A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a day on an Idaho 3D archery course with the ElkNut, Paul Medel. As you can imagine, there really wasn’t much to talk about that wasn’t related to elk hunting. Trading stories about the areas we hunted and the miserable pack outs after harvesting backcountry bulls, he mentioned some pack that made the trip much easier. “What pack is this?” I had to know. “The Exo.” That was the first time I heard of this magic pack and even though I had just purchased a new backpack, I could not wait to get back to civilization to find out more about it.
Sort of like buying a new car, once I learned about “The Exo,” I started seeing them more and more frequently. I would always ask folks at different shoots or events, or other hunters that had one “how do you like that Exo pack?” The response was always, “I love it!” I knew the next time I upgraded packs, Exo Mountain Gear would definitely be getting a closer look. The mid-range pack I had at the time seemed to be working alright and I had no hands-on experience with the Exo. I didn’t have any buddies with one or know of a shop that carried them so I could dig in and see what they were all about, so I never really felt the urgency to upgrade anytime soon. Then, last year at the Northwest Mountain Challenge event, at Tamarack, I got the full tour of the pack directly from the folks at Exo Mountain Gear. To say I was impressed would be an understatement! These packs were lightweight, simple, incredibly functional and clearly designed specifically for hunters. I decided my next gear purchase would be an Exo. And soon.
I had been talking about these packs with my friend Adam, who I’ve primarily hunted with for years now. He’s the kind of guy that really geeks out on specs, reviews and details about everything he carries up the mountain. When he ordered an Exo within a couple of days of looking into them, I was surprised, but even more confident that it was going to be money well spent for both of us. Further, I knew that we’d be able to call these packs to task on an upcoming elk hunt.
I had a full fall ahead of me with the first hunts starting in mid-August. Hearing that the packs may be 4-6 weeks out for shipping with it already being late June, I worried that I may not have one in time for the early hunts. As soon as I got home, I called the number on Exo’s website to ask a few more questions about the different bag sizes and accessory recommendations. I got no answer the first time, but it went directly to the voicemail of company owner Steve Speck! I left a message and the man himself called me back a short time later, answered all of my questions and got my order in right then. He also assured me that they would be able to get the pack to me in time for the August hunts. First impression of the company…outstanding!
As promised, the Exo 3500 showed up with time to spare. I spent the following couple of weeks with a 60lb. sandbag in the pack walking up and down the local radio tower, which provided a modest 3-mile round trip with about 700-feet elevation gained and lost. Although the pack was as comfortable as any I’d ever buckled on right out of the box, it took a couple of trips up and back and making adjustments to the torso length to get the fit just right. Once everything was adjusted perfectly, I could hardly wait to fill it up with real gear and hit the road.
The pack’s inaugural voyage was to the deserts of central Nevada in pursuit of pronghorn. Two things ended up being critical during this hunt – optics and water. Since I was able to basically camp out of the back of the truck, I didn’t need much of the space in the pack, so it remained compressed throughout the hunt. I used the external stretch pockets on either side of the pack not only for spotting scope and tripod storage and transport, but also the smaller stretch pockets to carry water in addition to the 3L on-board bladder thanks to a built in bladder pocket. The hose port from the bladder pocket is labeled and strategically located in the top center of the pack and can be worn on either shoulder strap. This built in bladder pocket also protects any gear in the main bag from getting soaked in blood when packing meat off the mountain.
I was in and out of the “optics pockets” to fetch my tripod and spotting scope so much it started to seem silly to even put them back in the pack. The stretchy pockets provided more than enough room for a large tripod and a 65-mm angled spotting scope and the simple cinch-type closure made it a breeze to insert or remove them from the pockets. Perfectly placed compression straps ensured the valuable optics stayed secure and quiet.
The concept of “water bottle” pockets on the lower, outermost part of the pack seem pretty standard, but there are two brilliant features of these pockets on the Exo bags. First, the pocket openings are designed to angle forward for easier access. Although a minor detail, being able to get water bottles (or anything else you want to store/carry in them) in and out of the pockets without taking the pack off or getting the bottle hung up in the process saves a ton of time and energy — especially when you’re spending a lot of time trying to stay hydrated. Second, the lower compression straps around the side of the bag are designed to be able to work under or over the smaller pockets. So, you can secure the contents of the “optics pockets” while leaving the smaller pockets totally accessible and functional. If the smaller pockets aren’t needed, the straps can go over the top and include them in the compression.
The front stretch pocket kept my knife, extra knife blades, my tag and license, pens, journal and snacks during this hunt. I worried that some of the jagged edges from the knife and other items may create worn spots in the material or outright rip when pressed up against the many rocks in that part of the world, but there was no sign of wear.
Up next was an elk hunt in New Mexico that Adam and I both knew we may never be able to draw again. Knowing the significance of the tag we held, we decided we owed it to ourselves to at least give the wilderness area in the unit an honest effort. We were both still a little hesitant as we knew the additional physical and logistical challenges the backcountry would create. We planned for 14 days off of work and up to 11 of those spent in the backcountry, should we need them, and headed south. I realized my first mistake before we ever reached New Mexico. During my previous conversation with Steve at Exo, he told me the 3500 was probably the best “do it all” option unless I was ever going to anything over about 5 days in the backcountry. And if I was ever planning on that, just go with the 5500 because it would compress like the 3500 and I would have the additional space when I needed it. But…I went ahead and ordered the 3500 thinking that when I went for more than 3-5 days, I’d just be able to cram and stuff things wherever they would go and take a little more of a minimalist approach if necessary. As I crammed and stuffed enough gear, food and clothes for 10 or so days during our last night in civilization, I realized it just wasn’t going to work. I ended up putting all of my food and additional clothing inside of a game bag and carrying it between the bag and frame, another brilliant feature of the pack. And even though I was able to make it work, it wasn’t necessarily ideal. Adam had the 5500 bag and the same amount of gear and food, and was able to fully zip and secure his load with room to spare. I echo the advice I was given – if you plan on living out of your pack for more than about 5 days, go with the 5500!
We ended up unloading our packs and setting up camp at the first reliable water source we encountered – about 7.5 miles from the trailhead. We unloaded the packs, reorganized and compressed them so hunting gear would still be accessible and we would be as mobile and efficient as possible. With 20” YKK zippers for side access into the main compartment as well as the back stretchy pocket, you can keep all the gear you need for day hunts readily accessible with the pack fully compressed. The pack also has a floating lid that can be removed if not wanted or needed, and the main compartment is accessed from the top with a quiet and effective roll top. I like to keep a small first aid kit and fire starting material in the lid so opted to leave mine on. In the afternoon of the first full day, Adam arrowed a great bull about 2 miles from camp. After a few quick photos and loading quarters into game bags, it was time to really test “The Exo.”
They were a breeze to load. The bag separates from the flexible titanium frame by loosening a few straps and removing the bag from the top of the frame where it is connected by durable and sticky Velcro. The bag stays connected to the bottom of the frame so that it opens like a book and meat can be loaded directly to the frame. The frame also has two compression straps to secure the load. Once it’s loaded, the bag simply reconnects to the frame by reconnecting the same straps loosened to separate it and can be further tightened. Herein lies another genius design feature: the angled compression straps. The side compression straps are angled enough so that when tightened it pulls the load up instead of just in. This keeps heavy loads high and tight placing the majority of the weight on the hips and not the shoulders. Combine this with the extra tall hip belts and thick lumbar support and you’ve got a pack built for comfort. I’m not saying anything makes packing an elk out on your back easy, but this pack undoubtedly makes it more comfortable. We were able to get Adams quarters and antlers back to camp in a couple of trips with enough time to spare to enjoy a Heathers Choice meal and prepare to get back at it the next day.
After some deliberation and deciding it would cost us too many days of hunting with another tag to fill, we hiked to cell reception and called for horses. Once the meat was loaded in the panniers and headed for a cooler, we decided to take the afternoon to hike back to the trailhead and head to town for a hot shower, meal and a laundromat and be back at the trailhead early the next morning.
On the way back to camp the following morning, I arrowed a bull about 5 miles beyond the wilderness boundary. We celebrated, took pictures and broke the bull down. We soon realized we had a ton of work ahead of us, especially with camp and the rest of our gear still more than two miles beyond. Again, we debated on calling the horses back but this time we weren’t pressed for time. I had been training for this all year and this was the exact kind of scenario I envisioned when making the investment in Exo! Between that day and the next, with a couple of unexpected events, we put on about 40 miles getting the meat and camp back to the trailhead. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a huge relief to get that last load off my back! The Exo frame took the load as advertised. It never broke, stretched, squeaked or loosened. It didn’t bruise my hip bones or cause that intense ache in my shoulders. I didn’t have to walk hunched over. I can say without a doubt that if we hadn’t had the Exo K2 frames, we would have been broken down and miserable if we would’ve been able to get it all out at all. Those two days justified purchasing this pack.
A month later and in much colder Idaho temperatures, I used the pack on a mule deer hunt. It was not a backcountry hunt, but with so much hiking involved and crazy weather I had to carry plenty of food, water and extra clothes. I also had tripod, spotting scope, a heavy rifle and about everything else a guy typically needs on a mountain hunt. The 3500 bag was perfect for this application! It also remained quiet and comfortable regardless of how many layers it was worn over. Although mule deer are much lighter than elk, packing them out of those rugged Idaho canyons is no easy endeavor. I got the pleasure of participating in that two different times on that hunt, one of which was about 3.5 miles and 1700 feet of elevation gain coming out. The other was a couple miles of steep side hill. Once again, everything about the Exo pack shined! One particularly cool feature is that the floating lid perfectly secures a hard-earned set of antlers atop the pack so there’s no awkward movement or shifting. The lid attaches to the bag via a loop to a d-ring. So if they’re big antlers or if additional extension is needed there is a second pair of d-rings higher on the bag. Remove the loops from the lower d-rings and move them to the higher set and voila!
It’s obvious from the first time you put your hands on a pack from Exo Mountain Gear that it’s top notch quality and well-constructed. It’s also clear that the folks at Exo know their way around mountain hunting! In a system that’s designed specifically for hunting, they have designed the most functional, versatile and near-perfect hunting pack out there. When researching these packs, I was intrigued at their claim to build packs for simplicity and efficiency. They nailed it! They were also able to keep it lightweight and durable. And it’s flat out comfortable!
I highly recommend adding hip belt pouches to the pack for carrying items like headlamps, rangefinders, extra batteries, GPS, wind checker, extra calls or other things you regularly use. The stash pockets are also a handy addition to keep things better organized within the bigger pockets or the lid. The weapon carrier was also a convenient addition when hiking long distances with a bow or packing meat and weapon at the same time. The accessories easily attach with Velcro or ladder lock buckles.
It’s hard to find many areas of improvement or anything to change about these packs. They’re seriously near perfect for mountain hunting! The hip belt padding folds over the webbing a little when the straps are pulled tight to the hips under a very heavy load. Wider webbing on the hip belt would provide a more sturdy and comfortable ride and make the already comfortable hip padding even more so. It would have also been nice to have a little how-to material included with the pack specifically on how the bag should be adjusted to the torso. It wasn’t a big deal to do it by trial and error though, and probably worked out better in the long run. That’s it…and I had to dig pretty deep to come up with those.
Bottom line is this: if you’re a serious mountain hunter, or regularly hunt with a pack, do yourself a favor and get “The Exo!” It’s an investment that will make your valuable time hunting more efficient and enjoyable, and ultimately make you a more effective hunter.