Load it Up: Extending your hunt in the backcountry and utilizing your meat shelf
Packing everything you need on your back for a multiple-day hunt or camping trip can take up quite a bit of space. Thankfully, most pack companies have come up with a solution: the meat shelf. Some companies call them meat shelves; others call them load shelves. Either way, they both serve the same purpose: to haul an added load. To further exploit the benefits of the roughly 3,000 cubic inches on your back follow along.
Loaded up mule deer meat in the load shelf of a Stone Glacier Evo 3300 pack. Photo credit: Brady Miller
This could be one of the most attractive benefits to buying a pack system with the option of an integrated load shelf. Most pack companies have seen the need and demand from their customers to start manufacturing bags and frames that have some kind of “shelf” in-between the two components. On my Stone Glacier Sky 5900 Backpack for instance, when I disconnect the side compression straps, loosen the lower compression straps, disconnect the load lifter straps and lift the bag, I get access to the built-in load shelf attached to the frame. Now, on some packs there may be a "flap" of cordura that will aid in suspending the load above your hips, making it more stable once secured between the reattached bag and the frame sheet. Typically, gaining access to your load shelf is fairly simple, which is why I believe more people should at least try to use it for more uses.
For me, personally, I have seen the benefit when I’m packing in for more than three days on either a bow hunt or rifle hunt. Based upon all of the gear I'm going to need for a 3+ day hunt (spotting scope, clothing layers, cook system, sleeping bag, shelter, etc.), I have decided to just throw any gear that wouldn't need to be quickly accessed into a large 2,500 cubic-inch dry bag. At the bottom, I place my sleeping bag, shelter, down jacket and any other lighter items. Towards the middle, I place my clothing layers, cook system, and food. Lastly, at the top, I will pace any heavier items like a spotting scope, extra camera lenses or water if I have to pack my water in. Once in the bag, I roll the top closed and place it in the load shelf the same way I would a hindquarter. This now leaves my main bag with less clutter and access to the essentials. I started to find that when I needed something out of my pack, it conveniently was placed under items, which led to me having to re-pack my bag. This is a solution that I heard about from friends and on forums. Now it's my go-to method for extended hunts.
The one downside
There is one downside, but also has somewhat of a solution at the same time. Let's say you harvest an animal and now you’re packing it out. The only negative I have found is when you need that shelf space for the meat, but it’s currently occupied with all of your camp items. This, in turn, could make you add an extra round trip to your overall pack out. The solution to this issue I've found is that I haven't lost the space inside my bag main compartment. I will simply load the main bag portion with as much as possible. Instead of packing out extra water, I'll dump it and only carry a Nalgene worth. If I have food that can be eaten that I don't need, I eat it. This helps remove some of the items I had previously in the 2,500ci load bag to free up my load shelf for a healthy portion of meat. Once at the truck, remove your bag from the frame and go back in for the next load — this time you’re ultralight since you only take the recommended items to finish packing meat out, if required. Unfortunately, this method only works if you have a big enough bag. If you have a daypack-sized bag, then that's where you could see having to add an extra lap up the mountains.
For those in the market for a new pack, I would highly recommend one with a load shelf. I know some prefer to carry meat inside the bag, but, in my opinion, I want the meat to cool as fast as possible, which the load shelf helps with, too. Also, I don't like all my gear needing a wipe down or wash from the smell and blood if carried in the main compartment, but this is just my personal opinion.
If you have any questions, be sure to add them below, or if you've used this method before be sure to let us know how you like to utilize your load shelf!