September 22, 2023
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Although it was 25 years ago this season, I remember my first Western bowhunt like it was yesterday. Not only was I greeted by a bugling bull elk on opening morning and got a crack at him, but four days later I was able to switch gears and put a sneak on a bedded, velvet-racked buck.
Seeing that arrow arc over the brush and bury into his chest set the stage for many Western bowhunting seasons to come.
The pack-out on that hunt is also something that is still burned into my mind. My secondhand, metal-framed pack dug into my back like daggers, and the average boots I chose to wear had my feet on fire. Sometimes you need to learn things the hard way, and it was on that hunt that I quickly learned how much quality gear really matters — especially in the West.
Obviously, having a finely tuned rig for the backcountry should be your first priority, but a close second would certainly have to be picking a quality pack. Twenty-five years ago, those options were relatively slim…but that’s no longer true.
Mystery Ranch is an obvious candidate for the shortlist. Frankly, they make some of the best packs today, and it’s hard to beat their Marshall ($649). With over 6,400 cu. in. of space, you won’t run out of room, and because it’s built around Mystery’s Guide Light MT Frame, it can handle as much as you can carry. This top-loader is constructed from 500D fabrics, and like all of Mystery’s packs, the Marshall has a Futura Yoke for micro-adjusting torso length. Various zippers allow access to the main and lower compartments, and there’s no shortage of organizational pockets and pouches. To further reduce volume for quick trips, the Marshall is also equipped with a removable daypack lid.
Stone Glacier’s Sky 5900 ($695) is another beast designed for extended wilderness hunts. At 5,900 cu. in., it expands to 8,000 cu. in. with the meat-shelf loaded and can also be minimized to 4,300 cu. in. With an overall weight of just over 5 lbs., it’s a great lightweight pack that incorporates a vertical pocket for spotters and anything else you need quick access to. Several attachment points in the main compartment are designed for adding organizer Swing Out Pockets, plus full-panel access to the main compartment.
For three decades, ALPS OutdoorZ has been raising the bar, and one of their mainstays is the Commander X ($499.99). Doubling as a meat-hauler/multi-daypack, it’s constructed from reinforced fabrics and offers over 4,000 cu. in. of storage. Several internal/external pockets organize your gear, and a fleece-lined pocket for protecting your optics. A removable lid doubles as a fanny pack. The backbone of this pack is the Commander X frame, which can serve as a standalone meat-hauler. The molded design features two aluminum stays with a channeled, high-density ABS frame that incorporates a compressed wing system and a lower shelf for hauling game.
Combining versatility, durability, and the ability to carry heavy loads is the MRK 6 Pack ($499.99) from Badlands. MRK is short for “Mountain Range Killer,” and it gives you 6,100 cu. in. of storage space. The new MRK line has a split-pack design with an integrated meat-shelf that’s built around a strong magnesium-alloy frame. Its Strata Suspension System, which is touted as their most comfortable and adjustable system to date, can be adjusted for a fine-tuned fit.
It’s no secret that Kifaru makes some of our favorite packs, but you’ll need shelter as well, and their Sawtooth ($930) is an exceptional choice. Combining the weight/efficiency of a lightweight tarp with the standing room of a tipi-style tent, the 6'T Sawtooth provides plenty of headroom. At just over 4 lbs., it won’t slow you down or take up much pack space, either. Battle-tested in sustained winds of 50 mph and gusts to 70, it also can be equipped with one of Kifaru’s stoves for the late season. Couple this one with Kifaru’s Slick Bag 20 ($430), which offers the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any sleeping bag on the market, and you can’t go wrong.
If you’re not into tipi-style tents, then KUIU’s Storm Star 2 ($599) is the next-best option. The four-season, all-weather design w/dual vestibules keeps gear dry. It weighs 5.5 lbs. and sports an asymmetrical floor for additional room. The poles connect to the exterior of the fly for struggle-free set-up in high winds. To complete the package, add the Super Down 30 ($459) sleeping bag to the mix. It is KUIU’s lightest option, and it's insulated with water-resistant Quixdown.
For the soloist, Browning Camping offers the Talon 1-Person ($279) tent to their long list of successes. With a footprint of nearly 7' x 4' and a center height of 43" it has solid room. At just over 6 lbs., it’s not the lightest tent on this list, but it will save you money while providing a durable, weatherproof shelter when you need one.
More than just a sleeping bag, Sitka’s multifunctional Kelvin Aerolite 30 ($429) is more like a sleeping system that’s designed to be an extension of Sitka’s legendary clothing performance. Its PrimaLoft Gold Insulation w/Cross Core technology replicates the performance of down but with warm-when-wet qualities. With a 30-degree comfort rating, it makes a great standalone bag for those warmer hunts, and with features like armholes, contoured shoulders, a hood, and a center-front two-way zipper, it transforms into another warming layer when needed most.
After five years on the drawing board, and countless backcountry excursions putting them to the test, iconic bootmaker LaCrosse brings the waterproof Ursa MS ($300) to the table. These backcountry machines are designed with TecTuff PU-infused leather uppers w/breathable SuperFabric quarter panels and gussets that have proven time and again to be extremely abrasion-resistant and durable. Adding to this gem is the Vibram MONT outsole for optimized traction and a large, Hexguard rubber rand that has been cemented and double-stitched.
The Mountain Extreme Series ($500–$540) from Kenetrek has earned a reputation as a lifesaver in the wilds of the West. It sports a 7mm polyurethane midsole to ensure torsional rigidity and a proprietary K-Talon outsole for stability in sketchy terrain. The 2.8mm-thick leather uppers w/one-piece vamp construction have an abrasion-resistant rubber sole guard. And with the no-seam tongue and waterproof/breathable Windtex membrane, the only moisture your feet will see is what they produce.
Light, fast, and durable are the trademarks of the Kestrel ($389) boot from Schnee’s. These non-insulated gems feature top-grain leather uppers for durability, while the trim and tongue are composed of a high-performance stretch fabric to provide a more athletic feel for enhanced mobility. Gobbling up those mountain miles is an aggressive Vibram outsole, and the lightweight polyurethane midsole provides solid support and shock absorption.
The MTN Stalker Pro ($248) from Rocky sports full-grain, waterproof leather uppers with protective rands around the bottom for durability. Rocky’s Vapor Pass technology sheds moisture without trapping perspiration. After long miles on the trail, you’ll appreciate the rebound footbed and fiberglass shanks that provide additional cushioning and support. These boots also feature aggressive Vibram Mountaineering outsoles.
Garmin’s inReach Mini 2 Satellite Communicator ($349.99) is a must-have tool for safety and connectivity in the backcountry. Compact, rugged, and lightweight, it enables two-way texting through the global Iridium satellite network and can also be triggered to send an interactive SOS message 24/7 to the Search and Rescue monitoring center — when the worst has happened. It can also access downloadable maps, has a digital compass, and the TracBack feature helps with navigation while also allowing others to track your movements.
When you’re in a pinch and need guaranteed flame fast, the Elite Dual-Arc Lighter ($29.99) from Pyro Putty is your answer. Fully water-resistant and windproof, it features a rechargeable battery that provides up to 300 strikes on a single charge and can hold an ample supply of Pyro Putty for starting a fire in virtually any conditions.
The Escape Bivy ($68.99) from SOL provides peace of mind when planning a solo excursion. Crafted from proprietary fabric, it's moisture-wicking and waterproof and reflects up to 70% of radiated body heat to help you stay warm. Lightweight and packable, it’s a must-have for any bowhunter planning to adventure into the backcountry.