Buying a pack for a backcountry hunt can be a bit of a daunting task. Especially when living in the Southeast. It is not like you can just walk into a store here and start trying pack systems designed for packing in your camp and later be ready to pack out your animal and your gear. Instead I started researching packs and pack systems on line. I watched product videos, 3rd party review videos and comparison videos. I also read articles and reviews on line…..a LOT of them.
In my opinion picking the right pack or pack system can be somewhat of a personal preference. The qualities and preferences that I determined I wanted might not be the same for you. While I think I found the perfect pack for myself this does not mean it would be correct for you. However, I do believe the pack I ended up with would serve any aspiring, or seasoned, backcountry hunter well and far exceed any expectations for performance. I would highly recommend it to anyone….but I am getting a little ahead of myself.
So where to start? My approach was fairly simply. I made a list of qualities I was was looking for and then ranked those from 1 – 5 on my priorities list. 1 meaning of little importance 5 meaning a “have to have”. I would then compare this list with reviews and feedback from others online. I then used the comparison data to rank the various packs I was looking at. My list of qualities and my ranking for these is shown below:
Comfort when loaded – 5
I knew I needed a pack that would be comfortable at the truck but still be comfortable 5 miles into a hike with 60# (or more) of weight. This meant reading a lot of comments in forum posts, (mostly Rokslide , Trailspace and a few others) and weeding out the usual complaints that were just complaints without explanation and then basically keeping a tally of the number of positive and negative comments. I also looked for any comments that told me the pack positioned the weight bearing in the right places and that things like load lifters, sternum straps and waist belt were in the right places and where “modifications” were not needed to make these function as they should.
Quiet – 5
The last thing I want to listen to for a 5 mile hike is creaking, squeaking or other noise coming from a pack. While this might not seem like a big deal for a pack system it is for me. The last way I want to start a hunt is listening to a variant of Chinese Water Torture coming from my pack.
Durability – 5
Again research came into play here. Since I couldn’t test each pack individually I needed to browse forums and review a lot of customer feedback
Compartmentalization/Reconfiguration – 4
This was really important to me. I currently own several packs from simple waist packs all the way to a large extended day pack. While I do have one “day pack” I intend to keep, I wanted a pack system that could replace everything else, or at least come close. Plus, because I knew a solid pack or pack system was going to be pricey I wanted to try and maximize my investment by purchasing a system I would use more than just when I headed west. I was thinking I would at least want to use the pack system I chose for exercise/rucking, carrying stands and gear into the eastern woods and mountains where I spend most of my time, hauling corn to feeders for wild hogs and more.
Color Selection – 2
I don’t get too hung up on colors, here I just wanted to know the pack was available in a few color options so I could easily pick one I liked and that would blend in well when in the field.
Brand Recognition – 2
Brand recognition really answered itself by the time I got this far down on my list. Other than that I am not a huge hashtag sort of guy, so I wasn’t really concerned with what all the latest social media clammer was about. For me I just wanted to know the company I purchased from was well founded and would likely be around for a few years.
Customer Service – 9+
That’s right, on a scale of 1-5 I ranked Customer Service a 9+. It is one of my pet peeves for an otherwise awesome product to be sold by a company with lousy customer service. So much so in fact that historically if a company provides me with a great customer service experience I will often buy products from them blindly in the future with little or no comparison to their competitors. Likewise a poor experience and they likely loose a customer for life. It is just that important to me to know if I have a problem or need a question answered to know the company will be there.
My Pack, my choice and why
At the start of my search I narrowed my focus to packs and pack systems from 5 different companies. Those were (in no particular order) Mystery Ranch, Stone Glacier, Kifaru, Kuiu and Exo Mountain Gear. Now, I am not going to go into details about why I did not choose certain packs, only why I chose the pack I did. I am merely wanting to walk you through my decision process and how I ranked the packs. Before going any further I should also state that I received no free products, trial products or discounts for publishing this article. I am writing this strictly for the benefit of others to learn from my choice.
So ultimately I chose to buy from Kifaru. I am going to try and outline my reasons for my choice based on the criteria I outlined above. The setup I purchased included the following:
Kifaru Tactical Platform Frame And Suspension with composite stays and the large waist belt
Kifaru Nomad 2 pack
Kifaru Native To use as a center dump sack on the frame and later a final approach pack
Kifaru Guide Lid For additional storage and possible approach pack.
A couple Belt Pouches for odds and ends
So why did I choose Kifaru? Well, it came down to my list of qualities, the rankings for each pack that I came up with and I admit I had a few recommendations from trusted friends thrown into the mix. I planned to use the recommendations from friends as a tie breaker if needed but as it turned out I really did not need them.
Comfort when loaded – based on comments, reviews and customer feedback on the web I quickly found that 4 of the pack systems I was researching were pretty much dead even with one falling slightly behind. Again not having tried any of these packs personally I do not feel I can say any of them are better than the other in this regard. It appears that all of the companies make a solid product and I honestly believe that buying a pack from any of the 5 would not be a disappointment. However, I did find several comments regarding the KUIU pack and frame that led me to determine that while the pack was lighter than others it could be less comfortable when packing out an animal. Because that is one of my primary objectives (to pack out an animal) this all but removed the KUIU pack from contention for me.
Quiet – Again from reviews there seemed to be little difference. I did see some complaints with a couple specific brand but not really enough to call any one company out for noise so I will leave it at that.
Compartmentalization/Reconfiguration – For me this is where the rubber began to meet the road so to speak. Ultimately I felt Kifaru just offered more options for reconfiguration of their pack system to meet specific needs. With a single pack frame and minimal effort the system can be easily changed to accommodate every situation from chores in the off season, to a 1-2 day hike and all the way to a week plus excursion deep into the back country. There is a limitless array of packs, pouches, pockets and such to accomplish anything your heart desires. As for me, the selections I made will pretty much handle anything I can even forsee I would ever need but in the event that a unique opportunity comes my way I know I can alter the pack to meet my needs. This was, for me anyway, likely a one time investment. I plan to use this system for many years to come!
Color Selection – Again, all pretty much even here. Plenty of options to choose from in both solid colors and Camo. I did end up getting my Native and Guide Lid in camo pattern but the rest I went with plain old Coyote Brown.
Brand Recognition – Low on my list but here is what I can say based on all the reading and forums I crawled through. All of these companies seem to have a lot of loyalty. In my humble opinion it seemed that Kifaru had the greatest following but I do believe there could be multiple reasons for this. One of those I will get to in a minute but overall each company seems to produce a quality product. A product good enough that people want to share their opinions with others. That is a good thing!
Customer Service – Along with compartmentalization this was the deciding factor. As I got closer to making a selection I sent an email to a few of these companies (not all because I had for one reason or another excluded all but 3 by this time) outlining my immediate and long term needs, my current body type and what I hoped my body type would be by the time I headed to the backcountry and outlined my choices IF I purchased their product. I asked for feedback on my selection, for recommendations on sizing or any special considerations etc. Kifaru just shined here! Within hours I got a email from Aron Snyder with feedback on my selection, recommendations based on the information I had given him and a personal invitation to call his cell if I had any follow up questions or needed assistance in any way. That pretty much sold me. I did get replies from the other two but pretty cut and dry with one even recommended I come into the store to be “fitted”. Yea, a bit of a drive for me to try on a pack. I also knew that Kifaru takes specific measurements and then hand configures each pack based on that information so it shows up properly configured and pretty much ready to hit the trail.
So, I ordered my pack and I want to say it took about a week to 10 days to arrive. After CAREFULLY opening the box it took me perhaps 20 minutes to get the Native, Guide Lid and pouches attached and make some very slight adjustments to the pack but overall it was pretty much ready to go out of the box. Next I took the pack I had been using for exercise and removed the 50# sandbag it held, slid that inside the Native. Once I had the compression straps and Grab-it properly affixed. I was ready to give it a trial run. That day I rucked for 3.5 miles with the Pack and the sandbag and even stuff the wings of the nomad and the guide lid with clothing and random items. The total weight was 65# and it was one of the easiest three and a half miles I have ever done with a weighted pack. All of the weight was right where it should be, on my hips, and with just a slight tug on the load lifters there was no strain at all on my shoulders. Once I was back at my house all I could think was “So this is how a pack is supposed to feel when loaded!”. I was VERY pleased with my purchase.
Since that day I have probably logged close to 50 miles with the pack and loads of 55# – 65# and still not one complaint. The pack is comfortable, quiet, easily reconfigurable, will hold a ton of gear now and if I need more room I have numerous options to configure the pack to meet my needs. The pack just works and works well! While I currently do not need any additional gear from Kifaru I can say without hesitation I will look to them first for any gear they provide in the future, I just feel the quality is that good! Now it is time to focus on getting in better shape, scouting as much as possible using topo and google earth, make a few calls to biologists and such. I am really looking forward to getting a critter on the ground in some far, remote destination and putting this pack to proper use! Keep in mind these are not hunting conditions and to be fair I will post a follow up to this article once our 2018 Mule Deer hunt has been completed and provide post hunt thoughts and commentary regarding the Kifaru.
Closing thoughts and ramblings:
Some might wonder why I went with the tactical frame rather than the hunting frame. I went back and forth but ultimately I went with the tactical frame because it is more rigid which I equated to durability in the long term. So for just a few more ounces I figured it was a good trade off since I planned to carry some heavy loads outside of just hunting situations. You may have also wondered why price was not among my considerations. This was not an oversight on my part. I considered price EXTREMELY early and quickly decided two things. 1) All high end packs are expensive. Yes, some are more expensive than others but ultimately I saw this as a major investment for years and adventures to come. 2) Ultimately I decided I wanted the best pack for me and this was not a purchase I plan to repeat anytime soon. So when I thought about how many situations I am planning to use this pack and averaged the cost out over just 5 years the long term cost was negligible.
So there it is. My choice and how I arrived at my decision. I am hopeful this information is useful for anyone facing the same choices as me. If you have any questions or comments please leave your comment below, I would love to hear from you and keep an eye out for the post hunt review coming this fall!