Special Series: Effective Gear for the Backcountry Bowhunter. Part 2: Packs.

NFAA USA

An important part of your ability to hunt comfortably is your pack.  There are so many options here it will make your head spin, though I’m going to narrow it down quickly.  You generally get what you pay for here.  From lower priced options in the $100-$300 range like Alps, Tenzing, and Eberlestock…to the most expensive options like Stone Glacier, Mystery Ranch, Exo Mountain Gear, Sitka, and Kuiu, you can spend easily $400 to $800 in a flash. However, just like with boots, one of the best options I’ve found (and don’t anticipate changing anytime soon) is the specialized, custom fit options found at Kifaru.  I can’t speak entirely to some of the other options, other than I know many hunters are more than happy with the upper echelon of packs found in the Stone Glacier, Mystery Ranch, Sitka and Kuiu.  But just like with bows, it seems like every brand has a superstar that fits most niche categories and hunting styles.  What I can speak to is the quality and assurance I’ve found in the Sitka and Kifaru Packs.  Here’s two examples of guys who love their packs and used them on hunts with me.  Pictured above with the bull he took last year on our Idaho hunt, Dave Gore loves his Eberlestock Blue Widow.  His pack has an internal aluminum frame, and for him, he can handle that just fine with a heavy load.

Michael Lloyd of 41 Digital, usually joins me once a year for a few days in the Montana backcountry.  In this photo he is packing a 2200 Badlands pack. This is a great example of a less expensive, off the shelf option that he finds to be extremely comfortable and wears it daily.  On his pack in, and when an elk goes down, however, he utilizes the Badlands 4500, which he uses in a similar fashion as me.  The lighter pack is attached to the heavier pack for the initial trip in and carries all of his gear for the entire trip, his day pack however is only used for essentials he needs for a single day.  As with most daypacks, the 2200 lacks the internal frame, which contributes to the comfort of the pack.  The 4500 has a polycarbonate internal frame and actually expands from 4800 cubic inches into 7500 cubic inches.

For me, as a solo-hunter most all of the time, the versatility of the Kifaru System is what I like most about my packs. The heart of the system is the pack frame itself.  Being able to manage extremely large loads on 10+ day excursions, like I often take, depends on your ability to manage the amount of gear needed for extreme trips.  That includes weight management and comfort management.  Both of those completely depend on 3 things.  The way the pack fits your body, how you distribute that weight on the pack, and lastly the quality and weight capacity of the pack.  In this picture, it may look like an impossible load to deal with, but again, it’s how it’s loaded gives me the ability to haul my 10+days of gear contained in the pack.

This is where finding an expert in the field of packs comes into play.  If you’re purchasing a Kifaru, you’ll take some simple measurements over the phone with any of their staff and they’ll set you up with the perfect size frame and waist belt.  From there you’ll tell them what you’re using it for, how much, and what kind of gear you’ll be hauling.

To most, it seems that I run a pretty unique system. I like a small deployable pack that fits inside my main pack.  My main pack is a Nomad 2.  That pack folds open with two wings that hold about 1800 cubic inches.  In that open space between the wings, I’ll pop in my sleep system, dry bag, food bag, and a day pack.  Two years ago I actually used one of Sitka’s pack for that day pack (shown here).  I say “day pack” but it’s really a multi-day pack.  Since then, I’ve been able to cut my needed gear for a 3-day hunt and have been able to use the Native from Kifaru as part of that system.  The compatibility of using all of the same brand of packs saves substantial weight in itself because most companies use interchangeable attachment systems.

With my style of hunting, I generally find an area to set up a base camp.  That might be 2 miles in, it might be 10 miles from a trail head.  My “day pack” holds my essentials and is always prepared for me to be gone from my main camp for a maximum of 3 days.  That requires a pack with a minimum of 3000 cubic inches.  It’s not uncommon for me to get on a bull and stay with the herd for several days.  And, it’s not uncommon for me to drop my full pack on my way into a destination and leave it by the main trail for a couple days if I run into elk earlier than expected.

The Kifaru Native Lid I use now, instead of the Sitka, folds over the two side wings on 7 to 10 day, and longer hunts.  Between the wings I place my extra clothes and food items.  The native can be quickly detached and used with its own shoulder straps for a situation where immediate action is required.  I can drop the entire system and with the 1100 cubic inches the Native offers plus the ability to add attachments to the exterior with compatible buckles and straps, I have enough food and water for up to 3 days.  I also have my emergency supplies, my bivy and bag, a Kifaru Sheep or Aegis tarp, and a kill kit (meaning everything I need to get a bull quartered, bagged to cool down, and hung from a tree) until I can get back to my main pack and ditch everything but my necessities.   Once I get my main pack back to the animal, the meat is easily packed between the wings and secured for stable transport back to the trail head.  Always take your meat out first, the head and hide after, and lastly you can go back for your gear.

It may not be the perfect system for most, but it’s the perfect system for me.  My best advice for a pack, if you go without a custom system, is follow whatever guides the manufacturer may have for sizing and especially expected load weight capacities.  Don’t exceed those!  A broken or incorrectly fit pack can mean injury, loss of meat, a very, very sore back, shoulders, and legs.  I have yet to see an internal frame pack or a pack without a structured frame at all, transport heavy loads comfortably on anyone’s back.  So, it’s also my suggestion to look for a pack with an external frame system, or one with a slip on pack system where the pack covers the frame, like the Kifaru System.

Every hunter has different needs.  Some need specific luxury items to hang in there for as long as needed to fill the tag, others like me have the minimum amount of gear I need.  Alexis Alexander (pictured here) accompanied Dave Gore, Paige Pearce, and myself on an early season Idaho hunt last year and we collectively packed out 3 elk in 4 days.  That’s a lot of killing, and a lot of hiking with heavy loads!  If each of us had not had the best system individually, we would have potentially risked losing meat in the early season hunt.  Alexis is also using a Kifaru System here in this picture.

So how do you know, if you roll with an off the shelf option, if your pack will fit all your needs?  Unfortunately, sometimes it’s trial and error.  Which is a luxury most don’t have on your first big Western trip.  Comfort is the easiest to decide on in a store.  But recognize that that comfort level in a store more than likely won’t represent the comfort level you’ll experience in the field.

Along with that, you’ll need to make sure you have enough room for all of your gear.  This is again dependent on how many days you plan to hunt and how many creature comforts (luxuries) that you need to keep you comfortable on the mountain to endure the trip.  The simplest way to calculate the needed amount of cubic inches with a little extra room for error, is to put all of your gear, including food, and full water bladder (if you’re using one) or your water containers, in a cardboard box.  This might take a few tries and several cardboard boxes, but once you find one that everything fits into, you can do the math.  Leaving a little extra room in the box isn’t a bad idea, speaking from experience.  Use the calculations for space, multiply length x width x height in inches of the box, this equals the amount of cubic inches needed.

This is also the point where you may also realize that you don’t need quite as much as you think you do.  Some things can have multiple purposes and can cut down needed inches considerably.  Such as Tyvek (yes, the house wrap found at home construction sites).  You can use it as a ground cloth in a floorless shelter, as an emergency wind break, and as a clean place to lay your meat on as you quarter up your animal for packing or hanging.  Use your puffy jacket as a pillow instead of taking an extra pillow.  Be creative…but be conservative in all areas except emergency gear and water storage.  If you KNOW you have water sources, which you usually will if there’s animals there, because they need water too, just take enough water to pack into your expected camp.  You’ll likely set your main camp up near water anyways.  So run with a collapsible MSR water bag that’s unfilled.  That will not only save space, but it will save a ton of weight.  In a later point in this series, we’ll get into water purification.

Photo Credits: Rod White and Michael Lloyd of 41 Digital

About the author:  Rod White is an Olympic Archery Gold Medalist who has guided and outfitted in 5 states including Montana, New Mexico, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. His career as a professional archer paralleled his career as professional hunter working for and contracted by major outdoor and bowhunting corporations such as Mathews, Inc., Gander Mountain, and Gore-Tex Outdoors to name a few.  As a co-founder of the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP), Rod trained and certified 33 Fish and Wildlife State Agencies to distribute NASP.

He now works for the National Field Archery Association (NFAA) as the Bowhunting Coordinator and provides both hunting and target archery content for their social media platforms.  You can also follow him on his personal Instagram account by clicking here, OlympicBowhunter, and on Facebook by clicking here RodWhiteOlympicBowhunter.