How to pick the right hunting backpack
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.