When I first strapped on the flagship Crew Cab hunting pack from Mystery Ranch backpacks in Bozeman I felt like I was ready for combat in Afghanistan. Maybe it was the dried blood and bits of hair left on the heavy-duty desert-colored Cordura of the demo pack from some previous outing, or maybe it was the similarity to a model I had seen the day before on the showroom floor that featured a dedicated compartment for a collapsible .50-caliber sniper rifle.
But for my pre-season field test on a short, steep hike outside Bozeman, I luckily avoided any encounters with dangerous insurgents. I had to fill the pack with cinder blocks in lieu of an elk carcass, but the bloodstains and accompanying odor helped bolster the illusion of a hunt. The expandable cavity swallowed three of the blocks with ease, and the load felt stable and comfortable. The yoke adjusted easily to fit my torso and the curved plastic framesheet mimicked the natural contours of my back.
On one-day hunts I regularly wrestle with the question of which pack to take. Do I leave the big pack in the truck and hike back to get it if I make a kill, or do I haul around a cumbersome and mostly empty pack for the whole day?
The Crew Cab effectively eliminates this dilemma. When fully collapsed it functions as a compact, 1,900-cubic-inch daypack, but with a few adjustments it opens up to create a massive space for hauling your bloody loot while essentially keeping it on the outside of the pack. The daypack lid and the company's custom-fit stuff sacks (called load cells) beef up the Crew Cab to a fully-enclosed 5,000 cubic inches—suitable for multi-day wilderness hunts.
The secret to the pack's impressive stability and comfort is the NICE frame (that's Nylinear Individual Carrying Equipment for you procurement officers out there), which was originally developed for the Navy SEALs to carry a breathing apparatus and a cutting torch. Mystery Ranch founder Dana Gleason started working with the military in the early '90s when he was making packs under the Dana Designs name. The Navy approached him about making his venerable Terraplane pack in a color other than fire-engine red. The SEALs loved the Terraplane's design, but they were spray-painting the packs black to use in the field. Gleason obliged, forging a relationship that led to many more lucrative contracts and eventually the NICE frame. Gleason eventually recognized the frame's versatility when he saw it pressed into use on a climbing excursion.
"We had one sitting around and we ended up using it to carry a haul bag to the base of a climb," he says. The frame, a grid of carbon-fiber stays, handled that unwieldy gear bag so well that they put it into production for their hunting and recreation packs in 2004.
"It's at the beginning of its design and development cycle, and it's already better than any of the internal frames we've made in the last 30 years," Gleason says.
The NICE frame provides the backbone for several other Mystery Ranch packs, including the 2,400-cubic-inch Long Bow and two expedition-style packs, the NICE 6500 and the NICE Wolfpack, all available in two "tactical" solid colors or "Multicam" camouflage.
Mystery Ranch makes all of its packs stateside, which allows better quality control but accounts for much higher production costs, putting these packs out of reach for many. The base model Crew Cab starts at a very pricey $490. Throw in all the components, including the waistbelt pockets for your range finder and binoculars, and the price tag shoots to almost $700. Weight-conscious hunters will also shrink from the pack's extremely burly 7-plus pounds.
Of course, the Crew Cab's military pedigree means it's built to take all the abuse your average civilian can dish out, and then some. If you're ready to wage an uncompromising campaign to bag a trophy, the Crew Cab's got your back.