Of all the forms of hunting discussed in these pages, backcountry hunting is far and away the most physically and mentally demanding and also the most demanding on gear.
Not only does the backcountry hunter have to hunt, he has to do it while balancing an extraordinary number of ancillary concerns ranging from where he’ll sleep to navigation to how he’ll avoid trouble with predators to how he’ll deal with the downed carcass of a large animal that’s potentially inaccessible to vehicles. With all this on the hunter’s mind, there’s little time or energy left for worrying about equipment performance. You need to make sure your gear is well constructed and well maintained or else things will go to hell in a hurry.
A daypack is useful for any kind of hunting that doesn’t involve an overnight stay. It needs to have enough room for your essentials, food, water, safety kit, ammo, tools, and extra layers. It should be light, durable, and weather resistant. It should also wear well on long days of hiking and sitting.
If your daypack is thoughtfully packed and organized, you’ll insulate yourself from oh-shit! moments when you realize you’ve left something important behind. When hunting big game out of a basecamp or a vehicle, I prefer to carry a lightweight daypack that has the capacity to expand and carry out a load of meat. When transporting meat is not an issue, a simple fanny pack will suffice. No need to go big and fancy here; just get something comfortable that’ll hold your gear and keep out rain.
Your backpack is like the lynchpin of your backcountry gear, it holds everything together. Whether you’re on a week-long mountain bowhunt for elk or making day-long excursions into swamp country from a truck-based whitetail camp, you need a pack that’s big enough to handle your gear, comfortable enough to wear all day, and configured in such a way that you can stay organized.
There’s a never-ending flood of hunting backpacks on the market these days that are advertised as being capable of the task. Some certainly are, but many more are junk. Here’s a rundown of three very different backpacks that have what it takes to handle the rigors of backcountry hunting, each in its own way.
Easily one of the most versatile and durable backpack systems on the market, it’s built around a lightweight but extremely sturdy pack frame that can be adjusted to fit pretty much anyone between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Justin Bieber.
This frame can be used alone as a hauler pack for carrying heavy bone-in quarters of moose or elk weighing in excess of 100 pounds. If you need a small amount of gear and some water, you can add on a fanny-pack sized bag as well as a water bladder and still pile on quarters of meat. The fannypack can be detached from the main body and worn on its own.
For all-day or overnight hunts, the main 6,000 cubic inch bag can be added to the frame in seconds; this bag includes two large side sleeves that make packing—and accessing—your tripod and spotting scope a breeze. It also collapses easily to reduce bulk when unloaded, and has a liner that can be pulled out and washed once you get it bloody from hauling a fresh kill.
Add the 1,000 cubic inch external load pod, which can handle a one-man tent, a sleeping bag, and a compact sleeping pad, and you’ve got a total of 7,000 inches of storage. It also has an integrated rifle/bow carrier that lets you keep your hands free while traveling long distances or using trekking poles when loaded with weight in rough terrain.
So with one pack system, you’re covered for everything ranging from a day hike to a week-long pack trip, and you’ve always got the potential to add a significant load of meat without having to return to your camp or the trailhead for a larger pack.
If you do a lot of hunting in extremely wet places—coastal Alaska, Washington, and Oregon come to mind—then you can’t beat this bruiser of a waterproof pack. It’s essentially an indestructible roll-top dry bag mounted on an extremely comfortable and strong internal frame that can handle in excess of a hundred pounds without buckling.
It carries extremely well and keeps all of your gear dry as a bone, even when tossed into the water and used as a flotation device. While the pack itself is high capacity, the main body lacks external pockets. It’s annoying, but again, this pack is built to keep things dry and it does its job extremely well.
Now and then you get into a situation where the only thing you want out of a pack is the ability to haul heavy loads comfortably. Maybe it’s a 20-mile pack in on a Dall sheep hunt where you’ll be coming out with 110 pounds of meat, horn, and gear, or maybe it’s an extended Point A to Point B mountain trip that requires you to tote along an inflatable kayak plus two weeks of food. In these situations, you need something that can handle layer upon layer of gear, plus all manner of odds and ends—kayak paddles, a rifle, bear-proof food canisters—bungeed and clipped to the outside.
A number of companies make such rigs, and one of the best is Mystery Ranch. Their NICE pack frames are compatible with several different pack styles, including some smaller daypacks, but the system is especially suitable for their giant-sized 7500 cubic-inch bag. It’s a heavy and stiff pack, for sure, and all the buckles and straps can be a little confusing, but it’ll hold more gear than your shoulders will want to carry.
It has plenty of pockets, including an ingenious pair of tubular-shaped vertical pockets that are perfect for fuel canisters or food or any other odds and ends that you want to keep handy or well away from your clothes and sleeping gear.