Bias I’ve come to realize is a creeping thing. Both cultivating and dispensing of it are more difficult and less sudden than I used to think, especially when talking about the outdoor and hunting industries, where tribalism and 1913-style alliances of circumstance are the law of the land. So when the Utah Hunt Expo came up only four hours away, with more alpha-level hunting packs in one place than any other, it seemed worth the trip. With full awareness of the questionable conservation bona fides of the major sponsors, it was still a worthwhile use of time and money.
Hunting packs face a series of design obstacles emanating from the fact that they must carry loads approaching or exceeding 100 pounds well. Building a frame which is vertically rigid enough to do that actually isn’t complex (doing that while also making something sufficiently un-heavy and flexible is another question, dealt with later), the hard part is making sure that the frame interfaces with the varying back shapes, and lumbar and hip contours of actual humans properly. In the era of internal frame packs that has generally meant twin stays shaped to mirror the users back shape. This is problematic both because making that bend close to perfect is difficult for many people to do at home, and because flat bar aluminum thick enough to not buckle under 100 pounds is both heavy (1/5″or thicker 7075, approaching if not exceeding a pound for the pair) and requires a lot of force to bend.
For this reason none of the packs discussed below, save the alu stay option Kifaru still offers, rely on users bending stays to anchor the lumbar. Most rely on some degree of generally adjustable lumbar padding to do this, though Outdoorsmans has an external frame style hanging belt, and both Mystery Ranch and Stone Glacier decouple the belt anchoring from the structural elements, essentially splitting the difference between the two types. When it comes to lumbar pads the approaches vary widely; Stone Glacier has a relatively subtle one, while the Kuiu frame combines with their pad to give a very aggressive curve. Kifaru has a subtle frame curve and a very large lumbar pad, while Exo also has a huge lumbar pad, combined with a frame that is essentially flat.
Exo frame and lumbar pad.
This flat frame and lumbar approach is unique to the hunting world. M remarked upon the large number of people at the hunt expo who spend at least some time in the weight room, and relative to the crowd at Outdoor Retailer the difference in average build is striking. I still don’t understand the functional argument for why squatting 400 pounds does much for being able to hunt well, but it seems improbable that the corset-wearing look of many hunters hasn’t heavily influenced hunting pack design.
Kuiu Icon Pro
Kuiu builds their packs off a shaped carbon fiber sheet, onto which the shoulder straps velcro, load lifters and compression straps clip, and which slots into the hipbelt and lumbar pad. As the chart shows, it is the simplest and thus the lightest of the systems I examined. I like that about it, and if the internet consensus is to be believed the latest carbon formulation has finally stopped breaking. What I don’t understand is why the whole thing, and especially the base, is so narrow. The section of carbon that slots into the lumbar pad can’t be wider than 6 inches, which I have to assume in part assumes why I found the lumbar pressure so overwhelmingly painful. As the photo shows, the frame wasn’t loaded especially well, so this opinion is far from definitive.
The Kuiu bags are fine, though as the numbers show the Icon series is heavy on pockets and zippers, and thus is heavy. Were the lumbar issue readily fixable at home I’d consider buying a frame setup, as the shoulder straps are very nice, and the belt not bad. For the time being I’ll write the Kuiu frame off, as an idea that could work really well, in a different shape, for a company willing to sink the cash into a carbon mold.
I had a first generation Solo bag I bought used, and liked quite a bit (save for the leaky top pocket placement), which reflects the extent to which their minimalist bent and coherent aesthetic has always appealed to me. Their new X Curve frame was the product in which I was most interested, and I was not disappointed. Stone Glacier had one ready and waiting, loaded up with what they said was 60 pounds. It felt fantastic, solid and light, just contoured enough to fit to my back well. The four stays SG uses for suspension end on the outer corners of the lower end of the frame encasement, and SG has a subtle wing that ties these to the belt. My presumption is that this is what makes it the most similar to the Seek Outside belt I’ve known and loved so thoroughly over the past three years.
X Curve on left, Crux frame on right.
That the Stone Glacier frame is among the heavier, and their bags among the lighter options tells a lot about their priorities. The Sky Archer bag has a ton of compression straps, an honest 6000 cubic inches, a big side zipped curved at the top, a small lid, and their nifty “bivy mode” volume reduction. I was frustrated with all the packs, at not being able to put them through much of a test, but the Stone Glacier was the one which most caught my interest.
Exo Mountain Gear
Exo is the newest and perhaps most interest hunting pack company. They have a narrow, focused product line. The frame is very much in the Kifaru lineage, with a big and very soft lumbar pad. The bags are more in the realm of Osprey, with dual stretch bottle pockets, tall side spotting scope pockets (that cinch with a Lineloc), a stretch front pocket (new for 2017, accessed by a zipper), zipper access into the main bag, and a contoured bag with organic lines. They look good, especially the new ranger green. I have reservations about the side pocket material, but that’s probably a prejudice I ought to reexamine. I have reservations about the lumbar arrangement and the extent to which it would work for me (as the photos of M show, for skinny folks without a lumbar curve the extent to which the frame stands off from the body is considerable). Most especially I have concerns about the way the harness and belt interface with the frame. The former attaches with velcro and clips, which leave a lot of room for wiggle if the load lifters aren’t snugged tight. Not unlike the Kuiu frame and the interface between the frame and belt is on the Exo rather narrow. Unlike the Kuiu the lumbar pad felt fine, but as the photos show without any means to cinch the sides of the bag tight to the frame, or the frame to the belt, are lacking. Even with the modest load Exo had available for use, the pack felt quite tippy.
Again, not a field opinion and thus lacking in substance, but a concern I can’t get out of my head.
Not much to say about Kifaru, other than that is was nice to try on a pack and finally confirm my suspicions about the Duplex system. They invented the hunting pack as we know it today, for better or worse, and as a mature product the current hunting frame embraces its weight and burl. It was the stiffest, both vertically and especially laterally, thing I looked at. It has a big ole lumbar pad, paired with a thin and flexible and aggressively cupped belt. The lumbar pad felt odd for me, but it’d be interesting to spend a bunch of time in the field and see if that opinion changed. I hate most of their bags, and take issue symbolically with the thick thread, sloppy stitching, and high prices, but none of that really abates my curiosity.
Mystery Ranch is another company that does what it does and is sticking to tradition, recent controversy over outsourcing production notwithstanding. I haven’t bought into their plastic yoke and heavy framing in the past, and messing with their new Guidelite frame did nothing to change my mind. The trizip (seen here on the Pintler) is still the best zip access pack design on earth, and I still see nothing the MR suspension does that other, simpler, lighter ones don’t do better.
They also come up with bizarre designs like the Divide, above, with a ton of pocketing that seems intended to haul heavy loads, but isn’t built on a load hauling frame.
The Optics Hunter pack has always intrigued me, mainly because Steve Rinella and Remi Warren have used the heck out of them even with many other options in their closests (which they also got for free) Having seen it in person, I now get it. The consistently 14″ wide, square bottomed bag holds a lot more than it looks like it would, all while staying below shoulder height. That’s not so good for load hauling, but is handy for slipping through the brush. The harness and belt seemed very comfy, and the many pockets were surprisingly coherent as a total package. Long sleeve pockets, which run the full length of the bag, with buckle top stash pockets on top. The pocket on the front panel has a sleeve behind it for holding a rifle. The lid, which is sewn to the bag on the user side, has two pockets only partially sewn together, accessed via smooth running straight zippers, and have a ton of capacity. Of all these packs I would actually like to have one of these the most, purely because I think I’d learn the most from it.
There are a lot of good packs out there. All of the things discussed here are well designed, and exceptionally well put together. Most of them have details that are on the leading edge of making packs that carry serious loads well, and reflect the extent to which the hunting industry is leading the outdoor industry in many important areas. We can all expect some pretty nifty stuff in the next few years.