Backpack hunting: Is there room for a budget?


Photo credit: Luke Dusenbury

For many, western hunting is the ultimate lifelong trip and, even more so, western backpack hunting is the true epicenter of adventure. There are a lot of things one can say about backpack hunting, but most conversations will probably start with gear. In this day and age, there is some damn nice gear on the market, and living in the woods has never been more efficient or comfortable, but some careful consideration needs to be made when purchasing. Not all pieces of gear are made like the other and some just flat-out suck. In the following, I want to dive down a hole of putting together a backpacking list from a budget-minded mindset and from the expensive side. And then, see what the overall pros and cons are for the full setup.

THE GEAR BASICS 

There are a lot of variables and subjectivity when it comes to purchasing gear so take the following with a grain of salt. I spent my early years backpacking using cheap gear which led to many uncomfortable nights and long days. I generally subscribe to the buy-once-cry-once method anymore, but man, I love a good deal! In the end, I'm a weight freak and I chase lightweight setups on my backpack hunts now, but lighter does not always mean better and there are areas where I’ll splurge a little when needed. When considering gear for your hunt it will be really vital to consider the time of the year you will be hunting and what specific needs you may have. For example, a late-season hunt may call for the use of the hot tent whereas it would be unnecessary for an archery elk hunt.

For the following example, I will use a September rifle hunt for Wyoming mule deer as our trip setting. This hunt will take place in mid-September and will be above treeline. 

Before jumping in, let's look at the various product categories we will need to meet for a backpack hunt. To preface, these will be gear categories that I consider as bare minimums for necessary gear for a backpack hunt. 

Backpack

This one seems obvious but there does need to be some forethought here. How big of a bag do I need? Can I carry the meat out if I kill?

Shelter

There are many, many options to consider when looking at shelters. Many of these will be based on the type of hunting you are doing and it will be important to remember that not all early-season shelters will work well in the late season.

Sleeping bag

Should I go for a down or synthetic fill? What degree of temp rating?

Sleeping pad

How thick? How long or wide? What R-value should I be looking at?

Stoves

There are many options when it comes to stoves and some consideration will be needed when selecting your own.

Water Filtration

As with stoves, a plethora of options are available when it comes to water filtration/purification and some time will need to be spent making your decisions.

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BACKPACK

The foundation of the entire trip will really land on your pack selection. A good pack can make or break a hunt, and your body, and putting some serious thought into pack selection is key. The pack is one area where I tend to not skimp much as it plays the most pivotal role of any gear item I have. Still, there is wiggle room for pricing when it comes to what works and what doesn’t, with pro’s and cons to follow. There are a few big things I like to look at when searching for a new pack.

Meat Hauling

First and foremost, the pack has to have the ability to haul meat. Better yet, if the bag can separate from the frame to create a meat shelf and allow me to still haul my meat it’s a double bonus. When hunting several miles from the truck I want to make the most out of every trip and having a pack that can maintain comfort from camp weight to meat weight is crucial. Most well-made packs on the market today will feature some sort of internal or external frame. External frame packs generally also have the ability to swap various sized bags out on the frame, making them very versatile. 

Bag size

The actual size of the bag will be another huge consideration. Depending on the number of days you plan to hunt, and the conditions you are hunting in, the optimal bag size can vary from hunt to hunt. With most of the modern pack designs, even 7,000-inch bags compress down small enough to day hunt with and I would generally recommend erring on the large side. For most, packs above the 5,000 in range work great for 3-6 days while some over 7,000 would be best for more extended trips. 

Weight

The overall weight of the pack is something I look at, although not with a very vain eye. At times, being heavier is better. Mystery Ranch packs tend to run on the heavier end of the spectrum but their frames are known to be absolute workhorses. However, some competitors in a similar spec and weight range as these couldn’t handle the workload when used for extended periods of time. The same can be said for lighter weight or more minimalistic packs, some are good for backpack hunting, others are not. In general, you can find very lightweight and very strong packs, but the price tag is going to climb.

For our hunt

For the example of our early rifle mule deer hunt, I am going to look at packs that can work for 3-5 days at a time. Something in the 5,000-7,000 inch range will be ideal but there is some flexibility there. As said, this is really an area where it is hard to skimp on cost. Below we will look at some of my top picks for packs in this category and where they fall for pricing.

Top picks for 3-5 day backpacks

Backpack Size Weight Cost
Mystery Ranch Metcalf 4,333 cui 5lbs 11.2oz $525
Mystery Ranch Marshall 6,408 cui 7lbs 1.6oz $599
Stone Glacier Terminus
(Internal frame)
7,000 cui 3lbs 15oz $649
Stone Glacier Sky Archery 6400 6,400 cui 5lbs 7oz $654
Stone Glacier Sky 5900 5,900 cui 5lbs 8oz $659
Stone Glacier Sky Talus 6900 6,900 cui 5lbs 10oz $694

The main thing we can take away is that the Mystery Ranch packs tend to be cheaper than the Stone Glaciers. But, cheaper does not necessarily refer to cheaper quality. Stone Glacier packs tend to be built to the ultralight side of things and can really stretch the cubic inches to weight ratio. Look at the Metcalf vs the Sky Talus 6900 for instance. This additional storage room for less weight costs extra money. The quality is there on both packs, however. 

Shop all backpacks here

SHELTER

Shelters is going to be a very loaded section. There are variables on top of variables. Me, being a weight-conscious type person, I like to use floorless shelters as these give me the most coverage for the least amount of weight. But, floorless shelters have obvious issues like drainage worries, bugs and rodents, and the simple fact that you’re sleeping on the ground. Traditional tent options tend to be heavier but will have floors, tend to buck the wind better, and are just cozier in general.

As I said, I really like floorless shelters, particularly for early-season hunts. Specifically, tarps are my favorite as these are ultralight, provide a lot of coverage, and can usually be pitched in several ways. Other considerations that come into play are sharing a shelter with a friend and gear storage. Situations like this can call for a bigger or smaller shelter setup. Personally, even when hunting with friends I much prefer individual shelter options. This makes finding camp locations easier and ensures that everyone is happy and comfortable.

Top picks for early season floorless shelters

Shelter Size Weight Cost
Seek Outside DST Tarp 9.4’ x 9.75’ 1lb 3.5oz $139
Rab SilTarp 3 10’ x 12’ 1 lb 5oz $185
Rab SilTarp Plus 8.5’ x 7.8’ 1lb 2.4oz $200
Hilleberg Tarp 10 UL 11.5’ x 9.5’ 1lb 10oz $240

The above tarps would all accomdate two hunters, albeit tight on space, but would be exceptional for one hunter and gear. These are all fairly similar in size, weight, and cost and would make great options for an early season lightweight shelter. If inclement weather is expected I will generally bulk my tarp up with a bivy sack.

Shop all shelter options here

SLEEPING BAG

There are a lot of options when it comes to sleeping bags and fill materials. First and foremost, you will need to decide on the temp rating for your sleeping bag. In general, I like to look for a bag that is more of a do-all. For example, a 30-degree bag may be ideal on most early hunts, but if the temps dip, I know I am going to freeze and not sleep great. A bag with a colder temp rating might be warm at times, but I can always unzip my bag too. I’ve found that a 15-degree bag will pretty much cover me for 95% of my backpack hunts.

The other decision you will generally be faced when looking at sleeping bags will be choosing a synthetic or down fill. There are some exceptions, but in general, a down fill will loft better, be lighter, and pack smaller but will lose all insulating properties once wet. Synthetic fills tend to not pack quite as well as down but they do keep insulation values even while wet. In the end, I would rather take the advantages down brings to the table while being cognizant of not getting my bag wet. Now, certain hunts will just require synthetic fills, the key takeaway here is to really evaluate your hunt and future hunts, and make the best decision.

Top picks for 15 degree sleeping bags

Sleeping Bag Fill Weight Cost
Rab Ascent 700 Down 650 fill down 2lbs 15.6oz
(regular wide)
$300
Marmot Helium 15 800+ fill down 2lbs 1 oz
(regular)
$412
Stone Glacier Chilkoot 15 850+ fill down 2lbs 3 oz $549
Western Mountaineering Badger MF 15 850+ down fill 2lbs 6 oz
(regular)
$655

In the above list, you will notice that most of these bags are fairly comparable when it comes to weight. The biggest difference will be in the down fill power and weight. A higher fill power (800+) will generally be lighter and pack smaller than a comparable 650 fill bag, but this is not always the case. This does illustrate the cost difference between the Rab Ascent 700 and the other three bags but is also a great example of where making a few cuts to creature comforts could be better on your wallet and open those funds up for other gear pieces. 

Shop all sleeping bags here

SLEEPING PADS

As a counterpart to your sleeping bag, the sleeping pad serves of almost equal importance and is the basis for your whole night of sleep. Sleeping pads come in many shapes, thicknesses, and R-values, and finding the one that best fits your needs will be key. Early on in my backpack hunting journey, I would use small foam pads, or ultralight and ultra-thin inflatables. With these, my pack stayed light but I slept like absolute garbage and wore down quickly during the course of the hunt. Over a few years, I slowly began moving into thicker but heavier pads. This leads to improved sleeping, more energy throughout the day, the added weight was mostly unnoticed.

I am a side sleeper and I can really appreciate a thicker pad for this reasoning. As an added benefit, a thicker pad generally comes with a higher R-value (insulation) as an added bonus. When looking at pads you will want to pay close attention to the R-value. This essentially refers to the pads insulating effectiveness. A higher R-value means better insulation. 

Another consideration when looking at sleeping pads will be the material they are constructed off. There are some incredibly efficient lightweight pads on the market but these tend to be made from more fragile materials and will oftentimes require some type of ground cloth that lies between the pad and the round. On the other hand, pads with slightly thicker materials can generally be tossed directly onto the ground, within reason, without any worries for the user.

Top picks for sleeping pads

Sleeping Pad Thickness Weight R-value Cost
Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra 3.25” w/3.5” outer chamber 1lb 6 oz
(regular)
4.5 $99.95
Big Agnes Rapide SL 3.5” w/4.25” outer chamber 1lb 3oz
(regular)
4.2 $149.95
Therma-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite 2.5” 12oz
(regular)
4.2 $199.95
Therm-A-Rest NeoAir UberLite 2.5” 8.8oz
(regular)
2.3 $219.95
Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xtherm 2.5” 1 lb 6.9 $229.95

By looking at the above list it’s pretty obvious there some big price, weight, and insulation variances between pads. There are definitely some decisions to be made here, but also some potential money on the table to be saved. 

Shop all sleeping pads here

STOVE

Your stove and cook kit is another area that requires some forethoughts but there is some room for weight saving and money-saving. When selecting a stove I really like something that packs into a nice and neat kit and allows me to quickly deploy and pack up everything. With the stoves, many kits are available and can be a great route to go. If you are more into tinkering, there are definitely some ounces that can be cut by piecing together your options.

Top picks for stoves and cooking kits

Complete kits

Stove/pot Weight w/o fuel Water capacity Cost
Soto River Pot + Amicus Stove System 8oz 1L $54.95
Optimus Crux Lite Solo Stove System 9.6oz 0.6L $64.95
Optimus Crux Weekend HE Cook System 12.6oz 0.95L $79.95
Optimus Elektra FE Stove System 16oz 0.95L $109.95
Jetboil Flash Stove System 13.1oz 1L $114.95
Jetboil MicroMo Stove System 12oz 0.5L $147.95
MSR WindBurner 1.0L Stove System 15.3oz 1L $169.95

Stoves

Stove Weight w/o fuel Ignitor? Cost
Optimus Crux Lite Stove 2.54oz No $44.95
MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove 2.6oz No $49.95
Primus Micron Trail Stove 3.3oz Yes $59.95
Jetboil MightyMo 3.36oz Yes $59.95
Soto WindMaster 3.1oz Yes $64.95
MSR PocketRocket Deluxe 2.9oz Yes $79.95
Primus Firestick Ti Stove 3.1oz No $119.95

Pots

Pot Weight Capacity Cost
Seek Outside Titanium Bail Handle Mug 4.6oz 0.5L $49
MSR Titan Kettle 4.2oz 0.85L $69.95

As you can see in the above list, there are a ton of options when it comes to stoves. The search for the perfect setup may never fully end, and combinations are endless. In the end, I prefer finding a system that really works well for me and sticking with that.

Shop all stoves here

WATER FILTRATION

Like with stoves, there are many options when it comes to procuring and filtering water. Some options work better than others in certain situations and there are pros and cons to everything. Personally, I hate stopping to get water. I hate taking off my pack, unloading a bunch of gear and then getting out the filter. Generally, I like to stick to simple and quick filter/purifying methods but there are times when that's not the best or most efficient, though. 

Top picks for water filters/purification

Filter Type Weight Cost
Aquatabs Purification Tablets Tablet Ounces $10.95
Aquamira Water Treatment Drops Drops 2oz $14.99
Sawyer Mini Water Filter In-line/squeeze 2oz $24.99
MSR Thru-Link Inline In-line 2.5oz $44.95
Platypus QuickDraw 1L Squeeze 3.6oz $44.95
MSR TrailShot Pocket-Sized MicroFilter Hand squeeze 5.2oz $54.95
Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter Hand pump 11oz $89.95
SteriPEN Classic 3 UV Light 6.28oz $89.95
SteriPEN Ultralight UV UV Light 2.5oz $99.95
MSR MiniWorks EX Hand pump 16oz $109.95
Katadyn Vario Hand pump 15oz $109.95
Platypus GravityWorks 4L Gravity/Squeeze 11.5oz $119.95

Shop all water filtration here


PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

As you can see in our above tables, there is loads of gear options when it comes to backpack hunting. Each one of these categories requires some special attention. In some areas, you can save money and weight, in others cutting costs could lead to some very uncomfortable situations. In the following section, we are going to look at three different gear setups from our above tables: The cheapest, the lightest, and my dream list. Along with this, we will also discuss some of the pros and cons of each. 

The budget list

Budget backpack hunting essential gear list

Gear Category Item Weight Cost
Pack Mystery Ranch Metcalf 5lbs 11.2oz $525
Shelter Seek Outside DST Tarp 1lb 3.5oz $139
Sleeping Bag Rab Ascent 700 Down 2lbs 15.6oz $300
Sleeping Pad Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra 1lb 6oz $99.95
Stove Soto River Pot + Amicus Stove System 8oz $54.95
Water Filtration Sawyer Mini Water Filter 2oz $24.99
Total 11 lbs 14.3 oz $1143.89

For this being the budget list is it actually quite capable and ready for some serious hunts. The Metcalf will eventually become sized out when looking to do longer trips, but a pack or bag upgrade down the road could easily remedy that. From this list, I would consider saving some money for a slightly lighter sleeping bag with better down fill but the Ascent 700 is still very capable.

The lightweight list

Ultralight backpack hunting essential gear list

Gear Category Item Weight Cost
Pack Stone Glacier Terminus 3lbs 15oz $649
Shelter Rab SilTarp Plus 1lb 2.4oz $200
Sleeping Bag Marmot Helium 15 2lbs 1oz $412
Sleeping Pad Therm-A-Rest NeoAir UberLite 8.8oz $219.95
Stove MSR Titan Kettle/Optimus Crux Lite Stove 6.75oz $114.90
Water Filtration Sawyer Mini Water Filter 2oz $24.99
Total 8 lbs 3.95 oz $1620.84

With the ultralight list we were able to shave nearly 4 pounds from our total pack weight, but at a cost of nearly $500. Personally, I don’t know that I would pick the Terminus pack as I really like an external frame pack, but when keeping weight in mind this is a great option. The Helium is an excellent all around sleeping bag and would serve anyone well on a hunt. My main worry with this pack list would be the Uberlite Sleeping Pad. I know it will be light but with me being a side sleeper I know I won’t sleep good. This is one area where I would make a weight sacrifice for better sleep.

The dream list

Dave's dream backpack hunting essential gear list

Gear Category Item Weight Cost
Pack Stone Glacier Sky 5900 5lbs 8oz $659
Shelter Seek Outside DST Tarp 1lb 3.5oz $139
Sleeping Bag Stone Glacier Chilkoot 15 2lbs 3oz $549
Sleeping Pad Big Agnes Rapide SL 1lb $149.95
Stove Jetboil Flash Stove System 13.1oz $114.95
Water Filtration SteriPEN Ultralight UV 2.5oz $99.95
Total 10 lbs 14.1 oz $1711.85

My dream list falls somewhere in the middle of our two other lists in terms of weight but does come in at the highest price tag. This complete setup will provide me with everything I need in a sleep setup, plus I have quick and easy-to-use options for cooking and water filtering/purifying. 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

When it comes to building out your gear list for backpack hunting or improving your existing list, there is always room for thought. Perhaps there are lighter or better versions of your gear but maybe there is also a different way of doing things that could lighten your load, or better yet, improve your quality of life while out there. Look at everything with a discerning eye and always be asking questions. I like to make a list of all of my packed gear before a hunt, then when I return home I can record my initial thoughts. If an item didn’t perform flawlessly then I’ll look into some alternatives. Sometimes alternatives don’t exist, but it’s always fun to tinker and explore.

Lighter isn’t always better, but neither is more expensive. Sometimes cheap gear can do the same stuff as more expensive gear, but cheap gear purchased several times is still more expensive than expensive gear purchased once. 

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