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How to pick the right hunting backpack


Seth Webb packing out Colorado mule deer in Stone Glacier backpack
goHUNT's Seth Webb packing out his 2017 Colorado mule deer in a Stone Glacier Sky 5900 backpack. Photo credit: Brady Miller

I started getting out in the hills with my Dad at the age of nine here in Arizona. I can remember the first hunt I ever went on. It was an October rifle mule deer hunt and I had no idea what to expect. Not only was this my first hunt, but it was also my first real camping trip. Everything was new to me. The sights, smells, and sounds captured me from the start. Up until that point in my life, I had never even seen a deer. Once I did, things were different for me and deer hunting every year with my pops was something I looked forward to immensely.

While my experiences made me the hunter I am today, I remember vividly how much I dreaded carrying everything as we still hunted to and from our ambush spots. We didn't have backpacks—just our pockets and a small collapsible tackle bag that we used to hold our knives and other gear. I would throw a couple of candy bars and a bottle of water in my pockets, sling an old pair of binoculars around my neck with a shoestring, and call it good.

Nowadays, things are quite a bit different.

After getting smashed in the jugular with the hunting bug, I soon realized how important owning a good backpack was. The first animal I had to pack out by myself was a mountain lion. I ended up dragging this lion for about three miles. From that point forward, I vowed to get a backpack that could do the work for me and haul out my loads of meat and hide. Not only did I want it to perform with my harvests, I wanted something that I could use for backpacking/backpack hunting. It took a handful of packs, too much money, and lots of miles hiked to find out what I really wanted and needed. However, over the years, I have learned some valuable lessons when it comes to choosing a backpack and, hopefully, with what I've outlined below, your experience will be much smoother than mine.

Purpose of a good backpack

The why?

The first thing that you need to ask yourself is "Why?" Why do you need a backpack? Do you want something that can just hold a day’s worth of rations and extra clothing? Maybe you want a pack from the opposite end of the spectrum that you can haul elk quarters with as well as pull off a 10-day backpack hunt? In my opinion, whether you get a day pack or something for extended hunts, I highly suggest you get something that has meat hauling capabilities. It's also important to select a backpack for YOU and you alone. A backpack must fit your body and shouldn't be just based on what your friend uses.

Josh Kirchner article quote on backpacking
I also think that a backpack should be hydration capable. Maybe that is just because I live in Arizona where water is so scarce. I'm jealous of the people who can run a Nalgene bottle and an MSR TrailShot and have adequate water sources at their disposal. That's just not the case where I am from, which means that having a water bladder and somewhere to hang it in my pack is a big necessity for me. You might be different.

Day hunts vs. extended hunts

Day hunts vs extended week long hunt
Organizing hunting gear on the mountain. Photo credit: Josh Kirchner

A question I am asked on a regular basis is how big of a bag in terms of cubic inches should I get? The answer to this question depends on your intended purpose for the pack. If you are just going on day hunts, I don't think you need anything over 2,000 cubic inches unless you go with something a bit bigger that can compress down super small. A general rule of thumb when choosing a bag is to estimate 1,000 cubic inches per day. If you are planning to do three to five-day trips, then go with something in the realm of 3,000 to 5,000 cubic inches. Plan to stay longer? Bump that number up in the realm of 8,000 cubic inches. Of course, this is just a guideline and there are many people that fall out of these suggestions and do just fine. An ultralight hunter might easily get 10 days out of a 5,000 cubic inch pack; whereas, someone else might only get three. This is where figuring out your backcountry gear system is going to come into play. I will tell you right now, when you first start backpack hunting, you will bring too much stuff. End of story. As you grow as a hunter, your list will dwindle and you will stop packing your fears.

Functionality of a backpack

Load lifters/suspension system

Suspension system on a hunting backpack
The new Stone Glacier EVO 40/56 pack system. Photo credit: Brady Miller

A backpack is a system of a few different things all working together. Everything is connected and if something is out of whack, the pack isn't going to perform right for you. This system includes your waist belt, shoulder straps, frame, and load lifters. The waist belt is made to hold the brunt of the weight in your pack, putting less strain on your shoulders. The load lifters are these magical little things that help bring the load in tighter to your back while reducing the tension on your shoulders and adding additional right/left stability.

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They are the straps located on the top of your frame that travel down to your shoulder straps. Tightening them will pull the shoulder straps up and away from you if your pack is sized right. The first backpack I ever owned didn't have load lifters or a good suspension system. I remember getting regular neck and shoulder pains because of this. Find a backpack that has a great suspension system and actually learn how to put the pack on properly. I see folks all of the time wearing backpacks in a way that is more likely to hurt them than help them.

Load lifters on a backpack
Load lifters on a backpack. Photo credit: Josh Kirchner

Load hauling

Chris Porter 2017 Colorado mule deer in Mystery Ranch backpack
goHUNT's Chris Porter getting ready to haul out his 2017 Colorado mule deer in a Mystery Ranch Metcalf backpack.

This is a big one, right? The big kahuna! When you are so fortunate to bring down the animal that has been frequenting your dreams, you are going to have to transport the meat by way of a backpack from the kill site to your truck. Owning a backpack that has the ability to haul meat is an absolute must for me. Many of the backpacks these days give you the option to strap meat between your bag and frame. Doing so is going to make your life way easier when you get something down. I have had to wear my backpack while carrying meat in my hands and I can attest that it is completely unnecessary. Being able to strap meat to your pack is a massive advantage and majorly ups your efficiency in the mountains. It also is a hands-free approach, which means that you can use trekking poles while hauling meat on your back for added stability or have the benefit of catching yourself with your hands if you happen to fall. Keep in mind, this benefit is directly connected to the suspension system I mentioned earlier. Again, everything works together, so really learn your backpack.


Adjusting the waist belt on a hunting backpack

The only way that the suspension system is going to work properly is if you have a backpack that is sized properly for you. If not, all of the functionality, bells, and whistles go out the window, which is going to cause you pain. Most backpacks available these days give you the option of adjusting the torso length to your body. If you don't know how to do this or can't tell if the torso length on the pack is right for you, I suggest bringing your pack somewhere and getting fitted. If you aren't sure where to go and do this, I'd call the backpack company and ask them how to do this with their pack.

Another area where sizing is incredibly important is on the waist belt. This needs to be right. Most of your weight will be carried at this point, which means that having the pack slip down towards your rear end is not a good thing to have happen. A very common mistake, which I have made as well, is going with a size larger than you need for the waist belt. The thought behind this is thinking that we need the extra room for clothing. You will have plenty of room with the proper size, I assure you. I made the mistake of buying a waist belt that was a size too big and paid for it packing out my first bear. With 30 pounds or less, I really couldn't tell anything. Once I threw 100 pounds in the pack, I was singing a different tune. I flat out ran out of room to tighten my waist belt and could not tighten it anymore. It was a big mistake on my part and one that I try to educate folks on regularly. Sizing is key.

In closing

Trail Kreitzer packing out a Utah bull elk with Stone Glacier backpack 

goHUNT's Trail Kreitzer packing out his wife's Utah bull elk with Stone Glacier Sky 5900 backpack.

Even though I have incredible memories of being in the field with my dad as a young boy, I sure am glad that I don't have to carry things the way we did back then. My shoulders and neck hurt just thinking about it. If it weren't for that, though, I might not be sitting here writing this article so, in a way, lugging that stuff around awkwardly helped shape me. It is because of those early years that I really appreciate a good backpack and why I think every hunter should have one. Whether you are looking to dive into the backcountry or day hunt from your truck, having a good backpack is only going to help you. Try on as many backpacks as you can, do the research, and make sure you get something that is right for you. You will undoubtedly have a much more enjoyable experience, especially when you notch that tag.

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stephen s. - posted 2 years ago on 03-05-2018 12:33:00 am

A good external frame will have suspension features similar to a good internal pack.
Richard C. - posted 2 years ago on 03-04-2018 07:13:41 pm
Ahwahnee CA

I'm a two pack guy myself because I need to be more mobile than a large pack will let me be for day hunts. My Day pack is a Badlands Super DayPack that I have had since it came out years ago. I have always brought the first load out with it and can spend a night if I have to (Sans comfort of any kind). If I'm going multiple Days I take a Cabelas Alaskan Guide Frame Pack with about 5000 cu in bag. Or use that pack to go in for second loads on my day hunts. I would however Like to upgrade that pack with one of the new systems but $500-$700 for the new stuff keeps me in my current set up and pretty happy.

AJAX M. - posted 2 years ago on 02-10-2018 07:16:50 am
West Linn, OR

I agree with Seth D, I have a 1400 Cubic Inch pack from Sitka that I use that has a hydration bladder for my daily out & backs. I use an external frame pack I bought for $50 to haul meat. My day pack is large enough that I can get the head/horns out and typically back straps and loins. Then I head back to the truck and grab my external frame pack for the rest of the work. Maybe I just don't know any better but this has been my way for years and it works and it didn't break the bank.

Josh K. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 01:51:29 pm

@Stuart G.

Thanks bud! Yeah, if you really like your osprey, I'd say keep an external at the vehicle for when you are successful. Other than that though, I would strongly suggest you looking into some of the higher end hunting pack companies. These internal frame packs are going to be able to do it all for you, so you can get down to business right away at your harvest. I run one pack for everything Hope that helps. Good luck!

brandon r. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 07:19:08 am
Pueblo, CO

I have an army ruc pack. one thing I don't like about it is that its already heavier than I would like without anything in it. things I love about it (but can be a curse) is that you can put more crap in there than you want to haul. easy to clean and easy to attach stuff to the outside of the pack when your packing in a drop camp

Seth D. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 06:21:43 am
Public Lands

Nice! Bright blue, mine is neon yellow. With sambar and goat blood stains on it.

Stuart G. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 06:13:17 am

My backpack for Philmont treks with Boy Scouts:

Stuart G. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 06:18:02 am

@ Seth -- appreciate the quick feedback. I had not considered the two-pack scenario you describe.

Stuart G. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 06:16:09 am

I should also add to my original comment: I backpack with my Boy Scout troop using an Osprey Aether 85 Liter internal frame - it is fantastic and very comfortable. It's a bright blue color which might offend some hunting purists, but if an internal frame can carry meat then I would prefer to use it and not buy another pack.

Seth D. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 06:12:41 am
Public Lands

@ Stu,

I like having both.

Hunt with the internal pack, and keep the external in the truck for the second trip across the mountain to pick up the other elk quarter.

A lot of options in packs. Go someplace that has tons and try them all.

Seth D. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 06:04:36 am
Public Lands

I bought a Cabelas hunting external frame pack that wasn't sized to fit me and tried to pack out a sambar while hunting in Australia, the result was a lot of pain and when I fell over burdened with 3 quarters of this big sambar hind, I busted 2 disk in my back.

My current pack is an old North Face mountainieering pack that does fit, but is far from perfect for the hunting fields.

I also have a Kelty kids pack to pack my 2 year old, and if I don't adjust that one to fit me I have the same painful result.

A pack that fits is heaven.

Good article Josh.

Some notes, there are a lot of resources on youtube titled "how to fit a backpack". Watch them over and over and try every pack in the store. With about 20-30 pounds of weight in the pack.

Stuart G. - posted 2 years ago on 01-26-2018 06:09:53 am

Very helpful article. Can you please explain the circumstances under which you would recommend an external frame pack versus an internal frame pack? I like the suspension of my Osprey internal frame but it seems external frames would be handier in packing meat. thank you,