Planning pile: Tendoy Bighorn hunt

I’m nervous about being rusty.  It’s been almost 3 months since I went backpacking, and while taken as a whole it isn’t exactly a perishable skill, the profusion of little things which come together to make a backcountry trip go smoothly make it easy to forget stuff.  So I’ve got a nice pile on the couch in the guest room to ruminate upon for the next 24 hours before I shove it in a pack.  It already took longer than it ought to both remember and then find tent stakes.

Some background is in order, starting with why sheep hunting is such a big deal to hunters.  The obvious answer is scarcity: there are less than a thousand bighorn tags available in the lower 48, and a lot of folks who apply for them every year.  Premium units (read: places that have particularly large-horned sheep in fairly accessible places) take somewhere near a decade of applying before your odds go above 1%.  But why so much demand?  I’m not entirely sure.  I think part of it has to do with how many hunters seem to be hunters only, and will never visit sheep and goat country without a tag in their pocket.

In any case, when my application for a ewe tag (in the best-odds unit in Montana) was denied this summer I started thinking seriously about this hunt.  Sheep were pushed perilously close to extinction by the early 20th century (at least on sub-species was extirpated), and repopulation efforts have in the past fifty years become serious business, as states have realized that more sheep in the hills means more revenue from tag sales and the increased traffic that comes with greater prestige as a hunting destination.  Unfortunately sheep are fragile, at least when it comes to diseases which are often carried by domestic livestock, and many herds (both reintroduced and native) have been plagued by die-offs.  Exposure to domestic sheep leads to an outbreak which often takes out over half the population, a serious matter when even the most robust of the herds in Montana are genetically isolated to a large degree.

In the light of serial die-offs Montana Fish and Wildlife, for lack of a better option, has decided to kill off the entire Tendoy Mountains herd via hunting, and reintroduce other sheep which will hopefully be healthy.  An unlimited number of tags were sold in the first two weeks of August (rumor is that it was 314 total).  With an estimated 30-40 sheep after the most recent epidemic, things were always going to be interesting.  Lots of pressure and the bad behavior which often follows was predicted, and in at least a few instances seems to have taken place.  My first goal for any backpack hunt is to see no one else, which had me thinking long and hard about whether I wanted to do this, but in the end opportunity ran out.  The only way to learn more about sheep hunting is to do it, so in a few days I’m off for the rifle opener, hopefully with a plan to avoid too many people while still having a decent chance at a sheep.  Worst case, I get a good dusky grouse hunt in while backpacking in a place I’ve always wanted to go.

R0010523Weight is a priority because the Tendoys are high, and I am not in good shape.  Over the past month when the choice has been between a morning workout and playing with Little Bear so M can sleep for another hour, I’ve always chosen the later.  There have been lots of stroller walks with a heavy pack, but I know my legs and feet are going to suffer on this trip.  Highlight, going from top left to bottom right, are as follows.

Sierras Designs Dridown Better vest and Rab Strata hoodie, which will probably be overkill, but glassing at 9000′ can be cold.  Bringing both also allows a lighter sleeping bag.

Rain gear is a Haglofs Ozo and Wild Things wind pants, as usual.  Work layers are Patagonia Rock Craft pants, and the Sitka lightweight Core hoodie, which is very nice (review will appear at Rokslide late this month).  The BD Alpine Start is of course coming too, as every time I haven’t taken it on a trip in the last 18 months I’ve regretted it.

Sleep gear will be my Feathered Friends Vireo Nano with overfill, a torso sized ridgerest (not shown), a 5′ by 9′ silnylon tarp, and a wind bivy (Montbell with Pertex Quantum top).  Having not camped out all summer, a small camp appeals, even if I get a bit damp.

Optics are the usual Meopta 6.5x32s and the Vortex Razor 11-33×50, which is new, and a very welcome upgrade over the Minox MD50.  Vortex tripod and Outdoorsmans Bino adaptor.  Pack is my modified Stone Glacier Solo, and rifle the Kimber Montana in .308.  I’ll have food for 72 hours, a ti cup, and an esbit stove.  Plenty of coffee.

Last, and most important, and thanks to grandma and grandpa, who are coming out to visit Little Bear and providing M with the backup necessary for my little outing.  It will be weird sleeping through the night again.

Stone Glacier Solo bag, and homebuilt frame

The Stone Glacier Solo is a pack which had immediate aesthetic and ideological appeal. The reason is right up front in the product description: “A 3300 cubic inch bag fits all your ultralight 4-season gear and week of food.” 3300 cubes is plenty for a week backpacking in summer, even with a packraft, but the hunting and legit four season gear is bulky. The number of folks who could do a week with either out of 52 liters is fairly small, let alone both. The Solo is an ultralight pack not just because of weight, it’s minimalist design and modest size is built explicitly for the expert user. For a company to make it their flagship product (even if the newer, much larger packs sell much better) is a bold and laudable statement. Contrast the product description with this review, where “When the Solo was used on an overnight scouting trip, even though the shelter and sleeping bag were a bit more than required, an otherwise basic kit filled the bag.”  If you’re the sort of hunter whose overnight kit takes up 40 liters, this is not the pack for you, or rather, it will make a fine daypack.

R0010385Last year I bought a Solo bag used for a good price.  I’ve hunted with it on an encasement for the Paradox frame, which was extremely comfortable but aesthetically lacking (the Solo is 11 inches wide at the base, the Paradox frame 14).  I finally got around to building a frame specifically for the Solo which uses some of my all-time favorite frame concept and suspension components, while being sleek and trim in a way which befits the Solo bag.  Initial trips around the neighborhood have been promising, and I’ll likely hunt out of it next month.

R0010359R0010376The central attribute of the Solo is the load shelf, which allows meat to be carried between the frame and the bag.  This keeps blood off your gear, and allows you to use a smaller pack.  I followed the conceptual details of the Stone Glacier Krux frame, explained in detail here.

Two 26″ by 1″ by 1/5″ 7075-T6 aluminum stays form the backbone.  T6 is the only way to go with stays, and for this application 1/8″ is too flexy, while 1/4″ is too hard to bend.  The Paradox hipbelt is bolted directly to the bottom of each.  A pocket between the stays and the user holds a plastic framesheet and foam pad, which provide lateral structure and prevent pack contents from getting too pokey.

The framesheet/foam combo provides just enough structure, while still allowing the stays to flex and move individually.  In the top photo the stays look like they could be bent more towards my back.  I’ve yet to do so because there’s enough give that tensioning the load lifters bring them forward and creates a very pleasing springy and engaged load carry.

R0010377R0010378The tops of the stays fit into pockets at the top of the bag, and two straps attached to the bag (blue, below) thread into buckles on the frame (3/4″) to hold the stays up into said pockets.  This system is fairly simple, fairly easy to use, and very secure.

Grommets in the frame encasement allow the stays and belt to bolt together.

R0010373R0010372R0010367The Solo bag has a massive mount of compression straps, which for a hunting bag is not overkill.  The two lower side straps in particular are crucial to keeping heavy, slimy meat up high where the weight will carry best.

R0010371The upper two sets of side straps are sewn into the across-the-back straps as shown above.  This arrangement is very effective, it combines the directional compression of designated, sewn-in side straps with the versatility of compression straps which circle the whole bag.  The back straps reinforce the big main zipper, and near complete access can be had by only undoing one buckle.

The small top pocket is separate in volume from the main bag, and can be accessed completely when the compression straps are totally cinched.  Little details like this matter, and are a delight to see done so well.

R0010388I’ve only modified a few things on the Solo bag.  First I cut off the integrated load shelf/flap and relocated the cinch straps which hold the bag down on the frame.  I also swapped the load lifter buckles from 1″ to 3/4″.  I replaced the interior pocket, which closed with a velcro tab and let things fall out, with the green zippered pocket shown above.  Lastly I removed the ice axe loops.  Should I need to carry an axe I’ll put a bit of cord through one of the bottom compression buckle tabs.

My hope is that this pack will serve when I want a load hauler which is a bit sleeker than the Paradox packs I have and use (my load monster is huge, and my Unaweep has become a frequent loaner to friends who want to try it).  The Paradox frame is still my reference point both for effective load carry and for truly minimalist and ultralight design, but it does have at least one limit, the size and bulk.  It cannot for example fit into the cargo fly of my new packraft, which this pack can.

Hopefully I’ll have good, relevant news in a few weeks.

Pack materials redux

This is an update of and the evolution from this post 18 months ago.

R0010048A good pack fabric, like the well patina’d 1000 denier Cordura above, can do a lot of great work, simply. There is a subtle elegance to something which is easily sewn into a finished product which continues as a reliable, innocuous companion for many years and many miles.  The following is a collation of experiences and opinions from the last few years.

R0010038In the first half of 2015 I’ve gone out of my way to beat up on cuben fiber whenever I have the chance.  I don’t think cuben makes sense from a cost/function perspective, but my primary objection is that companies like Hyperlite Mountain Gear have begun to use it as a sole talking point, rather than discussing how they have nice packs which happen to be made of good fabric.

The 150 denier hybrid cuben pictured here is good fabric.  The cuben backing is very waterproof, and the tight polyester face fabric is impressively tough for what is by any standard light duty stuff.  I can’t think of anything of a comparable denier which comes close, but nonetheless there just isn’t that much material there.  As seen above, holes in the poly face are easy to come by, the while the cuben backing does put up a fight, the package just does not stand up to abrasion very well.  Tear strength is pretty good, but abrasion is the source of every hole I’ve ever put in a pack.  If you don’t beat on your gear regularly this heavier hybrid will last a long time, but with other options that weight almost the same, have exactly the same performance properties, and cost half as much I just don’t see a reason for cuben hybrid, other than fashion novelty.

Closing question: would HMG sell more or sell fewer Windrider 3400s if they were made from X33, weighed a few ounces more, and cost 75 dollars less?

R0010035This leaves me with Xpac fabrics, for which my enthusiasm has not diminished.  VX42 is still a favorite, as pictured above and below, which has held up very well and is heavy enough for almost anything but not egregiously so.  As Brendan has often said, the X layer looks cool but doesn’t really do anything but provide an abrasion point.

R0010040The oxford face fabric of VX42 lags behind the plain Cordura face of X33 and X50, which are my current preferred moderate and heavy use fabrics, respectively.  There is just something about the even and symmetrical Cordura weave which stands up proud to abuse of all types.  The X series is quite a bit more pliable and quiet than the VX series, which is welcome, but currently only available retail in multicam prints, which is less so.  I’ve put holes into X33, but it takes more quite a bit of effort.

IMG_1324Highly waterproof fabrics like Xpac and cuben are sexy, but there’s a lot to be said for quality PU fabrics, especially if lots of precipitation is not a regular feature.  Good cordura remains an excellent option.  Sadly, lighter fabrics are more difficult to find.  The 210 denier gridstop from Thru-hiker is still a bit on the expensive side, and still an outstanding option for a moderate use pack.

In summary, I’d use X33 for most packs, and X50 and X51 for pack bottoms, and packs which will get lots of abuse.  210D gridstop is great for pockets and extension collars.  Every year more and better options appear, and more and better retail options come into being.

R0010050All the better for growing a fat quiver.

A dual stay light pack

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As good as the Unaweep is, and every time I use any other pack I’m reminded at just how good and how versatile it is, there are inherent limits to the design.  Namely, the size and external presence of the frame.  There are rather few instances in which this is an issue, but problems exist simply to be solved.  Eventually.

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I’ve been enamored with the suspension in this pack, with a few significant reservations.  As readers observed, the foam pad is so wide it inhibits ideal hipbelt wrap.  Unexpectedly, the single stay ended up being the limiting factor, as at certain weights it presents a point pressure against the lumbar, even with three layers of padding between it and the user.  This version has two stays, six inches apart, and a foam panel slot 8 inches wide.  As can be seen above, the belt attaches with velcro a la Gossamer Gear, so the pack can be run without the stays.  The shoulder straps attach with 1 inch webbing, which makes attaching them easier and allows me to swap straps.

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I’ve become a firm believer in wide and thin packs, so the back on this one is 12 inches wide.  Felled seams throughout.  I did outsmart myself a bit here, as with no structure beyond the 8 inch center panel there is nothing to prevent the 2 inch strips on either side from barreling out and making the pack far fatter.  I improvised and sewed a velcro sleeve inside the full width of the back, which currently holds a 1/4 inch by 12 inch steel rod.  Not an elegant solution, but functional.

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Bottom diameter is 32 inches.  Top diameter is 36.  Height is 34.  Standard feature set includes twin daisy chains from 3/8 inch webbing, two side pockets, and an inside zippered pocket.

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Main fabric is X33, which remains a favorite.  The bottom is X51, a great heavy use fabric.  Side pockets, inside pocket, and the exterior of the pad sleeve are WX20, which is light and flexible.  I’m using an old Gossamer Gear belt, and Mountain Hardwear shoulder straps.  Stays are 1/8 inch by 1 inch 7075-T6, which is the only way to go.  Blue foam from Walmart.

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I’ve only put a limited number of miles into it, but thus far it is promising.  The idea is to have the option to run enough suspension when the pack is totally full of heavy stuff (see top picture, with 2 days of packrafting and fishing stuff), and also run it frameless as well as beltless for smaller trips.  To this end the torso length is a half inch undersized.

I’ll keep ya’ll updated.

Bob Open gear talk

R0001925For the most part, the gear I used to cross the Bob this year worked well.  This is the sixth trip in as many years I’ve done through similar terrain around this time of year, so if I haven’t yet found a good system yet I’m just not paying attention.  The same basic complement of clothing, a floorless shelter, and ~25 degree sleeping bag are reliable options.  My packs have evolved considerably, with a different homemade one used each year.  That will be the subject of a later post, along with details on the bag I used this year, but the basic details are that a good frame of some kind and waterproof fabric are both highly recommended.  As can be seen my newest pack has a lid, which I found quite handy.

I used Black Diamond Liquid Point Goretex pants, which work well once I replaced the stock waistband, which does a very poor job of holding them up.  I’ve suffered by without rain pants plenty on the past, but they’re really nice to have in wet brush, to say nothing of packrafting, and the Liquid Points have a nice tough fabric, and legs zips which both make putting them on easy and allow you to vent on the go (just zip them back up before deep stream crossings).  BD is having fit issues with their first generations of clothing, but once they sort those out the great fabrics and features should really shine.

R0002053Altra Olympus 1.5 shoes were another newish piece of gear which performed well, albeit with reservations.  They’re “maximalist” zero drop jobs, with over 3cm of cushion and stack height.  Most importantly, they have the Altra last, which I find absolutely perfect.  No blisters proves that.  The extra cushion certainly seemed to fight fatigue well, but the extra height gives irregular ground surface extra leverage against your ankles, which is not welcome side hilling off trail or while slogging softer snow.  My ankles and lower legs suffered a bit of extra fatigue as a result, but overall they were at least energy neutral, and probably a net benefit.  The Lone Peaks remain a more versatile option, while the Olympus is a good trail shoe.  Most significantly, the Olympus 1.5 upper is both faster draining and more durable than the Lone Peak 1.5, providing hope that sooner than later Altra will get their shit together and push their altogether good shoes into the realm of excellent.

I broke one of my Gossamer Gear poles around noon on the first day, when it punched two feet deep into the snow and jammed against a buried log.  Not really the poles fault, so much as proof that I should have brought my much heavier and more durable alu poles.  Having only one pole for the next four snowy passes did suck, as my attempt the first night to carve a wood shim didn’t work out.

I only packrafted 12ish miles out of approximately 105, which made the 7 pounds of rafting gear a poor investment, enjoyable though those miles were.  I continue to want something between my Scout, which is of very limited utility in cold conditions, and my heavy and bulky Yukon Yak.  Putting my own deck on a Curiyak is not a project I relish, but until Alpacka comes out with a new model or Roman sells off his custom I may have to do it, one of these days.  Paddling lakes is absolutely more efficient than hiking around them, especially given how much faster and better against a headwind the 10″ tubed, non-rockered Scout is.

My food was fine, and I had enough, but I always find it logistically challenging to keep on top of consistent calorie intake.  Using sports drinks for these things is something I need to take more seriously in the future.

Lastly, while my fitness was fine and what I expected it to be, I would not have minded being so close to my limit for so much of the trip.  As I age, and with the kid due shortly, it is clear that my old approach of primarily letting fun stuff serve as de facto training is not going to get the job done.  I may have to re-take up running.

Until next time.

Packing for the 2015 Bob Open

The weather forecast is good, even a little excessively warm. The rivers aren’t high. The snow will be minimal. Attendance at the start promises to be the highest ever, possibly by a lot. The Bob Open should be a good time.

I’m taking a more relaxed approach this year, with a bit of extra time built in to accommodate unexpected conditions or excessive coffee breaks. See ya’ll next week.

My rifle, the Kimber Montana

R0001888Back on my first real elk hunt in Montana Dick and I got to talking about a lighter rifle for the backcountry.  Many ideas were thrown around, but after some consideration it was decided that a new Kimber Montana in .308 would be the best, most versatile option.  Shortly after he headed back to Ohio Dick took matters into his own hands and before the end of that hunting season I had a new rifle in hand, one which shaved almost 2 pounds off my Remington 700 in .30-06.

R0001889My Montana has a Leupold 4×33 scope, and Dick cut 2 inches off the factory barrel, bringing it down to a practical 20.  After hunting out the last part of the 2013 season I proceeded to monkey with it a bit over the coming year; installing a larger and incrementally lighter titanium bolt knob, a lighter (and black) aluminum trigger guard, flush cups on the left side of the stock, and giving it a Duracoat paint job (Desert Warrior Dark Earth).  I also used JB Weld to build up a bit of a palm swell on the sides of the pistol grip.  The first set of mods dropped weight, while the later half added it back.  As pictured, my rifle is just a hair under 6 pounds empty.

R0001892Flush cups allow for a slung carry over your back which does not have the trigger guard poking you.  Installing these on a Montana bears some explication.  The Montana stock is a very hard kevlar/carbon shell filled with fairly unsubstantial foam.  Even with a brand new Forstner bit it takes a lot of effort to get through the former, even though it’s less than 2mm thick.  To give the cups a bit more to bite into, I back filled the inside edges of the holes with epoxy, and added a bit to the exterior as well.  Once this cured I tapped it, coated the flush cup threads with more epoxy, then screwed them in and let the whole thing set.  Thus far they’ve proven both handy and durable.

The Duracoat has proven quite satisfactory, though after a lot of use it’s showing plenty of wear.  I used a shake and spray kit, which is effective so long as you keep the whole thing well warmed (tough in the dead of winter).  I like the color very much; they ought to rename it Mule Deer.

IMG_1299The light weight of the Kimber has proven to be a massive asset, but the improved balance and ergonomics have let me take to it in a way I never did with the Remington.  In fact, over the winter I purchased a Bell and Carlson mountain rifle stock for the 700 which almost copies the dimensions of the Kimber stock, and while I haven’t really wrung the new .30-06 out yet, I think this version will get a lot more use.

I did have a few feeding issues early on, which is a problem with a blind magazine.  These were solved definitively by two things, making certain all the roads are fully to the back of the magazine (there isn’t much extra, and if they’re a bit forward the nose tends to catch), and polishing the feed ramps of the follower and edges of the magazine box with 1500 grit sandpaper.  Since I did this I’ve been able to run through magazine as fast as I can work the bolt, with no issues at all.  The larger, “tactical” ti knob helps with this.

R0001893Big variables are in fashion, but I find the small Leupold exceptionally effective and easy to use.  The eye relief is considerable, and the eyebox exceedingly forgiving.  Unlike the 3-9×40 on the 700, the 4x always gives me a perfect sight picture immediately upon shouldering.  At my current skill level, the magnification and reticle do not hold me back.

The .308 cartridge has been effective on a variety of deer-sized and smaller game from 50 to 300 yards.  Not having yet used it on either bear or elk, I haven’t given it much of a test.

R0001898While backpacking I always carry my rifle in a gunbearer, but I occasionally use a sling day hunting, and always bring one on backpacking trips for easy carry around camp.  You just never know when you’ll see something, after all.  My sling is a length of extra thick 1″ polyester webbing, with a single triglide for adjustment, mounted on Blue Force gear swivels, which are expensive but a lot trimmer and generally more quality feeling than similar offerings from Magpul and others.  Field accessories are rounded out by a neoprene scope cover, ammo, and electrical tape over the muzzle to keep out obstructions, as well as extra tape around the barrel, and the drop chart and angle compensation ratios taped to the scope.

To quote Evan Hill, “…the best parts of material culture are the ones that are both utilitarian and expressive.”  Aside from good shoes, there is nothing more utilitarian than something which allows you to feed yourself and those whose continued existence you prize.  This goes a long way towards explaining why, in a short period of time, I’ve become so attached to this rifle, moreso than bikes and skis I’ve had for far longer.  It’d be one of the first things, along with my packrafts, I’d grab if the house was on fire.  A rifle is similar to a mountain bike or ski rig in that optimal function isn’t as simple as trouble-free operation, but is found in a close bond between tool and user.  Given my brief history in shooting, I’m very happy at home at home I’ve become with this rifle.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence, but rather the result of good design.

After all, there’s a reason Kimber did not name it the Colorado.

Just ramblin’

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The last two times I’ve driven west out of Augusta, the sky has looked like this.

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Saturday was supposed to be fairly warm, but instead it rained, snowed a tiny bit, and howled east at 30 mph all day long.

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The ground looked well into spring, with no snow and the first hints of green grass, while the sky was still close to winter.

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Packrafting was not particularly appealing, even with the rivers at ideal levels.  I motivated to get on the water with a big fire and liters of hot drinks.

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The day dawned clear and grew warmer.  With plenty of time to make the distance, I took a big detour around this hill to do some hunt practice on a herd of bighorn ewes, eventually crawling within 40 yards.

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I brought my toy shotgun along to hunt small game, and ate fried and braised squirrel and onion the first night.  After stalking the sheep I was back up the hill at my pack eating chocolate when a squirrel trilled in the woods.  After some hurrying and some standing and listening I located the little fellow.  Walking over to retrieve the carcass, I found an impressive elk shed.

Which along with the squirrel haul added training weight for the pack out.

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I’ve long struggled with out and backs like this route.  Packrafting helps in that it makes things less repetitive, but I’ve still found more relevance on point-to-point trips where desire and necessity are one and the same.  Recently, this has ceased to be the case, and watching animals, hunting small game, hanging around camp, and rambling through patches off trail have become a focus, with urgency a less-frequent companion.  I see better now, and more than anything want to fill the time and stretch the hours as full as they’ll go.

This was a full 48 hours.  I drove in Friday night and hiked a few miles in by moonlight, to a meadow I’d wanted to camp in for a few years.  The wind the next day was occasionally scary; it seemed that every thirty minutes a tree fell in the distance with the sound of a shelf collapsing in a lumbar room, and once on the river I occasionally had to throw out a brace to keep the tailwind from flipping me.  I floated up within 10 feet of a fat river otter wrestling with a trout before it noticed me and dove, and arrived in a scenic grass camp amongst boulders very wet and cold.  Staying focused and warm all day sucked up a lot of calories and energy, and has left me still tired today.

The next began with a cold and wet final stretch of packrafting, and then the aforementioned diversion to stalk sheep.  It was impressive that my crabwalking downhill in diagonals, never moving too much or going directly towards the herd of 20, I was able to get within bow range fairly quickly.  And then just sit and watch them eat grass, bed down, stand up again, and chew.  And once sheep spook they run off in herd, on each others heels, wheeling as a unit with a precision which defies the human understanding of mammalian communication.  I left the other herds on that hillside alone, and followed elk trails back to the human trail, and then to the car, the road, and a cheeseburger.  It was a good weekend.

 

Best using the Gunbearer

In the last two years I’ve tried a number of ways to carry a rifle while hunting with a sizeable pack, and my copy of the Kifaru Gunbearer has been by far the best. It’s not a very complex piece of gear, but building and using one does have a bit of nuance to it, and took me three versions to get right. I’m not going to tell you how to make one; if you can’t sort that out go over and pay the inventors 30 some-odd bucks for one.

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The gunbearer consists of a pocket for the butt attached to the bottom of the pack frame, and a quick-release strap low on the shoulder strap. This second strap wraps around the barrel and stock of the rifle, above the scope but below the forward sling stud. The rifle carries hands-free, and deploys via the left hand forward on the stock and right hand pulling open the upper strap.  Videos illustrate this well.

I like the ability to mount your rifle quickly, and the hands-free carry, but my favorite aspect of the gunbearer is the innocuous, balanced way it stows a potentially awkward and snag-prone piece of equipment.  It looks odd in these photos, but the butt of the rifle always seems to keep out of the way of rocks and logs, and the barrel is right in sight and easy to mind without too much thought.  I’ve been able to climb 4th class rock with a mid-weight pack and a rifle in the gunbearer without (too much) stress.

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My Ruger 77/22 is shown above, which has a weight (6 pounds, unloaded) and length (38″) very close to my Kimber Montana.  Heavier and longer rifles might require a bit of adjustment, and there’s probably a ceiling on the comfort which can be had from carrying really large rifles.

When I first began working with the gunbearer I ran the rifle too high, which puts the scope into your armpit and screws up the balance.  It’s crucial to have the upper strap tight around the barrel and below the sling stud.  Leaning forward, for example when climbing over deadfall, will tip the rifle out of the butt cup at some point, and having the strap tight will keep your rifle from going for a ride.

Needless to say, the gunbearer requires a pack with a stout frame.  Kifaru recommends attaching the cup to the belt, but I’ve found the weight transfer to be much better when it is strapped to the frame, something made easy by the handy Seek Outside design.

I still bring a sling for transporting the rifle around camp, but 95% of the time it stays in the pack.  It even works well with a shotgun for rougher stretches during an upland hunt.  For wilderness hunters, an almost essential piece of gear.

The full suspension spectrum

Today, it’s safe to say that there are more backpack options available for the outdoorsperson than at any other time.  Most of this is due to the ugly inevitability of population growth and the capitalist hegemony, but some of it has to do with a unique diversity of influences on pack design.  As I’ve detailed elsewhere the Jardine thesis concerning lightweight backpacking has been assimilated such that most “serious” backpackers have a hard time looking back beyond it.  Sub 2-pound packs with sub 400 denier fabrics and slim, flexible harness components are expected.  At the other end of the spectrum, human-powered backcountry hunters have spured a revolution in lighter packs which can still carry very heavy loads through rugged country.  Companies like Stone Glacier and Paradox Packs have made it definitive that there are few compelling excuses for any pack to be heavier than four pounds.

IMG_1110The Arc’teryx Altra 62, above at right, is over-engineered with tons of largely purposeless padding, overly complex pockets and straps, and a heavy hipbelt connection, and it is still under 5 pounds thanks to modern materials and sensibilities.

Identity marketing is all the rage, as manufacturers use it to define a niche within a fractured and diverse market.  In order to fight back against the hype it’s useful to examine the full range of backpack suspensions available, take a stab at dividing them into rough categories, and talk about why each category exists, it’s strengths and weaknesses, and the application to which each is best suited.  It’s also worth pointing out how, without fail, every boundary between suspension categories has been blurred and eroded by innovative builders.  It is a good time to be a pack geek.

Backpacks must do a simple job well in rigorous and varied environments, and it is precisely the huge number of hours we spend with packs on our backs which makes that job seem so complicated.

First, a pack must maintain vertical structure under a given load.  This is most commonly and usefully expressed as maintaining torso length.  By resisting collapse which would shorten the distance between the hipbelt and shoulder straps, a pack maintains the ability of the user to adjust weight between these two points as she sees fit.  Collapse in torso length leads to discomfort in very short order, with anything more than low single digits being unacceptable.  To make this possible the supportive components in a pack’s suspension must be sufficiently rigid, and the various connecting points within the design must have minimal ability to flex, twist, and stretch.  As will be discussed below, there are a number of popular packs whose carry capacity is not limited by their frame, but by the poor connection between the frame and the harness components.

IMG_1270Osprey Variants loaded with a lot of beer and packrafting gear.  These packs feature durable fabrics, a ton of features, and a suspension system which is heavier than it needs to be, and they’re still around 3.5 pounds.  If you’re not an obsessive gram-counter there are a lot of good, and cheap, options around today.

Second, a pack must enable comfortable transfer of said weight to the wearer via a hipbelt and shoulder straps.  20 years ago these were often made from thick, stiff padding encased in packcloth.  Fortunately the industry has moved towards thinner, wider, softer, more conforming harness components, as a change in mentality (and a drive to save weight) has prompted ever better foams and laminates.  This is still an area for development, if for no other reason than that it is pretty basic to make a pack which will have no torso collapse whatsoever, making the harness/user interface the sole limiting factor.  80 pound loads are a trial for a hipbelt, and ruthlessly expose any shortcomings.  As above, many packs are limited not by the integrity of their frame, but by the weight at which the hipbelt will cease to be comfortable (usually by slipping down).

There are an infinite number of minor factors which go into making a good pack, but these two are the colossi.  Without them, everything else is just pretty frosting on a shit cookie.

mountain-laurel-designs-exodus-backpack-review-3The MLD Exodus, photo from BPL.

There are remarkably few truly frameless packs still on the market.  I define a frameless pack as one without any provision for a frame structure whatsoever, including a sleeve for a foam pad.  The keystone frameless packs in the recent past are the Golite Breeze, Gust, and first generation Jam.  The best examples currently available are the Mountain Laurel Designs series, Burn through Ark, and the ULA CDT.  The CDT has elastic pad holders, which keep the included foam pad in place, but unlike the packs discussed below this system doesn’t add much of anything to the quality of the load carry.  Frameless packs are of course the lightest, simplest option, and when packed well with a modestly light backpacking load can carry very well up towards 30 pounds, but necessitate careful packing and suffer from a lack of versatility.  With no integral padding or bulky stuff to provide structure a frameless pack isn’t going to carry too well with a wad of cams on board or skis strapped on.  They’ll remain a niche item and continue to be marginalized as the systems discuss below continue to get lighter.

IMG_0464This pack, which I discussed here, is built to accept a folded 3/8″ foam pad in an internal, velcro-d sleeve.  Not the lightest arrangement, but a very versatile one.

For this reason, frameless packs with a pad sleeve are far more common and popular.  Even though packs like the Cilogear 30 liter worksack rely on a 1/4″ sheet of stiff foam folded in half and nothing more, they often represent just enough non-discriminatory support to work well enough in most situations.  Stiff foam well contained with a good hipbelt can carry a lot of weight.  Just as with truly frameless packs, when packed well such that the load forms a sort of frame the weak point of the system will often be the belt-user interface.  Without contour to the back of the pack, there are often gaps which reduce the ability of the hipbelt to work properly.  Under ideal circumstances these packs can approach or even exceed the 30 pound mark, but often circumstances are not ideal, making these packs suited to either plain backpacking, as discussed above, or to varied activities with far lighter loads.  My pack pictured here is almost always used with weights less than 20 pounds.

I have a number of ideas on how to make a hipbelt work more efficiently with such packs, but given how effective and light true frames currently are, I can’t see myself prioritizing these projects any time soon.

OHM_2-0_Backpack_MainVersion 1 of the ULA Ohm, photo from the NOC.

The logical extension of using a foam pad in a pocket to enhance load carry is to use very light frame components to do the same job for less weight.  A stiffer foam pad is multi-use, but the pad and associated fabric and velcro can easily add six ounces.  Lightly framed packs try to maintain a weight close to that of frameless packs, but with more effective load transfer which works with a wider variety of loads and load shapes.  My favorite example here is the original version of the ULA Ohm, pictured above.  The Ohm added a bit of size, load lifters and a carbon hoop along the perimeter of the back panel to the CDT, at the cost of 8 ounces  (18 to 26).  Though it was replaced by the Ohm 2.0, which added a much larger and heavier (5 oz) belt, the original Ohm has remained an enduring classic because not because it’s raw upper carry limit was so high, but because it carried so well across a variety of weights and settings.

There are many such packs on the market, and they’re justifiably popular because they provide a good blend of light weight and forgiving load carry.  The most effective system will depend on variations in anatomy to a large extent, and is a question too large to address well today.  Rather, the more relevant question is when to distinguish between a lightly framed pack and a fully framed, traditional internal.  Over at BPL a number of years ago Will Rietveld proposed that this distinction be made by stating that internal frame packs have a direct connection between the frame (usually stays) and the hipbelt.  It’s a useful idea, but one with enough grey area that as a diagnostic tool it’s almost useless.

hunting_frameKifaru Duplex frame, from Kifaru, International.

The best example of the classic internal frame is the Kifaru Duplex frame, shown here.  Two stays, shaped to the users back, insert into sleeves from the bottom and are held in place by pockets sewn into the base of the removable hipbelt.  The shoulder straps adjust for length via webbing and a buckle which run parallel to the stays.  A comprehensive pictorial overview of the system can be found here.  With only enough fabric to hold the stays in place and enough foam to prevent point pressure between the user and the stays, the Kifaru suspension is almost as direct as is possible

Of course, many good designs use a mediated version of this system for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the extra weight and complication added by Kifaru’s hinged lumbar pad.  The classic Dana Designs internals used a single aluminium stay which inserted from the top and ran into the lumbar pad, behind which the hipbelt attached via velcro.  Hyperlight Mountain Gear, a lighter and more relevant example of an internal frame pack, uses two thin stays which insert from the top into two sleeves inside the pack.  The sleeves are stitching through padding into the non-removable belt (aside from the Ice Pack).  The lack of direct connection in the HMG system has proven to be a limiting factor, and saw the addition of a framesheet in the 4400 series of packs to better stabilize things (at the cost of ~6 ounces).

IMG_3550The Unaweep from Paradox Packs.

The material and padding required to optimize the connection between the hipbelt and the stays of an internal frame pack are a liability, and amount to weight which only serves one purpose.  Oddly enough, a far simpler and lighter system has been around for decades, the full wrap belt bolted directly to the frame which has been a haulmark of external frame packs ever since the original Keltys.

Externals died out just about everywhere aside from moose hauling a long time ago, due to fashion and the bulky, often lurch-prone frames (often 15 inches wide and close to 30 tall).  Their belt system is still the best available, and when Seek Outside figured out how to shrink the frame and introduce flexibility into the system without degrading load transfer, they invented something I’ve been very excited about for the last 15 months.  The Paradox Packs really aren’t internals, and really aren’t externals either, but rather a hybrid of both, and simply put, a major evolutionary step in pack design which goes a long way towards making internal frames irrelevant.

IMG_1306My current project pack; making the Paradox system as light and sleek as possible.  When suspension this robust adds less weight than most internal frames, there is no downside.

I think the most interesting developments in packs during the years to come will be in the areas between the old categories.  How do you make a pack which is almost as light and simple as a frameless pack, but offers better and more versatile load carrying abilities?  (Not yet answered.)  How do you get a pack which will carry anything you can, and do it while being sleek, flexible with light loads, and less than 4 pounds?  (Buy a Unaweep.)  Because of new technologies and the diverse range of influences and demands, pack development is enjoying a golden age at present, and we get to be around to see it.