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Paul Gustafson's field comparison
of Mystery Ranch - Stone Glacier - Kifaru - HPG

We get a lot of great customer feedback, but rarely publish it. Here's why we're putting up Paul's letter. The very first time I talked with him, I could tell that Paul had a lot of real world experience. He didn't ask me the commonplace (and very naive) "120 pack out" question. Instead, he asked me how the Ute would do at 80 lbs. He had some other good and challenging questions and I figured that whatever he decided about the pack after using it was going to be a very good third party opinion. I didn't necessarily expect to ever hear back, but when I did I was most impressed with his head to head comparison of three different pack systems without one smidgeon of brand loyalty. Paul is his own man, and his opinion is unvarnished. I like that.

It was really nice to meet you guys at the Back Country Hunters and Anglers meeting in Denver. I hesitate to call this a so called “review”, I feel too many people “review” stuff from the comforts of their living room rather than actual field use. Rather, I would probably say that these are my thoughts on the Ute pack up to this point.

I will give a little background; I purchased the Ute last year at the end of September when I got back home from archery elk hunting in Montana with my dad and brother. For me this is my big annual elk hunting trip. I am not sure how many more trips with my dad are left, he’s in great shape, but is also in his sixties. I hope to have many more trips, but you never know.

I have used a Mystery Ranch Nice/Crew Cab and Metcalf for the previous 6 years. I have never been really happy with this pack, my shoulders always hurt after wearing this pack for more than a couple of days, and this is with a day pack load that typically maxes out at around 30 pounds. Enough was enough last year and I decided I was going to ditch this pack and try something else.

The main considerations I had for a new pack were comfort, quality, size, options, and US made - in no particular order. I like to spend time on the internet reviewing just about anything and everything. I have found that it makes for a great starting point, but does not lead to a great decision all of the time. Being single and having a good job gives me the flexibility to spend more than most people would either be willing to spend or be able to. After spending a great deal of time researching various packs, I narrowed my search down to three packs, with a fourth not far behind. These being the Hill People Gear Ute, the Stone Glacier Terminus, and the Kifaru Duplex Timberline.

The biggest concern I had about the Ute compared to the other two was the size of the Ute. It was the smallest of the three. Anyway, I decided to reach out to Evan by email. All emails where responded to in a fast and very professional manner. Based on this, I decided to purchase the Ute with a Pals Pocket compression panel. At the beginning of 2014 I also decided to purchase a Stone Glacier Sky 5100, and a Kifaru Duplex/Nomad. Yep, literally thousands spent on packs. The fourth one was the Seek Outside Paradox, but I am a bit leery about this pack.

So, now I have three packs at the house and really want to get down to only one pack out of the three. My decisions were based on what follows.

I am typically in a backpack 2 to 5 days a week, rain or snow, sun or shine. The majority of this time is spent training, I love to train. Training for me is putting weight in a pack in the form of 10 pound sandbags and just getting out and walking. Most of these walks are about 1 to 2 hours long. I can average about 4 miles/hour at a deaths march pace. I typically carry 40 pounds of sand, but occasionally go as high at 80 pounds. These walks usually take place at either Green Mountain in Lakewood or at Red Rocks. Really what I am looking for is good elevation gains, be it the stairs at Red Rocks, or the hills at both of these places. When it’s muddy as heck, I will walk the paved roads around my house.

At the end of March when the snow starts to melt and some of the dirt roads become accessible shed hunting season starts for me and the weekends are typically spent doing overnighters. I do overnighters throughout the summer up until hunting season. Most of these trips are 3 to 6 miles in wilderness areas. Once hunting season starts my trip duration gets longer and longer, to the point that I am hunting out of a wall tent in Montana for 10 to 14 days.

During shed season I typically carry a Kifaru Sawtooth and medium Kifaru stove, and either a Western Mountaineering Antelope or a 0 degree Super Spiral Montbell with Exped Downmat. I also carry a white gas burner (Primus Omnilite) and a one liter Primus ETA pot. The reason I list some of my gear is so that you can see that I typically am not a weight weenie and typically carry larger sized items. I know I could shave a lot off my cook kit, but I boil a lot of snow in the shed season and just prefer to use this system year round. So, for me anyway the weight penalty is worth it. As the weather starts to warm up, I then go to a 15 degree Big Anges Ranger, Thermarest Neoair, and Hilleberg Akto for shelter but most of my other items remain the same.

Remember the three packs I purchased? The first one to go was the Stone Glacier. I really liked the load shelf on this pack and the compression system, but once the weight got over 50 pounds, the load on the front of my hips was more than I could take. I know a lot of people talk about massive loads in this pack, but I wonder if I am that soft, or if they truly know the load that they are carrying. Resale on this pack was very good, and Kurt at Stone Glacier is one of the nicest people that I have had the pleasure to talk to. I believe you guys would really like Kurt, just a great person. I truly believe that this packs slips because it lacks a piece of hypalon on the lumbar pad. Kurt offers a one piece belt and a three piece belt; I tried the three piece belt. Also, even though the suspension system is easy to adjust, it is still very constricting. Kurt does not recommend to crank down on the load lifters, but I really felt like I was carrying the majority of the weight on my shoulders once the pack exceeded 50 pounds. However, for an Utralite setup this is a nice light pack. For me anyway, this pack would be good for day hunting with minimal weight.

I am still on the fence with the Kifaru Duplex/Nomad. The Duplex system is like strapping onto a board and at loads up around 70 to 80 pounds it also bothers the front of my hips. But on the flipside, the Nomad is a pack that has endless options that you can customize in any number of ways you so choose. It definitely carries weight better than the Stone Glacier, and it doesn’t hurt to support a Colorado company.

Now, onto the Ute. I suppose the easiest way for me to explain the Ute is to explain the things that I really like about it. First and foremost even though I really don’t know you guys, I do really like you guys. You are willing to give your opinion and to me that says a lot. I may not always agree with it, but I always respect it. Next is the suspension system.

It’s the only suspension system that I have used that I can feel the weight of what I am carrying over my traps as if the load is trying to get to the center of my back, rather than pushing on the front of my shoulders. It did take me a little bit to get torso length dialed in. It took quite a few 70 pound walks to get it really, really dialed in. I had to shorten the torso length a little bit each time I loaded it up with 70 pounds. I do not think that I accounted for the amount that a body can settle under a seventy pound load. Once I got it dialed in though…WOW, and I haven’t had to change it since. I really think that you guys underestimate that max comfortable load of this pack. I’ve had it up to 80 pounds and am always surprised at how well it carries. Given, this load is in the main bag. I am not sure how it would handle if it was strapped to the outside with the main bag full of camping supplies.

Next up would be the waist belt. I have not messed with taking any padding out of the waist belt or lumbar pad; I have left these as I received it. For some reason I do not get the rubbing on the front of my hips with your belt. And it’s not like it doesn’t go all the way around my waist. When I am in only a shirt and no coat I am just about all the way cinched in on a medium belt. For me this is perfect. Not much else for me to say on the waist belt, other than it’s the best that I have tried so far.

Next up would probably be the pack and compression system. I was really initially worried about the cubic inches of the pack. It has forced me to rethink my gear somewhat, this hasn’t been a bad thing, but I cannot simply just throw the kitchen sink in it. I have found however, that it is just about perfect for an overnighter and a great daypack. I really like the compression system, it simply just works. I now have the Pals Pocket and the Highlander. For my type of outings I like the room of the Highlander over the Pals Pocket. Don’t get me wrong, the Pals Pocket is a great piece, and is my go to when I am setting this up as a daypack. But I like the extra peace of mind that I get with the extra room in the Highlander. I also like that the Pals Loops on the Highlander are longer than the loops on the Pals Pocket. For me anyway, the longer loops are far easier to work with on the compression system when threading thru the plastic holders and metal G hooks, and I can also add extra buckles on the top loops on the Highlander for a medium Kifaru Pod after I have ran them thru the plastic holders on the compression system.

I know that you guys get a lot of questions about packing an animal out in this pack. I really think that the people asking these questions do not have much experience packing out animals. The number one thing in my mind for packing out animals is compression straps. When an animal goes down all you have to do is get the load stabilized enough to get it out. People act like they are going to be carrying the meat in their packs for weeks; this is simply not the case. I feel that there is plenty of compression on the Ute to transport just about any load. Sure if you’re looking on carrying moose quarters, you’re probably shit out of luck, but if you bone it out, well then -- game on. However, I have not packed out any meat with this pack yet, but I feel confident that I have nothing to worry about. Heck I’ve probably carried more meat out in a Badlands 2200 than most people will in their entire hunting life.

The quality of construction on the Ute is the best out of the three packs that I have used so far this year. The Stone Glacier is a close second. The stitching on both of these packs is outstanding, but I noticed more loose thread on the Stone Glacier. The stitching on the Kifaru could use some work in my opinion.

I have had to rethink my hydration system using the Ute. I admit I am a bladder guy, I know you guys aren’t and it shows a little bit in the pack. I know that you can put a bladder in the sleeve with the frame sheet, but for me anyway I did not feel like it liked to be put in the sleeve. I know that sounds weird, but that’s my opinion. However, I have started using the canteen type nalgenes and so far have no regrets. But, I am not sure how much I will like it when I am walking around with a bow in my hand. I do plenty of stump shooting in the summer, so I will get plenty of practice. One thing that I have learned is that there are always tradeoffs to any system and often times you can end up with a better system. I am hopeful that this is how the bottles will work out for me.

Last for me are probably the options. I feel that there are just enough options and add ons necessary available for the Ute. I do run a Kifaru Pod on top and also two large Kifaru pockets on the waist belt. But, I also understand the problems with trying to produce enough options and add ons, but also not too many. It’s a fine line, and I am happy with what is available for the Ute.

In conclusion, and in a very long winded manner I really just have to say that I am completely satisfied with the Ute, and feel that you guys have produced the best pack that I have tried so far. I am still on the lookout for a larger system and am done buying any more packs until I have a chance to try out your external frame. I know I should post more stuff on line and try promoting the Ute better. But, I have always had a bit of a problem doing this. The whole social media thing is just about overboard, but it can also be great way to promote things. I am going to try to make a better effort and post more pictures on facebook and on your website. I love to take pictures and have the high end camera equipment for some good ones.

I could also go on and on about the Mountain Serape, but I’ll just say it has turned into something that I never leave without. It’s like Linus and his blankie…HA.

I have a 3 day float trip and a couple other backpack trips lined up in June, I am not sure if I am going to make the June outing or not. Hopefully I will be able to.

Sorry for the long winded summary.

Sincerely, Paul Gustafson

2014 Hunting Season Update

I hope all is well. Thought i would send a hunting update. I did not shoot an elk during the archery season, but had a fairly busy one. Opening weekend in Colorado I recieved a call to help pack out this bull ( I packed out the entire cape minus head and antlers and some camp stuff on this trip. Round trip was a total of 7 miles, it was only 2 miles in to the elk. But we also had to hike to camp to pack that out also. I was able to fit the entire cape and fairly uncompressed sleeping bag in the Ute, I also had another sleeping bag and two inflatable sleeping pads on top of the Ute. A fully loaded Highlander was also attached to the Ute. I am not sure of the load weight, I have to believe it was north of 70 pounds. I was unable to military style throw the pack onto my shoulders from the ground. Rather I had to set it on my knee and then get into the pack from that point.

Next up was my brothers bull while hunting in Montana. I was able to fit a boned out rear quarter and backstrap into the Ute. I also had a fully loaded Highlander attached and a 9x15 stuff sack for some clothing overflow. I could have easily fit a boned out front shoulder into the Ute and maybe maybe maybe another rear quarter. I am not sure if I would have been able to close the lid with another rear quarter, but I am fairly certain that the straps on the top of the pack would have done the job just fine. The pack out with this bull was only 3/10's of a mile. This load was defiantly lighter than the Colorado load.

You guys already know that I am extremely happy with how the Ute carries, so I am not going to comment on that. Rather, this is about on what I am able to fit into the pack during the hunting season.

I have my day hunting load in the Highlander and leave the bag part of the Ute empty just for meat if needed so. I am really happy with this setup. So far so good with using the Nalgene Oasis bottles, I am not sure I will ever like them more than a bladder, but am giving them an honest run before I make up my mind. They are far easier to fill and clean than a bladder thats for sure.