As I get into the full swing of summer scouting and start to finalize my gear for the upcoming hunts, I wanted to share some of the research I did, and some of the most important factors I considered in choosing a backpack for hunting elk this fall.
For the past several years, I’ve been using the original EXO Mountain Gear 5500 pack. Prior to that, I used a Kuiu Icon Pro 5200, and before that, a couple of different Eberlestock packs (Blue Widow and J104). At the ATA show earlier this year, I looked at several different packs from all the major manufacturers including Eberlestock, Badlands, Kuiu, Mystery Ranch, Kifaru, Sitka Gear, and EXO Mountain Gear.
My style of elk hunting requires a pack that is compact and light enough for a day hunt, but that can also expand to carry my camp several miles into the backcountry to get away from the crowds. Additionally, once I harvest an elk, the pack must be durable enough to pack meat out with all of my gear. Each of the brands I mentioned above have tried to service this niche market – which I know is a growing crowd amongst us elk hunters – and for the most part, most have done a respectable job of putting some great packs out on the market. Ultimately, as I began looking at the packs, my requirements for fit, function, design, and weight began eliminating the packs one by one. The last pack remaining after all the testing was the new EXO Mountain Gear 3500.
Here are the reasons it stood out:
The new EXO ‘K2’ frame design is much more rigid than the original version, and yet still allows me to easily draw my bow, move laterally and more versatile throughout the woods without restrictions. In fact, sometimes I forget the pack is on because it is so lightweight and quiet! The first-generation EXO pack frame – and many others that I have used over the years – all seemed to make minor noises and/or squeaks while hiking and packing heavy loads. My experience so far with the new K2 frame is that it is whisper quiet.
One of my favorite things about EXO packs is the simplicity of the pack. The layout of the 3500 is very simple. It has one main compartment (3500 ci) that can be top or side loaded, as well as two big external side pockets (1000 ci) that are great for tent poles, a spotting scope or a tripod. The lid is 440 ci, and the meat shelf is 2500 ci. In the newest version, the lumbar pad got an overhaul and is now much larger and softer, making the heavy loads much more comfortable. The EXO 3500 is also one of the most user-friendly packs I’ve found when it comes to converting the pack into a meat hauler. In less than 30 seconds, I can remove the main bag and set the pack up to haul elk quarters that strap securely to the frame. Overall, the frame design, layout, and fit of this pack is perfect for my style of hunting.
EXO packs range in size from 2000 ci to 5500 ci. I chose the 3500 because it will easily carry 3 days’ worth of my gear, food, and water into the backcountry. For those regularly wanting to do more than 5 days, the 5500 might be a better option without much of a weight penalty. Both bag sizes compact down to almost nothing, and both utilize the same frame, so the weight carrying capacity is exactly the same. I have personally tested the original pack to its limits – as well as my own – by carrying out two hind quarters, one front quarter (all with bone in – not smart, by the way), two back straps, and the head from a raghorn bull a couple of miles. When I dropped off the meat to the locker, my load weighed in at over 150 pounds, and I had some additional hunting gear on top of that!
With the new ‘K2’ frame and the several modifications and improvements EXO has made to the original design, I am confident that this pack will carry heavy loads even better. I loaded 50 pounds into the pack for testing, and it been very comfortable so far. The straps, buckles, water resistant fabric, etc., are all very durable and reliable, which gives me confidence while hunting in the backcountry.
One of the accessories EXO introduced in 2017 is a roll-top dry bag insert that snaps right into your main bag to keep everything inside the pack dry. The material of the EXO packs is already very water-repellent in my experience, but this dry bag will ensure that none of your clothing or gear gets wet or bloody when hauling meat. I also love the Stash Pocket that Velcro’s right into the lid, and the hip-belt pouches are some of the only ones that I can unzip with one hand, which makes it convenient to open the pouches while holding my bow, tripod, or anything else in my other hand.
The last thing I’ll mention is the value that one receives with owning an EXO pack. The options are simple and easy to configure. The owners and designers of EXO Mountain Gear – Steve Speck and Lenny Nelson – are backcountry hunters at heart, and it shows in the design, features, and quality of their packs. With EXO’s price point, quality of materials, domestic production, and functionality, they should definitely be a consideration for anyone looking for a versatile, lightweight, and durable hunting backpack.
NOTE: As a reminder, members of Elk101.com’s University of Elk Hunting Online Course receive a 10% discount on EXO Mountain Gear. To sign up and save 10% on a UEH Membership, click the link below and use code FORUMS10 when you check out: http://www.elk101.com/product/university-of-elk-hunting-online-course/