“Would you be up for writing a candid gear debrief? You don’t have to hit every nitty-gritty detail, or cover every item, but maybe share your thoughts the bigger stuff… clothes, pack, boots, broadhead performance, etc. Think less of a ‘product review’, and more of telling your friend what sucked and what was good.”
That was the email that I sent to Jerud. I value his opinion because he’s borderline-OCD (in a good way), is well-researched, and operates from the mindset of a professional engineer. However, at the same time, he’s just a regular guy who isn’t being offered free gear, so his opinion is 100% free of BS.
Given that 1 is terrible and 10 is perfect, here are Jerud’s scores and thoughts on some of the gear that he used on our elk hunt. (I also add some commentary from my perspective, at least on the items that I have experience with.)
Oh, and I didn’t add a bunch of pretty pictures to this post – it’s long, and probably not a very “entertaining” read – but for those of you that are looking for legitimate feedback on gear, it should be really valuable.
Backpack: EXO Mountain Gear 3500 – Score 9
The pack is almost a ten. It was the perfect size for our 7-day hunt. I was able to get all my food and supplies in the pack without any issue. Once we set up camp, the pack tightens down to a great daypack size and feel. The only issue I had with the pack was my own fault – I did not have it correctly adjusted, which only became apparent during the pack-out. I received the pack about 2 weeks before the trip and didn’t really have it fine-tuned on the fitment side. That has since been corrected.
One thing is for certain, I have had three different brands and styles of packs, and this is the only one I felt comfortable with the two of us (Mark and I) packing out a whole bull elk in one trip, nearly 6 miles.
I have also been using this pack whitetail hunting back in Illinois. It’s just too handy and versatile to try messing around with any of my others.
Mark’s Thoughts: I’ll definitely have more thoughts to share on the Exo soon. But, yes, it’s an absolute winner.
Clothes: First Lite
Llano QZ – Score 9
I lived in this shirt for six days and it barely had any odor to it. We reached what Mark called “Full Funk Factor” (F-Cubed) between days 3 and 4; my BO was rough, but I inspected the shirt once I was home and had to hold it to my nose in the armpit area to smell any BO on the shirt.
I only had the shirt off during a warm afternoon break. The remainder of the time it was on, including sleeping. It is super comfortable. The thumbholes on the sleeves are great for putting a second layer over it, or for extra warmth for your hands.
I deduct a point for durability. I haven’t worn it long enough to see how well it will hold up, but have had a few seams stitches pull thread. I have cut the loose threads and have had no issues with the seams.
Chama Hoody – Score 9
The hoody was worn mostly after dark, hiking back to camp, and around camp eating supper. The hood is very comfortable. The Llano and Chama together have been used on whitetail stand hunting and are performing well.
Kanab Pants – Score 8
Like the Llano, I lived in these pants for 6 days. They were incredibly comfortable. I never needed a base layer under them for our elk trip, but I have added a merino base layer for treestand hunting.
I give a 2-point deduction, as the pants are not bomb proof. I had one very small tear in the outer knee panel; I fixed that with an iron-on patch. First Lite will repair the pants, if you want to go that route. To me it was worth sacrificing a little durability for the comfort that they provide.
Uncompahgre Puffy – Score 8
Although I didn’t get to use it much on our elk hunt, except around camp at night, this jacket is great when you do need it; and it packs down small enough that it is out of the way when you don’t need it.
It is extremely warm and blocks wind really well. It also works well as a pillow. I am thinking seriously about getting a tan one for everyday winter use.
I deduct a couple of points for material noise. To keep the “swoosh” sound down, I have to be careful drawing my bow – but that’s mostly a consideration when I’m treestand hunting.
Red Dessert Boxers – Score 10
I wear them every day. ‘Nuf said.
Mountain Compression Socks – Score 10
Also a 10! Get a few pairs, you’ll love them. I wear mine all of the time.
Mark’s Thoughts: I have 2.5 years of hunting in my First Lite gear now, and I continue to be impressed. Merino is a game-changer, especially for backpack hunting. Here’s my post-season thoughts on First Lite gear from last year, which I still agree with in nearly every single way.
Rain Gear: Core4Element Torrent – Score 7
They are a little better priced than First Lite and other similar companies. They are easy to get on and off, and they perform well. Ventilation is good.
They are, however, bulkier and heavier than the competition. As with everything for backpack-style hunting – if you want to shave weight, you have to shell out more cash.
ASAT Camouflage – Score 10
I had two bulls within 15 yards, both of which had a clear line of sight to me, but neither one noticed me. Additionally, when Mark and I would get separated at 40-50 yard distances, we couldn’t see each other unless one of us moved. The pattern looks old and a completely different, but it absolutely works. I use it for treestand hunting in the Midwest as well.
Mark’s Thoughts: I got tired of cow-calling to find Jerud when he was only 30 yards away from me. I felt like an idiot for not seeing him, but really – ASAT is deceiving. I had that bull at 7 yards, facing directly at me, but looking right through me. I’ve also fooled plenty of whitetail while ground-hunting in the Midwest. ASAT lives up to the name: All-Season, All-Terrain
Bow: Elite Energy 35 – Score 10
I love this bow! I shoot year-round, which allows me to comfortably pull and hold 70 lbs. I would recommend lighter limbs if you don’t practice on a regular basis. With that opinion out of the way, all of the hype on this bow is real. It draws really smooth and holds extremely easy. The bow has a big valley, so it doesn’t want to jump forward with the first sign of creep. I had one occasion on our elk hunt where I was on my knees and had to hold full-draw for a little over a minute, and then had to completely reposition while maintaining draw. A second occasion, which lead to me shooting my bull, I held full-draw for a little over 2 minutes. I will admit that adrenaline helped in both situations, but the bow just holds so easy.
I also didn’t use a stabilizer at all, which is also a testament of how well the bow is balanced. I was shooting better without a stabilizer during all of my pre-season prep (including shooting out to 100-yards), so I opted to save weight and leave it off for hunting.
Mark’s Thoughts: Most of you know that I am a huge fan of Elite Archery bows. They market “shootability”, and Jerud’s stories prove why that trait of their bows is so important. Not only does their smoothness, balance, and ease of holding make them a pleasure to shoot in the off-season, but those trails truly factor into success during hunting season. There’s been so many times when the easy draw and easy hold has saved me, much like it enabled Jerud to hold for over two minutes before killing his bull.
Sight: Black Gold Ascent – Score 9
I deduct a point for price, but there’s not much else to complain about. This sight is tough and provides a lot of flexibility. I have mine set to cover 0-45 yard shots without adjusting. It is then capable of adjusting to any range out to 100 yards. The pins are clear under all lighting conditions. The dial moves the head up and down smoothly. The lock into home position is rock solid.
Mark’s Thoughts: It’s a few years old now, but here’s my review of the Ascent.
Broadheads: Slick Trick Viper Trick 125’s – Score 10
I have used these broadheads for a few years and have no interest in changing. I’m on my third different brand of bow shooting these heads. I take my time to properly setup and tune each bow at the very beginning, and find that broadhead tuning with these heads is basically unnecessary.
Prior to this latest elk hunt, I shot the Viper Tricks at 100 yards with the same accuracy as my field points. Every animal I’ve shot has been a complete pass-through, and a short trailing job. Granted, a pass-through and quick kill does not rest solely on the head; correct arrow setup and shot placement are just as big of factors.
Arrows: Victory Armor Piercing (VAP) – Score 8
I deduct a point from these because of the high price. Other than that, if you are a number cruncher when it comes to building your arrows, these work out well. My total arrow weight with 125 grain head and a 50 grain insert/outsert was 425 grains. Not a super-heavy arrow, but the setup got a good front-of-center (FOC) of 18%, which helps accuracy and penetration. When compared to my previous arrow setups (486 grains and 510 grains), the VAPs out-performed and out-penetrated at all ranges; the performance of skinny shafts seems legit.
My shot on the elk traveled through the rib cage, the rear leg, and stuck in a log. Judging by the look of the blades, it missed hitting any bones.
I did have a problem with inserts bending on my first set, but Victory has changed the material formulation of the new inserts, they are performing much better thus far.
Boots: 2013 Danner Pronghorn 400 gram Thinsulate – Score 6
I give the boots a score of 6 for backpack hunting. If I were doing a drop camp, guided hunt, or using horses and not hauling heavy loads, they would easily score 8-9. I also had Lathrop and Son’s Synergy insoles, which improved their performance – more on those in a bit.
The boots performed well for the majority of the hunt. The break-in process wasn’t bad, and they quickly become as comfortable a pair of sneakers. The temperature range was 35-70 degrees our trip, but I never noticed my feet getting too hot.
I had only one minor spot above my left ankle where the boot flexed, and began to create a “hot spot”. I applied treatment, which created more of an issue than helped, so I removed it and had no problems the rest of the hunt. The soles gripped well, and despite the steep, sloppy terrain that was covered in deadfall, I never had to worry too much about foot placement.
But the boots started to fail when we packed the elk out. The leather and structure of the boot is not stiff enough for the combination of rough terrain and heavy loads; they were pretty stretched out by the time we had the elk to the truck. I did not get any blisters, but was right on the verge with my feet slipping inside the stretched boots.
I am retiring them from mountain hunting, but should get many more years of Midwest hunting use from them. I will be heading to Lathrop and Son’s to get fitted with my next pair of mountain hunting boots.
Mark’s Thoughts: I don’t have Danner’s Pronghorns, but I do have their Ridgemaster boots – which are basically a Pronghorn design that’s manufactured in the US – and I would agree with everything Jerud said here. They are great boots in terms of comfort, and they are up to handling side-hilling and off-trail hiking in rough terrain. But, I can’t imagine packing out an elk 5+ miles in them. My Lowa Tibets were incredible the whole trip (again), and proved to be invalubable on the pack-out.
Insoles: Lathrop and Son’s Synergy Footbeds – Score 10
Put simply, they’re a 10. Go get yourself a set!
Mark’s Thoughts: Jerud’s not lying here. I have tried numerous insoles (as has Jerud), including the often-recommended Super Feet (in a variety of their models), and the Synergy from Lathrop are better in every way.
Elk Calls: No score; they’re value is immeasurable.
Get a variety of reed calls, as well as some diaphragms, and be able to use them correctly. Each bull that we encountered had one specific call that he would get him fired-up. Between Mark and I, there were six different reed calls, as well as mixing in 2-3 diaphragms each, and used them all.
Mark’s Thoughts: Once again, I just want to echo what Jerud said. I was surprised how a bull would fail to respond to a couple of particular calls, but would immediately respond and get worked-up if we used a different call. The bull that I called-in and Jerud shot would only respond if I was calling on my Duel Open Reed Cow Call.
Sleeping Bag: Kelty Cosmic Down 20 – Score 8
This is a great value. It weighs 2 pounds, 11 ounces and packs down pretty small. I was more than comfortable at night on this trip, which tended to be in the 30’s. Last year it dipped down into the 20s, and was still comfortable. It’s a mummy-shaped design, but has a little more wiggle room than some other mummy-style bags. I’m a side sleeper and have no problems sleeping on my side with bent legs. Given that it is a non-treated down, being susceptible to water is its only real down fall, but I have had good luck using the water-resistant treatment from NikWax.
Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core – Score 8
There are sleeping pads that weight less than this one, but you’ll pay more, and you might sacrifice some comfort, too. To me, this one was worth the little extra weight and slightly larger-than-Nalgene-bottle pack size for the comfortable night’s sleep.
Mark’s Thoughts: Exactly. There are lighter and smaller pads, but I don’t sleep as well when I use them. This is almost a “luxury item” for me.
Knife: Havalon Piranta – Score 9
I deduct a point for the ease (and safety concerns) of blade changing. I carried a small multi-tool so that I had a small set of pliers to safely change the blades. You’ll definitely want something other than your bloody hands for grip while swapping blades out.
I did manage to break a blade while processing our elk, but I was skinning the head and applied some side torque. These blades aren’t meant for prying; if you use the knife in the correct manner, it performs flawlessly.
Mark and I each had a Havalon, and between the both of us we used a six blades to completely de-bone the elk (using the gutless method) and skin-out the skull. Now that we know what we’re doing, and how to better use the knife, the job will probably only take four blades.
Mark’s Thoughts: I’ve been hearing great things about Havalon knives for a couple of years now, but I was always a skeptic. Jerud gave me one before this trip, and now that I have had a chance to break down an entire elk with one, I’m a total believer. Go buy one.
Game Bags: Caribou Gear Carnivore II – Score 10
They entire set packs-down smaller than a single cotton game bag. I was able to fit my sheathed Havalon and hunting license/tag in the supplied carry pouch with the game bags. They washed up rather easily; I hand washed them to remove the big chunks and then tossed them in the washing machine. (Don’t tell my wife.)
Solar Charger: Levin 5000mah – Score 10
The big surprise from this trip was this little gem. For less than $30 on Amazon, it recharges itself with about two hours of full sunlight. We recharged a camera twice and my phone’s 3200mah battery once during the trip. It performed so well that I’m considering moving to a few other items that are rechargeable via USB (including headlamp and flashlight).
Mark’s Thoughts: I’m sold. I can’t believe how useful this little guy was. And for the price? No-brainer. I’m getting one.
GPS: Garmin eTrex 20 – Score 8
It has a small screen and limited features, but it’s reasonably priced and did everything I needed it to do. Pairing it with the Colorado chip from onXmaps, which gave us good topo maps and land boundaries/ownership in the field, made it invaluable.
Headlamp: Princeton Tec Fuel – Score 5
It works and it isn’t hard on batteries, but it’s nothing spectacular. Meh.
Satellite Communication: Delorme InReach (aka “Mom”) – Score 7
The InReach provides two-way text messaging when Bluetooth linked to your phone. The messaging does require a fairly clear line-of-site, so it can be a bit of pain at times. The tracking functionality worked well, and seemed to be less demanding in terms of needing a clear path to the satellites. It eats regular batteries pretty quickly, but lithium performs very well.
Family members at home enjoyed logging onto the map to see where we were, and where we had traveled. Delorme has updated the subscription service and you can now get a monthly plan, so there’s no need to pay for a whole year of service for just one trip. The rate is also cheaper than what I had to pay last year.
We affectionately named the InReach, “Mom”, as both of our mothers logged a lot of time on the computer tracking us and worrying when the unit was turned off.
Binos: Vanguard Endeavour ED – Score 7
They’re a good pair of glass for a reasonable price. I don’t think they will hold up to a lot of abuse, but so far they are doing well.
Rangefinder: Remington 500 (Made by Wild Game?) – Score 7
It’s a budget-priced rangefinder with angle compensation out to 90 yards. I have had it for 4 years now, and it still works. No, it doesn’t have a great warranty or long-range capability, but I paid $95 for it and it still works. Not bad.