September 29, 2020
When I started to get serious about hunting western big game, it quickly became apparent that the demands of mountain hunting and being deep in the backcountry required some specialized gear. Much of what I had, would work – rifles, ammo, binoculars, spotting scopes, layered clothing, etc.
The one piece I could never find comfort with was my backpack. I tried many. My shop is full of packs that were too heavy, too small, not durable, not able to carry loads, and too rigid to hunt in all day. Many of these discards still sit in my shop as a reminder of what didn’t work.
I started asking my other hunting friends who were serious hunters, what they used for backpacks. The answers were all over the map. And, no one really had a good answer. Seems we were all leaning toward the mountaineering backpacks, even with their funky colors and noisy fabrics. They worked, and worked pretty darn good.
Hunters being who we are, are always looking for the better mousetrap. If there was one improvement to my hunting gear that was most needed, it was in the area of back packs. Little did I know that I would soon be introduced to a backpack that has really changed my hunting style, enjoyment, and success.
I am fortunate to live in Bozeman, Montana. Not only do we have world class hunting out my back door, but millions of acres of wild country within an hour drive. Opportunities such as this attract the most dedicated of our type. As is the case with other small mountain cities, Bozeman is home to a high population of backpack hunters, mountaineers, and adventurers, most of whom make my hunting activities seem quite pedestrian.
This concentration of extreme backpack hunters allows for a lot of hunting talk on the street and in the coffee shops. And attracts some of the best manufacturers of mountaineering and hunting gear.
One day I mentioned my need for a new pack to one of my hunting friends, Kurt Rued. Kurt takes backpack hunting to a level I will only dream of. He has shot and packed out more big elk and mule deer from wilderness areas than I will ever see, let alone shoot. Kurt had experienced my same frustrations of finding good packs and had smartened up years earlier, and was a committed user of mountaineering packs.
I told Kurt that hunters needed a different kind of pack. I was looking for something durable, light, sturdy, useable as a day and a game hauler, and built by other backpack hunters to the demands we were putting on them.
Kurt made mention of a company that was making extreme hunting packs from a combination of their mountaineering and military packs. Mystery Ranch was the company.
Kurt put me in touch with Mark Seacat, the marketing manager at Mystery Ranch. Mark is not only a pack designer, but a former elk hunting guide, a mountaineer, and a serious backpack hunter. Mark, along with his Mystery Ranch companion, and brother-in law, Andrew Crow, had spent time adapting the Mystery Ranch packs to hunting applications, via their Denali adventures and numerous other hunting excursions.
It became obvious that a company built by the founders of Dana Design packs was serious about packs. Dana packs were known as world class mountaineering packs and have seen the top of most every high peak on the planet. Combine that background with a company committed to hunters, heavily employing hunters, and building all American made packs for the extreme military uses, and the end result is packs that are changing mountain hunting.
With that background, I will explain why these packs perform so well, and why my hunting has improved so much, just from a pack. A pack that is considered essential gear, not an accessory you leave at the truck until a time of need.
For the type of hunting I do, which is mostly western mountain hunting, I need two things versatility and durability. Here is how this new piece of equipment has improved my hunting over the last two seasons.
Too many packs are just a day pack with no ability to carry heavy loads, or they are extremely rigid and cumbersome frames that are impractical to hunt with all day. When I leave camp or the trailhead in the morning darkness, I need everything in my pack to hunt long and hard, knowing I will return that evening by headlamp.
It is here where versatility in a pack has helped my hunting so much. I was always somewhat hesitant to hike to that next ridge, and the next ridge, and the next ridge, knowing that if I shot something, I did not have with me the necessary tools to get the meat out without spoiling, or doing so would require a Herculean effort.
My packs did not have the versatility that would allow me to carry all I needed for a day of hunting and possibly a night in the woods, and still be compact enough to effectively hunt all day. I didn’t want to carry the big rigid frames, as they were hard to wear and hunt with effectively. Yes, these rigid metal frames meant I had means to take out my first load, but the affect they had on my hunting style seldom resulted in a punched tag where I would have a load to haul out.
So, I compromised by using smaller day packs and hunting closer to camp and trailheads, where it would not be so difficult to walk back and retrieve my meat hauling pack. By hunting closer to camps and trailheads, I hunted closer to the other hunters, and where the animals knew human activity would be more prevelant. Success was harder to find. Simple as it sounds, I often wondered why my buddies using mountaineering packs and heading deeper into the mountains were seeing so much more game. Hello!
Upon finding a solution to this versatility issue, I now carry all I need for a day hunt, even a couple nights in the mountains, and it all compresses to such a comfortable pack, that I can carry it all day. The very strong internal frame, along with a super comfortable waist belt, and the built-in cargo-hauling straps and buckles, give me the versatility I need. No need to worry about spoiled meat, not having enough supplies to venture to the deeper parts of the wilderness area, or other decisions forced upon me when I used inferior packs.
If I shoot something, I have a pack that is stout enough to carry out seventy pounds of boned meat with ease. And it collapses to a small and thin profile, making it very easy to hunt as if it were a day pack.
My days of compromise are now over. I now hunt where I think will hold the most game and the fewest hunters.
My success has increased dramatically, though my age and conditioning are going the opposite direction. I feel safer, knowing everything I would need for extended time in the woods is on my back and I will get back safely, though possibly a day or two later. This higher level confidence and freedom is hard to explain, but well shared by those who have found a special piece of equipment that provides such.
Our hunting days are too precious to be impacted by poor equipment. You hunt hard and you expect your equipment to work hard for you. Not just your rifle or your ammo. All of it. That includes the pack you will wear all day and the demands you will place on it when your animal is on the ground.
As I stated above, I have too many packs. My pack junkyard is filled with broken zippers, busted straps, lost parts, noisy swivels and hinges, cheap cloth. Most of them looked pretty cool when I was testing them out at the trade show or the sporting goods store. That is where most of them performed their best.
Backpack hunting demands a lot from a pack. In addition to being versatile, the durability needed to carry large, cumbersome loads over nasty terrain requires special consideration. Each year, I usually pack out three to four elk, and just as many deer taken by me, friends, and guest hunters on our TV show.
An elk requires a lot of work. This is usually not flat ground. It is often thick brush grabbing you and your pack, steep grades with rocks rounding all sharp edges on your gear and grinding your pack fabric to pulp, and the loads are heavy and not very uniform. Elk hunting, or better yet, elk packing, is where you will learn what your pack is made of.
Every pack I have destroyed has been while packing an elk. If you want to see a mad hunter, watch as he hikes three miles in, spends hours quartering and boning the meat, only to have the pack fail in the first half mile back to camp. Not only is it a wasted trip, but meat can spoil, the work to haul with a broken pack is immense, and you now realize the hard-earned cash you paid for a pack was an expense, not an investment.
Durability comes from proper construction and from a complete understanding of how the pack will be used under the most extreme of conditions. It results in reinforced zippers, higher grade fabric, multiple stitching in places of stress, and engineering that makes heavy loads carry lighter than they really are.
Durability is not just withstanding one trip. It is a continued return on investment every time out. It requires withstanding years of abuse and still performing as well as the day you bought it. And be backed by a conditional lifetime warranty.
That is what you are looking for in a pack. A pack to last a lifetime. And a pack that will increase your hunting success.