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Carrying the Kitchen Sink

It's vitally important to have the right pack size and frame fit before heading off the grid.

Carrying the Kitchen Sink

If you plan to be in the backcountry more than five days, you need a 6,000-cubic-inch pack (80 liters). (Photo courtesy of Paul Birde)

From the pages of Backcountry Hunter

Imagine this: Stuffing survival essentials into a shiny, new pack that is touted to carry everything but the kitchen sink, hitting the trail leading to nowhere, and heading deep into the mountains where you camp among the wild and hunt off the beaten path. You envision that new pack loaded down with bloody game bags filled with the meat of the bull elk you just shot, with its cape and antlers strapped to the 
top for the trek out.

This doesn’t have to be just a dream. It is totally doable, and if you’re reading this, you have likely already experienced backpack hunting or you want to know how. But know this: Backpacking isn’t for the faint of heart. Hauling 40 pounds (or more) of gear on your back may sound easy, but those pounds grow heavier as you climb higher and trek farther.

Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Are you hunting from a base camp or plan to hike and set spike camp? This will help determine what size pack you need. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Holm)

To ensure you don’t injure yourself and aren’t overpacking, it’s important to understand your pack's construction and capabilities, including frame size, bag capacity, packing strategies, and more. Here’s what you need to know to become an expert backpacking hunter.

Understanding Pack Size

When you start planning your trip, there are a lot of factors to consider. “Are you going solo or with a friend? How many days do you plan to be off the grid? What type of animal are you hunting?” asked Mystery Ranch Director of Marketing Ryan Holm. Mystery Ranch has created quality packs for the military and for sportsmen for over four decades and understands a thing or two about size and fit.

According to Holm, to know what size pack you need, you have to determine the type of hunt you’re undertaking. For example, are you hunting from a basecamp where you don’t have to go as light or from a spike camp where weight matters? All of these equations factor into how big a pack you need to maintain a comfortable living situation.

In the backpacking world, the size of a pack is either listed in cubic inches or liters. Here’s a list of general size recommendations that take into consideration how many days you plan to hunt:

  • Day/Overnight pack (1 night, 1 day): Under 2,500 cubic inches, 20–35 liters
  • Weekend Warrior (2 days, 1 night): 2,500–4,000 cubic inches, 35–50 liters
  • Spike Camp (3–5 nights): 4,000–6,000 cubic inches, 50–80 liters
  • Backcountry pack (5+ days): more than 6,000 cubic inches, 80 liters and up
Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Mystery Ranch Metcalf: At 4,333 cubic inches, the Metcalf is a versatile multi-day hunting pack. A large main pack can hold 3 to 5 days worth of gear, and a detachable lid doubles as a small daypack. The Guide Light Frame is adjustable and distributes weight evenly. An overload shelf is ready to haul out meat. | $525 (Photo courtesy of Mystery Ranch)

You don’t want to buy a seven-day expedition pack “for extra room” when you’re going on a weekend hunt. Overpacking is the biggest problem for first-time backpackers. When packing, think minimal—every ounce counts. You may be able to deadlift 200 pounds in the gym, but you don’t want to carry 80 pounds of gear on your back for miles at a time. Choose the appropriate size for the amount of days you plan to be in the backcountry. A multiday pack, such as Mystery Ranch’s Metcalf (71 liters), can serve as a good median pack that can be used on a range of trips. Or consider frames that allow for interchangeable pack bags.

“We design our system around modularity,” said KUIU Director of Product Development Shaun Ayers. “If you buy one of our carbon-fiber frames and suspension, you have nine different packs that can be paired with it.”

Carrying the Kitchen Sink
KUIU Icon Pro 5200: The bag itself weighs only 48.7 ounces and has eight external and five internal pockets. The lid can be removed, and the top of the bag compresses for lower-volume usage. The bag is modular, which means it can be paired with either KUIU’s ULTRA or PRO suspension kit. | $499(Photo courtesy of KUIU)

KUIU, the makers of hardcore mountain hunting clothing and gear, focuses on light weight and compressibility in their packs. The KUIU Carbon Fiber Frame and one of its two suspension systems can be purchased individually, so you can then pair your suspension kit with different KUIU bag sizes to completely customize your setup depending on your hunt situation.

The Importance of Frame Measurement

A huge mistake many first-time backpackers make is thinking that one frame (sometimes called a “yoke”) fits all or that because you wear an extra-large shirt you need an extra-large frame. Wrong!

Carrying the Kitchen Sink

“It’s really important to have the proper frame that fits your torso length,” said Holm. “If your pack is not properly fit or secured, you’ll be using a lot of excess energy. Most of the time you’re not on a trail. You’re walking in wet conditions or over trees, and if your pack isn’t fit properly, you’re stealing energy.”

Backpacking-specific packs come with frames that are available in different sizes. Without properly measuring yourself, you could be purchasing a pack that does not fit. Your shoulders, hips, and back will bear the weight disproportionally, causing severe discomfort.


“You could be really short and have a long torso,” said Holm. “You could be tall and have a short torso. It all depends on the hunter. That’s why it’s so important to have accurate measurements of yourself taken.”

If you don’t have a store nearby with professionals who can help, simple steps can be taken at home to find your exact torso length.

  • Use a tailor’s style measuring tape or a piece of string that you can lay on a yardstick after you’ve taken your measurement.
  • Tilt your chin down so that your C7 vertebra at the base of your neck is clearly visible. Take your thumbs along the back of your hips and feel for the iliac crest, or the very top of your hip bones. Where the spine meets the iliac crest is the end point of your measurement.
  • Have a friend drape the measuring tape or string from your C7, along the contours of your spine, down to the top of the iliac crest. You now have your torso length.
Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Measure your torso length by measuring from your C7 vertebra, along the contours of your spine, to the top of your iliac crest. (Backcountry Hunter Photo)

How to Properly Load Your Pack

There is an art to loading gear into your pack to ensure weight is balanced evenly. So that your heaviest gear isn’t putting pressure on your lumbar, you want those items to sit low and close to your spine in the middle of your back. Follow these guidelines for a properly loaded pack:

Carrying the Kitchen Sink
  1. Place your sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack and put it horizontally at the bottom of your pack. You don’t need this until the end of the day, and it will provide a stable base. 
  2. Next, load your heavier items, such as your tent, food, stove, stuff sack of clothing, or field-dressing tools. These are heavy essentials, but you don’t need them until it’s time to set-up camp. Having them in the middle of the pack will maintain the best balance on your hips and shoulders.
  3. Stuff your rain gear or puffy jacket inside your pack down along the sides to eat up space and to keep your bulky items securely in place. This also allows you to easily remove either in case it starts to rain or temperatures drop.
  4. Strap your tent poles to the outside of your pack. Use the top lid and other external pockets to stash maps, snacks, water purification items, and other essentials you need easy access to throughout the day.

How to Properly Wear Your Pack

Once you have the correct-size pack, it’s vital to wear it properly so that it performs as it should. To be as comfortable as possible, weight needs distributed between your hips (65 percent of the weight) and shoulders (35 percent of the weight). Backpacking packs aren’t meant to be worn where the waist of your pants sit.

“You want the hip belt to sit atop your iliac crest,” said Ayers. “A lot of people want to wear it where the belt of your pant sits, but that’s too low. It’s important to make sure it’s atop your crest and to ensure the hip belt isn’t interfering with your leg movement in your hip flexors.”

Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Step 1: Load the pack onto your back and first tighten the hip belt as tightly as possible. The hip belt should sit on top of your iliac crest.
Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Step 2: Latch the sternum strap and lightly tighten.
Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Step 3: Reach under your arms and feel for the straps that tighten your shoulder straps. Pull down until your shoulder straps are snug.

Once your pack is on your back, first tighten the hip belt as tightly as possible. From there, latch your sternum strap (found on the front of your shoulder straps). Then reach under your arms to feel for the straps that tighten your shoulder straps. Pull down until your shoulder straps are snug. Reach over your shoulders and pull tight on the straps that are known as “load lifters.” The lifters keep the upper portion of your pack near your body so that your pack doesn’t slip backwards and cause stress on your lumbar vertebrae. The load lifters ideally should be at a 45-degree angle between your shoulder straps and pack.

After adjusting the load lifters, make sure your shoulder straps are flush and touching the top of your scapulae (shoulder blades). If there is a gap between your scapulae and the shoulder straps, the weight of your pack will fall completely onto your hips. Tightening the straps under your arms will not fix this problem. Although your frame is a specific size, most backpack harnessing is adjustable on the frame. You need to take the pack off and move the shoulder harnessing down on the frame. The harnessing is usually attached to the frame with Velcro and can be easily adjusted up or down.

Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Step 4: Reach above your shoulders and pull tight on the straps called the “load lifters.”
Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Step 5: Make sure there is not a gap between your shoulder straps and your shoulder blade.
Carrying the Kitchen Sink
Step 6: If there is a gap, take the pack off and move the shoulder harnessing down on the frame of your pack.

Before heading off on your dream hunt, load your pack with the gear you plan on taking. Hike a couple miles a day to get a feel for your pack. It’s your lifeline in the wilderness, and if it doesn’t fit at home, it won’t fit on your hunt. 

“It’s extremely important to choose the right pack before your trip,” said Holm. “When you’re out in the backcountry and your frame breaks when you load it up, or if your load lifters rip, or the frame doesn’t fit you and isn’t distributing weight properly, you’re going to be miserable.” 

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