Choosing A Pack Frame - For Heavy Loads

Pack frames are not a new idea, here's a recreation of the wood and hide pack Oetzi the iceman was carrying when he met his end on that alpine pass.
When I decided that my old internal frame Berghaus was too broken up to continue as my main pack I'd intended to buy a pack frame, cut the straps and semi-frame out of the old Berghaus, and lash it on to a frame. As you've already read the title of this post you'll know I feel there are two main choices, Kifaru and Mystery Ranch.

Both have developed a system of adjustments that let you fine-tune the fit of the pack to your skeleton and posture.

Good packs last a long time, I'd had the last one for years and years before it finally succumbed to plastic fatigue with its clips and buckles giving up the ghost. Still usable, but without proper adjustment, a terrible carry and even when new its design hailed from the days when 20-50% of the load was expected to be born on your shoulders. These days we know better - 100% of the weight on your hips - seeing as they are the only part of your body designed to bear weight. As packs last so long they are something worth taking your time over choosing, which is fun, and strangely cost effective.

The opportunity to buy a G2 Kifaru Longhunter came up first so I got a pack and frame at the same time. One thing led to another; I found some bits and pieces of junk lying around to trade online and you know how it is, I later bought a Mystery Ranch Mountain Ruck. Two different approaches to load management. Both streets ahead of the packs of yore.

That consummate outdoorsman, climbing guide, and Alpinist historian BoB (my bro) tells me that back in the day the pack frames were soldered copper tubes (yep from the plumbing store) to which the plumber/pack-maker used to add a filling point at the top and a drain cock at the bottom. So the frame could also be a fuel canister. I saw this recreation in the Nat Geo store. They've missed out the padding so you can see how the forces are distributed across the shoulder blades, the pack must have been pretty wobbly and tiring to carry.

With characteristic contempt for the well being of their employees the british army issued this, er, 'super ridgid' and I guess super-heavy frame to radio operators. You can buy one HERE should you feel your back-guy is under employed or you don't have enough scrap metal in your life.

Both Kifaru and Mystery Ranch are US based, low to lowish volume manufacturers with devoted followings (Kifaru actually have fan-boy meet-ups). Both boast of sales to elite military units, and have great reputations on the hunting forums. Both companies make a frame which is the foundation of a system, with different packs for different loads. Both companies sell their packs online or you can visit the factory to be measured up. Most important to me - Both companies are still run day-to-day by the guy who founded them; Dana Gleason [Mystery Ranch] and Patrick Smith [Kifaru] - you can ring up and ask Patrick Smith as many daft questions as you like!

There are now a couple of other options; unfortunately the new kid on the block stopped being an option after an outdoorsman and blogger whose opinion I value bought one; took it for a walk in the hills, and didn't review it - I wrote to him privately asking what happened and he complained of 'squeaking' a crime so bad that no pack accused of it will grace this blog or see any of my hard earned cash.

or if you like it Retro-Tec Vargo Titanium have brought out a frame & pack, but I've not tested one yet.

Cumbersome loads, are what Pack-frames are all about, the ads and 'when-I' pics on the hunting forums show a trophy Elk, but far more likely loads are a chainsaw, a Jerry can, an MDPE barrel, and lazy offspring. All of which are a bugger to carry without the gleefull adrenalin provided by your trophy Elk.

Kifaru Vs Mystery Ranch

Frankly I would recommend either of these frames: when you want to cart a portable tree-stand into the woods, portage your dry-barrel on a canoe trip, take your chainsaw to somewhere inaccessible by ATV or truck, take half a Fallow Doe on the bus, or be able to carry lazy offspring with ease - a pack frame is what you need and these guys have it down to a fine art. If your budget is tight I still maintain that my plan to buy a frame and either recycle a pack or just strap an old feed bag to the frame is a good one. Designing and making a whole pack [that carries well] is beyond most of us, but letting your needs design the 'bag' part for you, getting a seamstress or tailor to run it up, and putting it on a really well thought out frame is totally do-able. If that all sounds like a drag Hill People Gear make some nice, and reasonably priced, bags that are intended to fit either frame.

I've humped both frames around a bit here are a few observations which, all other factors being equal, may be important when making your choice.

Probably the most important factor Load Stability.
Kifaru's proprietary delta straps that snug the load against your back are a very design solution, they do make a massive difference.

Potential for Adjustment
It takes a while to get the best possible set up for your Kifaru pack but once its done its done. There's a tutorial on how to bend the frames stays to the exact contour of your spine for the ultimate fit. Mystery Ranch's system isn't as adjustable, the frame stays stay the way they came, but the adjustment you can make is easier to do. If you were adapting the packframe to fit a different guest each week this might be the clincher, for most of us once the pack is set up it stays that way.

Ease of Adjustment
Mystery Ranch have come up with a very simple way to do this, very neat design. If you were sharing the pack with someone or keeping it as the 'clients pack' this would be a more important factor. If its only you using it both packs are fit and forget.

The Buckles
Mystery Ranch have the grippiest buckles I've ever seen on any bag, the buckles all other buckles are to be measured against. When you want the straps to stay done up a blessing, when you want to adjust them with one hand they can be quite annoying.

Pack on - Pack off
Mystery Ranch make this look easy in comparison. Neither is really well attached but how often do you really need to take the bag off the frame?

Load Management
Dana Gleason and Patrick Smith have divergent views on this; with the Kifaru design aiming for rigid, and MR still allowing for an amount of flex. Kifaru now make a lighter 'bikini' version without the xxx plate that gives so much of the rigidity. I'm slightly on the side of rigid as load stability seems to have a big effect on fatigue.

Kifaru offer a Cargo Chair which is excellent creating a rigid shelf to support the load, and a wrap which I've not got yet [we all know its yet].

Mystery Ranch offer an excellent Load Sling, which is a bit more svelte than the Kifaru Wrap but could benefit from some attachment points.

Mystery Ranch offer a whole host of different pack options for their frame, from 3 day sized to packs designed to carry a Pelican rifle case, or military communications rig.

Attachment Points
After the Kifaru, when I got the Mystery Ranch I found myself wondering 'where are they?'

What I'd do differently?

I've read that there's a crew in Oz who are making MR under licence and fitting the packs with quick release buckles on the shoulder straps, Kifaru put them on the Tactical packs but not the hunting packs. I think its an oversight that they're not standard equipment across the range of both brands. QR buckles weigh nothing when your not using them, but when you need them, you really need them.

Mystery Ranch need to add more attachment points to the pack frame and load sling so you can really bind a load to it.

Kifaru would benefit from making the pack-on-pack-off procedure simpler.

I like the way the Mystery Ranch pack adjusts easily for back length, but its not something you'll need to do too often so its not a deal-breaker. A hybrid of the two would be awesome.

If you are tall, or like me most of your height is in body length (short legs) the height of Kifaru's frame lets you pull the really big loads on to your back from above your shoulders, this makes a massive difference. Its an oversight that Mystery Ranch have addressed with an add-on to their fames and I've seen an aftermarket offering too. I've not tried it yet but its a welcome rectification of the design.

For a shout at second hand frames: Ebay has the odd bargain but lots of packs go for most of the new price, Bushcraft USA, Bushcraft UK, the Kifaru forum (mostly US based sellers) are all good places to look. When buying second hand you're looking for a seller in the same size range, and most importantly the same proportion as you: taking into account that while you may have the legs of a super model, the seller could have the legs of a Hobbit while your overall heights could be the same. You need to know the length of your back rather than your overall height to get a proper fit.

In the end I sold my Mystery Ranch NICE frame and kept the Kifaru.

Have fun out there, and if you'd be so good as to take a few bit of other peoples rubbish home with you, the world will literally be a less rubbish place next time you visit mother nature.

For more about traditional pack frames through the ages, this site is a fantastic resource. click HERE

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