the pack on, and how much tension you need in each part of the suspension.

 When I put a pack on, I repeat this process every time. I start by placing and tightening the waist belt where I want it. This will lock in the lumbar pad to my back, and allow me to setup everything else.Next come the shoulder straps which I have pre-loosened so that they are slack. I tighten them until they are lightly snug against my shoulders. Then I will tighten the load lifters to get some of the weight off of my shoulders and transfer more of the load to my hips. Lastly I take the sternum strap and keep it just tight enough to hold the shoulder straps into the position I want them so that they won’t cut circulation in my armpits or shoulders.

Like I said, I do this every time I take the pack off and put it back on. This is incredibly important when packing meat or heavy loads, and getting the pack snugged up properly makes all the difference in ride quality. As you wear a pack more and more, you will learn how to manipulate weight from shoulders to hips and back in order to maximize endurance and minimize fatigue. Wearing a pack is a lot like driving a car, and even though once its on it keeps running, there are a lot of small controls and inputs to monitor while in motion to keep it comfortable and on course.

Naturally one pack will probably fit you better than another, and between companies there is various amounts of adjustability and customization when it comes to fit. This is my priority in pack selection. If the frame fits right, you’re on the track to success, and from there it comes down to a bag to pair with it. Frames are also to the point where the weight is almost the same across the board, so more of your weight concerns in an ultralight backpack come from the bag and accessories than the frame. Don’t skimp on the frame, it’s the only tool you have to move an animal if you’re a backcountry hunting enthusiast.

Bag Design

Once you have a frame, your options for a bag will be narrowed down to one company. This simplifies the selection process a little bit up front without being overwhelming and helps to ensure that function and comfort take front seat in the priority department. A bag won’t really cause any discomfort outside of potentially being hard to pack if you pack the wrong one.

Bags to me have only two factors to consider. The first is size, the second is weight. A lot of people will recommend a large bag as gospel, but I personally just can’t bring myself to give that advice. In my experience, I value a small compact pack as much as I do a lightweight one. Big bags make more noise, have more mass weight, and often pack sloppily unless you have enough gear to fill them. They also encourage you to take more gear because filling them will make them carry better, and subconsciously I think this effects how you like the pack as a whole.

The only good arguments I see to a large bag are the following:

1)      Not Having to Buy Multiple Bags for Various Seasons (PRICE)

2)      Packing meat inside the bag.

I am not a fan of packing meat inside of the bag as I mentioned earlier, because I will spend the majority of my time without meat on a given hunt, and portion of it packing meat. To me, sacrificing the packs performance for the entire hunt just seems counterproductive, when I could just place the meat in the shelf on the way out where it carries best anyway.

The key to figuring out volume though is figuring out what gear you need to pack, which is tough to do when often times you need a pack before many other things. As a simple rule of thumb for an average hunter trying to trend toward lighter weight gear is to fall somewhere between 4000-5000 cubic inches. This is a relatively safe spot, and if your gear is heavy and bulky it will force you to work on that. Conversely, if you trim down your hunting gear and start having plenty of extra space, the modularity of these packs will allow you to sell you bag on the used market, and then downsize to a smaller bag. You could also keep your bag for colder weather endeavors in the future where more bulky insulation is required.

The holy grail for me is to have a 1800 inch bag for a daypack, a 3000 inch bag for all of my more average hunts, and a 5000 inch bag for extreme weather or long duration hunts. If you’re buying a pack and want to work towards a similar backpacking type system, I would start with a frame and the 5000 inch bag, and then over time pick up some smaller bags to add in as your gear gets lighter and you learn what you like.

When it comes to which bag in a specific size range, I pretty much distinguish on compression and weight. A hunting pack with a load shelf needs independent compression straps on both sides of the bag. The separate compression gives a bit of a ratcheting effect as you work from side to side, and this tension is critical to keep the pack tight and steady on your back. Most of these packs have good compression, but a couple models lack a little bit.

From there I simply decide based on weight from the options that remain. If there are two 3000-inch bags with similar compression for my frame, I will pick the lighter one. Access to me is the most minimal concern, and I don’t care too much about how the pack closes or opens. After all, much like my pack now, if the access bothers me down the road it isn’t overly difficult or expensive to have some modifications done to it by a professional. If you’re looking for that call Native Textiles. They did mine and the work is fantastic and flawless.

Accessories

The last thing you will probably look at when ordering your pack is the possible accessories that can go with it. I keep it simple here. More crap attached to the pack equals more weight. Usually at most I will end up wit two hip belt pockets, but typically I keep it to just one on my right side. Accessories aren’t bad, but hunting packs are heavy enough as it is. If you’re chasing low pack weights, get rid of or minimize as many of these as possible.

Brands/ Personal Experience

Now I’ll give you a brief summary of my thoughts on each of the brands I have used mentioned at the beginning of this article.

 

·       Kifaru-Best for Long Hauls with Heavy Loads

My current pack is a Kifaru Muskeg 2800. They have the frame that fits me the best out of the ones I will mention here, and their frame also allows for the most customizable adjustment. The hipbelt is the best on the market in my opinion, and the little adjustments like their load lifter angles make a large difference in moving from a really good fit to a perfect fit. Their newer duplex lite frame is the best available in my eyes and is also equally as light as any other comparable option for heavy loads. On the flip side, their bag design is good and durable, but also heavy. There are a lot of spots in their bag design with extra and doubled fabric that could be whittled away to shave weight. Kifaru also tends to build large bags in the 7000 cubic inch range which aren’t my cup of tea. Their sewing is good but not the best by any means, and they tend to be heavy on pockets and accessories. In short… the best frame but not my favorite bags.

 

·       Stone Glacier- The Lightest Option with Great Performancenting

Sort of the flip side of kifaru in my opinion. Stonge Glacier has the lightest total package of any of these companies mentioned in detail, but their frame isn’t quite as versatile in terms of an exact fit. The frame is more than capable but fits me slightly less exactly than the kifaru does, which can cause some rubbing and pressure points when I wear one. Their bags are my favorite design concepts out of anything available, and specifically the solo 3300 is my favorite hunting bag ever built. Their compression setup is spot on, and even though it is the same on every pack, it’s that way for a reason. These packs flat out work at a very impressive weight with 85% of the comfort of a Kifaru.

 

·       Mystery Ranch- The Best Priced High-End Pack

Mystery Ranch has been around a long time, and their packs are indestructible. There were some issues that I didn’t like a whole lot with their older NICE frame, but the newer guidelight is much better. Their packs have phenomenal construction and design, but with that durability comes some of the heavier packs that you will find out of these three companies. They have moved some of their manufacturing overseas, but with that comes some really good technical sewing along with more retail availability at a lower price than the previous two options. My biggest complaint with Mystery Ranch for now is that they have decided to not sell bags and frames separately. For several others and I this kind of removes them from the equation, but if you’re looking for a single pack, they have a great option. The torso length fit is as easy and good as they come, and they are also the only one of these three companies to make a specific womens pack. Mystery Ranch in a lot of ways is the original top end hunting pack, and their design is some of the most creative and unique to solve load carriage problems.