What are the differences between regular backpacking packs and packs that are purpose-built for hunting? Can you hunt with a regular backpacking pack? Is a meat-hauling hunting pack too heavy to backpack with?
These are great questions. And although we make pack systems specifically for backcountry hunting, we have years of experience using standard backpacking packs — for hunting, as well as for non-hunting use. Before we started Exo Mtn Gear, we used many of the common backpacking packs, such as those from Gregory, Kelty, Osprey, and others.
When talking about "backpack hunting", you can separate the backpacking from the hunting. Going back a decade, there were great packs for backpacking, but they were insufficient for hauling heavy loads at the end of a successful hunt. On the other hand, the external metal-framed "load hauler" packs that were used to pack game were too heavy, bulky, rigid, cumbersome, and noisy to hunt in.
Back then, you needed two separate packs — one pack for backpacking and hunting up until you were successful, and another pack for meat-hauling after you filled your tag. But the times have certainly changed.
MODERN HUNTING PACK SYSTEMS
With advancements in materials and design, today's top-tier hunting packs are incredibly strong, yet light, nimble, and quiet.
What do these modern, purpose-built hunting pack systems have in common with standard backpacking packs? And what makes them better for hunting?
Let's consider the differences between modern hunting pack systems and the general backpacking packs that are on the market today...
PURPOSE > PLAN > PRODUCT
When you look at a product's features, materials, and specifications, you have to back up and think about the planning and design that went into those choices. Zooming out even further to see the big picture, you'll discover that the best products started with a specific purpose or problem to solve.
The backcountry hunting packs that we build have a very specific purpose. Because the purpose of a hunting pack is different than the purpose of a mainstream backpacking pack, the products will be different.
We have carefully designed and engineered Exo Mtn Gear pack systems to work incredibly well while hunting and hauling. Every buckle, stitch, and square inch of the pack is what it is for a very specific reason. We won't go into every single detail in this article, but let's look at some of the high-level differences between a modern hunting pack system, such as our K3 Pack Systems, and a pack that's built purely for backpacking.
INTERNAL, EXTERNAL, or HYBRID FRAME?
The old load-hauling hunting packs we mentioned prior were external frames. You had an exposed metal frame structure that a bag was then connected to. Most backpacking packs are internal frame designs; the frame structure is built into the bag itself.
Our K3 Frame is more of a hybrid design. (Watch: K3 Frame Feature Video) The Titanium frame is encapsulated within a frame "panel", but is not within or permanently affixed to the bag. This hybrid design creates a load shelf between the bag and the frame, and also provides the modularity that allows you to have one frame system with interchangeable bag options.
As mentioned prior, external frame packs are generally heavy, bulky, loud, and don't offer any freedom of movement. Internal frames on the other hand are more streamlined and offer more freedom of movement with light loads, but they aren't built with enough strength to handle heavy loads. Internal frame packs don't have a meat shelf, which means you have to put your meat inside the bag with your gear. Putting meat inside your bag may be an issue if your bag is already full of gear, food, and clothing. If there is room inside, now you have bloody meat mixed with your other gear. And, finally, the meat won't be as secure, nor as close to your back when it is inside the bag — and this means less stability and less comfort with the heavy load.
Backpackers aren't concerned with making sure their packs are as quiet as possible. A slight pack squeak may be annoying to a backpacker, but it won't ruin their trip in the same way that it would for a hunter that loses a shot opportunity because of a pack noise. The materials selected for backpacking packs aren't selected with things like noise from abrasion or contact with trees limbs in mind.
An Exo customer crosses a massive boulder field to enter some thick timber in search of a bugling bull elk.
Actually, the vast majority of backpackers rarely (if ever!) leave the trail. The same can't be said for backcountry hunters. If you think about the experience of wearing a pack on a cleared, well-groomed trail by a backpack, versus the type of brush-busting, dead-fall climbing, rock scrambling, and low-crawling, that a hunter often does, there's no comparison to the demands that are placed on a pack between the backpacker and the hunter. Beyond noise, this also brings us to...
This starts with material choice for all of the reasons I just mentioned. Backpackers simply do not subject their packs to the same level of potential abrasion, punctures, tears, and other hard-use that hunters do. Because of that, backpacking packs can be built with much lighter-weight, less durable textiles.
Moving beyond just the fabrics, though, you'll also find that backpacking packs are built with light-duty buckles, webbing, zippers, thread, and construction techniques. No backpacker is strapping a 100lb load of meat to their pack, wrenching hard on the straps to secure it, and hoping that the fabric, stitching, webbing, and buckles will hold up under that type of load. But that type of demand is absolutely required for a hunting pack.
As I mentioned previously, every stitch and square inch of an Exo pack is designed and constructed for that type of heavy use.
Many backpacking packs have a published weight limit of 40-50lbs on the absolute top end. As backpack hunters know, that type of weight is about as light as they'll ever get. Backpack hunting is unique in that you are starting a trip off with the lightest load and hoping to finish the trip with the heaviest load. Backpacking, on the other hand, starts off with the heaviest load and only gets lighter and you consume food each day and aren't concerned with packing out meat, hide, or antler. Not to mention, backpackers don't have to worry about carrying weapons, optics, and other hunting-related gear. (More on that in the next section.)
An Exo customers uses his K3 Pack to haul an incredibly heavy load of Moose meat and rack back to camp in Alaska.
Asking a backpacking pack to carry a "hunting load" is going to be extremely uncomfortable in the best-case scenario, or extremely catastrophic in the worst-case scenario. Carrying heavy loads without a properly-fitted, properly-constructed pack can cause permanent damage to your body. Experiencing the failure of a pack that is loaded beyond its capacity and/or weight rating can lead to safety issues, the loss and spoilage of meat that deserves our absolute respect, and other troublesome consequences.
ORGANIZATION & ACCESS
The backpacker and the backpack hunter use a lot of the same gear — shelter, sleep systems, stoves, clothing layers, and more. But the backpacker doesn't have to carry a bow, rifle, spotting scope, tripod, and other gear that hunters often carry. Because of this, backpacking packs are designed with organization and access to hunting-specific gear in mind.
The full-length side pockets on K3 Packs are great for tripods, spotting scopes, tent poles, and similar items.
Our bags, and many other hunting packs on the market, have been specifically designed to provide both secure storage and efficient access for weapon systems, spotting scopes, and other hunting-specific gear.
We talked earlier about how our hybrid frame design allows you to use different bag sizes on the same frame system, which simply isn't possible with internal-frame backpacks. But modularity matters in small ways, too.
For example, on some hunts, I want to run a sidearm on my hipbelt. On other hunts, I want to run a hipbelt pouch on my hipbelt where my sidearm was. Or maybe I want to run bear spray on the hipbelt because I have my sidearm on a chest holster while I'm in bear country.
Many packs have hipbelt pockets, but no way to attach or easily reconfigure other accessories based on the specific needs of hunting a certain species, hunting a certain area, or hunting in different seasons of the year.
JUST ONE PACK
Hopefully, this information has helped you understand just some of the differences between a backpacking pack and a pack system that is purpose-built for backpack hunting.
An Exo customer uses K3 Pack to summit Mount Rainier.
While our packs are indeed purpose-built for hunting, they are also light enough to use for non-hunting pursuits. All of us at Exo personally use our packs for other activities including — backpacking, weighted pack training (rucking), skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, backcountry fishing, and more.