Photo credit: Lindsey Mulcare

The Best Backpacks for Big-Game Hunting

If you hunt big game, you need a backpack. We carried many over mountains and across fields to find the best hunting backpack on the market.

Hunting backpacks are a personal choice. They must carry very specific items and, in the case of big-game packs, handle massive loads of meat after a kill. But they must remain light and nimble for use while hunting.

We’ve spoken with hunters and field-tested several packs to suss out the top hunting backpacks on the market. This article focuses on larger packs meant to haul meat and gear in the backcountry. Those who just need a daypack should look elsewhere.

Needless to say, there are a lot of options, and the attributes of a good pack can be found in many brands. At the bottom of this review, I’ve noted a few things to look for.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated for fall 2020.

Review: Best Hunting Backpacks

Best Lightweight Elk Hunting Backpack: KUIU PRO Pack System

KUIU PRO Pack System

The KUIU PRO line is a wonder of backpack engineering. While we spent years testing the ULTRA line of KUIU packs, the PRO line has now become the brand’s lightweight go-to. We’ve used the previous iteration for big game and even turkey hunting. But the PRO line is even lighter.

The foundation of this modular design is a carbon fiber frame that fits a wide range of packs from the brand, so it works as a big daypack all the way up to an expedition-level system. All components are sized for the end users. With game on the ground, the pack fabric moves back to create a shelf for carrying meat. KUIU designed the 10-ounce frame system to carry more than 150 pounds.

And let’s not forget: The entire pack weighs under 4 pounds! Testing the previous iteration of the pack, I carried everything from gear to elk quarters to a whole wild turkey. The discontinued 3000 model fits my style of hunting perfectly, although changing it back and forth between meat-hauler and simple backpack can be a little confusing at first.

Personally, I’ve found this pack comfortable carrying loads up to the 80-pound range. I’ve also had no problems with durability in three seasons of use. Given the fact that I use this mostly as a from-the-road hunting pack, I’ve never had more weight than an elk quarter and some backstraps in it.

Some testers have reported discomfort from the hip belt beyond about 80 pounds. One other negative is the zippers. It’s the biggest fault I can find on this pack. They are loud to open and close, and loud in big-game hunting is bad. So this is worth noting.

The full kit clocks in at just under $500, which is comparable to many of the packs to follow.

See the KUIU PRO Collection

Best Generalist Hunting Backpack: Mystery Ranch Metcalf

Mystery Ranch Metcalf

This is a really sweet pack too, but it loses a few points for its sheer weight (6.1 pounds complete) and complexity. I’ve carried it some in testing, but mostly my buddy has carried it for elk and deer hunting in the Rocky Mountains. He likes it but would like to see the design simplified to remove some webbing straps.

The Metcalf is a really versatile pack and ideally suited to multiday remote hunts. It sells as an all-in-one package, with both a large main packsack and a detachable, smaller day lid for quick stalks.

The pack easily slides away from the frame to create a big shelf space for carrying big-game quarters (or other large, awkward items). And it carries big weight well. We’ve tested this one over about 20 days, including thousands of feet of vertical gain and dozens of miles. The tough CORDURA fabric shows barely any wear (beyond a few blood stains).

And for 2020, Mystery Ranch has updated most of its hunting packs. From the multiday Beartooth 80 to the streamlined Sawtooth 45, the line is worth checking out. And for now, we’re still huge fans of the Metcalf and its big, comfortable capabilities.

See the Mystery Ranch Metcalf

Best Backcountry Pack: Stone Glacier EVO 3300

Stone Glacier EVO 3300 hunting backpack

Just down the road from Mystery Ranch in Bozeman, Montana, sits a small shop with a big following. Stone Glacier has cemented its reputation in the past 5 years as a cult favorite of backcountry hunters in the West and beyond. The brand’s ultralight, minimal philosophy filters into a collection of packs and gear with clean lines, stripped-down efficiency, and substantial aptitude for carrying heavy loads.

The EVO 3300 is a perfect example of this. This isn’t your 10-days-in-the-backcountry pack (but the brand has that too). What it does do is fit an elk quarter perfectly while maintaining enough space for a day hunt or an ultralight backcountry hunt.

This bag sits on the lauded Krux EVO frame, which can be stripped down to basics and still do the job. With carbon composite stays, high-end military-grade buckles, CORDURA 500-denier fabric, and a 150-pound rating, it’s high-tech carry at its best. And the whole system — bag and frame — clocks in at 3 pounds 13 ounces. The frame itself weighs 2 pounds 7 ounces.

For all this tech, you’re definitely throwing some money down. The frame itself retails for $335, and the combo together costs $574.

See the Stone Glacier EVO 3300

Best Ultralight Frame: Exo Mountain Gear K3 Spyder Frame

Exo Mountain Gear K3 Spyder Frame

Exo takes a unique approach to its frame packs using a standardized frame system from superlight and strong titanium. And the brand nails it with this system. Its K2 series was the absolute favorite pack of GearJunkie contributor Will Jenkins, a serious hunter with significant gear experience.

“This pack strikes a perfect balance, rigidly carrying a heavy load but still allowing you to move around comfortably,” Jenkins said. “It keeps the load close to your body and situated comfortably on your hips.”

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Last year, the K2 was upgraded and phased out. The new K3 series starts with the foundation of the K3 Spyder frame. The K794-alloy frame, the straps, and the belt weigh just 2 pounds 14 ounces total, and it carries very heavy loads thanks to rigid vertical support. This new frame is rated at a whopping 250-pound carry weight. And the frame moves with you laterally for comfort on the trail.

Use this frame alone, or couple it with the 2000, 3500, or 5500 fabric sack attachments for a complete gear- and game-hauling system.

This is a high-end pack. The frame alone costs $375, and a complete system ranges from $500 to $575 depending on the size of the frame and pack selected.

See the Exo Mountain Gear K3 Spyder Frame

Best Deer Pack on a Budget: Badlands 2200

Best Deer Pack on a Budget: Badlands 2200

At $280, the Badlands 2200 Hunting Pack gets high marks for durability and hunting-specific design at a reasonable price. With hundreds of user reviews, most are five stars.

It starts with T-5 aircraft-grade aluminum frame and tough fabric. Hunt-specific features include the ability to carry a rifle, bow, or pistol. It also has a spotting scope pocket to protect the glass when traveling over rough terrain.

After the kill, the built-in meat shelf supports big loads to haul out elk quarters. It’s also blaze-orange, a small bit of added safety but the kind of detail hunters appreciate.

Badlands also released its Vario system last year, another modular approach to developing a series of packs for one frame. GearJunkie contributor Jace Bauserman tested the Vario system and really liked it (read more here). From base frame to daypack to big ol’ multiday, Badlands has it all.

And if something goes amiss? Well, this warranty spells it out well:

We don’t care what happened, or whose fault it was, we will fix it for free forever. We could care less if you bought it at a garage sale or a gear swap, as long as it says Badlands, it’s covered. All we ask is that you use and abuse your pack as much as possible so we can learn how to make our products even better.

See the Badlands 2200

Best Midprice Modular Hunting Frame Pack: Eberlestock Mainframe

Eberlestock Mainframe

The Eberlestock Mainframe is a modular frame pack meant to carry big loads. As with other modular packs on this list, it has a meat shelf and sells as a simple frame or with additional sacks that can carry gear.

Users love the quality of this frame. While not exactly light (the frame and belts weigh 4 pounds 5 ounces), it manages big loads with aplomb. The aluminum frame alone comes with several straps to hold quarters or other large items.

Add any of several available pack bodies to the frame for a complete system for $300 to $400 total.

See the Eberlestock Mainframe

Best Frame Backpack on a Budget: ALPS OutdoorZ Commander + Pack Bag

ALPS Outdoorz Commander Pack

The ALPS OutdoorZ Commander + Pack Bag is a great pack at a great price. This combination has made it a favorite among hunters who don’t mind trading carbon fiber for aluminum to save significant money.

The pack is designed with firearm hunting in mind and has a dedicated rifle-holder along one side. The brand designed a lashing system specifically to carry meat after the kill.

With a volume of 5,250 cubic inches, it has plenty of space for overnight backcountry hunts. And at $160 on Amazon, it leaves enough money in the bank for game processing fees when you get home successful.

See the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander + Pack Bag

Best Versatile Meat Hauler: Seek Outside Revolution Suspension Pack Frame

Seek Outside Revolution Suspension Pack Frame

A small but growing company, Seek Outside builds backpacks (and shelters) in the USA, many in its home state of Colorado. And among its most versatile hunting packs is the Revolution Suspension Pack Frame. Sold individually for $329, the pack frame weighs just 2 pounds 9 ounces. But Seek Outside designed it to carry the heaviest loads.

Due to its ability to attach several fabric sacks externally, it’s a very versatile frame. Use it for packrafting, hunting, search and rescue, even expeditions.

A popular configuration (as pictured above) is to put a Merlin Daypack Talon ($130) on the frame to carry small items during a day of hunting. Attach a dry bag for bulkier gear, and you’ve got a waterproof system for longer backcountry trips.

The frame has a load shelf that adds 2,000 cubic inches of overhaul capacity, so you should be able to load in elk quarters for the haul out after a successful hunt.

See the Seek Outside Revolution Suspension Pack Frame

Hunting Backpacks: What to Look For

Obviously, these aren’t all the packs on the market. But these are among the best we’ve found. What should you look for in a backpack for hunting? Let’s break it down.

1. Haul heavy loads. A hunting backpack should be capable of carrying a very heavy load. For big-game hunters who trek into the wilds, that means up to 100 pounds. Why? Because that’s what a big elk quarter plus some gear will weigh. Most of the time, this means an external frame.

2. It should fit like a glove. Many packs come in various sizes or have adjustable torso lengths. Make sure yours fits properly.

3. Carry gear too. For many, it should carry gear while hunting. This means things like snacks, water, extra clothing, game bags, knives, and possibly your weapon for long walks. Multiple pockets are nice for organizing gear.

4. Ample space. For those who pack deep into the woods, it should be able to carry enough gear to sleep out overnight — or longer. This means a sleeping bag, tent, and cook gear, plus items noted above. For this reason, modular systems that allow larger or smaller packs on a single frame perform admirably.

5. It should be quiet. This is unique to a backpack for hunting — and really important. The material should not make much noise when snagged on bushes. The zippers and buckles should operate quietly.

6. Don’t forget daypacks. For many hunters, these packs are more than needed. A small daypack works for those who hunt deer or smaller animals where they can be dragged out. Those with access to ATVs or horses also can likely get by with a simple daypack too, as those handle the heavy hauling.

Hiking Pack for Hunting: The Backpack You Already Own

Don’t want to buy a new pack just for hunting? No problem. If you backpack, you already own a pack that’s entirely capable of serving you as a hunting pack. It just won’t be ideal.

Backstraps, tenderloins, and meat scraps will fit into the main compartment of most large, internal-frame backpacks designed for hiking. If far from the trailhead, deboning front and rear quarters will allow even their massive volume to fit in larger packs.

Just be sure to bring game bags and a garbage bag to line your hiking pack to minimize bloodstains.

Most internal-frame packs can even carry the heavy load of a bone-in elk quarter. It probably won’t be comfortable, but it’ll do in a pinch. Just bring some paracord, lay the quarter on the pack, and get strapping. The job won’t be pretty or fun, but it will get the meat out of the field.

Have a favorite hunting backpack we missed? Tell us in the comments for future updates to this article.

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Sean McCoy

Editor-in-Chief Sean McCoy is a life-long outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing central Wisconsin forests and lakes. He joined GearJunkie after a 10-year stint as a newspaperman in the Caribbean, where he learned sailing and wooden-boat repair. Based in GearJunkie's Denver office, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.

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