How to pick the right backpack hunting pack (for YOU).
Posted by Nathan on 12th Feb 2020
Picking the right backpack hunting pack for your needs can be confusing, intimidating, and very frustrating.
“Try them all” is advice often given, but normal people have budgets. Buying right the first time is cheaper than churning through packs that don’t work for you.
Which brand is best? What size do I need? How many pockets? What frame? What material? What’s the best pack for me?
We can’t give you all the answers you want, but we can try to teach you to ask the right questions.
That is the point of this article...to help you cut through marketing hype or fanboy buzz and objectively judge what specs and features really matter in how a pack functions and performs.
What a backpack hunting pack needs:
- Comfort and durability for packout loads
- Correct Volume
- Light Weight
- Organization that you like
- Other things to think about
- Fabrics & Materials
- Adjustable Frame Height
- Compression System
- Load Shelf / Breakaway or Not
- Rifle or Bow Carry
These attributes are placed in order of importance.
Comfort & Durability
When you’re carrying 75-150 lbs. of meat on your back traversing 40° slopes of deadfall at 10,000 feet, there are two bars your pack has to chin….these are pass or fail.
- Your pack can’t hurt you.
- Your pack can’t catastrophically break.
Backpack Hunting Pack Comfort
Backpack comfort is a deep, deep topic. It is easy to build a backpack that carries 30 lbs. well. It is a challenge to build a pack that carries 60 lbs. well. It is hard to build a pack that carries 100+ lbs. well.
To be comfortable with heavy packout loads, your pack needs:
- A stiff & strong vertical frame
- A frame tall enough to raise the shoulder harness off your shoulders (transferring weight to the belt)
- (To read more about load weights and frame height, see Which Frame Height is Right for Me)
- A hipbelt that does not slip, bruise, or rub you.
How do you know if your pack is comfortable or not? Well, if it is uncomfortable, it will let you know when you push past the 80 lb. mark.
When pack comfort fails it is usually through hipbelt slip. The jostling of a heavy pack will cause the belt to inch down, which forces painful consequences.
- You overtighten the belt to stop slip, strangling your waist and bruising your hips.
- You overtighten the shoulder harness and take more weight on the shoulders and back.
This combination bruises the hip points, strangles the waist, and overworks the shoulders and back. You can suffer through it over short distances, but longer packouts will be miserable experiences.
A pack can pass or fail the comfort test based on how you have adjusted it to fit your body. If your pack isn’t working for you, always work with the manufacturer’s customer service to try and fix your issues.
- Packing 100 lbs. at altitude is hard. It is supposed to be hard. But if your pack is painful, then you have a problem.
- What works for everyone else may not work for you. Don’t follow the herd.
- If you have comfort issues with your pack, ask the manufacturer for help. Try their suggestions. If you still experience painful packouts after getting their help, it’s time for change.
Backpack Hunting Pack Durability
Durability is a much simpler goal to achieve. Be aware that a heavy pack isn’t always a durable pack, and a light pack isn’t necessarily fragile.
Packs that are strong where they need to be are elegant in simplicity, something to be admired. A 4 lb. pack can be stronger and more durable than a 9 lb. pack...it’s all about how they’re made.
Durability needs to be tempered with an eye on overall weight for a backpack hunting pack. Catastrophic failures have to be prevented, period.
To do that you can overbuild all parts and pieces of the pack (military packs often do this), or you can make the pack strong where it needs to be and make critical components field repairable or field replaceable. This route is generally lighter, and it delivers the reliability needed.
Volume, Weight, and Organization
Volume is a necessity, weight is a priority, and organization is a preference.
Volume is a necessity. Your pack is either big enough for your gear, or it isn’t.
The chart above is a general guideline. If you are an experienced backpacker with dialed in ultralight gear who trends to the minimalist side, you will get more days out of a smaller pack.
Someone who values creature comforts or who has bulkier gear will need more pack volume for a shorter trip.
(Parents who backpack with small children will usually need a LOT of pack volume for any length trip.)
Packbag fabric makes up a small percentage of overall pack weight. Going from a 4800 ci packbag to a 6000+ ci packbag often increases pack weight by only 2-3 oz.
It makes sense to have a pack that is plenty big for all your gear rather than stress and squeeze everything into a too-small packbag, or risk losing gear on a brushy trail by hanging it outside the pack.
Weight is a priority.
If two packs offer similar comfort and durability, similar volume, and you’re ok with the organization that each offer, THEN THE LIGHTER PACK WINS.
Novice backpack hunters pay for pounds with pain. Experience teaches you to count ounces. I can’t emphasize enough how important weight is, especially in your backpack.
After gaining 2,000 feet in 2 miles and topping out at 10K you’ll be thinking about all sorts of ways to drop weight. (Lighter shoelaces, no toothpaste….lots of thoughts will cross your mind on an overweight slog up a steep gain.)
Total pack weight slows you down. It hurts your ability to gain elevation, to cover miles looking for game, and it makes you sore the next day. Over a 5-7 day hunt 10 lbs of pack weight can literally be the difference in success and tag soup.
For a backpack hunter pack weight is extremely important - for several reasons.
- The pack is one of the heavier pieces of gear percentage wise. It’s easier to cut major weight from heavier items than it is small items.
- The pack is nearly always worn during a hunt. Multiply the ounces saved by the time worn. Cutting weight on always worn gear takes more strain off your body than cutting camp gear.
(To read more about weight and how to reduce your overall pack weight, read How To Cut Your Backpack Hunting Weight.)
Going lighter means going faster. It means you feel better the next day, and maybe you feel up to checking out that far basin. All this becomes more important as we age and capability decreases and recovery times get longer.
Organization is a preference.
There are a few general guidelines from a manufacturing perspective that you should consider.
More pockets means more weight, complexity, and water entrance opportunities.
Extra seams, zippers, dual layers of fabric, edge binding, all of that adds weight to the pack, and takes additional labor and materials to build.
Too many pockets are probably worse than not enough when you’re backpack hunting. With ten pockets I can never remember which one houses my headlamp. With one or two security pockets finding critical gear is quicker in the dark and cold.
We find that many experienced backpack hunters settle into a narrow range of pocket preferences.
- Big packbag, light overall pack weight
- One or two small secure pockets.
- Another larger storage area separated from the packbag.
This system breaks down your gear into access levels.
- Headlamp, tag, first aid kit, GPS, phone, or other critical gear in small secure storage so you always know where they are and can find them easily in the dark.
- Days food supply, rain gear, maps, extra layers, or other needed but not critical gear in the larger storage area separate from the pack body.
- Extra layers, game bags, kill kit, and other gear that doesn’t need quick access are stored in the packbag.
This system is light but delivers the quick access you need for some gear, with a good level of segregation.
Pocket preferences are again a very personal choice. People who are water bottle users like water bottle pockets on their pack sides, while bladder users who frequently utilize a spotting scope and tripod tend to prefer taller, more secure side pockets.
Our mesh face pocket styles are extremely popular, as is our floating Talon compression system.
We try hard to offer organization styles that fit everyone’s preferences, going as far as to offer Custom Backpacks that allow you to build a pack to suit your needs perfectly.
On pockets...suit yourself, but remember that if you’re in high and steep country less can be more.
Other things to think about
- Fabrics & Materials
- Adjustable Frame Height
- Compression System
- Load Shelf / Breakaway Carry
- Rifle or Bow Carry
Fabrics and Materials
Backpack fabrics should be judged by several criteria.
- Water repellency
- Tear strength / puncture resistance
- Abrasion resistance
Common fabrics used on hunting packs are cordura nylon, nylon packcloth, fleece or microfleece, and then to a lesser extent higher tech fabrics such as X-Pac laminate or Spectra X-Grid. Each has strengths and weaknesses.
Fleece faced fabrics are very quiet, but also have lower tear resistance, puncture resistance, collect burrs, and have terrible water resistance. These fabrics act like a sponge in the rain. A raincover is necessary.
Cordura and packcloth are easy to sew, not expensive, strong, moderately quiet, and have moderate water resistance depending on the type and quality of coating added to the material. Abrasion resistance depends on the denier and weave of the fabric. Well coated fabrics can handle mild showers, but a raincover is needed for prolonged rain events.
X-Pac uses a cordura or packcloth face and laminates more layers to it in order to create a completely waterproof fabric that has similar durability to cordura or packcloth.
The blend of features in X-Pac can be compelling as no raincover is needed even during prolonged rain, and by properly seam sealing packbags they can be considered waterproof even for packrafting or trips in extremely wet environments. The waterproof nature of X-Pac also makes it highly resistant to blood stains, which means your post hunt gear cleanup will be easier.
Downsides of X-Pac are its high cost and that it can be noisier than fleece or nylon, especially during cold temperatures. The noise factor largely goes away as the fabric breaks in.
SpectraGridHT is a new fabric we have started using that has interesting properties. It has a substrate of 100 denier high tenacity nylon interwoven tightly with 200 denier threads of Spectra. Spectra is a super fiber 15 times stronger than steel weight for weight, and it performs brilliantly with abrasion. The result of this hybrid weave is hills and valleys in the profile of the fabric, with the high tenacity nylon being the valley and Spectra the hilltops. This allows the Spectra threads to take almost all the abrasion the fabric sees. The result is a very lightweight fabric that performs similarly to 500 denier Cordura in abrasion testing. A 1500 mm hydrostatic head PU coating makes it technically waterproof.
Compared to our X-Pac fabrics SpectraGridHT punches above its' weight class in regards to abrasion, it is technically waterproof (but not as waterproof as X-Pac), and it has a softer hand and is quieter in brush. This combination of features really hits a sweet spot in a lightweight, highly water resistant, strong, abrasion resistant, quiet backpack hunting fabric. It is available through our Custom Pack Builders now, and we will likely utilize it more over time.
Adjustable Frame Height
A frame too short will make a packout painful. Your pack’s frame needs to be at low ear level or higher to be comfortable handling heavy packout loads.
(To read more about how frame height affects load comfort, read “ Which Frame Height is Right for Me?”.)
Frame height has pros and cons like anything else. Tall frames generally carry heavy loads better, but they also limit head movement and snag overhanging branches. Short frames are sleek and quiet going through brush, but force you to carry too much weight on your shoulders instead of your hips.
Seek Outside introduced adjustable frame heights to the backpack hunting world to address this issue. One pack that is tall enough for heavy loads, but that can be shrunk for lighter loads or thick brush.
Experience is key, and knowing your pack. Different people and body types mean that frame height preferences vary.
In general, for most hunters with a torso length of 17 to 19”, a 24” tall frame does well with loads up to 40 lbs, while a 28” frame is better for packout loads of 80 lbs plus. A 26” frame is a good middle ground that isn’t as good on the low end as a 24 or as good on the heavy end as a 28, but covers both use cases OK.
The ability to switch frame heights on the fly is incredibly useful as you can have the “best” pack possible for whatever load you’re carrying.
Backpack Compression System
A backpack hunting pack’s compression system needs to do three things well.
- Securely hold all your gear.
- Shrink an empty packbag while dayhunting with a small load.
- Secure loads of meat so it doesn’t sag, “ball up” in the bottom of the pack, or squeeze out of the compression system.
There are a lot of ways to do this. Weight, ease of use, and versatility are major considerations. Quality ¾” nylon webbing working loads are rated in the hundreds of pounds. 1” or bigger webbing will be higher, but is it needed?
Our basic pack compression system uses six side compression straps, one over the top strap, and two bottom straps. All of these are removable due to gatekeeper hardware. What this versatility allows you to do is to run only four side compression straps for summer backpacking, or to add even more straps for packouts.
At Seek Outside we tend to think that a lightweight highly adaptable compression system is the best solution for most hunters. Move straps around the pack to where you need them, carry extras to secure antlers or capes, or remove and stash straps that aren’t needed.
Load Shelves & Breakaway Carry
The “load shelf” is a common term for the ability to separate the packbag from the suspension and carry meat between the two. Breakaway carry is our term for this, and we believe a more accurate term.
To breakaway or not to breakaway? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
- Versatility - you can strip the packbag and use the frame as a freighter to carry quarters, gas cans, a chainsaw, odd shaped loads, etc.
- Cleanliness - no meat in the packbag means your gear doesn’t get bloody.
- Center of gravity - meat is dense and heavy. Breakaway carry puts this heavy load close to your back, and our ladder load shelf allows you to set the height.
- Overloading - breakaway allows a small daypack to still carry a full bone in quarter, or it allows a big pack to carry camp plus an entire boned animal in one trip.
- Weight - duplication of fabric and connection points means breakaway packs will be several ounces to a half pound heavier than Integrated counterparts.
- Cost - more fabric and more complexity mean higher cost and more labor to sew.
Weight conscious experienced backpack hunters frequently choose large volume packs that do not have Breakaway Carry. They want max volume at minimum weight, and are confident in their ability to pack meat without it.
Other hunters prefer Breakaway Carry for many reasons - cleanliness, ability to use a smaller packbag and still get a full load of meat, or the ability to strip the packbag off completely.
Decide which works best for your needs.
Rifle or bow carry is as individual as asking your favorite color or what your favorite food is. Everyone has an answer, and none of them are wrong.
The most common ways to carry a bow are either carried in the hand, or strapped to the side or face of the backpack.
Traditional bows are usually too long to strap to a pack unless they are a takedown model, so they are more commonly carried.
Bow Carry Options:
- Carried in hand
- Strapped to backpack
Rifles have dozens of carry methods that have been used over the years
Rifle Carry Options
- Rifle in hand
- Slung over shoulder
- Slung over shoulder with keeper on pack shoulder strap
- Slung over pack frame
- Butt bucket rig with barrel in front
- Butt bucket rig with barrel behind
- Butt in a side pocket and compressed
- Rifle strapped to face of pack
At Seek Outside we build our packs to be versatile enough to work with whatever carry method you prefer. PALS loops on the belt accept aftermarket solutions, and a head scoop between the tops of the frames allows you to sling a rifle over the top of the frame. Gatekeeper compression straps can be used to compress a rifle on the face or side of a pack.…