My Quest for the Perfect Hunting Pack. The McHale Critical Mass INEX

Review of the McHale Critical Mass Backpack

McHale INEX pack

McHale INEX pack

McHale Website

I’ve pretty much abandoned large backpacks for backpacking and climbing.  With modern, ultralight gear, I very seldom carry more than 30 pounds, and usually my pack weight is much less, generally less than 20 pounds fully loaded.

However, backpack hunting is one endeavor when I still require a pack that can comfortably carry large loads.  Even though I try to minimize my gear and clothing weight, if my hunt is successful and I kill an animal, I’m going to be carrying out a very heavy load of meat.

Hunting packs have a lot of requirements, some of which conflict with each other.  They need to be compact and comfortable enough to allow you to move off-trail easily and quietly, without catching on branches and getting caught on things.  They need to be light enough to not unreasonably add to your load.  They need provisions for carrying a weapon.  They need to be able to carry a week’s worth of gear and provisions.  They need to be durable.  And, when you’re hauling out meat, they need to be capable of controlling and carrying really large loads, sometimes in excess of 100 pounds.

When I first got into hunting a few years ago, I figured I needed a special hunting pack.  So, I bought and used packs by Eberlestock, Mystery Ranch, and Badlands.  They had some great, hunting specific features, but I really didn’t like using them for meat hauling.  With 100+ pounds of meat and cargo, they were not as capable as I would have liked.  The waistbelts sagged, the frames didn’t transfer weight efficiently to my hips.  My shoulders and hips and back got sore.

With these shortcomings in mind, I abandoned these hunting packs, and went back to using my tried and true McHale Super INEX Alpineer, which I’ve owned since 1995.  This pack has many hundreds of trail miles on it, and I’ve carried some really huge loads with it.   (There is a review of this pack on my old website HERE.)

The McHale pack turned out to be a very good all around hunting pack.  It can easily transform from a short, squat nimble pack into a tall loadmonster by adding or removing the “bayonet” stays that lengthen the frame.  When hunting, I generally keep the pack in the shorter configuration, and only utilize the bayonet frame extensions when meat hauling.  For carrying heavy weight, I still have not found anything that is its equal.  I once carried out close to 200 pounds in this pack when a couple of buddies and I carried out the meat and head of a big bull elk in a single trip.

Elk Down! Now the hard work of meat hauling is about to begin

Elk Down! Now the hard work of meat hauling is about to begin

Hunting Modifications

I was pretty happy with the McHale pack, but after a while, I decided that some modifications to this pack would make it even better as a hunting pack.

I contacted Dan, originally thinking I would buy a whole new pack from him, but he suggested that I just modify my existing pack.  (This was awesome, as I could continue to use my trusty pack and it saved me a lot of money too.)

The modifications I requested were as follows:

I wanted the back pad to be re-worked to incorporate a 1/2 body length evazote pad that could be used as a sit pad or for sleeping on.  (I sometimes use a very light Klymit X-frame sleeping pad, and this evazote pad would provide some insulation, which the Klymit design lacks.)   This pad is also great for long glassing sessions too, providing a comfortable pad to sit on.

I wanted a roll top closure and deletion of the top pocket.  I don’t use the top pocket much, and converting to a roll top design would save weight, while maintaining water resistance.

I wanted an exit port for a hydration tube.

I wanted a larger right side pocket to accommodate the butt of my rifle, to make carrying the rifle easy.

I also wanted fastening points for a Kifaru Gunbearer, so I could carry my rifle in a way that made it quick to deploy.

Dan agreed to do all of these modifications, and a few months later, after paying a very modest fee, I had my pack back, better than ever.

Using the modified McHale this hunting season has convinced me that it is the ideal hunting pack for my style of backpack hunting.  It easily swallows a week’s worth of gear and food.  The pack has three spaces; a lower compartment, an upper compartment, and a large exterior pocket.  All of my gear and extra clothing fits nicely into the lower compartment, where it’s easily accessible with a couple of zippers.  The large exterior pocket holds things like map, compass, and headlamp, and my food and water goes in the upper compartment.  Fully loaded, there’s still tons of room for meat.

McHale Pack, loaded for a week of hunting

McHale Pack, loaded for a week of hunting

This pack is easy to carry while stalking and moving over rough ground, and it’s also comfortable to carry, mile after mile.  I can hike all day and my hips and shoulders do not ache.  The McHale design of the hip belt (which is larger than any other hip belt I’ve seen on a pack) really spreads the weight out, transferring the load to the hips without creating pressure points or rubbing.     The shoulder straps separate the strap adjustment from the load lifter adjustment, a feature which, as far as I know, is unique among backpacks.  This allows the pack to be snugged close to the body without pulling the shoulder straps up off of the shoulders, greatly improving stability.

Fully loaded with hunting gear. Still lots of room for meat.

Fully loaded with hunting gear. Still lots of room for meat.

The pack is not ultralight.  As modified, it weighs 7 pounds, 2 ounces.  That is about a pound heavier than some of the popular hunting packs from Mystery Ranch, Kifaru, Kuiu, etc.  However, this includes the weight of the foam pad, which can be detached from the pack and used as a sit pad or sleeping pad.  Also, the volume of this pack is larger than other hunting packs.  (The McHale is over 8000 cubic inches or 131 liters!!)  Given the load carrying capacity, I’m happy to trade an extra pound for the heavy-load comfort that this pack provides.

McHale packs are expensive, but they’re worth every penny.  They are hand made in Seattle to your body’s measurements and to your custom specifications.  The variations and options are endless.  You can get any size you want with any features that you want in a choice of various high tech fabrics.

On every hunting forum I’ve frequented, a common question is, “what is the perfect hunting pack?”  In my opinion, it’s a McHale pack.  Most folks haven’t even heard of these packs, but the combination of huge load carrying capability, quality construction, and customizable features puts the McHale packs in a class by themselves.

 

 

Review of the Leica Geovid 10 x 42 HD-B EDITION 2200 Binoculars

These binoculars are marketed as the Leica Geovid 10 x 42 HD-B EDITION 2200 model.   Leica’s “Geovid” range of binoculars all feature integrated laser rangefinding.  The “10×42” indicates that they are 10 power magnification, with a 42mm objective lens.  The “B” in “HD-B” means that they have on board ballistics software.  (I assume that the HD means high definition, but I’m not sure.)  The “Edition 2200” indicates that they are designed to range out to 2200 yards.

Leica Geovid HD-B 10x42 Edition 2200

Leica Geovid HD-B 10×42 Edition 2200.  It’s a good fit with the Alaska Guide Creations bino pack.

The Leica Geiovid HD-B binoculars feature an integrated laser rangefinder, temperature and pressure sensors, and an inclinometer to measure angle slope.  These features, combined with on-board ballistics software, allow a shooter to acquire a target, range the target, and calculate a ballistics firing solution so that you can accurately adjust your rifle’s optics for the target’s range.

That’s a lot of tasks for a single piece of equipment.  This review will evaluate how well these binoculars perform these various tasks.

Optical Quality

The Geovid HD-B binoculars have outstanding optical quality.  Before I purchased the Geovids, I was using Swarovski’s top of the line 10×50 EL binoculars.  After I got the Geovids, I kept the Swarovskis and used the two binos side by side under all sorts of conditions.  The optical quality of these two binoculars was so close as to be indistinguishable to my eyes.  In particular, I had expected the Swarovskis, with their larger, 50mm objective lens, to have superior performance in low light conditions.  However, when I looked through both binoculars side by side at dawn and dusk, there was not any discernible difference between the two.  I had originally planned on keeping the Swaros, but after several months of owning both the Swarovskis and the Leicas, I ended up selling the Swarovskis because I simply could not find any situation in which they outperformed the Leicas, and the Leicas have the advantage of the rangefinder and the ballistics calculator.

I’ve seen online debates about color rendition and chromatic aberration and other comparisons of Swaro and Leica glass, but the real world bottom line is that you will not be disappointed in the optical performance of these binoculars, even if you are accustomed to very high performance optics.  (I certainly wasn’t)

Build Quality, Design, and Ergonomics

The Geovids weigh 37.5 ounces.  This is pretty much identical to the Swarovski EL 10x50s, which is not bad considering the Geovids have a built in rangefinder.  The Geovids came with a case and strap, but I don’t use the Leica accessories, but rather use an Alaska Guide Creations binocular pack and harness, which protects the binoculars and has pockets for various odds and ends like lens cleaners, spare battery, hunting tags and licenses, and other miscellaneous things.

The binoculars are waterproof (I haven’t tested this, but I’m willing to take Leica’s word on this.)  Ergonomics are good, and the open bridge design makes them easy to grasp and hold.  The two buttons (one for the rangefinder and the other for the other functions) are close together, which can make it easy to mistakenly press the wrong button when wearing thick gloves, but the buttons have different feels to them (concave vs. convex surfaces) so if you’re using the binoculars with bare hands or sensitive gloves, you can tell which button you are pushing.

Adjustments of the eye cups and the focus and diopter adjustments are simple and easy.

My only complaint regarding build quality is that the lens covers for the objective lenses don’t stay on that well.  They are always just falling off the lenses, even when I don’t want them to.  (They are attached securely, however, so even when they fall off of the lens, they remain attached to the binocular body and don’t get lost.)  I never really had this issue with the Swarovski lens covers.

Glassing in my Uncompahgre Jacket

Glassing with the Geovids

Rangefinding Performance

These binoculars are claimed to have an effective range of 2200 yards.  In real world use, I have never been able to range anything out that far.  Performance is best in cloudy conditions without direct sunlight.  Dawn and twilight generally result in optimum ranging.  Reflective objects are supposed to be easier to range, but I’ve found that sometimes they can be harder than softer objects like trees.  I think that may be because if the reflective object is oriented the wrong way, it deflects the light away from you, so you don’t get a good return signal.  Generally, this is an issue with flat rock surfaces.  Round boulders are good targets.

Hand held, I can range deer pretty reliably out to about 700 yards.  For accuracy beyond about 700 yards, it really helps to use a tripod or rest the Geovids on a pack or a stump or some other means for keeping them absolutely steady.  With a tripod or other rest, I generally can range targets out to 1100 yards or so pretty reliably.  Maximum range in ideal real world situations for me seems to be about 1700 yards.  Anything beyond that seems to be extremely conditions-dependent and unusual.

If there is snow on the ground combined with bright sunlight, the Geovids struggle to accurately range deer sized targets beyond 400 yards.  (Again, using a tripod helps, but not as much.)  Cold, winter conditions have been a challenge, as a result of the reflective snow and also (I believe) the cold’s drain on the unit’s battery.  I’ve been in winter situations where I’ve been unable to range targets at 250 yards.  Heavy falling snow pretty much shuts the rangefinder down, making it useless for ranging anything.

Rain doesn’t seem to affect ranging capabilities much.  When it’s raining, it’s generally overcast, so the lack of direct sunlight seems to offset whatever interference the rain may have.

Range is 916 yards

Range reads 916 yards  In normal conditions, ranging to 1000 yards is pretty routine.

ranging-2

Display shows 74 clicks of elevation adjustment (7.4 MILS)

When compared with the two other rangefinders I’ve owned and used, the Geovids are significantly better performers than the Swarovksi Laser Guide, and significantly worse than my Vectronix PLRF15.  The Geovids are probably twice as effective as the Swarovski Laser Guide, easily ranging targets that are outside of the Swaro’s effective range.  The military spec Vectronix can range several times further than the Geovid, and can range smaller targets in worse conditions.  However, it has inferior optics (only a 6x monocular) and doesn’t have any of the other ballistics or weather features of the Geovid.

Cold Weather Performance

This is the biggest problem I have found with the Geovids.  The rangefinding function stops working when the temperature drops much below freezing.  A fresh battery doesn’t seem to help either.  Ranging performance pretty much drops to zero when it’s cold.  I don’t know why this is the case, but it’s been pretty much consistently useless in cold conditions.  Because of this, I can’t really recommend the Geovids for hunting in cold conditions.

Ballistics Software

The Geovids have onboard ballistics software that provides a vertical ballistics firing solution out to 1000 yards, incorporating pressure, temperature, and angle.  Past 1000 yards, the Geovids will provide a range, but no ballistics firing solution.

The software part of the package is where Leica has room for the most improvement.  The web based software for the Geovids is really bad.  There’s no convenient way to save and tweak your ballistic data and rifle profiles.  Every time you go to the web site, you are basically starting over with your ballistics inputs and profiles.  Other modern ballistics software has easy and convenient ways of storing and modifying multiple ballistics profiles.  Leica really needs to raise their game when it comes to their software user interface.

You can use a microSD card to store a custom ballistics profile in the Geovids.  However, the microSD card can only hold a single profile, so if you want to use the Geovids with different rifles or different loads, you have to change out the microSD card, which is a serious pain in the butt.  The card is seated in a tiny slot in the battery compartment that is very hard to access with fingers.  I bought a small tweezers to make removing and inserting microSD cards easier.

Leica's ballistics web page where you enter custom load information

Leica’s ballistics web page where you enter custom load information

The software is a bit glitchy. Notice how my bullet weight has been set to 0.

The software is a bit glitchy. Notice how my bullet weight has been reset to zero.  Losing input data when you navigate between screens is a common issue.

In order to true up my Geovid software to match my real world ballistics, I pull up my real-world adjusted drop chart that I have created using my Android’s Strelok Pro ballistics app, then I tweak the ballistics coefficient and/or velocity in the Geovid ballistics software profile until the Geovid drop chart matches my Strelok chart.  I’ts clunky, and takes more effort than it should, but ultimately, it provides ballistics data that matches my real world DOPE very closely.

Drop table can be used to synchronize Leica ballistics with real world DOPE

Drop table can be used to synchronize Leica ballistics with real world DOPE

I use rifle scopes with Mil reticles, and the Geovid can be set up to give me a firing solution in 1/10 Mil clicks, which is fast and simple.  I see the number of clicks, divide by 10, and that’s how many Mils I need to adjust for.  For those who work in MOA, the Geovid supports MOA too, as well as calculating drop in inches.

The software accounts for vertical drop only, and there is no provision at all for horizontal windage.  That’s OK with me, however, because I’ve pretty much got my 10mph wind values memorized out to 1000 yards, and they don’t change much due to atmospheric conditions.

My complaints about the clunkiness of the interface aside, the ballistics software is pretty good.  With some work and tweaking, it provides accurate firing solutions out to 1000 yards.  It’s not great, but ultimately, it gets the job done.  If Leica were to license the software and interface from Strelok, or Applied Ballistics, or one of the other state of the art software packages, that would be great.

Overall Conclusions

For long range target shooting, I don’t use the Geovids.  They don’t provide ballistics solutions past 1000 yards, and their rangefinding capabilities pale in comparison with my Vectronix PLRF15.  For long range target shooting, I use my spotting scope to examine the target, my Vectronix PLRF15 to calculate range, my Kestrel to provide wind, pressure and temperature data, and my Samsung phone with the Strelok Pro app to calculate a firing solution.  This is extremely accurate and reliable, but it takes forever.  When you’re shooting at a steel plate or a milk jug, it really doesn’t matter how long you take to generate a firing solution.  However, when hunting animals, time can be a real constraint.  The elk will likely just walk away by the time you’ve figured out your turret adjustments.

The Geovids provide a very rapid tool for generating a firing solution on a game animal target.  The added advantage that the Geovids combine several functions into a single tool make them even more attractive.  The new Sig Kilo 2400 has range finding and ballistics capabilities that are superior to the Geovid, but you still have to carry a separate binoculars, and switch back and forth between them.  The Geovids give up some ranging and ballistics functionality to the Sig Kilo 2400, but for me, the convenience, weight savings, and speed of having a single piece of equipment perform the functions of binoculars, rangefinder, and ballistics calculator is worth the trade off.

Conclusion

If it were not for the miserable rangefinding performance in cold weather, I would be happy with the Geovids.  However, given that I hunt mostly in the mountains, where cold conditions are common, the Geovid doesn’t cut it as a hunting tool for my purposes.

For a some very good and in-depth reviews of the Geovids on another blog, you can go HERE for a video review, and HERE and HERE for reviews of the Geovid and a detailed explanation of its ballistics functions.  My conclusions are similar to his, although he seems to have better results than I do ranging things over 1500 yards.

Utah General Season Elk Hunt

This is the tale of my recent elk hunting trip to the Uintas. Spoiler alert! I did not get an elk. This story does not have a happy ending. There will be no delicious elk bourguignon; no bacon wrapped elk tenderloin; no elk burgers; no elk stew. I am a bad hunter. If I were living in a hunter-gatherer society, I would be of the lowest status. My tribal name would be, Uwangalaama, which, roughly translated means, “He whom the elk mock.”

Nevertheless, even though I am a failure as a hunter, I had a lot of fun. I started out heading up to the high Uintas, following an abandoned ATV trail in my 80 Series Landcruiser, bumping over large boulders, deep washed out gullies, and heavy mud; smashing through the occasional small tree, marveling at the total bad-assery of Toyota’s last great off-road vehicle, manufactured in the days when Landcruisers were not designed for going to the mall.

When I drove far enough down the track that I would be pretty much impossible to rescue if I got stuck, I stopped and set out hunting. I headed toward a spot that I had scouted out several weeks ago and had seen elk. After several hours of hiking, I found a tree which an elk had used to rub his antlers on. It was a fresh rub, and the bark was still moist and the gash was just starting to weep sticky resin. From here, I followed the elk’s tracks through the forest, encountering some very recent elk droppings.

Eventually, I heard sounds of the elk in the thick forest. I dropped my pack, and began creeping up on the elk, trying hard not to make any sound. I was feeling very Natty Bumpo, and was stoked that I was about to bag an elk my first day of the hunt. However, there were so many downed trees, it was like playing Jenga on a mound of Pick up Sticks. I was about 30 yards away when I snapped a big twig. The elk (a little spike antlered bull) popped his head up and took off. There was no way to get a shot off. The thick timber was a curtain that did not allow a clear shot, even at 30 yards.

The heavy timber and deadfalls made travel difficult

The heavy timber and deadfalls made travel difficult

Not wanting to let this elk that I had tracked down escape, I followed him. Trailing was initially quite easy, as he was moving fast, breaking branches and leaving deep tracks in the dirt. Eventually, however, I lost the track. Worse, I realized that I had no idea where I had left my pack. I headed back in the direction I thought my pack was, and soon was not entirely sure where I was in relation to my pack or my vehicle. It’s just a big, thick forest, and all the trees look pretty much the same, and there are no landmarks. So, I did what I always do when I get disoriented (note, “disoriented” not “lost.”) I used the expanding spiral. I didn’t find my pack, but I came across the elk tracks and my tracks. By back-tracking I was finally able to make it back to my pack. This was good, because I didn’t have the gear on me to spend a comfortable night out.
Fresh Elk Rub

Fresh Elk Rub

I collected my pack, breathed a sigh of relief, and set out to track the elk again. It took me a while, but eventually I picked up what I thought was his trail. I followed it for a while, and again heard sounds of an elk ahead. This time, I marked my pack’s location with my gps on my watch, and this time, I moved so slowly that I would not make any noise at all. I slithered towards the elk like the Grinch stealing presents on Christmas Eve. However, when I was no more than 20 yards away, the wind shifted, blowing my scent toward the elk. I felt it shift, and a few seconds later, the elk popped his head up and took off. I tried to get a clear shot, but as before, the dense timber would not allow it. I did see that it was a different elk than the first one.

After that, I hunted a bit more, and finally settled in to a spot by a small pond, where I would spend the night. The pond had lots of recent elk sign around it, and two intersecting game trails. However, no elk appeared. I decided to forgo a tent and sleep out under the stars because the weather was beautiful and looked likely to remain so. Howling wolves later on made me question that decision, but while they woke me periodically with their howling, they did not come near or gnaw on me in the night.

High Uintas Pond

High Uintas Pond

The next day, I saw no elk. I followed fresh sign, and fresh tracks, but didn’t see any actual animals.
Sunset on the mountains

Sunset on the mountains

I decided to hike over a big ridge into the next drainage. It was even further from any road or trail, and I figured there might be elk there that had not been scared by hunters. On a steep descent down into the valley, I blundered into another elk. He was a big, fully grown trophy elk. (Bigger than I wanted to pack out, really.) He was there for about 2 seconds, and then he disappeared into the thick timber before I could even get my gun to my shoulder.
Uinta aspen

Uinta aspen

The next couple of days were frustrating. I tried to find places where the elk would be in the open, but while I saw recent elk sign in the meadows and clearings, I saw no elk. Generally, elk hunker down in deep timber during mid day, and are mobile and active in the morning and evening. That’s when they go out into the meadows and clearings and do elky things like browse on green grass and lichen and socialize, etc. However, we had a really bright, almost full moon. It was lighter at 3:00 a.m. than it was at twilight because of the moon. Because of this, the elk didn’t need to move around in the morning or evening. They could hunker down until late night, and then come out and frolic in the moonlight.

I put this theory to the test one night when I couldn’t sleep. I got up at 2 in the morning, and crept to a large meadow near where I was camping. Sure enough, there were four elk in the meadow, and possibly more in the dark timber surrounding it. The moon was so bright that I could see them clearly, and could have had an easy 120 meter shot. However, legal hunting time ends a half hour after sundown, no matter how bright the moon. Inexplicably, I brought my (useless) rifle with me to this late night elk soiree, but neglected to bring my camera, so I was not able to capture any images of these ghostly elk.

Midnight Moonlight

Midnight Moonlight

My last night in the woods, the beautiful weather took a turn for the worse. It began to rain heavily, and the wind picked up too. I set up my tent in the middle of a meadow to lessen my chances of a dead tree falling on me. In the night, I was visited by an unknown animal. It woke me up with loud wheezing panting right next to my tent. Not knowing what else to do, I growled loudly at it, figuring that a loud growl was the universal animal language for “I’m sleeping. Go away.” The heavy breather mystery beast apparently got the message and left me in peace.
Cougar Den

Cougar Den

I woke up this morning to snowfall, and hiked out in snow, which made the forest magical. Hunting is unlike any other outdoor activity that I do. When hunting, you move very slowly and are so focused on your surroundings, you see everything around you. You notice little things that you would likely just pass by if you were just out hiking. I saw a cougar den, interesting rocks and trees, lots of animal sign, and even a few elk. Although I didn’t fill our freezer full of elk meat, it was still a terrific experience. I spent five days alone in beautiful, rugged, remote country. I didn’t see another human being that entire time. I didn’t have phone, email, or internet. I’m already looking forward to next year.
hunting-7

Watching and waiting

The Old Gods are watching

The Old Gods are watching

hunting-16

Fallen Aspen Leaves after a storm