Utah Hunting Expo pack roundup

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.

img_3137Exo 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.

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Kuiu Icon Pro

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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.

Stone Glacier

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.

img_3178X 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.

Kifaru

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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

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.

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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.

Outdoorsmans

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.

In summary

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.

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22 thoughts on “Utah Hunting Expo pack roundup

  1. Inquiring minds would like to ask whether Hill People Gear was there, and if so if you had a play with their packs and have an opinion. I am biased towards Seek Outside because I have a Revo and I do not plan to change system anytime soon (my money tree is stubbornly not growing). Yet I envy the opportunity to play with other gear, and I would relish to run around and to a direct and side by side controlled comparison test (which, let’s be fair, would just prove what works best for me, not what is best in absolute terms). In fact, let me ask — if you had to create a side by side comprehensive set of tests, what would you do?

    1. HPG was at SHOT, the only reason they didn’t make it into my writeup was that I was tired enough and so busy chatting I forgot to take photos. I like what they did with the Ute and Qui-ya, but hate the single-webbing attachment point for the harness, and before I changed it on my Tarahumara found the Cordura on the inside of the shoulder harness got soaked and then chaffed quite a bit. The experience of tearing seams out on that pack convinced me that First Spear does the best pack sewing I’d seen, something which is still true up to this date.

      If I had infinite resources for a pack test I’d buy everything outright and take 2 months to do little but hunt and come home to recover. A single user doing intensive testing would probably provide the most coherent final product.

      Second choice would be having all the product in the same place for a few weeks to at least do back to back to back test hikes.

      1. I have honestly never been able to wrap my head around HPG packs as true load haulers. They just don’t seem to have the volume necessary for big ol’ hunks of meat. Their frames and Prairie Belt are clearly intended for the heavy stuff but the pack bags aren’t big enough. Correct me if I’m wrong but their heavy haulers don’t really seem to reduce to a minimal pack board either. Perhaps it’s just bad product photography on their site because I’ve only laid hands on my Tarahumara but I just don’t see it in their product line. And it’s a shame because their gear and ethos could and should be a perfect match for backcountry hunters.

        1. The Ute is small. Fill it with boned out meat and I’m sure you could test the suspension (and for taller folks, frame height) thoroughly. The Qui-ya is big, and with 28″ stays, and seems a better match to the whole suspension.

          Both do compress totally flat.

  2. I’ve been very impressed with Kurt’s work at SG. Not many folks have an opportunity to to use more than one or two the high end hunting packs; I think when someone finds something that works they tend to stick with it. I’m also convinced that what works great for one, might not work that great for all.

    It would be fun to test out a half dozen of the high end packs for a couple of weeks, pretty sure you would have a damn good idea what would work best 🙂

  3. With regards to the jacked hunter build and the extensive lumbar pad area, I remember a discussion on the HPG forum that talked about how for truly heavy loads you needed the frame to lock into that lumbar area and have a pad. I believe it was said this was particularly true if you have a significant butt.

    They particularly mentioned that the SO style packs, with the non fixed belt worked best for those without a derrier. Any thoughts on this? In the customers you ran into, did there seem to be a certain build type that gravitated to the SO style pack?

    ETA: Here is the thread…you actually chimed in: https://hillpeoplegear.com/Forum/tabid/679/forumid/23/threadid/10255/scope/posts/Default.aspx

    Also, I have had several HPG packs, and they are really nice quality as you say. I do not like their yoke either though…for me it is really hard to get adjusted to ride nicely on my upper back shape, and the Umlindi for a day pack is just one or two pockets short of being perfect. If it had a flat zipper pouch on the front and/or on the lid, it would be much more useful to me at least. The Tara I wanted to love so bad as the size is really nice for a lot of the short trails around here, but I can’t stand how the water bottle pockets eat into the main cavity, and I also found the lower strap attachment point had the buckle exposed and it has done very noticeable damage to a lot of my tops from rubbing. But those seem to be my personal issues as no one else ever complains of them.

    1. Design-wise pockets are a nuisance. All sorts of compromises necessary. Combining the easy accessibility companies like Osprey have taught us to expect with the durability folks expect from hunting brands is tough, which is why almost no one does it well.

      I need more field time with more packs to really speak on the lumbar issue. My sense is that lumbar pads are useful for those with the curves to use them, and become progressively less good to the point of being a detriment for the really skinny. Working on acquiring more data.

      1. I can only speak for myself and with the caveat that I never owned a pack with lumbar pad (the previously mentioned issues of owning a SO revo and not having the money for other packs). At some point in the past and for quite a while (and no way for any hunting related looks) I did develop an interest in powerlifting. Hence I (still) have very powerful glutes, which would give the space for a lumbar pad. Having carried heavy loads for quite long treks with the SO belt I never felt I needed a lumbar pad. That does not mean I would have not benefitted for one, but as I said, I never felt shortchanged for not having it.

  4. Dave,

    Yeah, the more I hike the more I realize pockets can be a hindrance, but I have yet to let go of my love for a small one on the lid and/or a small one on the front (a mesh one even is fine).

    Fedster,

    I appreciate you sharing. I have a bit of a rump myself (a decent lumbar curve at least) from a lifting background, and I’ve never had any problems with the SO frame/belt either, but I’ve never had much weight in it for long either. So I really appreciate you sharing.

  5. I can confirm that for me, at a slim 5′ 10″, a full wrap SO belt rides more comfortably (more weight to the hips and less constriction) than a lumbar/belt/stay style pack. My SO Divide will be my long-day hike pack from now on. I tried a HPG Umlindi for EDC and day hike use. With a 18.5″ torso it was difficult for me to get the proper harness length and stay curve for my back. Adding a prairie belt helped but the harness still felt off. The whole thing sagged away from my back and down. The delta straps help but it’s not as comfortable as a full-wrap SO belt with frame. When considering the weight of just the pack and belt alone, the advantage of modularity was diminished based on the lack of comfort. I’m keeping the prairie belt for other uses but the Umlindi was sold off. I replaced it with a Connor pocket. The harness is sewn lower thus is more comfortable for shorter torsos and it has more organization but less space. The SO Divide is my backpacking/heavy-long day bag, the Connor my EDC/GHB, Tarahumara is my pack for all-day in packed crowds, PALS Pocket is set up with pocket harness + other HPG pockets as a tool bag for work.

    I really like the HPG philosophy and aesthetic. The FS craftsmanship is amazing. I just hope they refine the harness for smaller folks.

    1. Thanks for writing Emmanuel. It’s useful to have as many data points as possible here.

      The HPG lumbar pad is a very mild version of Kifaru and Exo. My suspicion is it could be made to fit a wide variety of folks, but as you at a inevitable weight/complexity cost.

      The more I talk with folks the less I think there are many people out there who need a lumbar pad for fit issues. I do think there are a lot of non-skinny folks with big shoulders for whom the stock curve on most packs won’t fit without a lumbar pad essentially acting as a spacer to move the curve out.

      Shoulder straps are a tough one. On a production basis its a pain to have multiple options, but I think unless you do that someone is always going to be left out.

    1. Yes, and winter and also summer OR (I think).

      As is usual with Arcteryx the finish quality and technology is stunning. The bag fabric being laminated directly to the carbon sheet which is both framesheet, stay, and bag all in one is certainly a glimpse into the future. But also as is usually the case with Arcteryx, some things (like the crazy hipbelt attachment joint) seem like and excessively complex, heavy, and expensive solution to a problem that really isn’t one in the first place.

      1. Cool, thank you…the new belt and shoulder straps is what I was hoping you would offer your take on it. Not for any particular reason, but re-reading through the comments about the problem of shoulder strap width it made me think of the Bora AR with it’s grid you can move the straps on…seemed like a complicated mechanism to have on a backpack, but again, I’m fairly ignorant of these things.

        1. I don’t recall that adjustment mechanism specially, but if memory serves it is not unlike the system on the last few generations of Arcteryx packs with the plastic key system.

          If you want to have that level of adjustment, I think the Stone Glacier velcro system is better. Simpler (cheaper) and less likely to squeak. Plastic on plastic suspension connections have in my experience a 100% noise rate.

  6. Since people are still reading, let me proffer the following issue. I have a medium belt (for a SO frame) but (1) sometimes I wear layers and (2) I might be increasing in size (I am a 34 more or less but I seem to go towards more. Damn you, old age and slow metabolism!). Now the padded part of the belt only gets to the front of my iliacs, and when I tighten the belt it does squeeze. I am now planning to upgrade (Large? XL? should I err on the side of too big?). So the question is, how much does belt coverage matter, compared to the lumbar pad yes/no side of the equation. Yet untested, I am getting the itead that more coverage around my hips == better weight distribution, less need to tighten hard and more efficiency and comfort. That is, the front side of the hips might be as important, or more important, that the padding at the back. I’d love to hear people’s opinion and experience on this.

    1. It is definitely an issue. The 32-36 range is definitely the most common for men, and just too big to be covered by one belt size, so it’s sort of a damage control issue as to where in that range one puts the size break.

      Belt coverage is highly relevant at higher weights. I can wear a large SO belt and have enough adjustment up to about 35 pounds, and that level of wrap is pretty nice. That said I have a medium on most packs as that size works for all weights and I don’t have to swap.

      Ideally you’ll have ~2 inches of padded belt on each side after the curve into the front of ones waist. Bigger people and those whose illiacs aren’t as sharp at the front have more leeway here, smaller folks and bonier folks have less.

      Kifaru doesn’t advertise it, but they do make custom S-Medium and M-Large belts on request, which is an admirable accommodation for getting just the right fit.

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